The author of a dozen novels and many scores of short stories that were widely read in New Zealand during the first four decades of the twentieth century, Edith Joan Lyttleton was born on 18 December 1873 at Clyne Vale, a family sheepfarming property at Epping, near Campbell Town in northern Tasmania. She was the eldest child of Emily Wood and her husband, Westcote McNab Lyttleton. Her father, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was descended from an influential Scottish landed family who colonised Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. Her ancestry on both sides reached back to the origins of Van Diemen's land as a penal colony, two great-grandfathers having served as military officers before becoming wealthy landowners. She also had aristocratic French connections: a great-great-grandmother had been lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and had been guillotined on the same day.
About 1879, when Edith was six, the family emigrated to New Zealand, where Westcote Lyttleton became manager, eventually owner, of the Rokeby sheep station at Rakaia, near Ashburton in Canterbury. It was one of a number of substantial property investments in the South Island that his father had earlier made as a partner in the wealthy Tasmanian property syndicate Kermode and Company.
Edith grew up in an atmosphere of leisured colonial gentility, and inherited many of the high-minded religious and political ideals of a colonial landowning élite with a strong sense of imperial mission and duty, but she also suffered acutely from the puritanical restrictions placed on the upbringing of young women. Although her brothers, Ray and Clyne, were educated at Christchurch Boys' High School, she and her sister, Emily, received no formal education, and when she began to publish stories at the turn of the century she was forbidden to use her own name. When her first pen-name, 'Keron Hale', was identified in a prize-winning story she wrote for the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine in 1901, she immediately changed it to 'G. B. Lancaster', and all her subsequent fiction was published under that name.
G. B. Lancaster became widely known in Australasia as a prolific author of short stories, especially in the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, the Sydney Bulletin, the Lone Hand, and the Australasian. A collection of short stories, Sons o' men (1904), and three novels, A spur to smite (1905), The tracks we tread (1907) and The altar stairs (1908), were published in England and the United States. Her fiction was strongly influenced by Rudyard Kipling and R. L. Stevenson, authors whom she found immensely attractive after the rigid domestic diet of improving ladies' literature on which she had been brought up. Initially set in back-country New Zealand, and developing to include outback Australia and the Pacific, her fiction drew on the conventions of the romantic adventure narrative to portray an often luridly violent male world of work and action in harsh physical environments. Her recurrent themes are the nature of colonial character and the conflict between desire and self-sacrifice.
In 1909 Rokeby was sold (it had gradually gone into decline after the death of Edith's father in 1897), and Edith accompanied her mother and sister to London. Before they were in their teens, the girls had been made to understand that they would never be allowed to marry, 'as Mum had only had us in order that life should always be easy for her'. Her mother's resentment of her meeting people outside the family meant that Edith was unable to mix in literary circles as much as she would have liked. However, she was resolved to become financially independent, and by this time had become a thoroughly determined professional writer. Two novels were published soon after her arrival in London: Jim of the ranges (1910), set in outback Victoria, and The Honourable Peggy (1911), a motor-vehicle touring romance set in England, Scotland and Wales. But it was The law-bringers (1913), an epic based on a journey she made to the remote North-west Territories of Canada during her trip to England, that finally established her as the most successful New Zealand professional writer, overseas, of her generation.
For the next decade Lyttleton turned primarily, again, to short fiction, publishing scores of stories (mainly with Canadian, Australian and New Zealand settings) in British and American magazines. As well, almost all of her earlier books were reprinted (some of them several times), some were translated into French, and three of them – The altar stairs, Jim of the ranges and The law-bringers – were made into Hollywood feature films in the early 1920s.
During the First World War Edith Lyttleton visited the war zone in France, writing patriotic journalism and stories based on her experiences, and was exhaustively involved in soldier support organisations in London. Two further novels, written earlier but unpublished because of the paper shortage, appeared: in 1917, Fool divine, a story of American political exploitation in Central America, and in 1918, The Savignys, an English political romance. In 1920–21 she visited the Yukon in preparation for another novel of Canada's remote frontier history.
This vigorous literary activity came to an abrupt end early in 1924 when Edith was profoundly affected by the deaths, within a period of four months, of her sister and mother. For the remaining 20 years of her life she lived an unsettled, wandering existence, alone, constantly travelling throughout the dominions, the United States and Europe. In 1926 she returned to New Zealand for four years, and in the late 1920s, after visiting ancestral sites in Tasmania, she began to write Pageant, the first of the four 'Dominion-historical' epic romances of colonial life, set in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, by which she came to be best known. Pageant (1933) was widely acclaimed in the United States, and was followed a year later by her Yukon novel, The world is yours. In 1933 she returned to New Zealand to research and write Promenade (1938), set in nineteenth century Auckland and Canterbury. By this time, when she had at last allowed her identity to be publicly known and consented to photographs of herself in newspapers, she was considerably in demand for radio and newspaper interviews and talks – especially to women's groups in New Zealand and Australia.
Edith Lyttleton left New Zealand for the last time in 1938, travelling to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to research what was to be her last book, the historical romance Grand parade. During the Second World War she found herself trapped in England, unable to travel back to New Zealand because of seriously deteriorating health. Despite this, she again devoted herself to war work, then struggled desperately to complete her Nova Scotian novel, which was published in 1943. She died in a London nursing home on 10 March 1945.
Edith Lyttleton always felt frustrated in her literary aspirations, driven by the need to achieve financial independence, and by difficult personal circumstances, to settle for less than she felt she was capable of. However, both The law-bringers and Fool divine, with their introduction of strong female characters, marked a significant development in her writing. They foreshadow the feminist edge of the later historical romances, which are much less driven by the demands of plot and allow fuller play to comic irony – perhaps influenced by one of her favourite novelists, George Meredith. The intelligent, witty and rebellious but frustrated heroines of Pageant, Promenade and Grand parade, commenting ironically on the spectacle of greed, egotism and folly everywhere visible in colonial life, are her finest achievement, representing a revision of her earlier perceptions of empire, and an often moving search for personal origins.