We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“FROM THE CENTRE – A Writer’s Life” by Patricia Grace (Penguin Books, $NZ40); “KATE EDGER – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist” by Diana Morrow (Otago University Press, $NZ40)
Since she first began writing for publication, Patricia Grace has produced seven novels, five collections of short stories (plus two omnibus editions of them), seven books for children and a work of non-fiction. She was the first Maori woman to have a collection of short stories published, and she has, for half a century now, been a major voice in Maori cultural and literary matters as well as winning many literary awards. But putting it that way is a little limiting. Patricia Grace is a major voice in New Zealand cultural and literary matters, read by a wide public.
What is her appeal? Much of it has to do with her insistence on dealing with ordinary people in ordinary real-life situations – unpretentious people facing problems that a wide readership can recognise. She emphasises this a number of times in From the Centre – A Writer’s Life. Many of her plots for novels or short-stories have their origins in things that happened to her extended family, things she has heard talked about and things she has experienced. Then there is her style. Her novels are concise. She often describes landscapes and seascapes lyrically, but her prose is colloquial and matter-of-fact – no nonsense and always getting to the point of things.
And of course, she has an important overriding theme – the lives of Maori in the present age.
From the Centre – A Writer’s Life is as much about Patricia Grace’s formation as a person as it is about her career as a writer. The first fourteen chapters – nearly half the book – deal with her childhood and adolescent years. She begins by introducing her turangawaewae, a much-loved home at stony-shored Hongoeka Bay, some of which is owned by her iwi Ngati Toa, though it has often been threatened by plans for government takeover.
Patricia Grace’s father was Maori but her mother was Irish Catholic, and the family followed her mother’s religion. When she won scholarships she went to Catholic primary and secondary schools, where she was taught by nuns. When she met and was wooed by Kerehi Waiariki Grace (whom she affectionately calls Dick) they were married at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. On the whole, the education she got served her well, even if some of the schools’ culture was daunting. She remarks:
“Through our schooling, managed and controlled as it was by engendering fear of sin, hell, the Almighty and the strap, we were given as good and full an education as our teachers knew how. Repressive as it was, I wanted to be there, loved learning and having the textbooks in front of me. The nuns devoted themselves to our learning. No area of the curriculum was neglected.” (p.97)
Later, she speaks of the encouragement the nuns gave her about her writing.
Often it was awkward for her to be the only Maori in a classroom of Pakeha or in a sports team (as a schoolgirl she was very athletic). She tells anecdotes of a priest calling her “a bad influence” for no reason at all, and of a Pakeha man who, as she now understands, was trying to make sexual advances when she was a young teenager. These events threw her into deep depression. But at school, the prejudices she dealt with came from fellow schoolgirls, not from teachers. She was once attacked by two Pakeha girls while walking home from school. The nuns smartly sorted out a gang of catty girls who wouldn’t invite her to a birthday party.
Patricia Grace is aware of her Irish heritage and her Irish aunties, but she is Maori by culture, custom and inheritance. One disability she freely notes. When she went to teachers’ training college, she “began to feel the disadvantage of not speaking te reo” herself (p.154), unlike Maori students who came from more rural areas. Even if she has been a major advocate for the teaching of te reo, and has insisted that her books for children be published in Maori language editions, she admits that even at her present age “my ability in the Maori language is limited.” (p.287)
Outside school and formal education, the most influential things in her childhood were her love of reading, encouraged by her father even when he was away at war with the Maori Battalion, and the free and unsupervised games she enjoyed, cycling, swimming, fishing, sliding down mudslides and generally benefitting from the health of an outdoor life, even if the familiy were sometimes in straitened circumstances.
Oddly enough, the most joyful sections of From the Centre – A Writer’s Life are not about writing, but about her teaching experience when she and her husband taught in small schools up in far Northland. The schools were badly underfunded and lacking in resources, but there were fewer pupils in each class and it was possible to get to know each pupil well. Later she (and her children) were to find that larger urban schools were more impersonal and alienating.
Patricia Grace was to have seven children and they are obviously important in her story. With teaching and raising a family, it was not until her late 30s that she began to write in earnest. Her attitude to readers and reviewers is a robust one. When she is asked who her intended audience is, she replies:
“I am the first audience. I write for me and I must be the sole judge and take full responsibility for what comes about. The second audience, the one unknown to me, is whoever will read. Once I’ve finished a book or a story, my job is done. Reviews, analyses, critiques, theses are not written for me. They come after the event. What follows – the reading, discussion, dissection, opinion – is part of the next life of the book, that is, if it is to have an afterlife. I should say, though, that if Maori readers did not relate to my writing, or if they rejected it, I would not do it.” (p.200)
From the Centre gives accounts of the genesis of each of her novels, but she does not discuss them in any laborious detail, being mainly interested in how her ideas first came to her.
However, dominating the later chapters are accounts of her activism and her promotion of Maori language and culture. She was instrumental in a project to establish a wharenui and marae complex at Hongoeka Bay and was delighted that it was the younger people, rather than the elders, who insisted that they be built in traditional Maori style. She took part in the Foreshore and Seabed controversy. More than once, she was among those who rebuffed attempts to have her turangewaewae either taken over by government or falling into the hands of property developers. She petitioned the Education Department about readers that perpetuated racial stereotypes. She was forthright in preventing Maori land from being swallowed by the new Kapiti Coast motorway. All this speaks of a vigorous and committed life. The sad part is where she ends, mourning the death, by brain tumor, of her husband of 55 years.
From the Centre is a readable, accessible and very sympathetic memoir by an author proud of her achievements but modest in her expression.
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Diana Morrow’s Kate Edger – The Life of a Pioneering Feminist is about a woman quite unlike the one depicted in Patricia Grace’s autobiography - a woman not only of a different temperament and upbringing, but most crucially of a different era.
Kate Milligan Edger (apparently the name is pronounced Edgar) was born in 1857 and died in 1935, so her world view was forged in the nineteenth century. She is chiefly remembered as the first woman in New Zealand to earn a university degree at a time when universities were largely the province of men only. She was awarded a BA in 1877. It was once believed that she was the first woman in the British Empire to receive a university degree, but Diana Morrow notes that a woman in Canada was awarded a BSc in 1875. Kate Edger went on to be a strong advocate for women’s enfranchisement, to have a distinguished career in education and to support many worthy and progressive social causes. But at the same time, many of her values were of a different age, and some of the causes she supported would be anathema to later second- or third-wave feminists.
Her father was a nonconformist preacher (i.e. a Protestant who was not part of the Church of England) who wavered between being Baptist or Congregationalist but who was usually the latter. He came to New Zealand as part of an idealistic scheme for co-operative farming, but it came to nothing and he moved to Auckland to be a full-time preacher. In social matters he was radical but he also followed very strict (nonconformist) Christian principles, which included an abhorrence of liquor. Kate, the fourth of his five children, lifelong had the same outlook. As Diana Morrow remarks fairly: “More than any other issue, opposition to the ‘demon drink’ has shaped popular perceptions of nonconformists as joyless, repressive Puritans. Certainly, some were self-righteous and dauntingly strait-laced, but others, like the Edgers, fostered public entertainments and cultural pursuits, partly to prove they could be enjoyed without alcohol but also out of conviction that these activities enhanced the quality of both life and religion.” (pp.37-38)
As Morrow also notes, New Zealand was ahead of most countries in opening adavanced education to (Pakeha) women on an equal footing with men. Brought up in a culturally-advanced home, Kate excelled in music and in mathematics. She had no difficulty in getting a place at Auckland University College and there was no controversy about her being awarded a degree. Quite the contrary. She was applauded in the press and fellow feminists promoted her as public proof that women were not intellectually inferior to men (an idea which had been embraced even by the likes of Charles Darwin).
Between 1878 and 1920, over three-quarters of New Zealand women graduates went on to be school-teachers. Kate Edger followed this path, taking up a position at Christchurch Girls High School. She made such an impression that at the age of only 26 she applied successfully to become the first principal of Nelson Girls College. She established an advanced curriculum for her students, who would study the arts and sciences just as boys did and would compete for the same scholarships.
But here we come to a set of values that does not chime well with the values of the early 21st century. Even though she believed in enfranchisement and advanced education for women, Kate Edger also believed in the domestic ideal of women most completely fulfilling their destiny as good wives and mothers. In Diana Morrow’s words: “Her graduates would be high-minded and earnest women, selflessly devoted to their husbands and children but also concerned to extend their elevating moral influence and values into wider society. Unlike frivolous middle-class women selfishly devoted to fashions and worldly materialism, her pupils would ideally become Christians with a social conscience, active on behalf of worthy causes and helping those in need. They would be self-disciplined and hard-working, able to fulfil their own potential while benefitting others.” (pp.83-84) Women were the best upholders of seemliness and morality in the home. Therefore “If women were well suited to guard the morality of their own children, it was only one step to further assert that their natural abilities as nurturers and protectors of the young could be used to serve other people’s children.” (p.81)
Kate Edger observed this ideal herself, so that when she married the Congregationalist minister William Albert Evans in 1890, she gave up her teaching profession, moved to Wellington with her husband, and set about raising a family, eventually having three sons. And of course she was henceforth known as Kate Evans. Yet there were years when, writing for the press and doing work for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) she actually earned more than her husband and was the family breadwinner.
Kate and William Evans were members of the Christian Socialist organisation which called itself the Foreward Movement. They lobbied for the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, directed against domestic violence, and for equality before the law in marriage, including women’s property rights. They campaigned for the criminalisation of incest. They wanted prison reform which would focus on rehabilitation and education of prisoners rather than punishment. In sexual matters they decried the “double standard” where prostitutes were convicted while their male customers faced no sanction. Few people would now disagree with these goals. But at the same time, they were strong advocates of “purity”, a moral cleansing and spiritual awakening of the individual. And this would include the abolition of alcoholic drinks.
The WCTU was the strongest lobby in New Zealand for women’s suffrage, but its underlying assumption was that women were naturally more “pure” and moral than men, and that therefore women would vote for candidates who opposed the liquor trade. This assumption would now be condemned by feminists as a species of “essentalism” – the idea that men and women are essentially different in mind and impulses. And Kate went further than the WCTU, which openly advocated only for restrictions on the sale of liquor. She joined the more extreme New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Trade, which openly wanted complete prohibition. Says Diana Morrow: “Advocates like Kate firmly believed that this one reform would cure all of society’s economic, social and spiritual ills. For both the WCTU and the New Zealand Alliance, the goal was nothing less than prohibition of everything to do with alcohol, from making to selling to importing. It was a black and white matter to drink or not to drink. Individuals could choose good over evil by giving up drink or stand idly by and watch it exploit and degrade their fellow human beings.” (p.141)
As history shows, this assessment of how society’s ills could be cured was well wide of the mark.
In later life, some of Kate’s ideas fell behind the standards that were beginning to be adopted in New Zealand. Though she rejected Dr Frederic Truby King’s eugenic ideas about “improving the race”, she supported his new Plunket Society “for the promotion of health for women and children”. In an era when more and more young women were choosing to study commercial courses to qualify them for employment, she was still promoting so-called “Domestic Science” in schools to train girls to first be good wives and mothers. She was appalled by the lack of “purity” in Ettie Rout’s campaign, during the First World War, to defeat sexually-transmitted diseases by distributing prophylactic kits to serving New Zealand soldiers. She was even more appalled in the 1920s when Marie Stopes’ books about contraception were widely circulated. But she did embrace one cause that would still be applauded. After the First World War, she drew more closely to pacifism and became a great supporter of the League of Nations Society, believing that war could be abolished by negotiations in an international council.
Kate Evans remained a respected figure in her old age, noted for her personal charity, but she had some sorrows before she died at the age of 78. Her husband had died in 1921. In the years of the Depression she knew that women were the first to be thrown out of work and greater social hardships returned. Making matters worse, one of her sons turned out to be a gambler, frittering away most of the funds she thought he had invested for her. She died respected and honoured, but already seen as somebody from a past time.
How do I assess this biography? It is clearly written. It notices carefully where Kate Edger’s commitments lay and how she acted them out. It also considers how different her values were from those that are most widely accepted now. But often, the woman and her life become smothered in the author’s explanations of the many causes she supported. Kate Edger herself becomes peripheral to accounts of how first-wave feminists in general saw things, or what the purpose of the WCTU was. Perhaps this shows the difficulty of making dramatic a life that was calm, clear of purpose, and unruffled by personal crises.