The missionary position, Laurence Jenkins

Slow Water
Annamarie Jagose
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734506

In 1836, William Yate, clergyman and missionary, aged 3, set sail from London for his beloved Waimate North, the New Zealand mission which had been founded in 1823 by the Rev Samuel Marsden. Yate, on leave in England, was eagerly anticipating his return, for he was a dedicated man and loved New Zealand. Shortly before the events of this story, he had been summoned to preach to William IV at Brighton. He and his sister Sarah boarded the Prince Regent in February of that fateful year. By the next November, his life was a shambles and his promising career destroyed.

Annamarie Jagose has crafted a rather Jamesian novel from this Aristotelian tragedy, for this is indeed the story of a man of stature brought to destruction by a flaw in his character. In this parable, though, the flaw is not what it seems at first.

Yate was an actual historical figure, one of the earlier missionaries sent out by the Church Missionary Society to convert the “New Zealanders”, as Maori are referred to throughout the correspondence and other historical papers of the time. Yate, unmarried, had allegedly been on intimate physical terms with several of the male Maori converts who lived near Waimate and helped with the work at the mission. This is established in the opening pages, in which Jagose reconstructs a reminiscence by one of Yate’s “boys’. Lamenting Yate’s absence and describing the chaos after events with which we have yet to become acquainted, the reminiscence sets the scene for a sad tale.

Aboard the ship with the Yates are Richard Taylor, former curate at Coveney, his wife Caroline, his sons Arthur and Basil and daughter Laura. They are also travelling to Waimate to become a part of the mission station. Taylor is Yate’s subordinate, too, and therein we find a motivation, for he becomes Yate’s Judas.

There is another demi-Christ figure in this story. Edwin Denison, third mate of the Prince Regent, might have been drawn from Melville, so closely does he resemble Billy Budd. The missionary’s first impression of Denison is of “a handsome, aristocratic head that would have looked well on a coin and a bleached blue eye that Yate felt would see right through him if ever it ventured to pick him out from the view.”

Here beginneth the lesson. From the first sight of him, Yate is smitten. He stalks Denison and, in the role of pastor, persuades both himself and his fellow passengers that he seeks only to save the young sailor’s soul. But, after catching sight of his quarry scantily clad, he recognises his obsession and thinks of it as “the errant sailor’s albatross”.

It is the sailor who makes the first move, and after Denison invites Yate to the sailors’ drunken revels at the equatorial crossing, and then to his cabin, there is no turning back. The sexual tension is subtly increased and Yate finds himself “intoxicated by the gleaming nearness of the man”. Soon they are inseparable, sleeping in one another’s arms most nights, either in Denison’s hammock or Yate’s more capacious bed.

The other passengers have their own convoluted dealings. Captain Button’s wife and daughter quickly capture the interest of the ship’s doctor, Doctor Fowles, and of Mr Armistead, an attorney emigrating to Australia to “make his fortune or at least give his English debts the slip”. Armistead cuts a dashing figure, and almost at once Mrs Button entraps him in a rather unsavoury situation in his cabin upon which her daughter blunders. The girl is too dim to even guess what she has stumbled upon, and then, as Armistead pursues the mother in a perpetually priapic state, mother sets daughter in his path, notwithstanding the fact that the latter is betrothed to a Mr Whitlock.

Soon lawyer, mother and daughter are a constant threesome. Fowles retires to the sideline, soulfully regarding Sophie Button from afar. He consoles himself with thoughts of food, his wife in London, and with his taxidermy, his one hope of impressing the young woman. His rather naive invitation to her to attend the autopsy of a dead albatross he is about to transform into a trophy results in her being rendered unconscious from shock and disgust.

Life on board – and Jagose has thoroughly researched the daily routine on these vessels – assumes a kind of division from life on land, and sexual peccadilloes of any variety are laissez-faire. No one takes much notice of the clergyman and the third mate whispering in corners and bedding without a modicum of self-consciousness. Nor does Captain Button seem to take any interest in the vulgar attorney dancing constant attendance on his wife and daughter, even when it seems clear that the mother is pimping for her protégé and sabotaging the girl’s engagement in the process. The passengers seem obsessed by their comfort, and the crew are kept busy with alternative bouts of bad weather and drunkenness.

Jagose, though, focuses on Yate and his matelot. The rare sex scenes are breathtaking in their eroticism. While she does not shy away from intimate detail (“Yate took Edwin in his mouth, the collar of skin rolled back, the tip the colour of weak tea”), she dresses everything in the most careful and elegant prose. Denison tells Yate that the movement of the ship “suggests amativeness”. Erections are “cock-stands” and “yards”.

Yate never confronts his self-deception, and therein lies his actual flaw, but his young lover’s more honest attitude towards him is one of admiration mixed with lust. He keeps his sinful soul intact while apparently not only enjoying the sexual gratification per se but also returning the love and devotion of this pompous salvator mundi.

Once the ship docks in Sydney, and the inhabitants emerge out of the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Prince Regent, the rumbling volcano erupts. In a prescient moment before he is summoned to appear before his superiors, Yate writes a note to Edwin to warn him of the “corrupt character of man”. Suddenly the lovers are separated. Then life on land, the real world, is upon them. Yate is at first offered a promotion which will keep him in Sydney, not allowing him to travel on to Waimate, but Taylor feels slighted because Yate, preoccupied with daily visits to the still-docked Prince Regent, neglects him and his family. A letter from Taylor, prompted by the gossip of the erstwhile passengers and offering up the sound advice to exercise caution, elicits from Yate a stinging denial, declaring he has nothing to hide.

Thereafter, things move swiftly. Taylor’s hurt pride prompts revelations resulting in a kangaroo court involving the Bishop and his accusers, and Yate is disgraced and removed from his duties, but the church authorities never gather enough reliable evidence to prove him guilty of sodomy. He repeatedly asks for a public trial but is denied, and his departure back to England and obscurity, with Edwin and Sarah, is the last we hear of him.

The esoteric syntax is offset by a rather more modern disregard of conversation marks of any sort, but after a while this seems strangely natural, as though one is reading a journal or a ship’s log. This novel is an amazing accomplishment and, viewed in the glaring light of contemporary mores, is a sober reminder, along with the Oscar Wilde case, that Victorian prejudice was often confounded by a conspiracy of silence but had harsh consequences should that concordance be disturbed.

 

Laurence Jenkins is a writer, reviewer and arts columnist who lives in Northland.

 

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more