Page 1: Biography
Grossmann, Edith Searle
Teacher, novelist, journalist, feminist
This biography, written by Heather Roberts, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993.
Edith Howitt Searle was born on 8 September 1863 at Beechworth, Victoria, Australia, the fourth child and third daughter of Mary Ann Beeby and her husband, George Smales Searle, a newspaper editor. The family came to New Zealand in 1878. Edith attended Invercargill Grammar School, and in 1879 Christchurch Girls' High School, where she became head girl. The principal, Helen Connon, took a particular interest in Edith, introducing her to Professor John Macmillan Brown of Canterbury College and persuading her to remain at school so she could gain entry to university. Helen Connon was to be not only a teacher and friend of Edith Searle but also a model: a woman who had achieved prominence in her career as a teacher and who believed in the importance of education for women.
In 1880 Edith Searle entered Canterbury College on a university junior scholarship. She later commented that there were then only three other girls at the college, but by the end of her course there were about 100 female students. She was awarded a senior scholarship in 1882, graduated BA in 1884 and received an MA with first-class honours in Latin and English and third-class honours in political science in 1885. A brilliant student, she won a number of prizes and was a member of the debating society. Among the topics she debated were the higher education of women and the Married Women's Property Bill of 1884. Macmillan Brown described her as 'an indefatigable worker…[whose] talents placed her amongst the foremost.'
After graduating Edith Searle taught at Wellington Girls' High School until 1890. On 23 December that year, at Wainuiomata, she married Joseph Penfound Grossmann, who had been a fellow student at Canterbury College. The couple lived for a time in Christchurch where Joseph taught at Christchurch Boys' High School. Their only child, Arthur Searle, was born in Christchurch on 5 December 1894. In 1897 Edith tutored university classes in Wellington. She subsequently lived in Auckland, and spent 10 years apart from her husband in England and Europe. Joseph Grossmann was twice convicted of fraud in 1898 and was sentenced to two years in prison. He later became professor of history and economics at Auckland University College, until being dismissed from his professorship in 1932.
Edith Searle Grossmann (the name by which she is best known as a writer) published four novels between 1890 and 1910: Angela; a messenger (1890); In revolt (1893); A knight of the Holy Ghost (1907), republished the following year as Hermione; a knight of the Holy Ghost; and The heart of the bush (1910). Grossmann was involved in the suffrage movement in the 1890s, and her fiction was part of that struggle for the vote and for equal rights for women within marriage. Her understanding of the women's movement was consistent with that of other nineteenth century feminists, who argued that women's superior moral fibre and their place within the family gave them a special role in public and political life. The women's movement was 'breaking down worn-out conventions,' she wrote; its members 'were throwing open one door after another to women; they were raising the white flag of a purer morality; they were lifting up the fallen, trampled victims of social wickedness'. She also wrote of the need to 'raise the idea of marriage. The union is marriage, and the union is the source of the new race', and described the lives of New Zealand women as a 'combination of feminism and home-life'.
Her feminist views are most clearly expressed in the novels In revolt and Hermione, which focus on the character Hermione Carlisle. Here she examines women's education, the role of women in marriage and the restrictive laws surrounding marriage, the place of religion in the subjection of women, and possible solutions to the inequities women faced. The idea that women had access to a higher morality than men was explored in Grossmann's first novel, Angela, in which a young woman is wrongfully accused of involvement with a married man. Angela joins the Salvation Army and serves the downtrodden in Wellington and Sydney. In all three novels the purity and morality of the female protagonists is destroyed by the wickedness of a cruel, patriarchal world: Angela is murdered by a man she has attempted to save from execution, and Hermione commits suicide because her marriage confines her to a relationship with a drunken and abusive husband who takes property which has been willed to her.
In her fourth novel, The heart of the bush, Grossmann seeks solutions to the issues raised in the previous three, and looks particularly at the role of women and marriage in a colonial society. The unlikely marriage between the English-educated Adelaide Borlase and the manager of her father's Canterbury station, Dennis MacDiarmid, threatens to go wrong because both are deluded about the other's expectations of the relationship. The two are made to confront their erroneous ideas about each other when Adelaide nearly dies in childbirth. The result is a compromise in which she gives up her ideas of 'civilising' Dennis, and he realises that her happiness does not require the riches of European culture.
In her own life Edith Searle Grossmann achieved more than the women's movement aimed for. In addition to her novels, from 1897 to 1918 she wrote as a free-lance journalist for British and New Zealand newspapers and journals. Her subjects included Maori education, the conservation of old buildings, the development of parks within cities, literary criticism, theatre and fiction. She published a life of Helen Macmillan Brown (Helen Connon) in 1905. She was a founding member of the Lyceum Club in London, and of the Canterbury Women's Institute in Christchurch in 1892. Edith Searle Grossmann died on 27 February 1931, at home in St Heliers Bay, Auckland, and was buried at Hillsborough.