Woman alone, Lawrence Jones

The Captive Wife
Fiona Kidman
Vintage, $27.95,
ISBN 1869416864

 

The title of The Captive Wife and the setting, New Zealand and Australia of the 1930s, lead us to expect a colonial captivity narrative, and it is present in Betty Guard’s account of being held hostage by Taranaki Maori. However, the cover, a painting of a blindfolded female figurehead on the bow of a sailing ship, implies a more inclusive “captivity”, and that is the case. When Betty is violently “rescued” by two warships and a contingent of soldiers, she is unable to answer honestly the ship’s surgeon’s queries as to how relieved she feels to be “free”: “How could I tell him that in captivity I had thought myself free, and that in freedom I already felt myself captive again.” For she had been carried into John Guard’s venture in New Zealand with little more freedom than the figurehead on the ship, and her life up to that point had largely been determined by the constraints of gender and class.

As a 12-year-old granddaughter of convicts running the streets in the Rocks district of Sydney, deserted by her mother and loosely cared for by her feckless aunt, she had been singled out by Guard as a future wife, and he paid for her education at the local Ragged School. By the next year he was confiding to his journal that she could improve his life at his whale station at Te Awaiti: “I need someone to put in a garden and cook my dinners and wash the clothes”, and, as he tells her the next year, someone educated to “count my money and keep my ledger books” (and also, of course, to “be faithful to the bed”, assuage his frustrations “when his poker is on fire”, and provide him with a son). Her wishes are scarcely relevant: she is being offered something better than the life she had, and all she can do is nod. Henceforth she will belong to him.

Guard in his journal takes little account of anything about Betty but her suitability for his plans, but her later accounts of herself and her life reveal a vigorous, intelligent, strong-willed, healthily-sexed young woman, extremely adaptive, as she had to be, but very much aware of her own desires and preferences. When Guard takes her to Te Awaiti, he makes the basic decisions, but she is aware of (and secretly critical of) his alliance with Te Rauparaha, which enmeshes them in Maori wars, and she is not happy with their way of earning a living, for “Watching whales die is no sport for a young housewife.”

When she is with the Maori, and treated relatively well by her Maori partner and protector Oaoiti, she can look back on her married life and question it and the biblical myth which sanctioned it: “I think Jacky saw me as his rib, a part of himself that he took for granted ….” She comes to appreciate the Maori mythology, and although her work in the kumara fields is “back-breaking”, there are compensations: “The soil between my hands made me think of Papa, the earth, and that I was part of her, fertile and full of life.”

When she is forcibly returned to her husband, she carefully navigates the movement to a different kind of relationship, where she will have somewhat more room to move: she lets him know that she “was not so keen on whaling” and had learned from the Maori “that land can produce a living”, and when they return to set up a new household at Kakapo Bay she can affirm that “My bones will be laid in this soil.” She has learned from her experience to exercise what existential freedom she has within the constraints of her lot. Adie Malcolm, her teacher and confidante, can write to her: “I envy you. Your spirit has soared in captivity.”

2

The Captive Wife is Kidman’s ninth novel in 26 years, and in those books as well as in her five volumes of short fiction she has been a strong force in defining what Patrick Evans in The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (1990) has called “women’s public mode” of fiction, fiction that would provide a “literal record of the experience of what it was like to be a woman in twentieth-century New Zealand”, doing for women’s social experience what the critical realism of Sargeson, Mulgan and the several generations of male writers that followed had done for men’s experience.

Such fiction demands both a detailed account of the changing social environment, from residual puritanism and a scarcity society to the present free-market consumption society, and a primary focus on woman protagonists negotiating that changing environment, moving beyond the traditional place of women in a masculinist society to find a more independent identity, including expressing and taking control of their own sexuality. This literary mission Kidman has consciously attempted to carry out.

Her first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), she described to Sue Kedgley in 1989 as one that “consciously set out to right the wrongs, to address women’s lives in the sense that there were problems which had to be worked through ….” From the first, her take on this project was positive: she presented her protagonists not so much as victims but rather as people learning, as she said of herself in “Territories of Love” in Palm Prints, “that we can take control over the choices we make and shape our own directions”.

Those choices are constrained by the meanings society attaches to class, ethnicity and gender, but within and sometimes against those constraints there is room to move, an existential freedom to be asserted, and while the choices we make may establish further constraints, we can learn from them. If the affirmations that Harriet Wallace arrives at in that first novel – that she is a “survivor”, that it is time “to be herself rather than an image” – now read as rather trite, the struggle itself within the changing social environment is vividly evoked.

The books since then have not followed a simple path of development but rather have been varied explorations of mixed success. The novels, quite differently from the short fiction, have been predominantly “historical”, at least in the sense of looking back rather than dealing primarily with the present and the near past. Mandarin Summer (1981) went back to 1946, drawing on (and fictionalising, not to say melodramatising) Kidman’s childhood years in Kerikeri. Paddy’s Puzzle (1983) went back a generation further, taking Clara Bentley from a Waikato childhood and adolescence in the 1920s and 30s to her struggle to live out her “secret inner life … till there was no further to go” in wartime Auckland, ending in her early death from tuberculosis.

The Book of Secrets (1987) took the historical process further, tracing the struggle of three generations of women with the extreme masculinist puritianism of Norman McLeod and his followers, from 1812 to 1953. Speaking to Marion McLeod in late 1987, Kidman said that The Book of Secrets was “definitely the last historical piece”, and in her two main novels of the 1990s, True Stars (1990) and Ricochet Baby (1996), she made a conscious effort to deal with post-1984 New Zealand, its electoral, sexual and family politics, from the changes brought by the Lange-Douglas government to post-natal depression, psychotherapy, and custody battles.

In The House Within (1997) she put together previously published short stories about Bethany Dixon, added further stories to fill out the curve of her life to make a novel dealing with Bethany’s development from the 1960s to the 90s. In Songs from the Violet Cafe (2003), she brought in more of an historical dimension again in taking the action from 1943 to 2002, while in the title novella of the short fiction collection A Needle in the Heart (2002) she took her Maori protagonist from 1925 to the 1970s.

While most of the best short stories deal with a New Zealand society near to their time of composition, the novels dealing primarily with contemporary society (with the exception of the “linked stories” of The House Within) tend to be weaker, cluttered with too many characters, perhaps in the attempt to “cover” the social field, involved in plots that tend to be too complex and to turn on melodramatic action. The strongest novels – Paddy’s Puzzle, The Book of Secrets, and now The Captive Wife – are the more historical ones. Perhaps, like Maurice Shadbolt, she has operated best as a novelist when she has a more distanced and completed social environment within which her protagonists can define themselves.

3

Seen in relation to Kidman’s more recent novels, The Captive Wife reads like a return to the successful historical mode of The Book of Secrets, except that it has a shorter timeframe with a concentration on a single protagonist rather than on three generations, and there is a somewhat more complex method of telling the story. In The Book of Secrets the norm was a straight chronological omniscient narrative, but that norm was broken up by a variety of other methods: Isabella’s journal, various letters, other documents, often interrupting the chronological sequence.

Here there is no omniscient narrative but rather a combination of other methods: John Guard’s journal, his private book that “holds many secrets”; other documents – some newspaper articles, the letters of Adie Malcolm, her brother, and her employer; Betty Guard’s first-person present-tense narrations to herself and her long retrospective first-person narration to Adie of her captivity experience; and many third-person present-tense passages limited to Adie’s consciousness. These different methods are counterpointed, sometimes between chapters, sometimes rapidly within them, and the sequencing is often non-chronological: we start with 1826 and end with 1836, but in between there are movements back and forth between 1827, 1829, and 1834. In addition, in Guard’s journal and in Betty’s accounts to Adie there is often a narration of past events.

This complex mode of telling allows for some subtle narrative effects. Most obviously, there is the contrast of perspectives – especially Guard’s, Betty’s, and Adie’s – so that we get quite different understandings of events. Guard’s journal is crucial, for we see not only his functional view of Betty but also his own struggles against social constraints – his transportation for stealing to provide for his younger brother for whom he is responsible, his disciplined decision to ride with his humiliations and deprivations as a prisoner in order to get out from under them sooner and make his own way in a society which has given him no encouragement.

His deprivations are as great as Betty’s, and the pair are more similar than they realise in their intelligence, their energy, their sexuality, their adaptability and their determination. The major difference is, of course, gender. In their world, Guard as a man has more opportunity to use his qualities directly to better his state, and he does so aggressively, sometimes at a cost to others. As a result, he is not in the reader’s eye simply an arrogant male, as Fraser and Hector McIssac and, in a more interesting and complex way, McLeod are in The Book of Secrets, but rather a mixed character dealing with difficult problems.

Another result of the mode of telling is the withholding of pockets of time, so that it is not until long after we have seen the Sydney response to Betty Guard on her return from captivity in 1834 (both the initial valorising and the later scandal) that we finally hear her side of the story when she tells it to Adie. As we have to piece the story together, we are implicitly invited to make complex and subtle judgements. The devices of Kidman’s storytelling thus deepen and complicate our responses. The account of Betty Guard’s struggle and growth becomes not a vehicle for a simple feminist didacticism but rather a means of arriving at a more complex humanist understanding of the interplay of desire and resourcefulness on the one hand and the environmental barriers of arbitrary class and gender constraints on the other. Feminism, humanism and realism come together in what is Kidman’s best novel to date.

 

Lawrence Jones is Emeritus Professor of English and Research Fellow at the University of Otago. 

 

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