Monday, May 7, 2012

Something New

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

“THE OPEN WORLD” by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage/Random House, $NZ 37:99)

A little under halfway through Stephanie Johnson’s latest novel The Open World, the main character Elizabeth Smith declares:

If anyone would ask me the dimensions of my faith, I would say the truest aspect of God is that He shares His gender with the inhabitants of the open world, and His affections run hot and cold. Sometimes He is with me, more often not, and there is little recourse but to love Him at either distance….” (pg.137)

I’m not quite sure what this statement means, but the part about God sharing His gender seems to be a kind of sexually-aware version of the idea that God is love. God, it implies, is also involved in sexual love. And as the novelist has chosen the phrase “the open world” for her title, it’s obviously a passage on which we’re meant to focus. Here is a conjunction of religion and sex. The “open” world is presumably the opposite of a “closed” world in which things, including sexual matters, are kept hidden. The “open world” could also refer to the the wide world – the whole globe -  as opposed to the confines of one country like Britain. And in this novel characters do sometimes have a sense of wonder at the size of the world and the fact that they have reached the antipodes, so far from their little English home.

Elizabeth Smith (based, says  an author’s note, on Stephanie Johnson’s great-great-great grandmother) is a nineteenth century woman with a difficult and potentially scandalous sexual past. (The cover design – a woman wearing a bright scarlet crinoline – seems intended to suggest the phrase “scarlet woman”.) At the same time she does have a relationship with God and is attempting to live a life of respectability.

Widowed, and already in early middle age, she comes to New Zealand in the 1840s as companion and nurse to Mary Ann Martin, wife of  Judge Martin. On the three-month voyage from England, they travel with Bishop Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, and his shrewish and reproving wife Julia. Later Elizabeth has a hand in running the Native Hospital at Taurarua, which is now called Judge’s Bay (after Judge Martin) in Auckland. She also visits some Anglican mission stations further south.

This voyage, and Elizabeth’s first encounters and first years in New Zealand, are recalled in the first-person by Elizabeth herself, years later, when she is getting old and infirm and living in London in the 1860s. But alternate chapters, written in the third-person, recount her life in 1860s London. Here she catches up with old acquaintances, including Selwyn (now Bishop of Lichfield) and the eccentric clergyman William Cotton, a manic-depressive temporarily incarcerated in a madhouse, and called “Bee” by his friends because of his old hobby of bee-keeping. Elizabeth also meets people more intimately related to her, such as the daughter (by another woman) of a man who once impregnated her.

In both the 1840s sections and the 1860s sections there are hints at, suggestions of,  and probings into Elizabeth’s scandalous past, about which curious people sometimes ask her pointed questions. She herself, in her first-person confessional sections, can be evasive. Who was the father of her two boys? Was she marred twice or once? Was the first man who impregnated her a lover but not a husband? Did she also have an affair with a Maori in New Zealand? If there is a narrative thread to this character study, it is the slow answering of questions such as these.

It would be quite wrong of me to suggest the novel is sex-obsessed, but there is a fairly constant interest in sex. The early-twenty-first-century novelist does toss off phrases that would have offended the propriety of a Victorian novelist. But then that’s part of the point, isn’t it? We’re exposing the “worm in the bud” concealed beneath dark trousers and crinolines. We are interrogating colonial Victorian sexual mores.

So, as Elizabeth passes through Australia, she can’t help noticing a kangaroo at self-play: “At first I thought the narrow protusion was part of his marsupial pouch – but it was his organ, a tufted tumescence he palpitated enthusiastically with his paws.” (pg.94)

So she notices the timid virginity and the neurotic vapours of  sex-starved Mary Ann Martin, whose marriage was unconsummated at the time her husband the judge left for New Zealand.

So – above all – she makes sardonic comments about Bishop Selwyn and his wife. “I saw at a glance that for all his enthusiastic religion he [Bishop Selwyn] was a man who could not regard a woman in bed without a certain quickening of the pulse….” she says. And a few paragraphs later: “Hours later, while I plied a sleepless needle to the swaying lamp, out of the dark came the music of matrimonial faddling, Sarah emitting a series of high-pitched mews, while the young Bishop performed a froglike bass.” (pgs. 48-49)

Elizabeth’s “unconventionality” – at least in terms of respectable Victorian society – is also signalled by the occasional use she makes of alcohol and drug concoctions. For this she is at one point rebuked by Bishop Selwyn, when a ship-board party at which she presides becomes too wild and lusty.

There are other historical matters in which both novelist and sometime narrator are willing to make judgments. One of them is the class thing, with a patronising Bishop Selwyn sometimes attempting to put Elizabeth in her place and remind her she is of the lower orders. Elizabeth strongly suggests that such class business are things of which New Zealand should gradually rid itself. One thing she deplores when she returns to England is the rigidity of the English class system, so different from what is developing in the colony. There are side issues about religious controversies and types of Anglicanism (Selwyn’s High Church finery contrasted with blunter Evangelicals). And, thinking of the New Zealand Wars going on in the 1860s, old Elizabeth passes another negative judgment on the bishop: “For many years Selwyn was openly critical of the vast tracts of land tricked out of the Maori people by the missionaries and the hordes that followed them…. but in the end he sided with his own. So much of what was happening was his fault.” (pg. 105)

Almost inevitably, there is also an expression of that sense of colonial cultural dislocation. Says Elizabeth: “It is part of life in New Zealand to feel justly at home – of good use and well regarded – and wrongly in residence all at the same time; on so many levels it makes the head and the heart ache. Europeans – they call us Pakeha, or Tuaiwi, which means stranger – must not allow the dichotomy to overwhelm them.. Otherwise… what? We must all board the ships and sail away to whence we came?” (pg.122).

How do I judge this as an historical novel? I am happy to note that Stephanie Johnson only very occasionally indulges in the type of easy retrospective irony that bedevils less subtle historical novels. One conversation includes the following:

‘New Zealand was never like that, Miss Tripp. You are confusing us with Australia,’ says the Bishop.
‘I do believe it will be an eternal confusion.’ [says the Bishop’s wife]  ‘It will become part of our nation’s character to be forever distinguishing itself from the neighbour’ ” (pgs. 194-95).

Mercifully, there’s not too much of that sort of thing.

Johnson also creates dialogue (and interior monologue) that at least sounds plausibly Victorian, with only the very rare slip-up. ( Of things that appear in this novel, I doubt if Victorians would ever have used the terms “judgmental” or “mind-altering”; and they certainly would not have said “My feelings are conflicted.”)

This is, in short, the work of an intelligent and sometimes witty author who is trying to feel her way into another age.

Yet, with the deepest of regret, I found The Open World clogged and confused. It is not merely a matter of the unnecessary alternate narrative voices (and a few others besides), but of the novel’s lengthy denouement, where we appear to linger with the old woman in London long after her situation has been made clear to us and the dark corners of her life have all been illuminated. I have the abiding sense of a big build-up to a feeble outcome. Perhaps a politer way to put this would be to say that I savoured this novel more for its individual episodes than for its overall structure. For all the novel’s incidental interests, Elizabeth Smith’s past is simply not a strong enough narrative thread upon which to hang a coherent story. The details of period time place and society are interesting, but this painting has no central focus.

Given that she was (loosely) basing it on an ancestor, was Stephanie Johnson in fact constrained by the historical record and unable to somehow open it out?

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