Between the Wars
After the 1920s there was a mild spring tide in fiction. Only one novelist followed Jane Mander in attempting to speak openly on controversial themes, Jean Devanny, who combined a lurid feminism related more to the past with socialistic notions unacceptable to most New Zealand readers. Her first novel, The Butcher Shop, 1926, is violently sensational, but has moments of insight. C. R. Allen, a quieter writer, portrayed boyhood and young manhood in Dunedin in A Poor Scholar, 1936, and The Hedge Sparrow, 1937, opening up in this way a topic, the “portrait of the artist as a young man”, which has proved only too attractive to New Zealand novelists.
Fiction at this time still exhibited major technical inadequacies; a perusal of the novels of these two writers, as well as of those of Hector Bolitho, Pat Lawlor, M. Escott, Alan Mulgan, J. A. Lee, Nelle Scanlan, and John Guthrie suggests that New Zealand novelists, even with promising material, failed to be more than provincial because their literary models were so old fashioned. Few of the creative experiments in England or America seem in the 1920s to have crossed the Pacific. Nelle Scanlan is the most productive and lastingly popular of this group, but although in Pencarrow, 1932, she established the saga of pioneering as a topic, she handled it only at the level of light fiction, so that the conventions of romance prevent more than a superficial treatment; her best work is in her studies of women and girls. A writer of more originality is F. S. Anthony, a Taranaki ex-serviceman and journalist who died in 1925. A novel, Follow the Call, was published posthumously in 1936, followed by the sketches Me and Gus, 1938. These, somewhat mutilated, enjoyed a belated radio popularity in the 1950s. Anthony's books are notable for their broad humour, easy rendering of cow-cocky lingo, and dramatic evocation of a stylised Kiwi persona.
Another Taranaki writer who made New Zealanders laugh at themselves is John Guthrie, in The Little Country, 1935, a crackling little satirical piece. His So they Began, 1936, reflects the public interest in history which developed as the year of the National Centennial, 1940, approached. Few, however, who have attempted the historical novel in New Zealand do more than recapitulate the clichés of pioneer fiction, exploiting rather than interpreting their material; John Guthrie is no exception. Other historical novelists of this period are Beryl McCarthy, Joyce West, G. B. Lancaster, Frank Acheson, and Robin Hyde.
Frank Acheson returns to the Maori of early times; in Plume of the Arawas, 1930, a story set in pre-Pakeha days in the Taupo region, he almost overcomes the difficulties of the genre. While there is the usual guidebook clumsiness, Acheson's love of the people, intimate knowledge of the past, and poetic sensitivity to tradition give his novel some strength.