Page 1: Biography
Teacher, university professor of English
This biography, written by Stuart Johnston, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Joan Stevens was born on 10 December 1908 at Southwick, Sussex, England, to William John Stevens, a bookseller’s manager, and his wife, Florence Mary Herbert, daughter of a West Hartlepool journalist. When Joan was five the family emigrated to New Zealand, where her father eventually established a bookshop in Victoria Street, Hamilton.
She attended Hamilton West School, and then Hamilton High School from 1922 to 1926. She was head prefect and dux on the girls’ side, and won a University National Scholarship. At the University of Otago she gained a blue and represented the South Island in basketball. Completing a BA in 1929 with first-class grades in English and French, she declined the John Tinline Scholarship for master’s study, and went to Oxford. After two years at Somerville College she graduated in 1932 with first-class honours in English, winning praise for her ‘outstanding excellence in both the linguistic and literary branches’ of the subject. She graduated MA in 1938.
While teaching at the County School for Girls at Chislehurst, Kent, in 1932–33, Stevens identified some topics in early language studies for postgraduate research, but decided to return to New Zealand. She taught at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington for five years from February 1934, and then at Wellington Girls’ College from 1939 to 1942, completing a diploma in education at Victoria University College in 1940. In 1942 she became warden and lecturer in English at Dunedin Training College. She can be glimpsed in both roles in Janet Frame’s An angel at my table .
In 1947 Joan Stevens joined the Department of English Language and Literature at Victoria University College as a senior lecturer, along with James Bertram. These two outstanding Oxford graduates thereby doubled the permanent staff of the department and greatly strengthened it, just as the surge of post-war enrolments was beginning. She taught a wide range of courses before settling on fiction and New Zealand literature as her special fields. For many years she introduced large first-year classes to university-level study of English literature, sharing with them her intellectual delight at the complexity and skill of Dickens, Joyce and other prose writers. In 1962 she began teaching a master’s paper on New Zealand literature, the first of its kind in the New Zealand universities. In 1960 she became associate professor, and in 1971 she was appointed to a personal professorship.
Joan Stevens had won praise at Oxford for being a ‘remarkably vigorous and eager student’. Her teaching showed the same vitality. She was constantly demonstrating fresh discoveries about set texts, and stimulating her students to test for themselves her enthusiasm for new or less familiar authors. A very effective tutor, she challenged students to explore topics in thorough detail, and earned the gratitude of those whose need for guidance and direction she spotted and briskly attended to.
She was fascinated by the ways in which writers transform an identifiable social scene to express a powerful personal vision. This led her to master a great wealth of information about the world of the Victorian novelists. Her study of New Zealand writing was similarly informed by a deep interest in New Zealand history and society. Her 1955 abridgement of Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s Adventure in New Zealand developed into a wider interest, which resulted in her 1972 edition of Wakefield’s London journal. Some of her publications arose directly from the adult education courses she began teaching in 1951, or were aimed at senior school audiences, and she edited or provided introductions for several reprinted New Zealand texts.
A concurrence of New Zealand and English research interests produced Stevens’s 1972 book Mary Taylor, friend of Charlotte Brontë. Articles on the Brontës, Dickens and Thackeray were published in major international journals. She became a leading authority on Thackeray’s illustrations, demonstrating the precision with which he joined word and picture, and documenting the failure of later editions to convey the full significance of the illustrations. Her teaching and research were accompanied by frequent reviewing, by radio talks, and by other literary activities, such as her support of the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society and her judging of literary awards. She relished the opportunities provided by adult education courses to discuss books with mature students.
Her tall, alert figure and her achievements as teacher and scholar made Joan Stevens a notable and highly respected member of the university. In 1955 she became the first woman academic member of the council, her contributions including a strong plea for the university’s manuscript and research materials to be better housed and serviced. She was one of the first women in New Zealand to bear the title of professor, and did it with authority, in academic and other contexts. In 1974 she was appointed emeritus professor and made a CBE.
Joan Stevens never married. In retirement at Eastbourne she added lawn bowls to her wide range of interests in the arts and the outdoors. Later, when she was living at Otaki, weakening eyesight somewhat restricted her reading, but she became a devotee of large-print books. She had learnt to read Maori and was immersed in learning Italian from tapes when, after a brief illness, she died in Palmerston North Hospital on 11 June 1990.