Monday, February 13, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE HUNGRY HEART – Journeys with William Colenso” by Peter Wells (Vintage Press/ Random House, $49:99)

To the point of being irritated by it, you now know one of my favourite mottos. If a book is really worthwhile then it is worth arguing with. Only worthless books don’t deserve serious criticism.

Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart – Journeys with William Colenso is more than worthwhile. It is outstandingly good. Vivid, stylish and quizzical, it is the product of much research and much personal engagement by the author. It brings to life a figure who was for a long time in danger of being forgotten. It puts its finger on the pulse of many things that have shaped New Zealand. It reflects on many things in our nineteenth century history that some might prefer to forget.

Because it’s so good, I’m going to take issue with it, but before I do so, allow me to say what it’s all about.

This book is judiciously titled and subtitled. It is Journeys with William Colenso. It does not claim to be a comprehensive biography of William Colenso, marching from forebears to birth to achievements to public life to private life to death and reputation, all in chronological order and copiously footnoted. No. This is the type of “biography” that has sometimes carelessly been labelled postmodern. Peter Wells himself looms as large in the book as William Colenso does. Whole chapters are given to Wells’ personal experiences of places associated with Colenso. Wells goes to Paihia, to Waimate North, to Waitangi near Napier, taking photographs [reproduced with the text], reflecting on tourists and on heritage site-markers and generally pushing himself into the foreground. He tells us of his encounters with archivists, with descendants of Colenso, with possible descendants of Colenso and so forth. Much of the text is arranged as reflections on specific aspects of Colenso’s life rather than proceeding chronologically. In effect, this is a book about the author’s consciousness of William Colenso as much as it is a book about William Colenso. It is a book which overtly traces the stages of the author’s research and the impact they had on him.

It is also (and this should be stated up front) an excellent piece of book production. 400-plus pages of text exist in a sturdy hardback, fully illustrated with archival photos of people and places and texts, as well as with Wells’ own tourist shots of the places he visited.

What attracted Peter Wells to William Colenso, apart from Wells’ own Napier connections and his awareness of Colenso as someone in the historical background of his hometown?

Colenso, Anglican missionary, printer, explorer, collector, polymath and indefatigable writer of letters to the press, is clearly seen by Wells as a maverick and a misfit, a man who couldn’t help being an outsider. As Wells says [p.163] “He was not politic nor was he an assiduous networker. He was, by nature, heretical and challenging. He seemed to delight in – or be oblivious about – rubbing people up the wrong way. If anything his awkwardness only confirmed the uniqueness and verity of his beliefs – to himself.” 

Wells approves of some of these qualities, and finds evidence that Colenso’s maverick tendencies sometimes gave him greater insight than his contemporaries possessed. Colenso was the man who, having helped to prepare the Treaty of Waitangi and print it up, nevertheless had the wit to question whether the Maori chiefs really understood what they were doing in signing it. Over twenty years later, Colenso was the man who knew that land was being grabbed unjustly from Hawke’s Bay and Central North Island Maori, and who offended settler attitudes by publicly expressing his views. He also wrote a pamphlet in defence of the captured warrior Kereopa when the local Pakeha community bayed (successfully) for Kereopa’s blood.

Wells perceives Colenso as a man on the receiving end of the class system. Of humble Cornish background, the printer was regarded as a mere “mechanical” and snubbed by the Oxbridge-educated circle of Bishop Selwyn. Hence Colenso’s ordination was delayed and his initial ambitions to be a missionary were thwarted. There are some awkward passages where Wells is obliged to show how, in later years, Colenso himself sometimes took the side of settlers in approving of land-grabbing war on Hawke’s Bay Maori, and also became a prosperous bourgeois, chumming up with arch-land-grabber Donald McLean and living on a comfy estate overlooking the growing town of Napier, between the swamp and the sea.

For all that, Wells is predisposed to see much good in Colenso as an intellectual outsider and a victim of snobbery.

However, having noted this, Wells’ main interest in Colenso is sexual and psychological. The book’s main title, The Hungry Heart (presumably with a nod to the Bruce Springsteen song) signals this fact. The title is elucidated on p.376 where Colenso in old age in old age is described as  Alone, without a family, without a partner of any sort, this intellectual dynamo was yet an ordinary human being – a man with a hungry heart.

The centrepiece of the book, its heart and soul, is the painful story of the collapse of Colenso’s marriage, which caused scandal, made him a pariah and had him thrust out of the Anglican church for some years. Briefly, Colenso was married to the strong-willed Elizabeth Fairburn, who shared his hardships in moving to a mission-station in frontier territory, who had to give birth in particularly painful circumstances, and who then discovered that, during their marriage, her husband had a long affair with the Maori “servant” Ripeka Meretene and fathered a bastard son, Wiremu.

Peter Wells becomes deeply engaged in this domestic and sexual situation. He gives us probably as much intimate detail as there is to give. He does not whitewash Colenso, understanding both the nature of his betrayal of Elizabeth and how limited Elizabeth’s options were. He quotes in full the letter which Elizabeth wrote after the rupture, at last pouring out her magisterial scorn on the man who had promised to love her. Wells also gives us his own poem about Elizabeth. Like the book as a whole, this is as much imaginative and intuitive reconstruction as it is verifiable history.

But (and here my criticisms begin to kick in) there are some real difficulties with this book. I think Peter Wells is right on the money when he associates evangelical Protestantism with the Romantic movement, and connects the evangelicals’ sense of salvation and damnation with their emotional highs and lows. Yet – I infer – Wells is not particularly sympathetic to the whole Christian missionary enterprise anyway and the book has more than a few belittling shafts designed to suggest that missionaries as a whole were deluded or were wasting their time. This can’t help but put him out of synch with some of Colenso’s main concerns.

Because of Wells’ selectivity (openly admitted by him) some major aspects of Colenso’s life are underplayed. I am no Colenso expert, but I do know that exploration was one of his main claims to fame, and the only other book about Colenso I’ve read (Bagnell and Petersen’s 1948 biography) lays much stress on Colenso as explorer. Of this specific aspect of Colenso’s life, Peter Wells gives us one page, with the suggestion that Colenso was the spiritual father of all Pakeha trampers. He then adds a poem of his own devising. True, we do later get much detail on the botanical specimens Colenso collected and kept, and the Kew Garden botanists with whom he corresponded, but clearly exploration per se doesn’t interest Wells.

More troubling to historians, there’s the matter of evidence and inference. Often, when he draws conclusions about Colenso’s (and Elizabeth’s) intimate life, Wells admits that he is speculating. I think some of the inferences he draws are reasonable ones and there are some (such as the suggestion that Elizabeth might have been incestuously mishandled by her father) which he raises only to bat away fairly promptly. But there are pieces of historical re-construction where he blurs the distinction between speculation and proof, and proceeds to write as if he has proven something which he has only inferred, or guessed.

Colenso’s missionary station burned down. Wells finds a very, very vague and inconclusive suggestion that it might have been deliberately torched by people who disliked Colenso. He proceeds to assume this vague suggestion is a proven fact and analyse it as such.

In the course of his researches, an old auctioneer tells Wells that there might once have existed a diary showing that Colenso had sexual relations with Maori boys. Wells admits that he has found no trace of any such diary (if it ever existed) and also admits that the auctioneer’s rumour greatly surprises him. All the real evidence that he has suggests that, if anything, Colenso was a hyper-active heterosexual, not only fathering one illegitimate child but possibly fathering many others as well (Wells meets many Maori who claim to be Colenso’s descendants, and often calls Colenso “randy”). But Wells cannot let the auctioneer’s story drop. As he reminds us a number of times, he himself is known as a “gay writer”, much as he finds that term a bit of a burden. He has something invested emotionally in the idea that Colenso might have been homosexual, so he devotes a whole chapter to chewing it over, even though he has no evidence.

Then there’s what I can only call the camp element to the book – the moments where Wells teases readers with unsubtle puns or tries bits of naughty-boy shock.

On p.92, speaking of early Anglican missionaries, he says  The vast families both Williams brothers sired can be put down to a religious desire to ‘people the earth’. Another view is that the two men enjoyed fucking and, in the absence of reliable prophylactics, the women had to accept an endless roundelay of pregnancies”. I assume “another view” here means Wells’ view.

On p.311, when two men are discussing how large Colenso’s property is, Wells tells us that this illustrates “the quintessential male problem – how to talk about size.” (Tee-hee, snigger snigger). On the following page, he sums up Colenso’s views as being that Bishop Williams “in brief, was a shit and a liar.”

We also have rather dodgy generalizations. On p.254, as he discusses why Elizabeth stayed with William for so long, he remarks “There is an erotic element of enslavement and mastery in most relationships”. Gosh, is there really?

Perhaps part of what I am saying is that Wells often superimposes modern assumptions, and his own particular interests, on people of the 19th century. Yet I’m not criticising him for this, as I would if this were an historical novel and he were attributing such attitudes to his historical characters. Wells is openly speculating and openly allowing his own character to be one of the main features of the book.

In the end, The Hungry Heart has to be read as a personal encounter as much as a biography of Colenso. I could end lamely by saying that it is only part of the story of William Colenso. But then we should know that all biographies are partial and incomplete.


  1. Just a small and insignificant note: I actually agree with Wells when he states there is an erotic element of enslavement etc. in most relationships, but only sexually active relationships and it would take a whole other essay/thesis to argue this point properly from an Anthropological point of view. So yes, I suppose it was sneaky of him to put it in there as a gross generalisation.

  2. Absolutely loved this book, read it , re read it and dived back into a biography on his South African cousin Bishop John Colenso, . Nothing like putting a jik saw puzzle together. It was obviously in the blood...that is... to doubt! ....to question! The higher the odds the more the determination.

    'The Heretic' by South African historian , Jeff Guy tells the bishops story. Wells mentions some correspondence between them. They were both connected to Darwin, Hooker and perhaps other people of equal importance and this all before e mail....

    I would describe Wells's book as 'a juicy read'. I'm starting to understand New Zealand's colonial history.