Page 1: Biography
Anthony, Frank Sheldon
Seaman, farmer, short-story writer, novelist
This biography, written by Terry Sturm, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
A pioneering exponent of the New Zealand comic vernacular yarn in his 'Me and Gus' and other stories, Frank Sheldon Anthony was born at Matawhero, near Gisborne, on 13 December 1891, the son of Frank Sheldon Anthony and his wife, Annie McGlashan. His father occasionally received remittances from his family in England; he never settled into a permanent career. His New Zealand-born mother had worked as a governess and schoolteacher prior to her marriage, and resumed teaching later in life. Frank had one elder and two younger sisters, all of whom became schoolteachers.
Later in the 1890s the Anthonys moved to South Taranaki. For brief periods Frank Anthony senior was a hotel proprietor at Hawera and Manutahi. He also owned racehorses. Eventually, from 1902, the family settled in the remote backblocks settlement of Whakamara, inland from Hawera. It was at the small, one-teacher Whakamara School that Frank Anthony completed his primary education in 1905. Over the next two years he was a pupil at Hawera District High School. From the age of 10 he spent most of his spare time writing. Encouraged by his mother, he filled numerous exercise books with poems and stories based on immediate happenings in his family and district.
After leaving school he worked for a year as a farmhand. Then, in 1909, he suddenly left home to see the world. He was to spend nearly a decade at sea. For a few months he was a deckhand on New Zealand coastal steamers, but soon travelled further afield on merchant sailing vessels that plied the routes around Cape Horn. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he joined the Royal Navy and was posted as a gunner on the destroyer Opal. The ship was based in the North Sea and was later involved in the battle of Jutland. In 1916 Anthony was seriously injured on the Opal in an accident that permanently incapacitated a lung and left him prey to consumption. He was repatriated to New Zealand in 1918, with 80 per cent disability and a British naval pension of 27s. 6d. a week. After several months of convalescence at Te Waikato Sanatorium, Cambridge, he returned to Taranaki.
In 1919, with the help of a soldiers' rehabilitation grant, Anthony purchased a 76-acre dairy farm on marginal land at Midhurst, near Stratford. For nearly five years he struggled to improve the land's productivity and to cope with mortgage indebtedness. It was in the evenings, alone in his shack on the farm, that he returned to the interest in writing that had preoccupied him during much of his childhood and adolescence.
His writing now drew prolifically on his experiences as a struggling backblocks farmer and as a sailor before and during the war. Between July 1923 and August 1924 his work appeared in the Auckland Weekly News and the Christchurch Weekly Press. In this period 10 of his 'Me and Gus' stories were published: comic yarns about the farming mishaps and romantic misadventures of two new-chum bachelor farmers struggling under the burdens of debt, poor-quality land and uncertain returns. They were narrated in a racy, masculine vernacular idiom, and offered an edged social comment on the popular myth of New Zealand as a land of opportunity for the 'ordinary man'. Two novels were also serialised in the Weekly Press in this period: 'Follow the call', a comic romance also set in backblocks Taranaki and dealing with incidents and characters similar to those of the 'Me and Gus' stories; and 'Windjammer sailors', a lively fictional narrative of the author's experiences on sailing ships in the Pacific Ocean prior to the First World War. In the latter novel the narrator's romantic idealism is continually undercut by the often brutal realism of the author's treatment of shipboard life.
The publication of his work in New Zealand prompted Anthony to envisage a professional career as a writer overseas, and, disillusioned with life on the land, he sold his farm in 1924 and travelled to England. He was also hoping to persuade Phyllis Symonds, a young Taranaki woman then in England (who had provided the basis of the romantic interest of 'Follow the call'), to marry him, but she was to remain uninterested.
For two years Anthony struggled hard, alone and dogged by ill health, to establish a writing career in England. He revised 'Follow the call', and expanded 'Windjammer sailors' for submission to British publishers, toning down much of their lively original vernacular flavour, and incorporated the 'Me and Gus' stories into an expanded novel, Gus Tomlins. He also wrote more short stories and two further fictionalised narratives of his seafaring experiences. One, 'A cog in the wheel', was an account of his wartime life on the Opal. Despite his efforts, he was unable to break into the English market. By 1926 his health had gone into irretrievable decline, his consumption aggravated by the winter climate, and he died in a boarding-house at Boscombe, near Bournemouth, on 13 January 1927.
Two of Anthony's short sea-stories appeared in English magazines the year after his death. None of his fiction was published in book form during his lifetime, but his mother collected and kept his writings and negotiated the publication of Follow the call and the 'Me and Gus' stories in 1936 and 1938. In 1950 she made Anthony's manuscripts available to Francis Jackson, who arranged the hugely popular radio adaptations of Me and Gus, which were then widely read in published editions throughout the 1950s. The novel, Gus Tomlins, was published for the first time in 1977.