Page 1: Biography
France, Helena Ruth
Librarian, poet, novelist
This biography, written by Helen Beaglehole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Helena Ruth Henderson was born on 12 June 1913 at Leithfield, Canterbury, the third of six children in a Catholic family. Her mother, Helena Jane Hayes, wrote prolifically; the Christchurch Press published many of her stories, poems and essays. Her father, Francis Henry Henderson, was a storekeeper.
After attending a convent school in Addington and then, from 1926, Christchurch Girls’ High School, Ruth worked in the Canterbury Public Library. At 21 she left to marry Arnold France, an engineer’s patternmaker. The wedding took place on 4 December 1934 at the Registrar’s Office, Christchurch. Her father so disapproved of his daughter marrying a non-Catholic that he feigned suicide the night before.
For 3½ years the couple lived at Lyttelton on a yacht, Windswift , built by Arnold. Ruth rowed her husband to work and their first son to kindergarten. She enjoyed sailing, and they made a number of trips. Their second son was born before they moved permanently to Sumner, where she led what she described as ‘rather a retired life’. An aspiring poet and novelist, she found the Christchurch writing circles alienating because she thought that the male members treated women as their inferiors. Her close friend was Elsie Locke, a writer and pacifist.
As a young woman Ruth was quiet, shy and gentle, and her rejection of Catholicism was in part a reaction to her father’s violent prejudices. As an older woman she was a still, serene person with whom silences were comfortable. But she had an adventurous spirit. Her early dream was to be the first woman to reach the Antarctic, and her social conscience made her champion civic causes. In precise and articulate letters written to the Press during the 1960s, she advanced views on civic planning, and took on those who disagreed with her. She used her own name at a time when some were using pseudonyms.
Her own life suggests a degree of frustration. Determined to be the good wife and mother that society at the time demanded, she also spoke of the impulse towards writing, of the intensity of purpose that grew with age and excluded procrastination, and of the happiness of being alone and writing.
Under the name Paul Henderson, Ruth published two books of poetry, Unwilling pilgrim (1955) and The halting place (1961). A number of the poems were anthologised in New Zealand and overseas; others were published in Landfall , the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook , and in the New Zealand Listener. One of them won first prize in a national poetry competition in 1949 and was set to music for choir and orchestra by Terry Vaughan in 1953. Already well known for her poetry written under her own name, it is unclear why she felt a need for a male pseudonym. Contemporary male critics suggested it freed her from ‘poetess mannerisms’ and contributed to her success. Today, the best features of her poetry are judged to be the plain, serviceable language and syntax in, for instance, ‘After flood’ or ‘New Year bonfire’.
Sparse, evocative images are a striking feature of her novels, which were written under her own name. Her first, The race (1958), based on the disastrous, storm-swept 1951 Wellington–Lyttelton yacht race in which Arnold France took part, won her the Award for Achievement from the New Zealand Literary Fund, and ‘established her at once among the country’s best novelists’. Monte Holcroft, editor of the Listener , acclaimed it as a ‘new kind of novel’ in its attempt to capture the boat and the sea and the emotions involved. However, the book’s depiction of characters adapting and accommodating themselves to a particular environment, rather than trying to beat it, places it within a genre of post-war New Zealand novels. Ice cold river (1961), a more ambitious book written round a family’s tensions on a Canterbury farm at Christmas when the flooding Waimakariri River isolates them, was less enthusiastically received. Both novels contributed to her being assessed as a regional writer concerned with the importance of place in people’s lives and emotions, and as being among those contributing to quality indigenous literature.
Ruth France also wrote short stories, reviewed for the Listener , had numerous letters and historical articles published in the Press , broadcast and spoke about writing and books, and composed advertising ditties for her husband’s boat-building business. In 1962 she became a member of the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society. At the time of her death in Christchurch on 19 August 1968 she left a third adult novel, ‘The tunnel’, uncompleted. She was survived by her husband and sons.