Faith and works, Linda Burgess

Women with a Mission: Rediscovering Missionary Wives in Early New Zealand
Cathy Ross
Penguin Books, $39.95,
ISBN 0143020501

Be careful what you leave behind you. That unflattering photo could well be the one chosen for your obituary (should you be fortunate enough, of course, to warrant one). Anything I’ve ever read about poor Charlotte Brown – the first “wife” featured in Women with a Mission – is accompanied by a truly awful portrait painted by an amateur on a bad day.

Many of the first missionaries who came to New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century were here under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). The philosophy of the CMS was not unlike that of the Salvation Army a century or so later: deal with the practical, and the spiritual will follow. Lots of the missionaries were skilled craftsmen and they brought these skills to New Zealand with the intention of passing them on. Their wives were quite extraordinary – resourceful, resilient and as committed to bringing Christianity to a new country as their husbands were. It scarcely bears thinking about what they went through, often the only white woman in their new region, having babies alone, dealing with illness, and taking responsibility for the education and welfare of not only their own children but a growing number of Maori. Their husbands were away in dangerous territory delivering The Word for weeks on end.

Cathy Ross is herself a missionary – in two senses of the word. Not only has she worked for the CMS, but she has a personal mission – to set the story straight for the often overlooked wives of the missionaries.

Charlotte Brown, in spite of the hideous portrait, was a fine woman and a very good friend to the wives of other missionaries with whom she had continual correspondence. She was generous-spirited and supportive, and her home at the mission in Tauranga housed the children of many others as well as her own. She suffered awful tragedy in the lingering death of her only son. Of the four stories told in this book, this one left me the least satisfied. Was this because I am unable to share Ross’s conviction (optimism?) that Charlotte’s faith saw her through the most trying of times?

Reading about the second of Ross’s missionary wives had me fighting a mounting sense of irritation. Unlike most of the CMS women, who were pragmatic women trained in the practical, Anne Wilson was sensitive, and had aristocratic connections – indeed, “the CMS in London notified the missionaries at the Bay of Islands of the Wilsons’ superior social status before they arrived there in 1833.”

Ross as a writer is far less judgmental than I am as a reader. Although she presents Anne Wilson with generosity and kindness (indeed, insists that her readers not judge these women by today’s standards), I was only few pages into this section of the book before I had lost sympathy. Anne Wilson seems to have been one of those selfless women who manage to constantly draw attention to themselves while proclaiming they’re thinking only of others.

That’s not to deny that life for her was difficult – of course it was; how could it be anything other than horrendously difficult?  She was thousands of miles from home, had four young boys, an illness which was to kill her, and a husband who was away all the time, taking The Message to people who were not necessarily going to receive it particularly positively. Ross comments that while he was away, Anne missed him dreadfully, writing him “openly honest” letters telling him that she felt “widowed, restless and uneasy” without him. Poor bloke. Not only was he out there doing what she had so actively encouraged him to do, now she was back at home moaning about it, albeit in a saintly fashion.

Anne constantly failed to live up to her own expectations – she tried to learn Maori, found it too hard, and could never talk as spiritually to Maori women as she wished. This caused her to bitterly lament her own inadequacy and spiritual failings. Unlike the other wives looked at in this book, she was someone for whom reality was a poor substitute for romantic idealism. Meanwhile, Ross writes gamely of the strength Anne’s faith gives her.

Ross really hits her stride with Elizabeth Colenso, born in New Zealand (in 1821), the daughter of missionaries William and Sarah Fairburn. This is partly because, however charitable Ross’s general overview is, it’s hard to put much of a gloss on the relationship between Elizabeth and her husband, CMS printer William Colenso. By this stage in the book, I was feeling a huge respect for Ross’s subtext. She doesn’t go so far as telling us how truly dreadful Colenso was, but she does say that she feels Elizabeth has been unfairly represented as his “passionless wife” because our records are so one-sided. I think she does a damn fine job of setting the record straight.

Colenso appears to be a Jane Austen-ish William Collins of a man, marrying only because he feels he must, and sending the mingiest letter to fellow missionary Robert Maunsell asking not only whether Elizabeth has a “desire and aptitude for mission work” but also whether she’s inclined “towards gay and worldly company” (clearly a no-no) and if she has any “bodily infirmity”. The miracle is that she lasted as long with him as she did (10 years). Ross depicts him as jealous of Elizabeth’s standing with Bishop Selwyn, and as a thoroughly unsupportive husband. During those 10 years, Elizabeth not only put up with long periods of solitude but also blatant infidelity, Colenso fathering a child by their Maori servant. Elizabeth showed exemplary kindness to this child. This is the strongest chapter in the book, and it is terrific that well over a century after her death Elizabeth Colenso has such a strong writer on her side.

Finally, it’s to the least contentious story of all – that of Catherine Hadfield, like Elizabeth Colenso born in New Zealand to missionary parents, in this case the highly esteemed Henry and Marianne Williams. Among the missionary families in New Zealand, the extended Williams family stands out for its understanding of and dedication to Maori, a position which put them offside with the likes of Governor Grey and the New Zealand Company. This chapter reads a little like a section of a thesis, describing a loving and happy marriage, and an appealing woman always making the best of her lot.

So does Ross do what she sets out to do – give us extra insight into the lives of four very different women? She convinced me: the work done by these women is at least as significant as that done by their husbands. But well-researched and well-written as this book is, it is lacking in scepticism – a carefully told story, but nevertheless told by a woman who shares the belief of her subjects that there is a greater power that helps believers bear what would otherwise be unbearable. I hope for their sakes it’s true, but a century and a half later I still don’t feel I got the whole story.


Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and reviewer.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category