Story: Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance

Page 3: Fame

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Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance


Educationalist, teacher, writer

This biography, written by Sue Middleton,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.

First publication

From 1945 to 1948 the Hendersons taught at Waiōmatatini Native School on the East Coast. Sylvia published short pieces in the periodicals Here and Now and the New Zealand Listener. The Here and Now article was the first on her teaching method. From 1949 to 1957 the couple taught at Fernhill School, Ōmāhu, near Hastings. Between December 1955 and October 1956, the first systematic account of Syvlvia's teaching scheme appeared in eight parts in National Education, the magazine of the New Zealand Educational Institute. Inspectors and teachers’ college lecturers sympathetic to new education theories recommended these articles to students and practising teachers.


Sylvia published her articles using just her first name, but adopted 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner’ as a pen name when she began to write fiction. Her first novel, Spinster, a fictional account of a teacher developing her teaching scheme, was published in 1958. New York publisher Robert Gottlieb produced and championed Spinster’s American edition, which reached the New York Times best-seller list. The novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the year’s best books and in 1961 was adapted into the feature film Two loves, starring Shirley MacLaine. The story of a passionate and artistic teacher of Māori children in a remote rural school, Spinster was translated into many languages.

When Keith Henderson was appointed headmaster of Bethlehem Māori School, near Tauranga, in 1957, Sylvia resigned from teaching to write full-time. Over the next 10 years she published five books: three novels (Incense to idols in 1960, Bell call in 1964 and Greenstone in 1966), the Pipiriki diary Myself (1967), and the influential Teacher (1963).

The first part of Teacher consisted of an edited version of the teaching scheme first published in National Education, and the second part took the form of a diary of classroom life. Renowned British art critic, poet and educationalist Sir Herbert Read wrote the foreword. Blurring genres between fiction and autobiography, Spinster and Teacher (and, later, the 1985 feature film Sylvia) centred on the creative teaching scheme Ashton-Warner developed in Māori schools in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In total Ashton-Warner published five novels, two books of short stories, two autobiographies and two non-fictional accounts of her educational theory.

How to cite this page:

Sue Middleton. 'Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance - Fame', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2020)