Monday, August 26, 2019

Something New

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

“THE STORIES OF EILEEN DUGGAN” edited by Helen J. O’Neill (Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “EILEEN DUGGAN SELECTED POEMS” edited by Peter Whiteford (REPRINT – first published 1994; Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “DENIS GLOVER SELECTED POEMS” edited by Bill Manhire (REPRINT – first published 1995; Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

This first section of my blog postings, “Something New”, always deals with new books. This week I more-or-less break my own rule. The Stories of Eileen Duggan consists of stories written in the 1920s and 1930s – but only now are they being published for the first time. As for the new reprintings of selected poems by Eileen Duggan and Denis Glover, I note them here because they are related to The Stories of Eileen Duggan. So here we go.

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In the commendably detailed 45 pages of his Introduction to The Stories of Eileen Duggan, John Weir tells a story much of which is now familiar in many surveys of New Zealand poetry. Eileen Duggan (1894-1972), of Irish parentage and dedicated to a rather idealised vision of her parents’ country of birth, was essentially a very good Georgian poet whose style and tastes were overtaken by Modernism. Both nationally and internationally, her poetry was highly praised in the 1920s and 1930s, and she was awarded an OBE in 1937. But by then, the generation of  A.R.D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover had come along. They helped redefine tastes in New Zealand poetry (in most cases from a very masculine perspective), and Duggan’s verse was either denigrated or ignored. Duggan was academically gifted (she won a First in History at Victoria University College and would have had a career as an academic if not for ill health). But as a “spinster” (is that word still used?) and a devout Catholic, much of whose poetry was originally published in Catholic magazines, she was an easy target for ridicule from some quarters. Perhaps as damagingly for her reputation, she was over-praised by conservative critics, and the verse she wrote for children tended to be a staple in the junior classes of Catholic schools. As John Weir correctly remarks “much of Eileen’s life work was to be admired for non-literary reasons” (pp.19-20) and “it is unfortunate that her poetry was adopted by others to fight extra-literary crusades.” (p.27) . She appears to have stopped writing poetry in 1951, over twenty years before her death. Eileen Duggan never disappeared completely from New Zealand anthologies of poetry, but she was not included in some of the more influential ones. Only in the last thirty years or so has she been reappraised and her poetry more often printed – frequently by women editors and anthologists who see her as a victim of “masculinist” bias.

It will be noted that everything said so far in John Weir’s introduction relates to Eileen Duggan as poet. It is only in the last three pages of his Introduction that Weir turns to the matter of her short stories. Duggan earned a frugal living by journalism, mainly in Catholic publications, and most of her prose was jobbing articles on Ireland and New Zealand, with less frequent comments on poetry and literature. Only a few of her short stories were published (in newspapers) in her lifetime. The rest remained in manuscript, in which form that were handed over to the young John Weir in 1970. With Weir’s encouragement, they were edited by Helen Josephine O’Neill (Sister Leonie of the Sisters of Mercy). They add up to 41 short stories and make a very full volume of over 300 pages. Weir remarks on the probable influence of Katherine Mansfield on the earlier stories, but adds “Because [Frank] Sargeson’s social realism reinvented the New Zealand short story and took it in a new direction, Eileen Duggan’s personalist narratives and historical episodes may seem irrelevant. Nonetheless they should be read for what they are rather than for what they are not.” (p.46) This seems to be fair warning that we should be prepared to read the collection as period pieces.

The first nineteen stories are gathered together under the title The Wish of His Heart and other stories. Most of them were written in the 1920s. They are mainly set in “Waihoi”, a version of the rural Tuamarina area in the northern part of the South Island where Duggan was raised; or in Wellington, to which Duggan moved and where she spent most of her life. All of the stories are short (five or six pages), being of a length that would have been acceptable in popular magazines. Most are about simple domestic or personal problems.

It is interesting to see how large looms social class and the social pecking order. Duggan usually deals with people who are just making a living – the farmer and his scrimping-and-saving wife just managing to get by (in “The Closed Fist”); or the poverty-stricken seamstress justifying her life by making a quilt (“The Patchwork Quilt”). Only a few stories concern people of a wealthier or upper-middle class (“Her Ways”, “The Bride”, “Changed Circumstances”); and there are a clutch of stories concerning (women) stenographers and other office workers (“Old Madame”, “The Riddle of Sara”, “The Mimic”). Snobbery and a clash of social classes is central in a few cases –  for example in “The Bond”, there is the shame of man socialising with a young woman who is “only a shopgirl.” All these are credible situations for the age in which the stories were written.

For an unmarried woman with a reputation for living a quiet and retiring life, Duggan sometimes takes on very confronting situations, such as the death of a baby (“The Gardener”) or the corrosive effects of gossip by men (“His Son”) and gossip by women (“The Lie”). Note, too, that some stories centre on women thwarted in musical careers, one by a bullying husband (“Her Ways”) and one by social pressure (“Her Creed”). If you wish to refer to an oppressive patriarchy (not the sort of language Duggan herself would have used), you might refer to the sad story “Relief”, where a young woman, passed over by men at public dances, removes what she calls her “sale ticket” and refuses to take part any more. She is asserting that she is not property.

It would be foolish to criticise the dated slang that is used in many of the stories – that is simply evidence of the times in which the stories were written. But, for all Duggan’s clear social observation, there is a big problem hanging over these stories. It sabotages nearly all of them. This is Duggan’s habit of “end-stopping” each tale by concluding with a punchline, or a paragraph or two of moralising. This is not quite the O. Henry twist or “sting-in-the-tale”; it is more a case of the author telling us what to think in a neat tidying-up, like the Moral of an Aesop’s fable, leaving no afterglow or subtext. The story “The Solvent”, about two adults who missed the opportunity to find love, had the potential to be a great story (and is one of the very few in this 1920s collection to reference the Great War). But it collapses into appalling sentimentality in its glib conclusion. Ditto  “Her Creed”. It is an excellent character study, set in a gossipy boarding-house, until we come to the last two paragraphs, in which Duggan spells out her message of faith being rewarded. Again, there is an implausible collapse into sentimentality. Thus it is in story after story. The title tale, “The Wish of His Heart”, concerns a little boy wanting a pet dog with a neat, cosy conclusion in which his wish is rewarded. One suspects that it might have found its place in an old School Journal.

I run the risk here of being labelled one of those insensitive male chauvinists, often denounced as misogynists in feminist writing, who refuse to see or understand the viewpoint of a woman writer. But I would be very surprised if any woman writer now wanted to moralise and sentimentalise the way Duggan does. Noting the skill with which Duggan sets up many scenes, her awareness of physical realities, and her attempts to grapple with real-life situations, I still see the stories of The Wish of His Heart and other stories as magazine stories of a very old-fashioned sort, leaving readers with a comforting, unplifting message. They are historically interesting, but basically unrevivable.

Written in the 1930s, the 22 stories of The Reason and other stories are a different matter. Apparently Duggan hoped that they would be published in time for New Zealand’s Centennial celebrations (of the Treaty of Waitangi) in 1940. Each story is a dramatic episode in the life of a person significant in New Zealand history, beginning with the legendary Maori explorer Kupe, working through Tasman and Cook, and ending with people from Duggan’s own time. Her Catholic interests are not too much to the fore.  Only three of the 22 stories are about Catholic figures. “The Reason” (perhaps significantly, the title-tale of the collection) presents the Catholic Bishop Pompallier as a wise and temperate man who is in New Zealand to spread the faith, not to spread French interests. “Fulfilment” deals with Mother Mary Aubert and “Reconciliation” with the Catholic missionary Fr. O’Reilly. At the same time, the story “Incident” gives a sympathetic view of the Anglican Bishop Selwyn as a man trying to take aristocratic patronage out of his church, and also struggling to keep the peace between Maori and Pakeha. “A Matter of Principle” is about the Prebyterian minister who championed the eight-hour working day. The final story concerns the Labour Party leader Harry Holland, whose sense of social justice was formed in part by his early association with the Salvation Army.

Reading these stories nearly ninety years after they were written, we might be surprised by what they do not include. Mother Aubert features in “Fulfilment” and Katherine Mansfield in “Karori Air”, but none of the other stories focuses on a woman – and as each story is supposed to deal with a significant turning-point in New Zealand history, it is odd that there is no reference to the movement for women’s suffrage. There are moments of patriotic tub-thumping. “Crossroads”, the story about Ernest Rutherford, tells us that he learnt his sense of wonder about the physical world by observing New Zealand landscape, and has him declaring to an English colleague that New Zealand “gives better air and better food, even to its poor, than any land on earth.” There are also moments of icky sentiment. Lt.-Governor Hobson rescues a Maori boy from slavery. Dr. Truby King responds to personal tragedies to set up the Plunket Society.

Yet, unlike the tales in The Wish of His Heart and other stories, some of these historical stories have an interesting oddball tone to them. “Give Balm to Giants” gives a fruitfully ambiguous view of Governor George Grey’s attitude to Maori. There is a very odd vignette of Alfred Domett, caught between poetry and a failing political career. The story about Samuel Butler, “Illumination”, comes – unless I am misreading it – very close to declaring Butler’s sexual proclivities.

The interpretations of history may now be regarded as superseded ones, but given the sources that would have been available to her, Eileen Duggan had a formidable knowledge of (Pakeha) New Zealand history. One barrier for us now may be that, in many stories, she assumes we already know who her cast of characters are. I admit that one or two of her protagonists made me go scuttling to reference books to find out who they were (such as the New Zealand botanist Leonard Cockayne). When she tells a story about Thomas Bracken, she has him saying in the last paragraph “They don’t understand” – a line which would have made all New Zealand readers of her vintage remember that Bracken wrote “Not Understood”. Even so, there is a lot of shrewd observation in these stories, Duggan is not always starry-eyed about New Zealand’s past, and I rate the stories of The Reason and other stories more highly than the earlier collection.

I take on board John Weir’s warning that all the stories in this book “should be read for what they are rather than for what they are not.” They are from an earlier age, they are written by somebody whose metier was poetry, and they are not works of hard Modernist realism. I never expected them to be. But while they do show a writer who was developing in the medium of the short story, they do not include any hitherto undiscovered “classics”. I  wonder if any of them will now be anthologised in one of those collections of New Zealand short stories that pop up evey few years. I think not, but I don’t claim to be a prophet in matters of taste.

Annoying Footnote from Nitpickers Incorporated: The table of contents of The Stories of Eileen Duggan places some titles of stories in the wrong order. More amusingly, each story on eminent New Zealand historical persons ends by giving the dates of birth and death of the person depicted. The final story in the book is clearly about Harry Holland, the left-wing Labour Party Leader of the Opposition, who was born in 1868 and died in 1933. But the dates given at the end of the story are “1893-1961”. Why? Because, presumably, the editor has confused Harry Holland with Sid Holland, the right-wing National Party prime minister of the 1950s, whose dates these are.

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I am delighted that Victoria University Press have chosen to republish Peter Whiteford’s selection of Eileen Duggan’s poems; and Bill Manhire’s selection of Denis Glover’s poems. These two editions were originally published in 1994 and 1995 respectively. In some ways it is an odd conjunction. After all, Glover was one of the blokey-bloke poets and he attacked Eileen Duggan (and Gloria Rawlinson, and the Australian Eve Langley) in his “The Arraignment of Paris”, lampooning what he saw as their pallid and outdated pastoral poetry. Bill Manhire includes “The Arraignment of Paris” in his selection. It now reads as a rather silly, laddish exercise.

One strength of Whiteford’s selection of Duggan is that he includes fifty pages of her prose essays – including (surprisingly?) a generous assessment of the poetry of Fairburn and some general comments on New Zealand literature as it appeared in her day. To read her poetry is to see a poet who did not stand still in her chosen style. Certainly most of her poems are more-or-less “Georgian” in their choice of vocabulary and their, often pastoral, subject matter – trees, landscapes, rivers, birds. But read some of her later poems (especially the concluding poem “Dit L’Ecrivisse Mere”) and you see somebody creeping towards a more modernist style.

As for Manhire’s selection of Glover, Manhire’s introduction admits that Glover’s verse is variable in quality (so which poet’s isn’t?), but also knows that in his colloquial lyricism Glover remains one of the country’s best. Read once again the “Sings Harry” sequence and “Arawata Bill” and see why he is essential New Zealand reading. There is that awkwardness in tone in much of Glover – the times where he seems to go jokey to avoid getting too emotional – but the best of Glover flies. Still great stuff.

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