Passionate Victorians, Edmund Bohan

Tom’s Letters. The Private World of Thomas King, Victorian Gentleman
Margot Fry
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864733917

One of many challenges facing the biographer of 19th Century New Zealanders can be the lack of intimate letters or diaries. The vagaries of time itself have been hazard enough, but far too many descendants of our first settler generations have ruthlessly culled family papers through prudishness, sheer lack of imagination, or misplaced sensitivity. Sir Joseph Ward’s grandson told me of his father spending an entire weekend burning sacks of private papers after that controversial old man’s death in 1930; and such horror stories were all too common in the earlier years of the 20th century. How lucky we are that in 1936 Sir Frederick Truby King’s adopted daughter Mary was so entranced by old Tom King’s letters to his beloved wife Mary that she preserved them as a family treasure. We owe her, and the King family, a debt; just as we now owe Margot Fry a debt for having produced such an informative and thought-provoking edition of them.

Thomas King (1821-93) has hitherto been recalled mainly as father of the famous Truby, and the philanthropic Newton King; but this small and self-effacing middle-class man, well educated enough to read French and Italian literature to his family, deserves to be remembered in his own right. Having arrived in New Plymouth in 1841 with small capital but high hopes, he rose to become one of the settlement’s leaders, a Provincial Councillor, Taranaki’s Treasurer, and the first local manager of the Bank of New Zealand. Although politically unambitious, he was a member of the first House of Representatives in 1854, and again in 1860; but remained always far happier on the provincial rather than the national stage.

Margot Fry has skilfully mined his treasure-trove of letters and diaries, not simply to give us a fascinating account of a young 19thcentury man’s journey towards emotional and material maturity, but to suggest refreshingly sensible ideas about 19th-century courtship and marriage. Just as 19th century women needed to be “rescued” from being indifferent to sex, she writes, so “men need to be liberated from their role as dominating villains if we are to understand how Victorian couples negotiated in private.”

The letters and diary extracts are put in their historical context, tracing Tom’s early life in a London commercial family, his voyage out to New Plymouth as a young, high-spirited bachelor on the William Bryant, his early struggles to establish a farm and a trading business, and his metamorphosis into a successful and devoted family man. At the heart of the book, however, are Tom’s love letters to Mary during four periods of separation.

The first was during their 1846 courtship. Tom was initially rejected by Mary’s brother (and his own best friend) Richard Chilham, because of his uncertain business prospects. But all turned out well and he and Mary were married in November 1846; after which they set about hacking out a farm from the bush, before briefly trying their luck in business in Wellington.

The longest section of all – over 50 pages – deals with their difficult separation in 1854 when Tom attended our first parliament in Auckland. Tom believed idealistically (like the more dynamic Edward Stafford) that they could establish here “a thorough fusion of classes in political matter”, as had happened in the USA. But he missed Mary more than he enjoyed the reality of politics, and his letters are surprisingly sketchy about the dominant personalities and dramatic events as the two parliamentary sessions foundered on the rocks of FitzGerald’s and Wakefield’s mutual antipathy. Instead, Fry observes: “He emerges as loving and vulnerable, lonely and despairing. His retrospective musings, written late at night before he blew out the candle, help recast Victorian men as passionate individuals.” Yet one is also left with the suspicion that sometimes he was protesting a little too much – to placate a lonely wife unhappy about him needing to be away at all.

By the time they were separated again, during 1860 and 1861, Tom and Mary had become part of New Plymouth’s elite Richmond-Atkinson clique, and Tom was a significant local politician. But as the war over Waitara destroyed their farm and threatened their town’s very existence, Mary and their six children joined the host of Taranaki refugees in Nelson, while Tom, a supporter of that war, went up to Auckland again for the 1860 parliamentary session. Now, as one of Stafford’s slender parliamentary majority and Harriet Gore Browne’s social circle, he was no longer the diffident, unhappy young man of 1854, although no less devoted to Mary.

As an edition of letters, this book is interesting enough, but Fry adds intellectual value by challenging received but superficial ideas about colonial masculinity. Of course, she rightly emphasises that Tom might not have been typical of his generation, but my own extensive researches into the politicians of this first settler generation back her basic conclusions.

Tom King was not, I believe, an exception in his willingness to reveal his deepest emotions. Far from it. His generation was reared in the heady days of European Romanticism, when men wept unashamedly – even in public during the highly charged debates in New Zealand’s House of Representatives – and were unafraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. FitzGerald reaffirmed his enduring love for his Fanny in letter after letter; Francis Dillon Bell publicly avowed his love for Margaret Hort at the very height of the great Wellington earthquake; Alfred Domett and his married schoolmistress brazenly defied Wellington “society”. So did Governor Grey’s young baronet half-brother Godfrey Thomas, who eloped with his pregnant but married servant girl Maria, before living with her openly, and whose child, the adored Annie, Grey later adopted. Stafford’s bleak self-analysis after his first wife’s death, and Monro’s harrowing diary account of his bedside vigil beside his dying son, reveal men willing to have their emotional vulnerability exposed.

In addition, neither Tom King nor his Taranaki neighbour Josiah Flight fitted the traditional mould of the grim Victorian paterfamilias – any more than FitzGerald, who cheerfully described himself as “first among equals” inside his large, chaotic family. And who, after examining the papers in our archives, can doubt the power and influence over their husbands of Harriet Browne, Filumena Weld, Mary Rol-leston, Fanny FitzGerald, Sarah Fitzherbert, Jane Maria Atkinson or Elizabeth Sewell? Not one fits the accepted image of the subservient Victorian wife.

But perhaps one of Fry’s most valuable insights is to make clear the distinction between mid- and late Victorian values and proprieties. Tom King, like Stafford, FitzGerald and the rest of their generation, grew up in the reigns of George IV and William IV. What is popularly regarded as “Victorian” emerged slowly much later. There is a vast gulf between the outlook, manners, and the expression of emotion of Tom King’s generation and the one that followed, dominated by such serious fellows as Robert Stout and William Pember Reeves. The “Victorian Age” extended over nearly 70 years, during which time change was unprecedented and profound. We appreciate the marked differences between the 1950s, ’60s and ’90s of the 20th century: it is time we recognised the differences between the decades and generations of the 19th century. Margot Fry deserves praise for offering us some stimulating ideas – and for introducing us to Tom and Mary King.


Edmund Bohan is a Christchurch historian and novelist.


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Posted in History, Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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