Monday, June 25, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ROTOROA” by Amy Head (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
Five years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Amy Head’s first book, the collection of short stories Tough. I praised it for its “solid representation of place” but also for its awareness of history and the author’s sincere attempt to get the “feel” of a past age. The stories in Tough were all set on New Zealand’s West Coast, some in the present, some in the nineteenth century, and some linking the two distinct eras. Amy Head was clearly a writer who took the trouble to research the times she wrote about, especially when it came to matters of physical detail.
These same virtues are present in Amy Head’s second book, the novel Rotoroa, which takes its title from the island in the Hauraki Gulf where, from
1911 to 2005, the Salvation Army ran a detoxification and rehabilitation centre for alcoholic men. (For some of that time there was a similar centre for women on the nearby island of Pakatoa). The setting is the late 1950s and Amy Head is as interested in the time as in the place. To a great extent, her three main characters, who do not really met each other until we are nearly halfway through the novel, represent three different responses to that era.
Most complex of the three – or at least the one whom the author depicts in most detail – is the teenager Lorna Vardy, only child of parents who live in Takapuna before that suburb became more exclusively for the very wealthy. (In the background of the story, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is still being built, so for practical purposes, Takapuna was then far from central Auckland). Lorna’s parents are impressed by the politeness and good grooming of two young American Mormon missionaries who come knocking on their door. They convert to the Mormon faith. But one of the young men gets 15-year-old Lorna pregnant before scarpering off back to the USA. Lorna suffers the common fate of a pregnant teenager at that time. While her parents discreetly move house (to then-semi-rural Albany) to avoid potential scandal, Lorna goes to give birth at a home for unmarried mothers, where we get such sad details as:
“The girls had each been given a ring binder to file homecraft lessons in – patterns and recipes, diagrams of nappy folding and hygiene guidelines – even if most of them didn’t need to know how to raise a baby yet because they wouldn’t be raising theirs.” (p.50)
Of course Lorna is pressured to adopt her baby out, with unexpected results which Amy Head prepares carefully and which I will therefore not reveal here. Lorna is aware that she hasn’t lived up to society’s expectations and she has a hard time framing answers to prying questions which older people ask. As she thinks at one point: “It was easy to fail at the normality tests.” (p.75) She has her soulful and questing side – perhaps the idealism of her youth – and when people from the Salvation Army show her some kindness, she decides that they offer her the purpose she needs in life. She joins up. All of which, in due course, leads her to a period working on Rotoroa island and to a relationship with a rather colourless Salvation Army man.
Given almost as much space as young Lorna is the novel’s second major character, very different from Lorna in part because she is a real person. This is the journalist and travel writer Elsie K. Morton – known throughout the novel by her real first name, Katherine – who was a regular feature writer in the New Zealand Herald and other publications. Morton was a conservative, religious person, as fond of quoting scripture as were the Salvation Army people whom she visits on Rotoroa. It was Katherine’s practice every year to produce a feature article on the excellent work the Sallies were doing in drawing alcoholic men back from self-destruction. Morton is mainly depicted positively, but often she sounds unwittingly patronising. Her genteel manners do not quite mesh with the desperate men whom she meets.
Clearly Morton (who was nearing 70 at the time the novel is set) and the teenager Lorna represent two different generations of women. Morton is a stickler for well-defined righteousness and theological exactitude. For example, she mentally takes issue with one of the “steps” which Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its clients to follow, because it is not orthodox enough. At the same time, she is compassionate enough to intuit that isolating damaged men on an island is not necessarily the best way to cure them:
“Katherine had found herself objecting to the third step, which called on members to turn themselves over to God as they understood him. She felt they were being encouraged to create God in their own image. It all tired and saddened her, was the truth of it, the compromises people were called on to make. There was always the strain of making do, and it would be foolish to think the patients didn’t feel every shortcut as evidence of their insignificance. They needed to be connected to the outside world. They ought to be able to receive visitors.” (p.147)
By contrast young Lorna is beginning to hear a different music in the times and to relate to a different set of values. She feels a kick seeing a short of Bill Haley singing “Rock Around the Clock”. She finds herself dancing to “Blue Suede Shoes” at the Olde Pirate Shippe on Takapuna Beach. This is different from her parents’ music:
“ ‘One, two, three o’clock…’ She sang quietly to herself while squeezing the toothpaste on. The Thursday night hit parade. The rich pause and crackle of dust when the needle was placed on a record. Get ready, it said. Something was about to start. The crooners were kissing at the start of their songs and married at the end. ‘Will we have rainbows?’ Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera Sera.’ No one got married in rock and roll. Side-tap, side-tap, back-forward. Dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe’s ‘Big Beat Ball’ with her door closed. Stopping for Elvis Presley’s voice, sobby and unwholesome, in ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.” (p.84)
As for the novel’s third main character, it would be unfair to call him a cipher, but he is not given as much space as either Lorna or Katherine. This is the rock-bottom alcoholic Jim Brooks, who has apparently made life hell for his wife and three kids as he drinks himself silly, goes from job to job, and ends up on Rotoroa. Jim is more clearly a “case” than a character, but Amy Head is not dismissive of him, even if his natural habitat is the feckless, boozing, macho culture of the pub. From early on, you sense the essential loneliness of this man, with his inability to relate properly to others and with his mind gradually stripped down by the drink, as he tries to sleep on Rotoroa:
“He might be the only one awake on the island. Just this burrow of light he had carved out, and then nothing until Waiheke: corridors vacant, lumps in beds, chapel pews empty, snuffles and bumps in the barns. Only mice a possums, rats and cats scuttling crabs still active, and him.” (p.44)
I have seen one thumbnail “review” of this novel which says that it depicts “the 1950s, as rigid social codes in New Zealand are beginning to evolve and come unstuck.” This is true up to a point. In putting together the old-time boozing joker, the rather prim, well-meaning older lady and the teenager who feels hemmed in by society’s expectations, Amy Head is indeed making comment on New Zealand as it was 60-odd years ago. But her views are not as glib as this thumbnail “review” might suggest. Every age is in the process of turning into another, and Head nowhere encourages us to think that Lorna’s yearnings will necessarily be satisfied by the mores of the approaching 1960s. On top of this, and without revealing the mechanics of the plot, by novel’s end the older, conservative woman has come to understand an aspect of alcoholism that she had never previously considered, and has revised her values in a more humane direction. This is not presented to us in the form of a crude sermon or a too-obvious epiphany, but gradually and as credibly as such things can happen in life. We are not left to think that only the young turn in the direction of change for the better.
As in Amy Head’s first book, physical detail indicative of period is precise and well-observed (I enjoyed the quick reference to recovered alcoholic James K. Baxter reading Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”) and Rotoroa has been thought through carefully.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MY LIVES” by Francis Meynell (first published in 1971)
It is rare to read a book whose author clearly, egregiously and unwittingly reveals himself to be a completely insensitive ass. I am about to introduce you to a book which you will never read, written by someone of no particular interest to you. Years ago, in the days when I used to trawl second-hand bookshops, I would sometimes look out for books that might be of interest to my old friend and neighbour (now long dead) the craft printer Ronald Holloway. The name Meynell on the cover of one such book drew my attention, as I associated the name with printing. So after I had scanned the blurb, I bought the book with the intention of handing it on to Ron – which I eventually did.
But first I read it myself.
In some places I had to restrain my incredulous laughter. In others I gasped at the self-satisfied pomposity of the author.
Let me orient you to the book.
My Lives is an autobiography written by an octogenarian. Francis Meynell was born in 1891, the youngest child of the Catholic poets and publishers Wilfred and Alice Meynell. Viola Meynell, the short-story writer and poet, was among his older siblings. Francis Meynell himself rapidly became an agnostic. He was three times married and twice divorced. His second wife, Vera, killed herself a few years after their separation. He stayed with his third wife, “Bay” (Alix Kilroy), for the last 40 or so years of his life. His big achievement (I might almost say his only achievement) was founding the Nonesuch Press in the early 1920s – a press devoted to producing upmarket editions of out-of-the-way English classics. (A sound – if somewhat battered – Nonesuch edition of John Donne sits on my shelves.) Francis Meynell also had some fame, in specialist circles, as a typographer and designer.
In the 1930s he left the floundering Nonesuch Press and proceeded to have what I would regard as a very standard and unsurprising career for one of his privileged background and family connections. He was a film publicist in the 1930s. He worked for government departments concerned with rationing and consumer advice during the war. He was involved in a concrete and cement company in the 1940s and 1950s and he again dabbled in publishing when somebody revived the Nonesuch Press. He tells us of all his changes of address, all the boards he served on, all the design advice he tendered to His or Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, the clubs he belonged to and his third wife’s distinguished career in the civil service. He was knighted. She was damed.
In and of itself, this life story is bland and uninteresting. Meynell claims he chose the title My Lives because he had held so many and such varied positions and hence lived many different “lives”. But there is no sense of the inner, and extremely self-satisfied, core of the man having ever changed; or of experience ever teaching him to modify his views.
At a certain point, I began to read My Lives as an exercise in diagnosing the pathologies of autobiography.
First, there are the standard woes of so many autobiographies.
As so often in autobiography, the story beconmes duller and duller as childhood and youth are put behind. Why is this? Possibly because, as public life takes over, the autobiographer feels constrained to “do justice” to all people known, to colleagues, personalities and work. As a result, the person disappears. In this case the story becomes a graceless succession of anecdotes told in the office or at dinner parties. Distinguished names are dropped but I suggest that so often the autobiographer would have been the least interesting person in any gathering of “names”. This is autobiography-as-memorandum. Nearly everybody mentioned is mentioned favourably (except for the dead) so that, presumably, they will think the autobiographer is an awfully decent fellow. Worse, as he gets old the autobiographer “reluctantly” quotes wonderful testimonials to his work by other people – tributes which he is, of course, shy to give us but which he gives anyway. Yes, Meynell is right in his concluding pages when he says that all autobiography is a form of boasting. But his form of boasting is transparent, kittenish and embarrassing. Let a boast be an honest boast! Pretending to be a gentleman of modesty simply makes it worse.
Second, there is the very unlovely character of Francis Meynell himself, which he unwittingly lets us see so often.
Sure, there is the occasional gentlemanly witticism, as in: “In my long life I have never been the worse for liquor – and sometimes the better.” (p.60)
Yes, there are some familiar and famous anecdotes – which have been recorded by other writers – as in : “I often went with my sisters to more intimate dances, such as H.G.Wells gave in Church Row, Hampstead. There we had the fun of seeing Henry James surveying the scene from the sidelines – stout, formal and with his sentences prepared for the intervals but often cut short in mid-utterance by the resumption of the music. Once he stooped to restore a fan dropped by my sister Olivia. ‘An elephant striving to pick up a pea’, said H.G.” (p.69) [I wonder about the veracity of the punchline here, given that other writers have recorded H.G.Wells as saying that Henry James’ prose-style was like “a hippopotamus rolling a pea.”]
Yes, there is one very good childhood anecdote exposing class prejudices: “[My mother] was awakened by screams, a woman’s screams, which dwindled away down the street. She hastened to report this incident at the police station. And the reply? ‘No need to worry, lady; that wasn’t a woman, that was only a female’ (i.e. a prostitute).” (p.78)
There is plenty of evidence that Meynell was a callous and self-absorbed man.
Consider the moral worth of a man who, on the same page that he tells us his second wife committed suicide, tells us that he approved of her action because he is, after all, a member of the Euthanasia Society.
“It was and is my view that one has an absolute right to end one’s life when one wants to. (That is why I am a life member – or should it be a death member? – of the Euthanasia Society).” (p.286)
Of course, he claims, he remained awfully decent pals with his ex-wives, and of course he accepts no responsibility for the break-ups. There is one laughable passage in which he claims (p.206) that moving from one house to another had a bad effect on both his first and second marriages and tells us that “In the fashion of our time and neighbourhood and friends, we enjoyed plentifully what is now called the ‘permissive’ attitude towards extra-marital affairs.” But he fails to admit any connection between infidelity and the fragility of his marriages. As always in the autobiographies of the much-married, many intimate details are suppressed; but you can’t help noticing how he has to tell us that, between marriages, he was much loved. Why, one woman even wrote a poem to him…
Then there is his complete unawareness of his own snobbery and smugness. Continually, he asks us to admire his radicalism. From the comfort of England, he enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 – and of course he claims that the USSR would have developed splendidly if only the Western powers hadn’t intervened. He opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War – why, he and his wife even made up rude Christmas cards about Franco to send to their friends!! And wasn’t that McCarthyite period in America dreadful. Gosh! If he hadn’t got somebody at the embassy to pull strings for him, his visa might have been revoked!!! Of course he was a socialist, but when he was offered a knighthood for his bureaucratic services during the war, he couldn’t very well turn it down, could he? I mean, even nasty Winston Churchill the Home Secretary became wonderful Winston Churchill the nation’s saviour during the Second World War. And in the midst of this we have casual reference to servants and weekend homes and proof of how “democratic” Francis Meynell was. When he had to move out of London, he actually resigned from the more snobbish of the two London clubs to which he belonged!!!
“Am I a snob? Honestly, no – not since my childhood, despite an obvious enjoyment in name-dropping. And I have one piece of evidence to offer. When I retired to the country and the distance as well as the lessened income made my membership of two London clubs nonsensical, it was from the august and regnant Athenaeum, and not from the familiar Savile, that I chose to resign.” (p.248)
In all this, I smell the Clubland Rebel – safe and comfy and never sacrificing a thing while pretending to be a radical. Even more, I smell the Privileged Rebel. Meynell is at one with the loonier of the Mitfords and the loonier of the Redgraves – privileged twits whose main reason for adopting a radical pose is that they don’t like those smelly middle classes below them. So up the workers (whom they can romanticise but whom they never have to actually meet.)
I find one sentence in My Lives the epitome of this snobbish and callous man’s shallowness. He tells us that in the 1950s he helped to bring out a limited edition of the old Anglican Authorised Version of the Bible (the superseded 17th century translation that Americans took to calling the King James Bible). He remarks: “This was just before the invasion of the new chitter-chatter translations: we used of course the lovely Authorised Version, the literary value of which is for me so much more important than its theology.” (p.312)
Ah yes! Sweet euphonious literature – but let’s forget what it is saying or teaching. It might shake our complacency, after all.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
VOYAGE TO NEVER-NEVER LAND
It was a grey and wet Sunday afternoon in Auckland.
One of my sons was visiting from Wellington, and we had some hours to kill.
Diligently scanning the on-line listings, my son discovered that The Bookshop was screening at a cinema nearby.
“I’ve been given two free tickets for the film,” said my son. “It won’t cost us anything.”
So the two of us trotted along to see The Bookshop.
I said it was a Sunday afternoon, so there was only a handful of others in the theatre. All had grey hair and most were women.
“This is the demographic,” said my son, and proceeded to school me in the fact that, outside teen blockbusters and action movies, the great majority of films shown in cinemas are now aimed at oldsters, and especially older women. The same is, of course, true of most book festivals. Who but retirees have the time to go, in the middle of the week, and listen to authors selling their wares while pretending to discuss weighty literary matters? And older women tend to be more frequent readers of books than older men.
Actually, I already knew this and didn’t need to be schooled, but I didn’t mind the conversation.
From the publicity, we expected the film to be aimed at this audience, and indeed it was.
Plot: In the late 1950s Florence, a book-loving widow in, I suppose, her forties (played by Emily Mortimer, who is 46) decides to set up a bookshop in a picturesque English seaside village. But society in the village is dominated by a prize bitch, the local gentrywoman (played by Patricia Clarkson), who wants to set up an arts centre in the building where Florence has set up her bookshop. So the bitch connives and plots with her henchpeople to run Florence out of town and have her bookshop closed. Bill Nighy (whose career is built on appearing in this sort of movie) appears as a local eccentric book-lover, who takes Florence’s part but to little effect.
Set nearly 60 years ago, the film has the same cosy air as those TV adaptations of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Alleyn detective stories. I could easily enumerate its faults in terms of production and concept. Under Isabel Coixet’s direction, the pace is far too slow and lingering, as if she is trying to stretch out her meagre screenplay. Lots of static, moody shots of the grey sky and bare trees. There is the totally unbelievable character of the little girl, a fount of innocent wisdom, who becomes Florence’s assistant in the bookshop and who learns to love books to the point where, in a coda, we see her running a bookshop of her own. The story does not travel much distance, given that we are presented with neatly good and neatly bad characters from the get-go, and they never develop any nuance. I could even make some snarky remarks about Emily Mortimer’s limited performance – at least on this outing. (Both she and Patricia Clarkson give much better performances in Sally Potter’s raucous and hilarious black farce The Party).
More than anything, though, I would criticise the unreality of The Bookshop. It has briefs feints at being a movie for grown-ups. Florence chooses to stock the newly-published and controversial Lolita. “Gosh! How daring!”, some oldsters might think, ignoring the fact that Lolita has been freely available for all to read for over half-a-century. (And, paradoxically, having once been championed by liberal book-lovers, it is now as often damned by younger critics – especially women - for its uncomfortable theme of paedophilia.) And Bill Nighy’s eccentric may be seen reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit451, which is basically about the swamping of literacy by other media, but no intelligent discussion develops from this.
What we are stuck with, then, is the general idea that there is something morally superior about being a book-loving and bookshop-visiting person. Speaking as a book-lover and frequent visitor of second-hand bookshops, I would like to believe that I am morally superior, but I know this isn’t true. Running a bookshop is always a business before anything else; and even in the 1950s (but more so now) running a bookshop was always a very precarious business. My hunch is that, situated in such an isolated location with a very small local clientele, Florence’s bookshop would probably have folded anyway, without the melodramatic contrivances of a gentrywoman bitch.
I am irked by the Never-Never Land aspect of this film. Its England is an England that has long since vanished – picturesque little village, gentry, fishermen, eccentrics and of course not a brown face in sight. The type of England that would appeal to the readers of This England magazine, being somewhat akin to the BrexitFilms that I have considered on this blog. Please, please don’t tell me that it is based on a novel, by Penelope Fitzgerald, which was highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker way back in 1978. I already knew that, just as I knew that some of the events in the novel were based on the author’s life. But I am judging the film, not the novel – and its impact is an appeal to nostalgia and escapism.
At which point you ask “What’s wrong with that?” and I reply “Nothing at all… unless you are under the illusion that it is a truly adult drama.” I would add that doubtless it succeeds admirably with its intended audience of old ladies.
But as to that unreality…. My son and I are the sort of people who tend to sit through the final credits of a film as they scroll up, and we sat through the final credits of The Bookshop. We noted that nearly the whole technical crew (camera, editing, sets etc.) were Spanish and the film’s interiors were shot in Spain. Not surprisingly, the film won a prize at a Spanish film festival. We noted too that the exteriors – the picturesque seaside village – were shot in Northern Ireland. This England? Oh dear. You have to go offshore to find even its simulacrum now.
Monday, June 11, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE EXPATRIATE MYTH” by Helen Bones (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
In the second century AD, the usually-reasonable Roman emperor Hadrian banished the poet Juvenal from Rome because Juvenal had dared to write a lampoon of one of the emperor’s favourite actors. This was real exile. If Juvenal returned to Rome before his time of banishment was up, he could be put to death. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many writers have been exiles from totalitarian regimes – Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s etc. Their life or liberty would be in danger should they return to their home country. These people were real exiles. But what of those writers who leave their country of origin simply because they want to gain new experiences or advance their writing careers? Can they, in any meaningful sense, really be called exiles?
Okay, I know the term “exile” can be used metaphorically and I know Jimmy Joyce spoke of using “silence, exile and cunning” as stratagems when he wished to leave Ireland. Even so, I think the word has now been overused in this metaphorical sense, to the point where it has become almost meaningless. Would any New Zealand writer have faced death or jail had he or she remained in New Zealand? Nope. Therefore none were ever exiles in any real sense. This is why I bridled 14 years ago when the late James McNeish produced his typically myth-promoting volume Dance of the Peacocks, pretentiously subtitled “New Zealanders in exile at the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung”. Not one of the writers with whom McNeish dealt was genuinely in exile, and one or two (like Charles Brasch) returned easily to New Zealand when what amounted to their extended OE was over. Okay, there have been New Zealand writers like Katherine Mansfield, Dan Davin and James Courage who left New Zealand and never returned (apart from brief visits in one case). And there have been even more writers who have felt that New Zealand (or at least New Zealand some decades ago) was stifling, limited and isolated from the real centres of culture, and who yearned for the bigger picture. But my point about none of this being true exile still stands.
You may imagine my delight, therefore, when I first caught sight of Helen Bones’ The Expatriate Myth, written as her doctoral thesis and subtitled “New Zealand writers and the colonial world”. At last, I thought, someone will take down this New Zealand myth of “exile”. And indeed there are places in The Expatriate Myth where Bones does just that. Bones notes in her introduction:
“The term ‘expatriate’ is often commingled with the category of ‘exile’, a character or idea that occurs frequently within the field of literary criticism. Such criticism represents literary exiles as grappling with dislocation and loss, focusing on the creative inspiration or hindrance that this provides. A common assumption arising from the perceived necessity of expatriation is that expatriate writers were overseas against their will: they were compelled to leave their ‘home’ place, resulting in dislocation and exile.” (Introduction, p.14)
Much later, she suggests that many literary ‘exiles’ were poseurs, acting out a drama to make themselves seem more interesting:
“If the idea of a writer was automatically equated with the idea of exile… it is not too difficult to imagine that some people played up to this trope. There were those who chose to reject colonial ties and emphasise the cultural deprivation they had overcome. The idea of literary exile was a part of European modernism to the extent that it might have been seen as a desirable situation… The usual persona of an exile, however, involved conscious ‘self-fashioning’, and living out the life of a tortured artist, which was a fashionable pursuit in Europe.” She then instances the fashionable ‘lost generation’ of Americans in Paris after the First World War. (Chapter 5, p.110)
Most forcefully, she differentiates real exile from self-chosen expatriation, and shows how the term has become diluted:
“The term ‘exile’ originally meant ‘banishment to a foreign country’, often as a kind of punishment. It is commonly used much more broadly than this: according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s longer definition, it can mean ‘prolonged absence from one’s native country or a place regarded as home, endured by force of circumstances or voluntarily undergone… for some purpose’. The term gets even more diluted when applied to literary exiles, to refer to anyone writing from a marginalised perspective, rendering the term somewhat meaningless… Thus the writing industry of London was people heavily with ‘exiles’. Virtually everyone was marginalised – if not foreign, they were the wrong class or the wrong gender.” (Chapter 7, pp.148-149)
Yet, while it is clearly rejected, the myth of ‘exile’ is not Bones’ main focus. She is most concerned to counter what she sees as a falsehood that was propounded by New Zealand’s literary “nationalists” in the 1930s (the generation of Curnow, Fairburn, Mason, Sargeson, Glover et al) and that has been repeated frequently since. This was the idea that there was no real literary culture in New Zealand before the 1930s and no networks of writers, and that therefore writers were compelled to flee overseas (meaning mainly to Britain) to find circles of like-minded literary people. The “nationalists” saw themselves as the first generation to be grounded in New Zealand and capable of reflecting this country in worthwhile literature. Therefore they tended to despise the ‘exiles’ (even Katherine Mansfield) as people who had succumbed to a British rather than a New Zealand viewpoint and therefore could not be counted as truly representing this country. They also tended to see New Zealand writers before their time as producing an ureal, romanticised “Maoriland” image of New Zealand, designed to tickle the British taste for the exotic.
As Bones says in her introduction:
“This book will examine the expatriate myth from two main angles. The first is the widely accepted idea that expatriation was necessary for New Zealand writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the country’s supposed dearth of opportunities, a result of both the perceived lack of publishing outlets and the absence of a community of like-minded artistic people” … “The second focus… is an investigation into the nature and effects of New Zealand expatriatism when it did occur.” (Introduction, pp.11-12)
Bones’ method is to argue, often with the help of tabulated statistics, that there was a literary culture in New Zealand before the literary “nationalists” came along; that there were literary networks; and that only a minority of New Zealand writers settled permanently overseas. Most of those who did go overseas did so for a short time only.
The distinction between “nationalist” writing and “Maoriland” (or “colonial”) writing is, she says (Chapter 1) artificial. There were continuities. Most immigrants to New Zealand in the 19th century were literate, giving New Zealand higher rates of (Pakeha) literacy than any other British colony with, per capita, more theatrical groups and music societies than in any other colony. There were strong international links with the rest of the Anglo-world and New Zealand readers were more au fait with modern literary trends than is often assumed. Before the 1930s crowd came along, it was no contradiction in New Zealand to be both “nationalist” and “imperialist”, given continuing strong links with the imperial centre. (Making this point, Bones frequently references Felicity Barnes’ New Zealand’s London – A Colony and Its Metropolis, reviewed on this blog six years ago; and Stafford and Williams’ Maoriland, also noticed on this blog.)
Before the 1930s, there was a thriving literary culture in terms of much poetry being printed in newspapers and some (short-lived) literary magazines.(Chapter 2). Here Bones sometimes references Chris Hilliard’s The Bookmen’s Dominion (reviewed in Landfall magazine, November 2006), and herself sides with the “bookmen” (Alan Mulgan, O. N. Gillespie, Charles Marris, Pat Lawlor) in the way they encouraged local writers, did not sneer at expatriates like Katherine Mansfield, and addressed a wide audience. The new “nationalists” regarded the “bookmen” as dictating popular taste, but Bones sides with the “bookmen” for their accessibility, noting:
“The earlier group of bookmen were no more tyrannical than their successors, and had broader interests over several genres. The newspaper-based literary culture was more democratic and accessible, particularly for women, than later literary circles, which tended to be based in universities. This division caused genre to be more of an issue, as the university-based scholars favoured realist and modernist modes of expression (excluding genres like popular writing). The contribution of newspapers to local writing was not acknowledged because they became less popular as the medium for ‘serious’ writing as time went on: later writers were not so interested in this kind of exposure.” (Chapter 2, p.53)
Denying that pre-1930s New Zealand writers were linked slavishly to England, Bones chronicles the strong Trans-Tasman connections (Chapter 3) and the importance of the Australian Bulletin as a site for publication by New Zealand authors in the early 20th century. She gives many examples of writers who moved from New Zealand to Australia – or vice versa – and notes how often both groups were happy to identify themselves as “Australasians”. Next, she notes (Chapter 4) that, between 1890 and 1935, while most poetry by New Zealanders was published in New Zealand, the great majority of novels by New Zealanders, most of whom stayed in New Zealand, were published in Britain. In other words, it was not necessary to become an ‘exile’ in order to write.
However, the 1930s literary nationalists built up the legend that becoming an expatriate meant lacking “authenticity” as a New Zealand writer, and they saw publication overseas as a sort of betrayal. (Chapter 5) Bones counters this by saying (a.) Permanent expatriates like Mansfield were the exception rather than the rule for pre-1930s New Zealand writers. (b.) There was a “cultural cringe” assumption in New Zealand that literary work published overseas was more worthy of respect than literary work published in New Zealand. BUT (c.) There was much self-interest in the “nationalists” decrying overseas publication, as some of them (like Denis Glover) were intent on promoting their own New Zealand-based printing and publishing enterprises.
Furthermore (Chapter 6) New Zealand writers who stayed overseas (Mansfield, John Mulgan) did not cease to be authentically New Zealanders and wrote much about this country. Besides which, as a recently-settled colony, considerable numbers of New Zealand’s general population were always travelling to and fro between New Zealand and Britain, and not just writers. There were many writers who, like other New Zealanders, simply made a brief trip to Britain and returned (e.g. Jessie Mackay). Others initially went overseas to study, not to write (Dan Davin, John Mulgan, J.C.Beaglehole, James Courage). In the case of New Zealand journalists, travelling overseas was an inevitable part of their trade.
As for the great metropolis of London (Chapter 7), some who left New Zealand believed naïvely that literary success would be more easily attainable there than in New Zealand – in which assumption they were sorely mistaken. Few were able to get “introductions” to publishers and many noted the sordor and unpleasantness of London. Monte Holcroft, A.R.D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson all made brief forays into England before realising they were better off as writers in New Zealand and heading home. In the end, opines Bones (Chapter 8), it did not matter where New Zealand writers wrote. While a few New Zealand writers made it into British literary circles, and many were themselves “insiders” in England, others were snubbed as “colonials”. She remarks that “talent, tenacity and good luck” (p.158) were required for New Zealand authors to succeed in both New Zealand and Britain.
So far, I have simply stated Helen Bones’ case. On the whole it is a good one, but it is not watertight. Not only are “nationalists” rebuked in nearly every chapter, but there is a great deal of repetition (as there is in this overlong review), with the same examples being cited numerous times in the text. The case could have been stated more concisely. There is also often a scolding tone. Katherine Mansfield is roundly upbraided for not being more grateful to New Zealand:
“Katherine Mansfield enjoyed every material and educational advantage available to her in New Zealand but preferred to emphasise the deprivations of colonial life. Widely accepted without question, these attitudes further reinforced ideas about New Zealand as a cultural desert.” (Chapter 5, p.111) [Emphasis added]. This sounds like a grumpy parent saying “After everything I’ve done for you…”
Sometimes, too, Bones seems to undercut her own case, although these may be seen as intentional “concessions” for the sake of balance. Thus, after just having referenced the homosexuals Hector Bolitho, D’Arcy Cresswell, James Courage and Charles Brasch, she remarks:
“The ‘strictures of society’ did inspire some people to go overseas, but this is often wrongly confused with literary reasons for leaving. The two are entirely separate issues, as the social constraints did not necessarily prevent people from writing.” (Chapter 6, p.131)
“Entirely separate issues”? Possibly. But the experiences of these people do suggest that they felt happier writing outside New Zealand (even if Brasch returned).
Similarly, speaking of good postal systems and personal networks of writers in New Zealand, she says: “Although numbers were too few to allow a fringe or bohemian subculture to form and encourage avant-garde literary innovation, there were fledgling literary networks.” (Chapter 2, p.48) [Emphasis added]
Again, this suggests the real need to leave the country which some writers felt.
Bones’ presentation and style are logical, orderly and more than a little bloodless, perhaps because this is a doctoral thesis meeting academic requirements. I did delight, however, at a few amusing exempla, such as the story of the Aussie Bulletin editor who sent the following curt replies to New Zealand authors “[Your story] creaks like a cattle truck.” “Your effort is not worth the blow it strikes at the national ink supply” “As your poem was neatly typewritten we restrain our wrath.” (all quoted Chapter 3, p.61). Them wuz the days when editors spoke their minds.
Yet my main criticism of The Expatriate Myth is this. Even if she is to be applauded for challenging the myth of “exile”, isn’t Bones in fact flogging a dead horse when she attacks the “nationalists”? For at least the past forty years, it has been one of the great indoor sports of Academe to point out the shortcomings of our old literary nationalists. Indeed this has become the new orthodoxy. We’ve already read Stuart Murray’s Never a Soul at Home (VUP 1998) and Lawrence Jones’ Picking Up the Traces (VUP 2003) and have seen New Zealand literary nationalism dissected by modern sensibilities. We have looked at the left-wing side of things with Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision (VUP 1991) and have heard Fairburn’s and Glover’s generation being scolded for their misogyny and homophobia in Kai Jensen’s Whole Men (AUP 1996). Then there is John Newton’s recent A Hard Frost (VUP 2017), my review of which may be found on Landfall-Review-on-Line, December 2017, at this link https://www.landfallreview.com/a-language-of-subterfuge/#more-3452
My chief impression was that Newton was executing a sort of push-back against the current orthodoxy by noting that, for all their perceived masculinism, mysogyny and (possibly) parochialism, the nationalists did bring about some sort of literary renewal in New Zealand. It remains true, after all, that more New Zealand poetry and prose after the 1920s can still be read as living statements and live literature than the poetry and prose before that time, most of which reads as period pieces.
Perhaps the modernists exaggerated the concept of necessary ‘exile’ before their time, but it also remains true (as Bones’ own evidence shows) that many New Zealand writers felt uncomfortable in New Zealand and wanted to at least taste the wider world. And perhaps we should be reminded how much smaller New Zealand’s population was back then (less than one third as large in the 1920s as it is now) and how much longer overseas travel (exclusively by ship) took then than it does now. It was not a case of easily accessing metropolitan culture by instant electronic links, and it was not a case of hopping over to London in a day or two. To leave New Zealand promised a long absence – perhaps permanent – and to stay in New Zealand meant the prospect of missing much international literary culture. The modernists exaggerated and mythologised – but perhaps there is something to be said for their case after all.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE ODD WOMEN” by George Gissing (first published in 1893)
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might know of the interest I have taken in the late-nineteenth century English realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903). His novels may be dour, sometimes even plodding, and certainly depressing in parts as he examines working class people in complete poverty and middle-class or lower-middle-class people struggling to survive and keep up appearances. Thus I have had posts on The Nether World (1889), reflecting the despair of slum dwellers; New Grub Street (1891), presenting the struggles of hack writers and often regarded as his best book; Born in Exile (1892), a piece of inspired literary self-pity, very much echoing Gissing’s own distress at being dealt a cruel hand by life; and Will Warburton(published posthumously in 1905), about the class anxiety of a professional man who is forced to go into “trade”. And by way of relief from all this I’ve also posted on the last of his works published in his lifetime, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), being a fantasia of the life he would like to have led as a retired literary gentleman in the country.
Many negative things can and have been said about the narrow focus of Gissing’s work, and the tricks of long hack-writing he himself practised to make his novels saleable to publishers who expected three-deckers. (Unnecessary conversations as page-fillers; dips into melodrama after grimly realistic scene-setting etc.). One quality you can never take away from him, however, is his sheer readability – the clarity of his prose.
The Odd Woman is not the best of Gissing’s work, but it is an interesting attempt to take on what he saw as an urgent social problem.
Its short synopsis would read like this: A young woman of no fortune marries an older man of some substance, but the marriage falls apart under the pressure of the husband’s possessiveness. Meanwhile an independent man attempts to woo a feminist, but they are never able to negotiate exactly what the nature of their relationship should be, and so they never marry.
And here is my longer synopsis: Dr Elkanah Madden, a widower, dies in the first chapter, leaving his family of daughters with only a modest annuity and no real education or professional training. Some years later, Alice Madden and Virginia Madden are living hand-to-mouth in London. Their younger sister Monica Madden earns a living in a sweatshop. She wishes to raise herself. She gets to know the philanthropic feminist Miss Mary Barfoot and her more zealous feminist assistant Rhoda Nunn, who make it their mission in life to raise young women to independence by giving them secretarial skills. 21-year-old Monica seems set on this path, when she meets and marries the wealthy Edmund Widdowson (aged 44).
One major strand of the plot thus concerns the marriage of Edmund Widdowson and Monica Madden. He wants his wife to be submissive, obedient, a companion and housekeeper for his quiet life, whereas she wants social independence and her circle of friends. The strain grows. Monica was aware, even upon marrying Edmund, that she was “selling” herself for social ease.
The other major strand of the plot concerns Rhoda Nunn and her relationship with Mary Barfoot’s brother Everard Barfoot. Everard woos Rhoda. Rhoda is at first absolutely convinced that she will never marry, so she accepts Everard’s courtship as an elaborate means of asserting her independnce, when she will eventually refuse him. Everard at first thinks of her in terms of an amusing conquest (he has been around a bit), but gradually the relationship becomes more intense. They are negotiating their relationship and on the pont of working out their own form of marriage.
However, the denouement comes from a meshing of these two strands of plot. As her marriage has become more restrictive and intolerable, Monica has fantasised about running away with a young bounder called Mr Bevis (who, having flirted with her, deserts her and runs away at the first sign of trouble). By confusions and mistaken identity, Rhoda Nunn comes to believe that Everard Barfoot was the object of Monica’s adulterous desires. So Rhoda and Everard part. Edmund Widdowson discovers his wife’s intrigue with Bevis. So Monica and Edmund part.
Months later, the confusions are sorted out, but Rhoda and Everard are unable to rekindle the sort of trust that could lead to marriage. Monica dies shortly after giving birth to Edmund’s daughter. Edmund now knows of her innocence – she did not actually commit adultery - and leaves his baby daughter in the care of Alice Madden as he returns to comfortble bookish celibacy. Rhoda returns to her vigorous feminist concerns.
Subplots concern Virginia Madden becoming an alcoholic and having to dry out; Everard Barfoot’s scholarly mathematician friend Thomas Micklethwaite, who marries only after years of scrimping and saving to afford marriage; and one of Monica’s sweatshop companions Miss Eade who (if one can decipher the novel’s 1890s euphemisms) appears to become a prostitute.
As is always the case with Gissing, this novel would be a happy hunting ground for those who see literature as a form of historical sociology. The “odd women” of the title are, as the novel explicitly tells us, that surplus female population that will never marry and yet are scarcely trained or educated to earn their own way in the world. So this is one of Gissing’s 1890s works of lower-middle-class anxiety (as opposed to his 1880s novels of slum-dwelling subsistence). The Odd Women seems designed to give a variety of perspectives on marriage and on the prospect of women’s independence: – the man (Micklethwaite) who wears himself out earning enough to afford a wife; the complete pragmatist (Edmund Widdowson’s widowed sister-in-law who plays the marriage market to her own advantage); and of course the feminist (Rhoda) and the forward-thinking man (Everard), who believe they can work out their own substitute for marriage, respecting each other’s independence, but in fact fail to do this as they find their own jealousies intruding. Is Gissing implying that human nature is not as strictly rational as reformers (in this case feminists) would like it to be?
There are naturally many connections with similar interests in other novels by Gissing. His next novel In the Year of Jubilee (which I have so far not dissected on this blog) also has three sisters and a fourth woman trying to re-negotate the concept of marriage. Curiously, though, despite the apparently “progressive” tendency of Gissing’s theme, I constantly detect the “Henry Ryecroft” bookish side of Gissing peeping through. Edmund Widdowson’s bafflement that his wife will not submit to him and become a domestic helpmeet is quite sympatheticaly observed; and given that Edmund Widdowson’s ideal life is the quiet reading of books he is in some respects one side of Gissing himself.
Is this novel, then, the product of a conservative forcing himself to write sympathetically about feminism? I wonder, too, how conscious Gissing was of the irony of having his feminist characters (Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn) explicitly disavowing any interest in working-class women?
Mary Barfoot explains why they do not train working-class girls: “The odious fault of working class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature. We, thanks to our education and the tone of our society, manage to keep that in the backgroun. Don’t interfere with this satisfactory state of things.” (Chapter 6)
They seem mainly interested in helping middle-class girls – and how ironical it now seems to us that their highroad to independence is seen to be by becoming typists. There is an unintentionally amusing moment when the zealous Rhoda Nunn inveighs against romantic novels: “If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea, we should have some chance of reforming women….. [of reading novels] The result is that women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals.” (Chapter 6)
So much for the sociology – unavoidable though it is in any book by Gissing. As literature, The Odd Women is flatter than other Gissing novels of the same period. Reading it, one is even more conscious of abstract conversations going nowhere in particular. I was irritated by the 1890s euphemisms for pregnancy (when Monica is pregnant) and I felt some complications were tedious plot-spinning. The quality of “readability” is not to be sneezed at, however. Gissing is very adept at neatly filling in a character’s background in an introductory paragraph. But this as not as spirited a book as New Grub Street or Born in Exile.
Pehaps it lacks the vivid involvement of self-pity that fired others of his novels? Even so, there is a moment when Gissing appears to be thinking of himself as Everard says to Rhoda: “We fall in love, it is true, but do we really deceive ourselves about the future? A very young man may; but we know of young men who are so frantic as to marry girls of the working class – mere lumps of human flesh. But most of us know that our marriage is a pis aller. At first we are sad about it; then we grow cynical and snap our fingers at moral obligation.” (Chapter 10)