Open secrets, Heather Roberts

The Larnachs
Owen Marshall
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 978869794972


Meet the Larnachs: Owen Marshall’s choice of title is revealing in its use of the definite article and the plural. Generally, those who know the name Larnach know only one – William, who constructed the incongruous castle on the Otago Peninsula, and has been so far the only person to commit suicide in Parliament Buildings. The definite article suggests the Larnachs of this story are those worth knowing about; anyone else is a bit player.

In terms of telling a good story, Marshall is correct. He focuses on an aspect of the Larnach story that has largely existed between the lines of mainstream history: the affair between William Larnach’s third wife, Constance, known as Conny, and his younger son, Douglas, known as Dougie.

Early accounts of Larnach’s life focused on his business and political activities. These two had their own dramas, as his fortunes ebbed and flowed. Little mention was made of his personal life, though the writer of the entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography does hint that Larnach’s second marriage to his first wife’s half-sister might have been the stuff of scandal when he says, “She had kept company with him even before the death of Eliza” (my emphasis). Michael King (2003) is more direct in attributing Larnach’s suicide to financial worries and the affair between Conny and Dougie. It was an open secret in late 19th– and early 20th-century Dunedin and Wellington that Conny Larnach and Dougie Larnach were lovers.

The marriage between Larnach and Conny could have been unexceptional, despite the fact that she was 22 years younger than him. There were several advantages for her, not least that she was 35 and one of four unmarried sisters. She came from an unusual family where the father, also a politician, encouraged his daughters to be “well-read, outspoken, opinionated, musical” (Fleur Snedden, 1997), which probably discouraged potential suitors from the small pool that was late 19th-century Wellington society.

Larnach, with his wider knowledge of the world, might have been attracted to those characteristics in Constance that would have deterred a younger, less experienced man. Constance, for her part, marries a man with status who was deeply involved in the affairs of the colony. She sees him as “an active and practical man” who allows her to “do things and go places denied me as a spinster”. He supports her in her advocacy of women’s suffrage, makes sure she has a good piano because music is her passion, and together there is “play and laughter” in the early days of the marriage.

By the time Constance and William have been married for two years, the gloss has worn off, and she is beginning to realise that marriage to a much older man has drawbacks: “William talks to me when we are alone much as he does when we are in familiar company …. His innermost feelings are closed to me .… Neither has he much interest now in my own confidences.” A cynic might ask what she expected. The danger lies in the fact that she is beginning to notice that Dougie is “more aware and companionable than his father”.

Dougie is nine years younger than Constance and lives at The Camp, as the castle is known by the family. His job is to manage it, particularly as his father is often away on business and/or political activities. Larnach’s absences throw the two younger people together, and the older man sees his son as a suitable companion for his wife when she is alone. It is – and probably still would be – a dangerous combination: an emotionally distant, older spouse away from home on his own affairs, set against a younger man who is constantly there.

The two begin as friends: as Dougie says, “My favourite woman companion is my father’s wife.” This is not perhaps surprising given Conny’s education and interests and the lack of these among the young women Dougie usually socialises with. Such companionship leads inevitably to sex and, as Conny observes, “a better, more intense life, shared with someone who loves me more than I have been loved before”.

All might be perfect except that “she is married to someone else” who just happens to be Dougie’s own father. Dougie tries to persuade Conny to leave William and to go with him to another country: South America, Australia, anywhere where they would be unknown and could live together. Conny tells him that this would not work: “Our families have given us position and comfort we take for granted. Everything would be let go, and we’d be pariahs.”

Despite Conny’s best endeavours, people suspect the nature of the relationship, and she is increasingly distanced from the social circles in which she and William move. She also suspects from William’s behaviour to Dougie that he, William, is also aware of the relationship. When William kills himself in Parliament, Conny’s brother immediately sends her away to England, hiding her from the shame but also tacitly admitting to the affair between her and Dougie.

It is a story as old as time, or at least as old as Phaedra, Hippolytus and King Theseus. The outcomes here are different: the old king dies, not the lovers. In lesser hands, the combination of the older, powerful husband cuckolded by his son with his younger, prettier wife could be a melodrama. Marshall’s are not, of course, lesser hands, and he eschews the sensational to focus on the personal –what was it like for Conny and Dougie to be in this relationship which caused such pain to all three involved and set tongues wagging in colonial New Zealand?

His device is to tell the story alternately from Conny’s and Dougie’s perspective. Often the same events are seen from the two points of view. What we don’t know of course – and that could be the subject of another story – is what Larnach himself felt about the relationship taking place in his own house, indeed in his own bed.

Dougie’s side of the story is more convincingly told than Conny’s. This is not surprising given Marshall’s strength in writing from the perspective of men, old and young. Dougie is in many ways an archetypal Marshall character: a bit of a lad, often up to no good, fun-loving, slightly irresponsible, and quick to excuse his misdemeanours as being of little consequence.  While Dougie appreciates that Conny is a superior woman to those with whom he has had relationships before, he is not her intellectual equal. He reads little, and on his own admission “music was never vital to me” until he fell in love with Conny. Through his relationship with her he realises the shallowness of his previous sexual encounters: “What a relief it is to be with Conny – in conversation, in lovemaking, in companionable silence.” She moves him towards a mature adulthood.

The advantage for Conny in the relationship is presented as being mainly a sexual awakening: “the supreme experience between man and woman … I never knew such physical height of pleasure existed … I believe my real life began there.” While she offers Dougie a wider emotional and intellectual world, the rewards for her are more one-dimensional. Because of this, her portrayal as a character is less convincing. The quotation above is evidence of the difficulty Marshall has in capturing her voice: if it reminds me of anything it is the purple prose of Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop or popular romantic fiction.

It is a challenge to write the voice of a liberated 19th-century woman; even the letters from that era do not really tell us how those women would have thought about their sex lives. The other difficulty is that Marshall does not convince the reader that Conny is a particularly likeable person. Early in the novel, Dougie says, “I’ve become aware of Conny’s considerable estimation of herself, and a certain sharpness, even asperity, in her observations concerning other folks.” His view of her changes, of course (“Any man would fall in love with Conny”), and he proceeds to list her many virtues. His altered perspective is not matched by a growing reader sympathy for Conny. She remains that rather judgemental, slightly self-righteous person she was at the beginning of the novel. And the reason for this lies mainly in the fact that her parts of the story are not told sympathetically enough for us to be persuaded that she is actually as nice as Dougie says she is.

However, the problem of Conny’s voice does not detract from the fact that we are once more in the comforting presence of a masterly storyteller. This is a story that deserves to be resurrected from the sidelines of history.


Heather Roberts teaches New Zealand literature to international students at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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