Story: Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance

Page 4: Later years

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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.


Keith Henderson died in January 1969. That year, Ashton-Warner embarked on her first overseas travel. A period in London with her son Elliot and his wife Jacquemine inspired Ashton-Warner’s final novel, Three, in 1970. In late 1970 she took up an invitation to establish a community school in Aspen, Colorado, where she spent a year. Her final book about education, Spearpoint: ‘teacher’ in America, published in 1972, was her account of this experience. During 1972 and 1973 Ashton-Warner was employed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, where she ran courses on her teaching methods. She wrote a book of short stories, O children of the world (1974) and started her autobiography, I passed this way (1979).

Return home, and death

Sylvia Ashton-Warner returned to her Tauranga home, Whenua, in 1973. She led a secluded life and her health deteriorated. In 1978 educationist Jack Shallcrass interviewed her for a television documentary about her life and work. I passed this way won the New Zealand Book Award in 1980, and in 1982 Ashton-Warner received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list. Towards the end of her life she assisted with the screenplay for Sylvia, a feature film based on her autobiographical writing, released in 1985 shortly after her death. Ashton-Warner was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1981 and died at home on 28 April 1984. In 1989 Lynley Hood’s biography, Sylvia!, which traces Ashton-Warner’s life and work, won first prize at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards.

Crossing genres

Because of disciplinary boundaries, commentators on Ashton-Warner’s writing have studied it as either educational or literary, but not as both. Yet her work overflowed the boundaries of genre: her fiction was autobiographical and her autobiographies often fictional. Her educational theory was expressed in the form of novels (Spinster, Bell call) or as autobiography (Teacher, Spearpoint: 'teacher' in America). Her other novels, such as Greenstone, Incense to idols and Three, remain largely unknown to an educationalist audience.

Literary and educational reputation

Ashton-Warner often claimed to have been rejected and even persecuted by New Zealand’s educational and literary establishments. In an important essay on Ashton-Warner’s literary contribution, written in 1981, C. K. Stead compared her favourably with Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame and puzzled over her lack of visibility in the contemporary literary canon. In 2009 Emily Dobson published a reassessment of the New Zealand literary world’s responses to Ashton-Warner’s novels.

The impression that Ashton-Warner’s teaching method was met with hostility was supported in the films Two loves and Sylvia, and in writings by international educationalists. Challenging this, recent scholarship in education has highlighted the largely sympathetic professional context in which she formulated her educational ideas.

In 2008 a conference was held in the faculty of education at Auckland University to mark the centennial of Ashton-Warner’s birth, resulting in a collection of essays about her by literary experts, educationalists, former colleagues, publishers and family. This collection reprinted the National Education version of her teaching scheme. Apart from this, all her books remain out of print. Yet Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s teaching method continues to influence practitioners in schools around the world. Her legacy in literature is less certain.

How to cite this page:

Sue Middleton. 'Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance - Later years', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 August 2020)