Ineludible envanishings Jane Stafford

Blanche Baughan: Selected Writings
Damian Love (ed)
Erewhon Press, $30,00
ISBN 9780473309435

It is hard work establishing and maintaining a local canon when authors vanish and books slide in and out of print. Moreover, by definition, a canon stretches over time and thus contains work that might be now unfashionable, based on a literary culture which seems odd and wordy and compromised. This is what has happened to the works of the late-19th-century writers of Māoriland. Once celebrated, quoted, excerpted for school readers, and referenced in public debate, they now languish in rare book collections or appear fitfully in digital archives. It is thus to be celebrated that newcomer Erewhon Press has issued this selection from one of Māoriland’s most interesting writers, Blanche Baughan, and done so in such an attractive, well-designed format.

Baughan was an Englishwoman who visited New Zealand as part of a world tour. (Unlike Robin Hyde, one assumes that her career was not constrained by financial exigencies or indeed the need to work.) She returned in 1902 to settle – in Hawke’s Bay and then on Banks Peninsula. She had published a small book of poems before she left England and wrote travel accounts of her world tour which were published in the colonial press. In New Zealand, she wrote sketches, poems, and stories which appeared in newspapers and, in 1908 and 1912, published two collections, Shingle-short and Other Verses and Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven, Being Sketches of Up-country Life in New Zealand. And then, apart from a small collection in 1923, Poems from the Port Hills, she stopped publishing poetry and fiction. Perhaps she didn’t stop writing – there is a typescript manuscript of a novel, Two New Zealand Roses, in the Alexander Turnbull Library. From internal evidence, this was still being worked on during the 1940s, but the novel’s preoccupation with turn of the century causes – suffrage, women’s rights, education, marriage, and the desirability of women living with each other rather than with men –  suggests a long gestation. The novel was never published, and Baughan left the sole copy to her friend Berta Burns (whose alter-ego was Zara the Egyptian spirit guide), saying: “Remember, ashes are very good for the garden!”

Baughan also published a book on prisons – she was the founder of the New Zealand branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform – and cultivated a group of like-minded friends who gathered round her cottage in Akaroa which was named the Ashram. Early in her time on Banks Peninsula, she had had a mystical experience and, for the rest of her life, was interested in alternative spiritualties, especially Vedanta, a form of Hinduism fashionable in the West at the turn of the 20th century. But Baughan’s is a truncated career – the story that she stopped writing after an illness seems a romantic projection; it is more probable that the mid-century New Zealand literary scene (she died in 1958) had no place for her.

New Zealand literary history is littered with many such careers, at the mercy of the fragile structures of publishing, hobbled by the expatriate urge which measured success by English rather than local recognition, aware of fitful audiences as likely to source their literature from London rather than Christchurch and, in Baughan’s case, subject to a decline in women’s writing after WWI. Many Māoriland authors were women, a fact not lost on the sharp young male critics and anthologists of the 1930s and 40s who condemned such writers as hopelessly Victorian and out of date – and failed to notice or acknowledge just how closely their own nationalist preoccupations had been anticipated by the previous generation, in such tropes as landscape alteration and settler despair. Curnow’s land of settlers with “never a soul at home” had already been the subject of many, many Māoriland authors, including Baughan, whose poem “A Bush Section” presents New Zealand, after the bush had been cleared, as a place of stasis: “made, unmade, and scarcely as yet in the making”.

Can Baughan be read now on her own terms – as a late-Victorian/Edwardian, as a spokeswoman for the progressive politics of the late-colonial world, as a proto-modernist (she read and was influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman)? The evidence of this selection suggests that her work is still lively, topical, and engaging. Damian Love has divided his volume into sections according to genre. There is a good representation of poetry from Shingle-short, including that significant “A Bush Section”. I was pleased to see also an excerpt from “The Paddock” – necessarily an excerpt as the poem is 70 pages long, excessive length being a feature of colonial poetry as yet not fully examined. “The Paddock” should be better known. Described variously as an oratorio or cantata, it is a dramatic suite of voices – from the natural world, from the human world of settlement and the present, and from the world before settlement, as the old Māori woman Hine points to a lost and despoiled past.

In addition to the poetry, this volume offers a good choice of stories taken from Baughan’s collection Brown Bread, whose organising principle was the fast-vanishing pioneer world of the first generation of Pākehā settlement. “Pipi on the Prowl”, which tells of an elderly trickster who has escaped the control of her disapproving family and spends a day foraging, has been anthologised several times in recent years, but with good reason given its array of not very comfortable colonial stances. And I was particularly pleased to see the story “Aboard a Coastal Steamer”. More a travel diary than a work of fiction, this is an account of a trip around the East Cape, full of sharply observed detail and reflection, a snapshot of a young place with an inchoate sense of itself, its past, and its various possible futures.

These stories are characterised by their fresh narrative voice and engaging detail. That directness of voice is also evident in the excerpts from People in Prisons where Baughan’s sympathies for the individual prisoners – Rod, Cherry, Clarence, and Apple – are evident, as is her disapproval of the systems, both inside the prison and society-wide, albeit accompanied by a slight whiff of eugenics.

Baughan’s travel writing has not aged so well, although it was highly respected at the time. Her essay “The Finest Walk in the World” was a notable success – first published in the London Spectator in 1908 and frequently republished in local newspapers and collections. It is an account of walking the Milford Track. (Before the Homer Tunnel, walkers turned round and headed back when they reached the Sound, rather than collapsing in the Milford Lodge and catching the bus as they do now.) It was written as a tourist promotion for the developing market – the phrase “the finest walk” is still used in Milford tourist publicity, though not often attributed to Baughan. But the prose style of the essay is taxing to the modern reader:

the escaping current hurls itself straight down the sheer grey mountain-wall, a long, slender, ever-recurring meteor of eager white, received amid the spray-glittering forest into an enchanted pool – never quite seen, always mysterious behind its veering veils, elusive, ineludible, of fugitive rainbows, and whirling, envanishing diamonds …

Certainly the scenery of the Milford Track is spectacular. But when I walked it recently, taking Baughan’s essay as bedtime reading for myself and my companions, I found my audience wilting under the avalanche of adjectives. The ineludible and the envanishing are hard to deal with while you are attending to your blisters, however spectacular your memories of the day’s walk might be.

Jane Stafford is the co-editor of the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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