Bold words, Elspeth Sandys

The Story of a New Zealand River 
Jane Mander
Random House, $29.99,
ISBN 9781869413897

I have been a fan of The Story of a New Zealand River ever since my discovery of it in a secondhand bookshop in London in the late 1970s. As I read my enchanted way through this long novel, written by a contemporary of Katherine Mansfield, I began asking why I had not heard of Jane Mander before. I had read the novels and stories of Frank Sargeson and John Mulgan; I was familiar with the poems of James K Baxter; I had read Maurice Shadbolt’s Strangers and Journeys, and most recently Maurice Gee’s marvellous Plumb. Had there, I wondered, been a conspiracy to keep the name Jane Mander out of the New Zealand literary story? The answer is, of course not, but … . And it is in that “but” that much of my continuing interest in this novel lies.

The Story of a New Zealand River was first published in New York in 1920. Mander was by then 43 years old. She had been working on the manuscript for more than eight years. There would never have been any question of the novel being published in New Zealand. Even had it not been deemed shocking – the New Zealand Herald, referring to her treatment of the “sex question” in its review, would accuse her of confusing the “freedom” of women with a much older profession – publishing was an almost exclusively male concern. Women writers were free to contribute to journals, and write impassioned articles about temperance and education and female emancipation, but serious fiction was for the chaps. It was in this climate that Mander began writing, only to find that like other women before her – Mansfield, G B Lancaster, Edith Grossmann – she would have to travel to the other side of the world to see her novel in print.

Mander had begun her adult life as a pupil teacher at Port Albert on the Kaipara. Her earliest years had been spent living in a variety of saw-milling communities in that often lawless part of New Zealand, an environment she would recreate in impressive and vivid detail in The Story of a New Zealand River. Gifted with intelligence and a lively, enquiring mind, she was destined for a university education, till a change in her family’s fortunes obliged her to seek employment. For the next five years, Mander taught in a variety of Northland and Auckland schools. Then, in 1902, the family’s luck changed again. Mander’s father – a prominent MP and pioneer saw-miller – found himself in a position to buy Whangarei’s two newspapers. The news acted as a spur to Mander, exhausted by teaching and longing for a chance to put her ideas into words. She abandoned teaching and took up a career in journalism.

Soon after she moved to Whangarei, Mander began work on The Story of a New Zealand River. From that moment on, her life would be dedicated to words. She would write articles on the burning issues of the day – feminism, social change, the rise of religious scepticism – courting controversy with courage and good humour. She would write literary reviews strongly influenced by her reading of Shaw, Nietzsche, Wells and other movers and shakers of the day. Most importantly, she would write novels, six in total, the first three set in the Northland landscape she knew so well. Contemporary reviewers of her novels would express disapproval of her alteration of the facts of geography and population to suit her stories, but later critics, less concerned with literalism, would praise The Story of a New Zealand River for its historical accuracy.

Re-reading the novel 30 years after my first excited discovery of it, I have to admit to moments of tedium as the passages of description – many of them very fine, some of them repetitive – piled up on the page like unnecessary signposts. But the same tedium can strike when reading Dickens, a sign not of weakness in the writing, but of the very different expectations a reader in the 21st century brings to a novel.

What the reader is left with at the end of The Story of a New Zealand River’s 479 pages is an impression of a time and a place that bears comparison with the best of Dickens.

The community of Pukekaroro where Alice, the novel’s heroine, goes to live with her illegitimate daughter, Asia, and her ambitious, emotionally-limited husband, Tom Roland, is a place I feel I know my way around. The kauri-milling industry that provides the scaffolding for this novel may have vanished, but the river remains, and the mangrove swamps, and the “precipitous hills that [keep] the sunlight out till midday.” “Here nature hated the very beginnings of monotony,” Mander writes. “So she scattered a little of everything about those wonderful hills.”

Alice, who represents one side of Mander (her rebellious daughter, Asia, being the other), understands all too well what the human invasion of this landscape means. When a kauri, its grey trunk reaching 80 feet into the sky (“like the pillars in the ancient halls of Karnak”), comes crashing to the ground, Alice/Mander feels it as a “violent assault upon eternal peace”. Something of the same feeling attaches itself to the life Alice shares with her husband, her stoic endurance of his sexual demands, finding an echo in the “lonely silence” of the bush.

“Pride and Puritanism”, a phrase uttered early on in the story by the principal male character, Tom Roland’s partner David Bruce, alerts the reader to the other major landscape of the story – the investigation of Puritanism, and its relevance to the rough new nation of New Zealand, fighting to be free of the shibboleths of the Old World. Alice’s puritanism, which Bruce calls that “monstrous bulwark of the British character”, will be sorely tested, first by the isolation of the life with her mostly absent husband, then by her growing love for David Bruce.

But Mander knows better than to write a story which sets out a simple division between Puritanism:  bad, and Freedom: good. When Asia decides, near the end of the story, to throw in her lot with a married man, the reader is left in no doubt as to what the consequences might be. Alice has been quick to condemn many of the people she has encountered on the basis of a set of principles handed down to her at birth. Must she now condemn her own child? And what of her own “transgression”? Is there to be no escape from her feelings of guilt?

What Mander seems to be reaching for in this story, as no doubt in her life, is a state of passionate non-judgement. “You don’t know human beings,” Bruce accuses Alice. “You have never really wanted to know them …. You have divided them up into the good and the bad ….” Alice, acknowledging the truth of this, accepts that the loneliness that has crippled so much of her life has stemmed from her own nature, and not from geographical or cultural isolation. By the end of the story, guided by the, at times, unbelievably saintly Bruce, Alice feels she has at last “got into the flow of the great human current that carries all men, great and small, towards some goal of understanding and goodwill which they see as in a glass darkly.”

Crucial to Alice’s journey, and to an understanding of the novel, is Mander’s examination of the relationship between morality and Christian faith. Alice doesn’t believe people can be good without faith: her own life is an example of how difficult it is to be good even with faith. When she arrives at Pukekaroro, she doesn’t know how she is going to live among such flagrantly sinful people. Then she begins to see that she will have to live among them no matter what they have done. And gradually, as her friendship with David Bruce deepens, she begins to question not just the moral code by which she has lived, but the God whom she has believed to be its author:

She knew that even if there were no God, no heaven, no justice anywhere, she would still have to live on here by the river, feed and clothe her children, keep her home clean, do certain things and not do certain things. And it would not matter what she believed. The porridge would still have to be boiled or the family would get indigestion.


These were bold words in 1920. That they attracted opprobrium in The New Zealand Herald and elsewhere is not surprising. What is surprising is that the criticism continued, forcing Mander in the end to stop writing novels about New Zealand, and turn to New York and Paris for the backgrounds to her stories. Eventually Mander gave up writing altogether, a fact that should give all reviewers pause. We may feel we are not affected by prejudice when we pass judgement on a novel or a story, but later ages will almost certainly condemn us for our limited understanding of the times we live in.

Jane Mander was not just ahead of her time, she was better than her time. She is not a footnote to our literary story, she is a significant part of it. Random House is to be congratulated on this beautiful new edition, graced with an attractive cover designed by Trelise Cooper. My only regret is that this classic of New Zealand literature has been printed without an introduction.


Elspeth Sandys has recently returned from the UK where she worked on a novel about George Bernard Shaw and the early years at the Court Theatre.  


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