Lost writers revisited, Elizabeth Webby

Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914  
Jane Stafford and Mark Williams
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864735227

In this excellent reassessment of an important phase of New Zealand’s literary and cultural history, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams challenge previous views of Maoriland literature as representing “a false dawn of national self-knowledge, an embarrassing colonial confusion about identity”. That many Maoriland authors were women, and much of its writing in genres not favoured by later writers and critics – the epic poem, the ballad, the imperial adventure story, the romance – has not helped the period’s reputation. Nor has the fact that the term “Maoriland” was not of New Zealand origin but one popularised by journalists writing for Sydney’s Bulletin.

Stafford and Williams dispute Tony Deverson’s claim in NZ Words that Maoriland, though “a common journalistic term in Australia in the 1880s … had little or no domestic currency”, providing examples of its use in New Zealand as late as the 1960s. The Australian National Dictionary dates the first appearance of the term to an item in 1859 in Bell’s Life in Sydney, a comic and sporting paper similar in tone to the later Bulletin. The latter’s adoption and popularising of “Maoriland” was part of its subversion of Victorian formalities and rejection of imperial ties, even nominal ones. Queensland, for example, was renamed “Bananaland” and Victoria “the Cabbage Patch”, because of its relative smallness. In comparison, “Maoriland” seems quite complimentary, and an acknowledgment of the respect Maori had always enjoyed in Australia, in contrast to the widespread contempt for its own indigenous peoples.

In 1833, when G J Macdonald published his story “Bremeba the Kharadjie” in the New South Wales Magazine, he was firmly advised by a critic in the Sydney Monitor that “The aborigines of Australia are not the children of romance.” Nineteenth-century Australian writers, despite the popularity of the “Red Indian” tales of Longfellow and James Fenimore Cooper, took this advice to heart, relying on the adventures of gold-diggers, bushrangers and, in particular, struggles against the land to power their narratives. Though some New Zealand writers such as Edith Searle Grossmann also depicted the bush as threatening and uncanny, as Stafford and Williams demonstrate, most saw the landscape as sublime, and full of natural beauties. Maori, especially when young and female, were a standard part of this highly romanticised picture.

Essential to Stafford’s and Williams’ argument is their insistence that such romanticism needs to be understood not as a sign of colonial belatedness but as evidence of “a surplus of modernity in the immediate world”. With settlement firmly established, work could begin on building up local cultural traditions. Maori were no longer enemies to be feared but heroic figures from the past, celebrated in poems by Alfred Domett and Jessie Mackay. Stafford and Williams provide an insightful reading of Ranolf and Amohia (1872), a work praised in its time but damned by later critics, placing it in the context of an international vogue for ethnographic epics that followed the publication in 1760 of texts by the supposed third-century Scottish poet Ossian. In settler societies without long histories of their own to draw on, writers interested in such an “invention of tradition” often took over the stories of those they had displaced, as with Longfellow and Cooper in North America, or the authors of Maoriland literature. With one or two exceptions, ethnographic epics were not part of Australian literature; there the mistreated convict or, especially, the heroic bushman took the place of the indigene in tales of the past.

Hence, as Stafford and Williams demonstrate in “Henry Lawson’s Aesthetic Crisis”, Lawson was ill-equipped to write the novel of Maori life planned when he emigrated to New Zealand in 1897 to become a teacher at a Native School near Kaikoura. He found himself “in Maoriland but not of it”. In comparison to Maoriland writers, Lawson was closer in class position to the Maori he taught but, as an Australian, he had a stronger aversion to miscegenation. Unlike Domett’s Amohia and the Maori maidens of much popular fiction, August, the protagonist of Lawson’s “A Daughter of Maoriland”, is not romanticised or eroticised but “aboriginalised”, shown as dark, savage, unknowable and unteachable. Despite Lawson’s conscious adoption of an anti-sentimental realist mode, as Stafford and Williams point out, his representations of Maori are no “truer” than those of Domett and Mackay. While not being confined to the archaic past, Maori are still seen as incapable of taking their place in modern settler society.

Lawson may have rejected romantic representations of Maori, but the proprietors of the Bulletin had no such qualms, publishing eleven stories by A A Grace, later collected as Tales of a Dying Race (1901). Ironically, as Stafford and Williams note, the Maori population had actually been increasing since about 1891, after declining rapidly from 1840-78. This fact did not, however, fit with the common belief, influenced by social Darwinism, that indigenous peoples could not survive in the modern nation. Grace’s stories, like Goldie’s portraits, memorialise the ancient “type” of Maori. Maori are also shown as “subversive improvers of Pakeha”, countering the denial of sensuality associated with puritanical Christian missionaries. This contrast between the sensual Maori and the repressed Pakeha is one found in many later representations, such as Mansfield’s “How Pearl Button was Kidnapped” and Duggan’s “Along Rideout Road that Summer”. It is also something that would have appealed to the Bulletin’s love of shock and subversion.

As Stafford and Williams indicate, the strong literary links between Australia and New Zealand during this period can also be seen in the early publishing career of Katherine Mansfield. Her 1907 prose poems, heavily influenced by Oscar Wilde, may not have appealed to the Bulletin but found favour with the editors of little magazines, such as the Native Companion, published by members of Australia’s literary bohemia. Only when she was back in London writing for John Middleton Murry’s Rhythm did Mansfield attempt more realistic stories of life in the New Zealand bush, such as “The Woman at the Store”. Stafford and Williams suggest an interesting possible link with Barbara Baynton’s brutal depictions of Australian life in Bush Studies (1902), though they make the common mistake of describing Baynton as a Bulletin writer. In fact, only one of her stories ever appeared there, and that in a severely censored version. Baynton’s incipient modernism and frank treatment of sexual issues meant that her stories were also first published in London.

Unlike the other authors discussed by Stafford and Williams, Edith Searle Grossmann did not depict Maori characters though she did draw on their myths. Her best known book, The Heart of the Bush (1910), resembles a number of romances written by Australian women in the last decades of the nineteenth century in forcing the heroine to choose between lovers who represent the wealth and refinement of the metropolitan centre on the one hand and the health and vitality of the colonies on the other. Adelaide’s New Zealand lover, Dennis MacDiarmid, is assumed to be Maori by her English suitor but instead is an example of the coloniser as new indigene, a representation very common in Australian writing of this period and later. The chapter on Grossmann is especially insightful in its comments on the place of reading in colonial society. All the characters in The Heart of the Bush read but their reading comes from elsewhere; the only writer depicted is a servant, and her poems are literally marginalised, written in the margins of local newspapers or on cake paper.

While Grossmann’s novels are discussed within the context of international feminism, the work of Blanche Baughan is primarily viewed against the worldwide interest in spiritualism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, as Stafford and Williams note in a valuable discussion of “A Bush Section”, despite being born in Britain, Baughan’s work was more influenced by American poets such as Walt Whitman than by English ones. Her correspondence with Australian critic Nettie Palmer points to another literary link that deserves further exploration. It would, for example, be interesting to read “A Bush Section” against “The Bush”, a long poem by another Whitman devotee and friend of Palmer’s, Bernard O’Dowd.

The final chapters of Maoriland consider the novels of William Satchell and Apirana Ngata’s poem “A Scene from the Past”, written in 1892 when he was a student.  While one can appreciate Stafford’s and Williams’ desire to include a chapter on “The Maori Writer in Maoriland”, this does make for one of the slighter sections of the book.

On the whole, however, Maoriland is one of the best works of literary and cultural history I have read for years. Given the increasing pressures on university staff in recent decades, it is heartening to see such a work of mature scholarship, clearly the product of an enormous amount of reading and research, being published. I hope that it will reach a wide audience, both within and outside New Zealand, and inspire further research of this type.


Elizabeth Webby is Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney.


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Posted in History, Literature, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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