Public work, private life, Grace Millar

Looking For Answers: A Life of Elsie Locke
Maureen Birchfield
Canterbury University Press, $69.95,
ISBN 9781877257803

Writing a biography of someone with broad interests and a long and well-documented life is a real challenge. Lives are messy and sprawl without structure; they contain more events, people and information than could fit in any book. The material that is left for a biographer – letters, documents and memories of those who knew the subject – is even messier. The biographer’s job is to wrangle the different versions of the subject’s life, not necessarily into order, but into a form that can be understood by readers.

Looking for Answers, Maureen Birchfield’s biography of Elsie Locke (1912-2001), is important because Locke was a politically radical woman, most of whose work has not received the recognition it deserves. Her work was invisible for so long that when she spoke to a Christchurch feminist group in the 1970s, “Most of us gasped to hear her read from publications written nearly forty years ago. It’s all been said before!”

Locke’s life is, among other things, a history of dissent in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1990s. Locke was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand for 20 years and a founding member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She was an environmentalist long before environmentalism was widespread, and was deeply involved in local issues in the Avon Loop area, where she lived for more than 50 years.

Politics was just one part of Locke’s life; a crucial part of her story is how she became a writer. At university in the 1930s, she moved in literary circles, working on the magazines Phoenix and Kiwi, but she could not take her writing seriously, and was not taken seriously by the men around her. As she grew older, she gained confidence as a writer and published both fiction and non-fiction. Her most loved book is probably Runaway Settlers, a children’s book about a 19th century immigrant family trying to escape their violent father. But she also received recognition for her writing for adults. Birchfield takes the title for her biography from an essay of the same name that Locke wrote about her decision to leave the Communist Party, an essay which won the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1959.

As well as highlighting the importance of Locke’s public work, Looking for Answers also sheds light on private areas of her life. Birchfield tells us about Locke’s relationships, of the struggle of being a single mother in the 1940s, and the two years she spent in hospital lying on her back – the only treatment for spinal tuberculosis in the 1940s. One of the glories of biography is that we see glimpses of the hidden and private aspects of people’s lives, as well as their more public selves.

The subtitle “a life of Elsie Locke” is well chosen; Birchfield describes the many threads of Locke’s life as an elaborate tukutuku pattern. Looking for Answers begins chronologically: the first three chapters describe Locke’s ancestors, her childhood and her time at university, while most of the rest of the book is organised thematically. This enables Birchfield to explore the breadth of Locke’s life. She covers Locke’s political work with women, her anti-war activism, her interest in the environment, and, of course, her writing.

However, by following these individual threads, at times Birchfield obscures the pattern. For example, in 1938 Locke gave birth to her first child, Don, and separated from her first husband. Birchfield discusses Locke’s living and childcare arrangements in one chapter and then, over the next two chapters, talks about her work putting out the Communist Party’s paper Working Woman, and then the magazine Woman Today. This fails to shine light on the relationship between Locke’s home life and her political work. However, in a life as complex as hers it is probably impossible to do justice to both the individual threads, and the pattern they create.

A key aspect of biography is the attitude of the biographer towards her subject. This is Birchfield’s second book; her first was a biography of her mother, Connie Birchfield, who was a friend and comrade of Locke’s. Birchfield is a sympathetic biographer and at times I think her passion for her subject, and her desire to celebrate Locke’s life and legacy, has unintended consequences. For example, she quotes criticism of Locke from a much younger activist but follows it with the comment that this “revealed his own immaturity more than anything.” I don’t necessarily disagree with Birchfield’s assessment, but when the narrator feels obliged to defend her subject, the reader can get the impression that the narrator does not believe the subject can stand on her own feet.

Birchfield undertook substantial research. Her sources include published material, Locke’s friends and family, and even the Security Intelligence Service (SIS). While she was finishing the book, she managed to extract Locke’s SIS files from the vaults in which they had been stored, including copies of private letters Locke had written. The detail in this handsome book is in both the text and the generous illustrations. Most two-page spreads are illustrated either with a photograph or with a reproduction of a letter or document. Pages of SIS files are reproduced in full, and the minutiae of Locke’s life that they document tell us as much about the workings of the SIS as of Locke.

At some points Birchfield could have been more discriminating about the information and events she chose to include. Locke’s life at times feels weighed down by detail about those who knew her. Birchfield tells us that Oliver Duff, the editor who encouraged Locke’s early writing, was Alan Duff’s grandfather, and that Alan Brash, who chaired the first meeting of what would become Christchurch Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was Don Brash’s father. These are interesting facts, but without context and analysis, irrelevant, detracting from Locke’s story. This is a particular problem in the first chapter, as  Birchfield failed to find a narrative thread to tie Locke’s ancestors into an interesting story in their own right, or the context in which to place her family in their times.

While at times Birchfield’s penchant for detail descends into trivia, at the crucial points of Locke’s life it works superbly. In particular, the chapter about Locke’s decision to leave the Communist Party and the effect this had on her relationships is very well told. Jack Locke, Locke’s husband, remained a member of the Communist Party and their diverging political positions caused great conflict between them. The relationship between two people is one of the hardest aspects of the past to reconstruct, and Birchfield makes a wise choice in showing us many views of Elsie’s and Jack’s. She quotes substantially from Locke’s letters of the time, and the memories of her children and friends. These many threads do not tell us definitively what happened between Elsie and Jack, but such detail is important in illustrating the pattern beneath.

Looking for Answers has the production values of a coffee-table book. It is landscape format, every page is full colour, the paper glossy, the illustrations plentiful, and it even has its own bookmark. Throughout, Birchfield emphasises Locke’s desire to be seen as ordinary – she hid her awards away because she was afraid if people saw them they might treat her differently. The book that Birchfield and Canterbury University Press have produced sits in stark contrast to Locke’s repeated desire for ordinariness. It could nullify Locke’s claims to be an ordinary mother, it could be arguing that even ordinary lives deserve recognition, or it could render Locke’s claim for ordinariness an affectation. For me, it does a little of all these things.

It seems churlish to complain about high production values, but they do come at a cost. The retail price of $70 is one Locke herself could not have afforded for most of her life, and the book’s very size makes Locke less accessible. You cannot get close to her life by reading it in bed; you have to sit at a table and keep her at arm’s length. However, if you do have the money, or a library card, you will be rewarded for the time you spend gaining an understanding of both the threads and the pattern of Locke’s life.


Grace Millar is a Wellington reviewer. 


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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