Page 1: Biography
Journalist, cookery writer, crime novelist
This biography, written by Nancy Swarbrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Elizabeth Messenger was born Betty Margery Esson on 25 July 1908 at Thames, the second of three children of Amy Isobel Dodd and her husband, Melvin Brown Esson, a senior telegraphist with the Post and Telegraph Department. The family moved around New Zealand as Melvin Esson was promoted, eventually settling in Wellington. There Betty finished her education at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School and went on to take an arts course at Victoria University College.
Her studies were interrupted when in 1929 her father, now retired, was appointed New Zealand representative on the Imperial Communications Advisory Committee, which was set up to allocate international cables and radio frequencies. The whole family travelled to England that year. Outgoing, with blonde good looks, Betty enjoyed the social life among the expatriate New Zealand community in London, and was presented at court. By 1932 she was working as a copywriter at Saward Baker Advertising and in the next decade she wrote stories and articles for women’s magazines and children’s pages. When the Second World War broke out she became an ambulance driver, serving during the Blitz. She also met Robin Montrose Messenger, a New Zealand naval officer, whom she married at Bromley, Kent, on 21 June 1941. The couple were to have two sons.
After the war the Messengers moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where Betty joined the editorial staff of the weekly East Africa News Review. In 1948 they returned to New Zealand and settled at Raumati, north of Wellington. While Robin took up a position at Taubmans Products in Wellington, Betty was offered the opportunity to write a recipe feature for the Evening Post , and so her column ‘Dine with Elizabeth’ began. Syndicated to Gisborne, Christchurch and Dunedin newspapers, the regular recipe with its chatty, informative preamble became immensely popular and soon readers from around the country were sending in questions and suggestions. Three recipe books drawing on the newspaper articles were published as Dine with Elizabeth in 1956, 1957 and 1961. The column itself was a feature of the Evening Post for over 15 years.
The success of Elizabeth Messenger’s cookery writing lay in her awareness of the needs of her audience – full-time housewives catering for large families on a limited budget, who had to contend with seasonal food shortages and sharp price rises for staples like meat. Her columns give an insight into the pattern of domestic life in the 1950s: ‘keeping the tins full’ for the daily rituals of morning and afternoon tea; producing an endless stream of school lunches; inventing ways of making the weekly roast stretch to several meals; and bottling the produce of the home vegetable garden and orchard in the heat of summer to provide interesting dishes during winter when there was little variety available in the shops. Readers clearly got what they wanted, along with the occasional steer towards more exotic ingredients, such as garlic, green peppers and wine. Perhaps because of her long absence overseas, Messenger was an enthusiastic advocate of New Zealand produce, especially seafood, and her recipes include such classics as whitebait soufflé, toheroa soup and trout baked with limes.
For a time the Messengers were partners in a restaurant at Raumati South called Gay Horizons. Later in the 1950s they moved to the Wellington suburb of Khandallah, and Elizabeth began writing thrillers. This she saw as requiring similar skills to cooking: ‘You must have imagination in both … rigid obedience to detail, and all the ingredients must be at hand. Every cook and every writer expresses herself differently’. Her books, which she produced at the rate of one or two a year from 1958, were set in tourist spots such as the Marlborough Sounds ( Murder stalks the bay ), Lake Taupo ( Material witness ) and the Bay of Islands ( A heap of trouble ), and usually included a romance sub-plot. Published in London by Robert Hale, they were consciously pitched at an overseas readership and promoted New Zealand’s scenic attractions and relaxed lifestyle. This approach tended to undermine the effectiveness of the books as crime novels, making it difficult to evoke a pervasive sense of evil and foreboding – one of the hallmarks of the truly frightening thriller.
By late 1960 the Messengers had moved to Kerikeri. Elizabeth continued to produce cookery columns and books, novels and newspaper articles, while helping to run the family citrus orchard. She was also active in the local repertory society, belonged to the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society, and was a keen gardener. An energetic life was cut short by her death from cancer on 4 January 1965 at Whangarei. She was survived by her husband and two sons.
Elizabeth Messenger’s novels, once popular enough to be serialised and translated into other languages, are now difficult to obtain. The recipe books appear to have been more durable. American dishes for New Zealand and the New Zealand wine and food book , first published in the early 1960s, were reprinted in 1970 for a new generation of cooks. And the occasional tattered, stained copy of Dine with Elizabeth remains in use some 40 years after publication, suggesting that while tastes may have become more sophisticated, there is still an appreciation of the familiar, uncomplicated food of which Elizabeth Messenger would say, ‘It smells wonderful in cooking, tastes wonderful in eating; what more could a good meal do?’