Portrait of an irritating lady, Isa Moynihan

Vibrant with Words: The Letters of Ursula Bethell
ed Peter Whiteford
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864735049

Editor Peter Whiteford, a senior lecturer in the English Department at Victoria University, has done Ursula Bethell proud with this generous selection of her letters, dating from 1881, when she was six years old, to October 1944, shortly after her 70th birthday. She died of cancer in January 1945 and is buried with her parents in Rangiora Church of England cemetery. From such a collection we expect a portrait of the artist in her own words, her opinion of other writers, and an insight into contemporary attitudes. We may possibly be able to deduce something of her effect on others and their opinion of her. All this and more we get from Vibrant with Words, and indeed we get not only the self-portrait of English-born Ursula Bethell but also fascinating glimpses of the main players on the New Zealand literary and artistic scene in the 1930s and 40s.

The letters are grouped under seven chronological headings and there is the usual academic apparatus of bibliography, footnotes, general index, indexes of Bethell’s poetry and of the recipients of the letters. There are also some snapshots, and studio portraits in which her pose (eyes downcast, looking sideways) conveys a coy fragility. The index of biblical references reflects her strongly held religious faith – a faith that wavered only after the death of Effie Pollen, her friend for 30 years. When Effie died after a short illness, Bethell remembers how, in a moment of happiness, she had offered everything to God – and He had taken it.

First, Bethell the woman: not a very likeable character, but a product of her background and time, when England was Home and New Zealand a far-flung colony with colonial manners and common accents. After her religious beliefs, the strongest influence in her life was her relationship with Effie. Although Effie’s death notice describes her as a “well-known social worker”, Bethell never mentions this work, instead using her “little” friend as a source of amusing anecdotes in her letters. It also seems that little Effie was responsible for most of the domestic comfort at Rise Cottage in Christchurch. Bethell describes her in the kitchen surrounded by baskets of fruit, a cauldron of blackcurrant jelly bubbling on the stove. Effie is covering a batch of jars of chutney and points to them as her anthology. Calling her the Econome, Bethell adds, “She loves big words.”

Bethell, however, was devastated by Effie’s death. In almost every letter after that she speaks of desolation, of “stepping into the dark” and becoming dumb. She acknowledges that her friend “was very protective and supporting to me too” and that her devotion and love had been “squandered, daily, hourly on me”. In a letter to Monte Holcroft she describes her feelings for Effie as “primarily maternal”, commenting in parenthesis: “They are mistaken who think that such relationships are only known when physically based.” There is one tantalising glimpse of Pollen’s opinion of Bethell as having a “cold honesty” and Bethell’s reference to a “little fragment” in which Pollen says that they fully recognise they are lucky to have each other in spite of the other’s many annoying ways.

Some of Bethell’s annoying ways may be inferred from a vehement and rather incoherent letter to Eric McCormick, written in late 1940/early 1941 in which she denies that she was being patronising when she wrote that “young and important” friends could not be expected to write to an old lady. It’s just that when her interest or her affection is roused she forgets “this old age stage”. Nor does she see herself as having “an attitude of superiority” towards New Zealand (a claim belied by derogatory remarks made in other letters), and looking back to England through a “rose-coloured haze”. She is surprised that McCormick sees her as an “indulgent patroness”, displaying “artificiality, pose, pride”, since she was quite unaware of anything in her voice or manner that would give such an impression. Of course, if McCormick has gained such an impression, something in her must be responsible. She does have faults, she admits, such as a tendency to tease “even to the verge of cruelty”. But perhaps McCormick is being too “touchy and suspicious”? Perhaps she should take a microscope and look for some of his motes?

The parental tone she adopts in some of her letters to Holcroft is probably due to her having known him since he was “an intense little boy of 10”, but he clearly felt the need to distance himself from her somewhat overpowering interest in his life and studies. In a letter written in 1934, Bethell has clearly been offended by Monte’s suggestion that their weekly visits should cease. She admits there has been a cooling of relations with his wife, Ray, and wonders if perhaps Ray, like many wives “especially young wives”, did not like her husband going out without her. Or could it have been the letter that Bethell wrote to Ray about her claim to have clairvoyant gifts? “I had disliked very much something she wrote to me about my poetry & at last came to feel that I must explain to her what I conceive to be the christian [sic] point of view about these phenomena.” Of course, she adds, “if the little wife doesn’t wish to be friendly, I have no wish to press the acquaintanceship.” She closes with “If & when you write again please, please don’t adopt the Australian-American signature ‘sincerely’ without the ‘yours’!”

The most interesting area covered in the letters was the burgeoning literary scene in the 1930s and 40s as the widening and intersecting ripples spread from the impact on the publishing scene of Allen Curnow and his friend Denis Glover. Bethell either corresponded with or expressed opinions on the work of contemporary writers as well as artists Toss Woollaston, Evelyn Page and Colin McCahon (or O’Cahon as Bethell called him because it was more euphonious).

Some of these letters contain a rich trove of gossip. In 1944, the year before her death, she confides to Charles Brasch that, although Ngaio Marsh’s Hamlet was a notable achievement, she finds “artificiality” there, attributing it to Noël Coward’s influence. She feels that Toss Woollaston has “shot his bolt”, being too consumed by breadwinning. Allen Curnow, although a sensitive critic of her poetry, is not a virile person, but lacking in conviction like all the young New Zealanders who “wrap themself [sic] round with phrases and catchwords they hear at the university.” Besides, he lives in “a sort of slovenly bohemianism I greatly dislike”. Then there’s Denis Glover, sensible and generous, but “if he could be serious what a force he might be.” And she agrees with Glover (who said Robin Hyde was “rather ghastly”), dismissing her as “very vain and schoolgirlish about her writing”.

As for Holcroft, he’s serious enough, she says, but has never thought through his view of life and has only “smatterings of self-taught philosophy”. In his autobiography, The Way of a Writer, Holcroft comments that Bethell had decided he should be a theologian, “a specialist not much in demand in the 1930s”, and he had obviously disappointed her by drawing back from this vision of his future. She is inclined to be possessive, he notes. Woollaston had a similar experience when he brought his new wife, Edith, to meet his friend and mentor: “Miss Bethell was very nice and very nasty,” he writes to Rodney Kennedy. “She loved Edith … [but] I was let in for a series of damnable snubs from the bitch. It was an emotional strain being with her.”

Bethell’s importance in New Zealand literature cannot be denied, claims Whiteford in his introduction, although he supports the claim with a quotation from Charles Brasch that seems to accord her the status of mentor rather than of major literary figure: “Miss Bethell was a friend – & guide & philosopher – to so many of the young & aspiring in so many fields,” he writes to John Schroder, adding that any future historian of the period must regard her as an important figure, “whatever his opinion of her as a poet”. In his Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Allen Curnow praises her “visual authority” over the Canterbury landscape, but concludes, “Sometimes she is diffuse or misses her vision in the stage-management of her verse.”

So, as well as the gossip, we have a portrait of a rather irritating lady: a bit of a snob, a bit of a pain, intense, patronising, sanctimonious, but capable of generosity, and growing more tolerant and self-aware over the years. In her last poem, “By the River Ashley”, she speaks of “the small soft sighing of the tussock,/And flax-spears’ rattle, and, might be, a seabird’s call.” And of her beloved Mount Grey that “casts a spell/of greatness, majesty that does not go with measurement.”


Isa Moynihan is a Christchurch writer and fiction editor of Takahe literary magazine.


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