Story: Wilson, Anne

Page 1: Biography

Wilson, Anne

1848–1930

Writer, embroiderer, gardener

This biography, written by Mary Louise Ormsby, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993.

Anne Adams was born at Greenvale, near Wickliffe, Victoria, Australia, on 11 June 1848. She was the daughter of Jane Anderson, a Scot, and her husband, Robert Adams, an Irishman. Her father was a successful pastoralist and when he died in 1862 he left Annie, as she was known, a legacy of £16,000. She was educated at Geelong High School and a private school in St Kilda, Melbourne, where she appears to have excelled at her studies. After finishing her education she made a tour of Europe with her mother.

On her return to Australia Annie Adams met James Glenny Wilson, who came from a prosperous Scottish family. After a courtship in the social limelight they married on 21 January 1874 at St Enochs station, near Skipton in Victoria. In 1873 James had visited New Zealand where he purchased 6,210 acres of the Rangitikei block at Bulls. By the end of 1874 the couple were living there in their house, Lethenty, and farming the land, which was known as Ngaio station. Annie Wilson spent the rest of her life at Rangitikei but continued to identify with her birthplace, which provided the inspiration for much of her writing. She chose 'Austral' as her first literary pseudonym, but later wrote under the name of Mrs Glenny Wilson.

Between 1875 and 1880 she had five children and began publishing sketches, verses and short stories. These appeared in the Australasian and in English and American journals, including Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Temple Bar and the Spectator. Her work attracted sufficient interest to warrant the publication in London in 1889 of a collection of poetry, Themes and variations. This was favourably reviewed in Britain and was reprinted in 1895 in an enlarged edition. A second collection, A book of verses, was published in 1901 and reprinted in 1917. She was particularly pleased when two of her poems, 'Fairyland' and 'A spring afternoon in New Zealand', appeared in a children's reading series produced by the New Zealand government. Although a number of critics noted an uneven quality in her later poetry, a survey of early New Zealand women writers, published in 1909, praised her subject matter and style: 'She sings of love and home and motherhood, and paints the Maori landscape with grace and power'.

As her children grew older Annie Wilson turned to longer fiction. In her two romantic novels, Alice Lauder (1893) and Two summers (1900), she explored the difference between old and new worlds by contrasting the manners of women from the colonial élite with their English counterparts. Colonial women could marry for love, not status, were at ease with all classes, and, if necessary, could make their own way in the world. Their lives were in stark contrast to that of Lady May Carr in Alice Lauder, who had 'that superb air of self-satisfaction which only an Englishwoman of a certain rank, supported by a lifetime of cold baths, High Church services, Parisian corset-makers, and invitations to Court, can possibly command'. While somewhat critical of the rigorous class distinction in Britain, during the late 1880s Annie Wilson held that universal male suffrage in New Zealand could lead to mob rule. Her husband, who represented the interests of the land-owning pastoral élite in Parliament, may have shared this view for a while, but soon came to support both women's suffrage and universal male suffrage.

In 1875 the family had sustained a reversal of fortune. As a result Annie Wilson's legacy became their main support, and she was forced to develop a thorough knowledge of finance. For many years she considered herself to be in straitened circumstances, worrying that her husband would become no more than a 'tiresome farmer' and that her children would grow up uneducated. Nevertheless, she was able to employ domestic staff, wear clothing from fashionable London stores, and enlarge the homestead in 1886. As the money invested in farm improvements began to pay off, Lethenty became a gathering place for politicians, wealthy pastoralists and visiting dignitaries. Social activities included music recitals, balls, tennis and polo.

In 1897 Annie Wilson travelled to Britain where she saw William Morris's work in the applied arts. She was deeply impressed by the application of what she believed was a first-class intellect to the design of the common objects of life: fabric, wallpaper and household chattels. After 1903 she ceased to publish and turned her creative energy to embroidery. She worked large hangings and drapes to Jacobean and Morris-influenced designs. These items were used as decoration in her home and to raise money for charity.

Lethenty developed into a grand home with an elegant garden planned by Annie Wilson. She incorporated Australian flora into the plantings and from the turn of the century grew prize-winning roses. In 1914 the house was destroyed by fire but was replaced in the same style the following year.

Annie Wilson died at Lethenty on 11 February 1930, the matriarch of a prosperous, well-educated family. Her husband had predeceased her. Throughout her life she was noted for her brilliant intellect.

How to cite this page:

Mary Louise Ormsby. 'Wilson, Anne', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 2, 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2w27/wilson-anne (accessed 24 August 2017)