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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Early Fiction

Recording and Exploiting

The first New Zealand novel is Major B. Stoney's Taranaki: A Tale of the War, 1861. The second is Mrs J. E. Aylmer's Distant Homes, or The Graham Family in New Zealand, 1862. The first exploits, the second records, the scene; between them they set the pattern of the next 30 years.

The Settler-family Type

The recording novel is very close both in construction and in content to the pioneer narratives and journals. Its basis is some settler's experiences, presented as the plot-threaded adventures of somebody else. Isabella Aylmer, who was never in the country at all, compiled her “novel” from the letters of kinsfolk, filled out with information from the handbooks of the time. Distant Homes is, as the word “distant” indicates, intended for English readers; its material is presented in artless chronological order, beginning with The Voyage Out. Typical chapters in these recording novels might be labelled, Leaving the Old Home, Shipboard Life, First Sight of Maoriland. At this point the authors usually pause to give us the history, geography, flora, fauna, Maori customs, and so on of “the land we are going to”. There follow: Our First Home, Christmas at the Antipodes, The Bellbirds' Morning Hymn, The New Church, A Maori Scare. The usual ending might be entitled Success at Last, and would show a group of decently clothed natives, suitably subservient and pious, celebrating with the family their happy establishment in a smiling, tamed countryside. The whole is liberally spiced with the strange new vocabulary: “cowrie” (kauri), “billy”, “tussac”, “swag”, “Pakeha”, and with patches of purple prose inspired by birds, dawns, alps, and bush.

Other novels in this settler-family class are W. H. G. Kingston's Waihoura, 1872, which brings a grateful Maori princess to the aid of a North Island emigrant family, and John Bell's In the Shadow of the Bush, 1899, which deals with the later pioneering of the Scandinavians in Wellington Province.


Another type of recording novel is that where the material is the travels of a footloose, casual adventurer (though Clara Cheeseman's A Rolling Stone, 1886, is only an exploiting love story). H. W. Nesfield's A Chequered Career, 1881, and Thomas Cottle's Frank Melton's Luck, 1891, are examples. The most amusing of these picaresque yarns is W. M. B(aines)'s The Narrative of Edward Crewe, 1874, an account of the doings of the author-hero. Arriving in Auckland in 1850 “Crewe” plunges – after preliminary chapters on history from Hawaiki to Hobson – into every experience which the North Island can provide. He sets up a sawmill and store near Coromandel, describes the kauri industry, dams, trees, axes, and boatbuilding. He finds gold, works a mine, catches a sea serpent, and has adventures canoeing, hunting, fishing, and on the gumfields. Such tall tales were a colonial speciality, and Baines is the earliest New Zealand example.

South Islanders

The South Island varieties of recording novel sound a more moral note, taking usually the theme of New Chum Makes Good, with strong Presbyterian overtones. Alexander Bathgate in Waitaruna, 1881, hopes, in his preface, “that the simple story ends in removing, however slightly, the great ignorance which prevails among many of the people of Britain, regarding these fair Southern Islands….” Bathgate presents two New Chums. One abandons the stiffer morality of Home to become only too colonial, and sinks to landlording in a shanty pub, married to the barmaid. The other, a cadet of more incorruptible fibre, makes good on a Central Otago sheep station, and is rewarded by marriage with the owner's daughter, the quickest way of all to pioneer riches. Virtue is similarly rewarded in William Langton's Mark Anderson, A Tale of Station Life in New Zealand, 1889, after a plot which by an unusual twist shows the New Chum as no humble Homey, but an altogether superior product of the Manse. Dugald Ferguson offers the same autobiographical-pioneering stuff in Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand, 1893, and Mates, 1911.


The goldfields also provided material for fiction, and still do so. First to use the setting was Benjamin Farjeon, in Shadows on the Snow, 1865, but the best-known name is that of Vincent Pyke, an Australian miner who became secretary of the Otago Goldfields in 1862, and later a member of Parliament. Pyke contributed stories of the diggings to Chambers's Journal in the 1860s, and produced two novels, Wild Will Emderby, 1873, and a sequel, The Adventures of George Washington Pratt, 1874. These were, remarkably for the time, published in New Zealand; there was nothing of “those distant islands” in Pyke's attitude to this country. His novels are entertaining because of their exuberant life, in spite of crudities of plot and prose.

Maori Life

Lastly, there are the recorders of Maori ways. Most writers on Maori themes followed Major Stoney's lead in Taranaki, and set out to exploit the fictional possibilities of savages. Two novelists, however, offered serious studies. John White's Te Rou; or The Maori at Home, and G. H. Wilson's Ena, or The Ancient Maori, both appeared in 1874. G. H. Wilson's motive is, like Bathgate's, stated in his preface: “This not altogether fictitious story will be acceptable to many who desire to know something of those distant islanders”. Unlike Bathgate, however, Wilson retained the English point of view. John White, a notable Maori scholar, is equally highminded in his intentions. But neither writer was able to overcome the handicap imposed by the intractability of Maori material. Too much had to be explained; no literary conventions existed then – nor do they now – for rendering Maori speech; too little can be assumed about the psychology of the Maori protagonists, while tribal life, history, customs, and legends continually distract the authors from the business of the story. Later novelists have fared no better than Wilson and White; the problem of portraying the ancient Maori in fiction remains unsolved.

Matters are different for the unashamed exploiters. Most Maori novels in the nineteenth century follow Stoney's lead in the presentation of colourful events against a Maori backcloth. The genre still flourishes under the guise of popular historical fiction. The usual mixture served up to London publishers at the end of last century derives from Rider Haggard or Fenimore Cooper and includes a white hero, preferably of officer caste, a Maori princess or a settler's daughter, tribal jealousies, a tohunga or two, some musket and tomahawk skirmishes, and a few bloodcurdling yells. The novelist's Maori speaks a lingo compounded of Cockney, the Bible, Ossian, and Red Indian of the “Ugh Ugh” tradition. He is cast only as a provider of sensation or sentiment, in creaking Victorian plots. Achievement varies between Henty's dull accuracy in Maori and Settler, 1891, to the amusing impossibilities of Jules Verne in 1877. Some titles will indicate the range of this Maorified fiction. H. B. Marriott Watson, The Web of the Spider, 1891; R. P. Whitworth, Hine-Ra or The Maori Scout, 1887; H. Nisbet, The Rebel Chief, 1896; R. H. Scott, Ngamihi, or The Maori Chief's Daughter, 1895; Rolf Boldrewood, War to the Knife, 1898; and W. R. Hodder, The Daughter of the Dawn, 1903.

Exploiting Novels

The exploiters of the Maori are, in the nineteenth century, all men. Another major branch of the exploiting novel, however, is that by and for the women, which also begins early, with Lady Campbell's Martin Tobin, 1864, the third New Zealand novel to appear. This is a three-volume concoction for circulating library readers, with a romantic plot in a colonial setting where, so the authoress supposes, anything may happen. Mrs Charlotte Evans comes next, with two novels in 1874, both originating as magazine serials of the Family Herald type, A Strange Friendship and Over the Hills and Far Away. Forgeries, disguises, elopements, repentant deathbeds, and fortunate legacies make up the plots; only by courtesy of their settings are these New Zealand novels, though Mrs Evans had struggled on a Canterbury back-country station. Her characters remain nostalgically English and stubbornly cultivated. They take champagne and turkey for the simple bush picnic, and display on their drawing-room shelves, “Kingsley in blue, Macaulay in brown, Thackeray and Dickens in red, and a complete set of the Cornhill Magazine in handsome bindings”. The Canterbury scene and life are only incidental; there are some horses, dogs, sheep, paddocks, but the core of the book is sentimentalised personal relationships from the woman's viewpoint.

This type of light love story, like the Maorified adventure yarn, finds writers and readers still. Many New Zealand women have written fiction at this level. In the 1890s Louisa Baker (“Alien”) was popular, with earnest, feminist romances rich in piety, love, scenic beauties, and Wordsworthian musings emotionally described. Later and more sophisticated writers in the genre include Rosemary Rees, Nelle Scanlan, Mary Scott, Margaret Jeffrey, and Ruth Park. Many other names could be listed, for this is the most numerous class of New Zealand fiction.

The few short stories of the period to 1890 are also of greater historical than literary interest, except for the work of Lady Barker. Both in the sketches with an autobiographical base, Station Life in New Zealand, 1870, and Station Amusements in New Zealand, 1873, and in the stories in A Christmas Cake, 1871, and other volumes, Lady Barker records her life with spontaneous detailed clarity. Henry Lapham's We Four, 1880, offers colloquial salty yarns of gold-mining days in Otago and Westland.

After 1890: Preaching and Interpreting

After 1890 the picture changes. Pioneering is becoming settlement, town can be distinguished from back-blocks, native-born white New Zealanders of the first or even the second generation begin to predominate. Maori wars and gold rushes recede into the past.

This New Zealand is reflected in its fiction, which moves into preaching and interpretation. The earliest interpreting novel is George Chamier's Philosopher Dick, 1891, which brings to the standard South Island New Chum material a fresh critical perception. Chamier's hero not only lives the settler's life; he also stands aside and philosophically analyses its qualities, particularly its failure to exemplify the Utopian pilgrim dream. His novel relies on the fictional clichés of the age, with diaries, letters, inset tales and authorial intrusions. Chamier's protagonist is the stock emigrant-author-hero, whose revolt against the materialism of his station mates drives him to the lonely life of a boundary rider, where he can consider the universe in musings which recall Hardy's. The result is a muddled, intelligent, sardonically amusing book.

The women of the 1890s busied themselves with the good causes of religion, temperance, and feminism, and mirror the developing social tensions of town life. Anne Glenny Wilson's Two Summers, 1900, set in Auckland, notes the colonial's growing uncertainty about identity; was he an Englishman or a New Zealander? Jessie Weston's Ko Meri, 1890, which also reflects Auckland society, deals in particular with the social and religious education of the half-caste. The heroine, Mary, is shown as only superficially adapted to the white world. When her English fiancé is killed, she returns to the pa, saying, “The night that has fallen upon my race has fallen upon me, and it is well that I should share the darkness with my own people.”

The Maori Problem

The problem of the Maori's future occupied other writers at this time. A. A. Grace dealt with it in his novel Atareta, Belle of the Kainga, 1908, and in his stories, Maoriland Sketches, 1895, and Tales of a Dying Race, 1901; William Baucke was also concerned with it in Where the White Man Treads Across the Pathway of the Maori, 1905. Both these men, knowledgeable and without illusions about Maori ways, are driven by the Pakeha sense of guilt into the contradictory attitudes of sentiment and satire. For the problems of the mixed race, two solutions are offered, the one Jessie Weston's, that the half-caste cannot be naturalised in European society, and the other, A. H. Adams's, in Tussock Land, 1904, that further intermarriage will solve things in time. Adams's half-caste heroine is said to belong to “a newer people, a nation that has no past”, only the future; his white hero is weak, one of what Adams views as “the dying race”. Their marriage brings strength to the boy, security to the girl, so that the New Zealand future lies before their children. H. B. Vogel's A Maori Maid, 1898, also offers wedding bells as a solution, but explores the problems more fully. Katherine Mansfield was attracted by the topic, and planned a story Maata which was to have been “a psychological study”. An isolated return to the idea is F. E. Baume's Half-Caste, 1933. The half-caste girl remained a useful plot ingredient, but no honest attempt was made to embody the theme again until Noel Hilliard, in 1960, made a study in modern terms in Maori Girl. Hilliard's novel reflects today's attitudes, as Jessie Weston's does those of 1890; he sees the problem as not the racial mixture, but the social mixture, when the country-bred Maori has to move into city life without the moral support of the tribal community. Hilliard offers no solution at all, being content to stimulate thought and feeling about race relations.

Utopia and Feminism

Other social problems which occupied writers in the 1890s were those of economic and socialist reform, temperance, and the emancipation of women. Reform of various brands is advocated by sundry minor writers in Utopian fantasies, satire, and pamphlet novelettes; none has the bite of Samuel Butler'sErewhon, 1872, which is marginally a New Zealand novel, qualifying by reason of its brilliant opening chapters about the narrator's Canterbury journey. Feminism, often combined with prohibitionist propaganda, inspired a number of women, of whom Louisa Baker was the most popular, and Edith Searle Grossman the most ambitious. Independence, wrote Louisa Baker “is the great hunger of the common sisterhood”, a thesis which she illustrated in a series of harrowing love stories. Mrs Grossman began with several crusading novels, two set in Australia, attacking with rhetorical overemphasis the trio of atheism, alcoholism, and the subjection of women. Her last novel, The Heart of the Bush, 1910, is fully representative of its time both in its themes and in its technical deficiencies. Her heroine, returning to Canterbury from an expensive English education, faces a choice between two worlds, presented in the romantic terms of two suitors, the polished wealthy Englishman, and the bronzed uncouth colonial. Mrs Grossman's heroine chooses the New Zealand rough diamond. “How will it all turn out, … the marriage of the leisured and the labouring class, of art and nature, of civilisation and barbarism?” asks the author. The particular pressures upon colonial women are explored with considerable insight, “a struggle for years … a lonely life on this bush farm … work all the year round … wait till the children come!” In addition, Mrs Grossman probes again at Chamier's questions, the spiritual inadequacy of pioneer materialism, the sense of guilt suppressed in a society founded on the slaughter of animals, and the need for a way of life more balanced than that offered by backblocks “work all the year round”. The Heart of the Bush is not a good novel, but it remains an interesting one.

The temperance novels, almost all by women, handle similar matters, but reduce them to the simple issue of drunken husband and moral wife.

William Satchell

Only one novelist between 1860 and 1914, William Satchell, is still readable today for his own sake. Three of his novels are set in the kauri gumfields of North Auckland, and may be said to have created the lasting image of that life which marks him as our first regional novelist. In his best novel, The Land of the Lost, 1902, Satchell manages, in spite of a melodramatic Victorian plot, to bring to life both land and people in a manner reminiscent of Hardy. He is conscious of the littleness of human events in the context of space and of the earth's long history; the gumdiggers, searching for riches derived from age-old forests, and doomed to pass on before seeing the “apple orchards and vineyards of the future”, are not only well drawn in themselves, but intended as analogues of human fate. In The Toll of the Bush, 1905, Satchell comments as Hardy might have done: “The order of things is not changed in deference to human desire. In the end we have to make up our minds to the inevitable”. Satchell's most popular work has proved to be his last, The Greenstone Door, 1914, a historical novel of Maori and Pakeha between Waitangi and the Maori Wars. Though the characterisation has not the vigour which personal experience gives to The Land of the Lost, Satchell makes a good enough story out of simple material; the Maori people are sentimentally unreal, but much of the background is accurately portrayed.

Jane Mander

Last of the novelists of the 1900s is Jane Mander, whose first novel, which she kept and reconsidered for some 15 years, was not published until 1920. It springs clearly from the preoccupations of intelligent girls in the 1900s. More openly than her predecessors dared, Jane Mander deals with their themes: the lot of the cultured married woman in the backblocks, the religious, socialistic, and sexual explorations of the day, New Zealand's brand of pioneer puritanism, and the discrepancy between the aims of men and women in the working out of the colony's destiny. She brings in also the conflict of the generations, especially that relating to the new freedom of womenfolk. Like her other novels, The Story of a New Zealand River is set in the timber settlements of Northland, and has considerable background interest; local colour is often clumsily handled, but essentially Jane Mander is using the New Zealand scene with which she is familiar not as a tourist attraction of an exotic kind, but to present an interpretation of life. Later titles are The Passionate Puritan, 1922, set in a mill township; The Strange Attraction, 1923, dealing with country journalism; Allen Adair, 1925, a gumlands study of the tensions between “Home” and “home” which preoccupied the 1920s and 1930s. This split in colonial loyalties, already noted in Anne Glenny Wilson's novels, is marked in the next 20 years. Looking back on them in 1938, Robin Hyde noted that, while the first generation of New Zealand writers were Englishmen, “whole people”, the Mander-Satchell generation were “exiles or minds divided”; it was only in the third generation, her own, that the division was healed. “Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation, and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be ‘forever England’. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.”

Conflict of Loyalties: Katherine Mansfield

The conflict of loyalties which made it so difficult for local writers to accept identification with these “distant islands” is seen at its most tragic in Katherine Mansfield. The finest creative writer New Zealand has yet produced, she worked solely in the field of the short story. She was born in Wellington in 1888 into the family of the minor colonial magnate, Sir Harold Beauchamp, and had her schooling both locally and in London. On her return, in 1906, she was in bitter rebellion against Wellington society's expectations for girls, and against what she called “Philistia itself”. In 1909 she left New Zealand for good, only to spend the rest of her brief life in Europe recreating imaginatively her New Zealand experience. Incomparably her best work is in the stories relating to her home and girlhood, whether they are openly located in New Zealand or thinly disguised with other names and settings. Sensitivity to home and sexual tensions, poetic evocation of mood and moment, sympathy with the young or the unprotected, and disciplined artistic integrity make her work remarkable in any context; but in the colonial context in which she grew up, it is more remarkable still. Only a few early stories have the crude realism or amateur technique usual at the time. The kind of thing she might have written, had not genius combined with exile given her wings, may be seen in the work of A. A. Grace and William Baucke, in G. B. Lancaster's Sons o'Men, 1904, or B. E. Baughan's Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven, 1912. These stories feature the comic Maori caricature, and the Kiplingesque action hero, with exaggerated episodes and supposedly “colonial” dialect based on literary Cockney. Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven, is, as the title shows, apologetic about itself. B. E. Baughan was aware of her inferior status, and of the problems which her generation faced in attempting artistic activity in a new community. “Art at all times,” she wrote, “appeals scantily to the backblocks … what have we … to exercise our higher faculties, and so give us, in addition to material existence, life?” Her sketches grow out of simple everyday material, especially in relation to those who had not become fully acclimatised, the English settler, the Maori ill at ease in the Pakeha world, or the homesick European immigrant. The distance between her stories and those of Katherine Mansfield is a measure not only of the authors' differing intrinsic gifts, but also of the clogging handicap which the colonial context imposed. This handicap may be seen also in the stories of Alice Webb, Miss Peter's Special, 1926, which describe small town life with a mildly salty pen, but little art.

Next Part: Between the Wars