Monday, May 7, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


This is a very brief note on something I have found very intriguing in New Zealand literature in the last twenty or so years.

Have you noticed how many New Zealand novelists now choose to write historical novels based on their own forebears?

There is absolutely nothing new in novelists basing characters on their parents. Wilkins Micawber is a version of Charles Dickens’ feckless father and Adam Bede is a version of George Eliot’s earnest and hard-working father. You would empty out libraries if you removed all the novels in which novelists have presented fictitious versions of their relatives.

But in New Zealand this source of inspiration has become one of the most common. And most often it seems to be a way of recreating, or finding one’s way into, a New Zealand that has now vanished.

Elizabeth Knox’s (1996) novel Glamour and the Sea presents a fictionalised version of her father Ray Knox’s experiences in the 1940s. The novel is dedicated to her father and has, for good measure, a photograph of her father, as a young man, on the cover.

When an omnibus edition reprinting of Maurice Gee’s Plumb Trilogy came out in 1995, the front cover bore a photo of the novelist’s grandfather the Rev.James Chapple, upon whom the main character was so clearly based. The Plumb novels covered religious and social changes and controversies in New Zealand in the first half of the twentieth century.

Delving into more distant history, C.K.Stead’s The Singing Whakapapa (1994 – the one with the title that infuriated many) recreated the life of the author’s great-great-great grandfather, while also involving the author’s parents (who were given fictitous names). Among much else, it considered Pakeha encounter with Maori in the 1830s and 1840s.

So I could continue my list, up to Paula Morris’s Rangatira (2011 – dealing with her great-great-great-grandfather, the Maori chief Paratene Te Manu); and Stephanie Johnson’s The Open World (2012 – dealing with her great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Smith, a Pakeha servant and nurse in colonial New Zealand). Both these novels have a structure which contrasts scenes set in England with scenes set in New Zealand.

In all cases these novels are novels, and not history books; and in all cases the novelists have taken liberties with whatever the known facts about their forebears’ lives may be. But it seems clear that in each case surviving records and family mythology have stimulated a novelist to look at an ancestor as a way of considering how attitudes and social mores were once very different; how much New Zealand has changed; how much the past is indeed another country; and yet how much persists.

An ancestor becomes the core sampling of the past.

Are there as many “ancestor novels” in other post-colonial societies?  I don’t know. I do wonder, however, whether New Zealand has the advantage (for novelists) of having been colonised in the nineteenth century, when literacy was high among Europeans (and was soon high among Maori) and therefore when many settler diaries, letters and memoirs were created upon which modern authors can feed. Add newspapers of the time, and we have a broad contemporary record of our colonial past. It becomes possible to find minute and specific information that often contradicts the “official” version of colonial New Zealand and received schoolbook versions.

Given this, the way is opened for that fruitful irony which modern novelists love. The past can be used to criticise the past. And this, I think, is the chief inspiration of New Zealand’s growing crop of ancestor novels.

1 comment:

  1. If I had the time to write a novel, I would probably look to my Irish great grandparents and their parents who arrived in New Zealand for inspiration. But, of course, the idea is not that original.