Turning the pages, Keith Maslen

A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand
ed Penny Griffith, Peter Hughes and Alan Loney
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402316

These fifteen essays, based on papers given at the first New Zealand History of the Book conference, held in Auckland in 1995, make an excellent introduction to a quite new branch of history. It is a branch of history that is becoming all the more necessary, since Dennis McEldowney asks in the preface how future historians will manage, given that the Internet, unlike the physical book, preserves no evidence of its past. The first three essays consider the relation between oral and printed traditions, a major New Zealand topic. Others treat most phases of the transmission of texts from author to reader.

Jane McRae focusses on the transformation into print of Maori oral compositions (genealogies, incantations, sayings, songs and narratives). The first books embodying parts of the Maori oral tradition were prepared for Governor Grey in the 1850s by Te Rangikaheke and others, though Grey’s heavily edited versions issued under his own name largely formed Pakeha understanding of Maori life and thought. A century later, in Bruce Biggs’s Maori Marriage (1960), Te Rangikaheke was allowed to “speak” for himself. Yet, as McRae explains, Grey merely followed the practice of his period, while Maori would have associated a book under Te Rangikaheke’s name with Te Arawa. The 20th century saw scholarly books by Maori as well as Pakeha, notably Apirana Ngata’s four volumes of sung poetry, Nga Moteatea, but still too few and too little read. Maori ambivalence to “the book” continues.

Danny Keenan in “Aversion to print? Maori resistance to the written word” contends that reliance on written documents severely disadvantaged the Taranaki Maori in their claim before the Compensation Court for the return of lands confiscated after the wars of the 1860s. His starting point is D F McKenzie’s influential study of the Treaty of Waitangi as a prime example of the clash between oral and written codes. While partly agreeing with McKenzie, Keenan shifts the argument. The never-forgotten events in his tribal homeland provide a better example because land was “directly at stake”. But exactly how did speech and writing operate in that Court?

Peter Lineham explains why the second edition of the Bible in Maori of 1887 was a failure. Its perceived faults were many. Maori were not consulted; the style was more “literary”; verses were printed as prose; and it was simply not the old, familiar book. In Great Britain the 1885 Revised Version in English had similarly sought greater correctness and dignity. In the end the book that above all others was
a powerful agent of change was forced by its new users to adapt to the values of the pre-literate society. The 1952 edition employed Maori among the translators and reverted to the familiar verse layout.

Early book collectors were especially valued in a land with few books. Donald Kerr studies the character and methods of Sir George Grey’s New Zealand collecting. Typically, Grey brought representative highlights of the English and European tradition – a Tyndale New Testament for instance – but he also far-sightedly collected comprehensively in Maori and Pacific Island languages. In 1887 the fruit of his second much longer bout of collecting was entrusted to the people of Auckland to become the Auckland Public Library’s Grey Collection.

Book arts are represented by Margery Blackman’s account of the fine leather bindings created by Eleanor Joachim of Dunedin mainly during the dozen or so years before World War I. In 1903-4 Joachim studied in the London workshop of Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe, members of the Arts and Crafts movement and spiritual followers of William Morris. From Joachim’s autograph book, her workbook containing used paper patterns, exhibition catalogues and fifteen examples of her skill, Blackman lists 120 bindings, crafted in the style of Joachim’s teachers, and shows some appealing examples.

In the 1930s the New Zealand author “G B Lancaster” capped a long writing career with three highly successful “dominion-historical novels”. This was the easy bit. As Edith Lyttleton, she then had to fight for her rights as author and for greater tolerance of young Australian publishers against heavyweight American and British publishers and attendant literary agents. This lively secret history is related by Terry Sturm from Lyttleton’s surviving business letters, and informed by his understanding of the broader issues. All Lyttleton wanted for herself was more than the one penny per copy to which her royalty was reduced after hard-binding contractual arrangements, agent’s commissions and double-tax regimes abroad had creamed off the rest. Australian rights, which she squeezed from Stanley Unwin, promised a fairer share of royalties.

The next three pieces all recognise how young New Zealand writers of the late 1930s tried to make their way in the world. First, Patrick Sandbrook shows why Robin Hyde waited so long to find sympathetic readers. She wrote too much, too variously and too passionately to please critical contemporaries. Her books also fell unluckily under the shadow of war. Now more of her work is in print than ever before, and all, whether published or unpublished, is at last being assessed. Sandbrook finds Hyde to be a much more careful writer than has been supposed, and by studying the creation of The Godwits Fly demonstrates her knack of “progressing certain stylistic and thematic concerns in different texts and genres simultaneously”.

Alan Loney writes on connections between the new New Zealand poetry of the 1930s and the new look in typography, exemplifed by the work of Denis Glover at the Caxton Press. Loney shows how local poets and printers learned their modernity from their counterparts in Great Britain. He regrets that Glover’s dual role in shaping the literary canon has not been sufficiently examined, but Noel Waite’s doctoral thesis on publishing in Christchurch 1934-95 (University of Canterbury, 1996) goes far to satisfy this want.

Lawrence Jones explains how these “new men” of New Zealand poetry defined themselves by opposition to members of the literary establishment. “Mulgan, Marris, and Schroder” were turned into literary constructs typifying for Glover and friends whoever had to be dethroned. In his “Arraignment of Paris” (1937), Glover depicted Paris (Marris) leading a group of women poets into an idealised countryside separated from Depression realities. (Hyde told Glover he was a bullying boy.) Jones demonstrates that such satirical portraits misrepresented the complex literary realities of the time. However, the war of words was inevitable, and eventually justified by the successes of the 1940s and 1950s, even if a generation later the fighting would start again, with new targets. This is a generous slice of our literary history.

Two pieces on printing follow. Drawing on business records, Peter Hughes studies “Bob Lowry and the Pelorus Press 1945-1953”. Lowry is remembered for his excesses, such as Fairburn’s extravaganza How to ride a bicycle in seventeen lovely colours. He was also an inspirational and learned printer, who printed Phoenix (1932-33), printed and published Here and Now through eight chequered years, and was first printer or publisher to the major writers of his day.

By the late 1940s, the Caxton Press set was becoming respectable, and Bob Gormack judged it their turn for some good-humoured ribbing. Noel Waite shows how Bookie (1948) parodied the Caxton style even to the typographical refinements Glover was so proud of. In 1964 Gormack set up his private Nag’s Head Press. His outstanding work was the series of alternative centennial histories associated with Barnego Flat. Gormack has been a salutary court jester, but his 116 books also demonstrate a seriously impressive and catholic commitment to New Zealand literature.

Learning to read, in medieval Europe and in mid-20th– century New Zealand, is the subject of quite different papers by Elizabeth Eastmond and Anne Else. The finely illustrated Book of Hours was for upper-class women not only a fashion accessory and aid to piety, but a first reading book. Eastmond interprets an historiated initial D in the Margery Fitzherbert Book of Hours (Reed Collection, Dunedin Public Library) depicting St Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read. This image, common in late medieval English books, cites the highest authority for the role of mother as first teacher of girls. (Boys too no doubt began this way.) Eastmond enterprisingly draws a questionable parallel with modern images of mother and daughter before the computer screen.

Anne Else remembers the Janet and John readers, introduced from Britain in 1950. This blessed pair chiefly play or shop with their parents. As a normative vision of the good life, Else argues that it failed to recognise “systematic discrimination and disadvantage along lines of gender, race and class”.

Lastly, Roderick Cave, writing from Singapore, chides New Zealand historians of the book for being “insular”, given that books have always been international travellers. He recommends collaborative research as a remedy. Good advice! Comparison with happenings overseas is one important way of discovering what is distinctive in the New Zealand experience. However, the majority of the writers in this collection do show keen awareness of the world beyond our shores.

Since 1995 there have been annual book history conferences held in the main centres, and five major research projects financed by the Marsden Fund are under way. I hope that more studies as good as this will eventually appear.


Keith Maslen taught for many years in the English Department at the University of Otago.


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Posted in Essays, History, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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