Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
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.



Depression, 1930–1940

All these writers, however, were avoiding the real troubles of the years 1930–39 in New Zealand. In the work of the four who did not do so, John A. Lee, Robin Hyde, John Mulgan, and Frank Sargeson, New Zealand fiction may at last be said to reach maturity.

Of these John A. Lee is artistically the least disciplined. In Children of the Poor, 1934, and its sequel, The Hunted, 1936, he draws on material from his own poverty-stricken and delinquent boyhood in the depression of the 1890s in order to stimulate the emotions of readers experiencing similar conditions in the 1930s. These novels are in the ninetyish preaching tradition, but with an added violence derived from the overseas literature of protest. “The gutter,” Lee proclaims, “is not of Paris, of London, of New York, alone. The social gutter is of every clime and race, of village as well as of town, of the New World as well as of the Old.” He was the first to explore the experience of the urban proletariat. Similarly, his Civilian into Soldier, 1937, though marred by crude emotionalism, ventures to discuss matters previously disregarded in New Zealand fiction.

Robin Hyde

Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) continued this exploration of the underworld in her two “Starkie” novels, Passport to Hell, 1935, and Nor the Years Condemn, 1938, which recreate the life of Douglas Stark, “the Red Indian Savage”, delinquent, Borstal boy, war hero, and civilian misfit. Check to Your King, 1936, is an uneven historical novel about Charles de Thierry, an idealist adventurer of the 1830s. The Godwits Fly, 1938, is the most successful of her novels; it is a study of the growth, maturity, and disillusionment of a heroine in a Wellington suburban setting.

Robin Hyde's achievement is to have recognised that local colour was no longer enough for a writer in New Zealand. Exploitation of the exotic, by “sitting about singing to tuis and babbling to bellbirds for the term of your natural life”, was futile. “I hate these aggressively insular New Zealanders.” Writers must seek instead to deal with “something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child”. In her short life Robin Hyde is important because she established local fiction as something of serious, adult content, no longer “forever England”, though the task of putting New Zealand on to paper was not easy. She was conscious of, and vocal about, her sense of mission. It was the writer's task, said Phoenix, a little magazine of the time, to find “the words that shall show us these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought”. The writer's emotional wavering between England and New Zealand is often referred to between 1900 and 1940. Katherine Mansfield, in a Wellington notebook of 1908, urges herself, “Go Anywhere. Don't stay here”. John Guthrie, in The Little Country, 1935, remarks, “We've got no national consciousness, partly because we've got practically no native songs and little native literature…. Mentally we're still the nurslings of Britain … there's something that stunts our writing in this kinship …”. Robin Hyde has already been quoted; in The Godwits Fly she speaks of a childhood lesson on the migrant godwits, “They fly north, they fly north…. Most of us here are human godwits; our north is mostly England. Our youth, our best, our intelligent, brave and beautiful, must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand”. In her novels, as in the stories of Frank Sargeson and in the one novel which John Mulgan lived to write, readers may observe the process of change by which writers resolved these tensions and “became New Zealand” … “whole people, not exiles or minds divided”.

Frank Sargeson

The kind of mature interpretation of the world of “man, woman and child” without overt national self-consciousness which Robin Hyde referred to is seen in the fiction of Frank Sargeson, New Zealand's most skilful artist, after Katherine Mansfield, in the short story form. Sargeson's stories began to appear in 1934; Conversation With My Uncle, 1936, and A Man and His Wife, 1940, offer deceptively simple tales, often in colloquial monologue, which expose the seamier underside of social conformity and the bourgeois ethic. Sargeson's characters are inarticulate, sub-average folk, rouseabouts, factory hands, shearers, ordinary boys, and struggling ordinary women. The dominant note is a wry pity. His social-radical tone diminishes in That Summer, 1946, a nouvelle notable for its picture of urban shoddiness. Technically Sargeson learnt much from America; his stories injected new life into a flagging genre, so that few subsequent writers have escaped his influence, both in content and in craft. I, for One, 1954, is an ironic presentation of suburban mores from the point of view of a prudish spinster. Sargeson's one full novel, I Saw in My Dream, 1949, is a study of a boy searching for his real self, but inhibited by the cramping pressures of a puritan environment. The picture given of New Zealand during the years of Sargeson's lifetime is excellent, but the novel splits unfortunately into the two parts of its original conception. Over the whole range of his work, however, Sargeson's achievement is among New Zealand's finest.

To digress a moment to another short story writer of the time, Roderick Finlayson. Brown Man's Burden, 1938, and Sweet Beulah Land, 1942, resume the Maori theme, this time in contemporary society. Finlayson sounds a new note of compassionate tolerance, but succumbs to the modern temptation of using the Maori as a stick to beat the Pakeha. The Maori's communal virtues, his generosity, courtesy, and personal warmth, may easily be elevated into the uncorrupted innocence of the Noble Primitive by a writer anxious to attack European acquisitive individualism. In particular, Finlayson's notion of “identity with the soil” as “the pride and birthright of the native” gives a sentimental bias to some of his stories. Tidal Creek, 1948, a series of related sketches rather than a novel, expresses distrust of the city dweller's divorce from the land.

John Mulgan

The last of the quartette who gave New Zealanders a “home in thought” in the 1930s is John Mulgan. In Report on Experience, 1947, Mulgan describes how he, like Robin Hyde, resolved the split in his loyalties. “You were English and not English,” wrote Robin Hyde, … “… Don't you think we live half our lives in England, anyhow? I was thinking – there can't have been anything quite like this since the Roman Colonists settled in Britain; not the hanging on with the one hand, and the other hand full of seas.” What taught John Mulgan, as it taught Katherine Mansfield, to which hemisphere he belonged, was the “long migration” of exile. “If you try to forget the country of your youth, as I did for a long time,” he wrote, “you will lose the fight and wither internally of homesickness.” The product of this experience is the Report, and one novel, Man Alone, 1939. This explores territory similar to that of Lee, Robin Hyde, and Sargeson, the world of the casual worker, the fugitive, the man without ties or responsibilities. “Man Alone” is figured in one Johnson, ex-soldier emigrant in the 1920s, who sees New Zealand with fresh eyes, without sentiment, and who lives through its history of boom and slump until his escape during the Depression. When the European fighting breaks out again, in Spain, Johnson enlists, the war providing him with that external motive for “doing something together” which the peace could not provide. Indeed, peace is only “the bit in between”. Mulgan explores “the world of man, woman and child” in the antipodean setting he knows, without any “aggressive” insularity. Man Alone is the most polished New Zealand novel published before 1940.