Ploughing a lone furrow, Julia Millen

Writers In Residence: A Journey with Pioneer New Zealand Writers
Jenny Robin Jones
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869403029

As Edward Gibbon Wakefield wrote in 1829:

Literary men, men of science, philosophers, do not emigrate to new colonies where their acquirements would be neither rewarded nor admired … and though the inordinate vanity of new people might be gratified by the possession of them, they would be considered as mere ornaments, and would often be wholly neglected for things of greater utility.


Nevertheless within 70 years New Zealand had an extensive published literature: about 80 novels, 150 volumes of verse. In addition, a large number of short stories of New Zealand origin had appeared in newspapers and journals including the Sydney Bulletin. But few of the authors, including the 20 pioneers (17 men and 3 women) featured in Jenny Robin Jones’s collection, would have identified themselves as writers.

Somewhat akin in genre to such works as Early Travellers in New Zealand or Married and Gone to New Zealand, Jones’s book has used a wider canvas to establish the featured personalities within their historical, social and political framework so that the resultant volume has considerably more academic validity than a collection such as The Book of New Zealand Women. Jones notes in her foreword: “My selection was based upon writers whose work, though often deeply flawed, contained moments of enduring liveliness and insight and was influential in the development of a literature.” The last assertion is a matter for further debate.

With the exception of poets Domett and Bracken and a few journalists, these “writers in residence” mainly wrote in their spare time. Missionaries, traders, gold-diggers, brewers, farmers, politicians are presented in roughly chronological order, starting with the early 19th century pioneers and ending with W P Reeves and Jessie Mackay (both New Zealand born) and Blanche Baughan’s arrival from England in 1902. Some personalities and their works are well known – Samuel Butler, William Colenso, Lady Barker, Jessie Mackay, while others (such as J S Polack) deserve to be better known or, like Domett and F E Maning, reinstated in the public mind. Undoubtedly courageous and lively individuals with forceful personalities, most were British born, educated people from comfortably well-to-do families with a wide general knowledge of English literature and the classics. Notable exceptions were the self-taught Irish like Thomas Bracken and William Jackson Barry.

These 20 “writers” were by no means a group or representatives of a movement; most scribbled in isolation with limited knowledge of the others, their lives or work. As Jessie Mackay wrote, “we ploughed a lone furrow.” Almost all were like other educated, literate people in their situation, they used language to make a point or put forward an idea, to communicate with relatives and friends, to record their impressions and to make money. In a wider sense they colonised the New Zealand experience, recording its unique geography and history and the indigenous culture.

They showed little awareness that they were creating a new literature or a recognisable New Zealand national culture and identity. In any case such efforts were to remain unappreciated. What became our national anthem was published by Thomas Bracken in 1878, but did not achieve this status for over a century. In the meantime his best-known poem was the maudlin “Not Understood”.

Though Jones has worked hard to provide links between the various personalities, in the main it was through sporadic publication in the press or in the Red Page of the Sydney Bulletin that New Zealand writers discovered each other. Those who were acquainted met through other spheres or activities, like the three men landing in Kerikeri in 1814 (chapter 1), Domett and Governor Grey (chapter 7), or the four colourful early Dunedin writers, fellow political activists Edward Tregear and William Pember Reeves and women friends Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan (chapter 10).

Historian Keith Sinclair has noted, “it was believed a native literature would arise from and be inspired by the same process that was creating the new nation, that is the experience of life in New Zealand.” But the local market was too small to sustain a literary publisher or even a national journal for any length of time. And although literary nationalists – as opposed to creative writers – foretold the appearance of great writers who would create a literary culture, it was not until 1910 that local writers began to produce work of distinction. Many early colonial writers were in any case temporary dwellers, remaining in the colony for a limited period of time. They returned “home” to the lands of their birth, exiled from the New Zealand experience – perhaps viewed more fondly in absence. As well as reflecting a middle-class and educated viewpoint, expatriatism became a major theme in New Zealand literature.

Interesting, but not remarked on by Jones, is the striking distinction between material of New Zealand origin and other writings of the Bulletin school. Australian publications were rude, slangy, smart, and happily vulgar, often written from a working-class viewpoint for non-literary readers. New Zealanders mostly wrote for a more educated readership, even when their subject matter was ordinary workers. One Australian correspondent in the Bulletin complained that New Zealand writers were “usually tame and uninspiring” because New Zealand was “a curiously educated country”. Clearly he had not read John Barr in satirical vein, Thomas Bracken in the guise of Paddy Murphy or William Jackson Barry, the unabashed literary liar.

Jones has undertaken a huge and very difficult task. All credit must go to her for unearthing a wealth of fascinating material and weaving together fragments of history, chunks of disparate prose, poetry, journalism, letters, reminiscences, to create a lively – coherent – prose style. With limited significant quoted excerpts to illustrate the actual nature of writing by these various identities (and in many cases the material is only available in manuscript form in special libraries), one must rely on Jones’s assessment about their significance. Sometimes she overdoes the speculation and the writing appears verbose, using phrases like “this authorial trio”, even clumsy: “Nicholas’s work as a writer was the most intentional and the soonest achieved.” Elsewhere the author seems to be straining for effect: “In church on Christmas Eve [Tregear] saw a lovely girl on a ladder putting up the decorations. Bessie Arden, nineteen years old, vanquished his heart – and no doubt other organs as well.” Or in writing of Jessie Mackay: “She felt injustice anywhere as a personal assault and she rode into battle with poetry as her pitchfork.” Jones is also somewhat cavalier with geography, as in a description of those in the Napier district: “The mountains and hills that encircled them were snow-clad for many months of the year.”

While the collection is loosely unified by showing the way early “New Zealanders” were motivated to write, the essential process, the implicit claim in the sub-title, “a journey with pioneer New Zealand” is not altogether achieved. There is insufficient connection and momentum, no strong feeling that these writers represent a swelling tide of literary achievement. Instead the reader becomes fascinated by detail, and tends to lose a sense of direction, deflected by a myriad of colourful characters, events and descriptions.

This is an attractive, well-produced book to dip into and enjoy for its wealth of intriguing detail, but I felt the need for more focus, a stronger exposition and explanation of how these writing threads came together. The validity of Jones’s claim that these pioneers together created New Zealand literature is open to question, though there is no doubt that all those included in the collection contributed to the cultural and political life of Godzone and, through their writing, provide a unique pataka of our literary heritage.


Julia Millen is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


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