Stabs of recognition, Joanne Drayton

Getting There: An Autobiography
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $50.00, 
ISBN 9780864735904

Each weekday morning Barbara Anderson sets off for the office. Her routine is ritualised.  She buys lunch, drinks a cup of coffee while she casts an eye over the newspaper and then begins to write. Her room on the second floor overlooks Courtenay Place in Wellington. “One of the reasons I know I have been here for such a long time is because when I began I was able to see the peak of the Byrd Memorial which stands at the top of Mount Victoria … Now I can’t see it” because the trees have hidden it. It is in the solitude of “a room of one’s own” such as this that Anderson produced much of her finest work and now her autobiography Getting There, which is an inspiring Cinderella story of twilight success. When the expatriate New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins experienced that moment of “getting there”, it came at the end of decades of toiling dedication to the task. After a meal of celebratory poached partridge she wrote jubilantly to her dealer Arthur Howell, “I consider that I am ‘made’ and that my work has at last taken root”: it was October 1930 and she was 61 years old. What is remarkable and almost fairytale-like about Anderson’s story is that she found, actually almost tripped over her vocation in her mid-50s. She has enjoyed a career of exponential achievement, but there was a fairy godfather involved.

Getting There as it suggests, though, is more about journey than accomplishment. In fact, it maps a life that is familiar and evokes in places Anderson’s own words about Janet Frame’s writing: “I realise a woman from another country could have written with similar insight, but it would not have given me that exact stab of recognition.” Anderson was born the middle child of three and only daughter of a well-to-do family in Hastings, in 1926. Hers was a childhood privileged as much by her father’s attitude to literature, as it was by his status as a surgeon. She lived in a world of childhood fantasy fed by books, and was especially connected to her younger brother Colin who shared her imaginative games with dolls, which were not always demure. “Arabella was not built for action, let alone adventures,” Anderson determined after her aunt’s doll “crashed to destruction on the gravel drive when [she] was speeding her along in the wheelbarrow to save her from baying wolves.”

Anderson’s youthful imagination often collided with the realities of provincial life in New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s. While “dolls were licensed play; reading, let alone writing, during the day was idleness.” A colonial version of puritanism, which designated reading and writing a thought-crime, along with restrictive notions about the upbringing of girls, limited Anderson’s sense of her own possibility, and she reluctantly accepted these restrictions in order to conform: “My coloured crayons hardly ever went over the edge.” There were teachers who nurtured her interest in literature and words, but it was the sciences that won out. While her brother David was navigating the perils of a six-year medical degree at the University of Otago, Anderson negotiated a more modest three-year BSc degree, and felt fortunate her father had independence of means and mind to financially support the higher education of his daughter. The standard argument against tertiary education was that women married and therefore weren’t breadwinners.

Anderson graduated from Otago in 1947, and, as if to prove the clichés correct, she quickly married. If she had tried to colour in the lines of convention, she couldn’t have coloured more accurately or harder because she didn’t just marry a man, she married the navy and the Chief of Defence Staff (Vice Admiral), Sir Neil Anderson. But Neil Anderson was many postings away from being that when they wed, and there would be separations at sea, sacrifice and self-denial, before the privileges of naval position lent military lustre to their lives.  “Like Neil, I was getting used to arrivals and departures,” Anderson wrote of those peripatetic years.  “You were posted, you went, you arrived, and after a given time you were off again.”

Mixed amongst the comings and goings were some amazing sojourns in the UK and Europe. These experiences were formative for Anderson.  She writes of the UK:

Here was a country I thought I knew about from books and more books, from parents and grandparents and teachers. Here was the land of opportunity that our best brains had been emigrating to throughout the years and had seldom come back. The instinct to bend the knee had faded for our generation. For our forebears it had been instinctive.


It was “being overseas” that brought back the sense of cultural disconnection with new poignancy: “I carried Flower Fairies of the Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter long before I could read. None of them were New Zealand fairies but then nothing ever was in the books of my childhood.” The seasons were wrong; the flora and fauna were wrong; and the people and customs were different. She remembered stories of “English children at the seaside, with pails and starfish and piers, and never a mention of our proper beaches with their big waves and buckets and pipis and kina.”

Prior to enrolling in a BA at Victoria University in 1980, Anderson had read only three New Zealand authors: Ngaio Marsh (recommended by her father), Katherine Mansfield (from school), and Janet Frame (an adult discovery). Anderson was a student again. She had supported her husband’s career, raised two sons, Jeremy and Piers, worked as a laboratory technician and taught high school science. At 53 years old, her life was her own and what she planned to do with this freedom was fill the hungry shelves of her mind with books – not just from the northern hemisphere, but from New Zealand authors such as Frank Sargeson, Denis Glover, Charles Brasch and A R D Fairburn.

The perils of being a mature student: “Who’re those two colour-coordinated old dolls down there?” commented one hip young thing. Anderson and her friend Jill Barton progressed like Siamese twins through their English degrees until they alighted on the idea of taking Bill Manhire’s creative writing course. The pair suggested the idea to Manhire and “he told us tactfully, or as tactfully as anyone could, that two students of our age might upset the demographic balance in a class of twelve.” But Manhire is the fairy godfather of this story not the wicked witch. It was his mentoring magic that helped Anderson’s career to fly. He recommended she publish her first collection of short stories and suggested the English literary agent that promoted her internationally successful The Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1992). The colour-coordinated old doll in the front row became a distinguished author.

“Recently it has occurred to me that I am old,” writes Anderson who is now stone-deaf and walks with a stick, but this is not evident in the writing of Getting There. What is though is the sense of a woman at the end of her life in conversation with the reader – in fact in places she addresses specific people from its pages. It is as if you were sitting with her in her office overlooking her life. Some memories are deep and moving like the childhood death of her brother Colin, and that of her son Jeremy, and others have the shallowness of a peripatetic travel itinerary. Many of her observations are astute and come with that “stab of recognition”, but they are made from the perspective of a life lived within the lines. When asked by a professor of philosophy to pontificate on the process of painting, Frances Hodgkins wrote to her sister Isabel: “I couldn’t tell him much more than that I painted a picture much as a hen lays an egg – that it was inevitable – which seemed to please him.” But I would have liked to hear more of how Anderson laid her golden plots and created her clever characters, and to see a little more evidence of the intimacy that obviously existed in her relationship with her husband. I enjoyed Getting There. It is not the best autobiography I have ever read, but it is certainly one of the most inspiring.


Joanne Drayton’s Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was reviewed in our Summer 2008 issue.


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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