Page 1: Biography
Edmond, Lauris Dorothy
This biography, written by Roger Robinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.
Lauris Edmond was 51 when she began to publish poetry, and quickly won attention as a voice that was both mature and fresh. Identified at first with the 1970s upsurge of poetry by women, she was later recognised for her breadth of appeal and ability to reach people who otherwise read little poetry, as well as earning high honours in the literary and academic worlds. She is now recognised as one of the best New Zealand poets of the late twentieth century, a compelling voice for women, an exquisite poet of the epiphanic moment, and a writer who left Wellington some of its most distinctive verbal evocations.
Childhood and education
Lauris Dorothy Scott was born in Dannevirke on 2 April 1924. She had an older brother, Clive, and younger siblings Lindsay and John. She lived most of her childhood at Greenmeadows, near Napier. At age six, at primary school, she experienced the full force of the 1931 earthquake, an episode she used as a powerful opening to her autobiography.
Lauris’s parents were Lewis Herbert Scott, a storekeeper, later a home decorator, and his wife Fanny Price, who had trained as a teacher, and wrote and acted in plays. Though the family had to observe ‘daily frugalities’, the modest household was loving, hard-working, and principled.1 Both parents were readers (they enjoyed reading aloud) and inclined to utopian ideas, becoming fervent supporters of Social Credit. Edmond, who was brought up Anglican but eventually rejected formal religious belief, inherited this tendency to idealistic activism, which later gave force to poems like ‘Latter day Lysistrata,’ ‘Nuclear bomb test, Mururoa Atoll, 6 September 1995’, and her writings about Arohata Women’s Prison.
At Napier Girls’ High School she did well, despite peer pressure against girls being clever. She won English prizes and published poems in the school magazine. In 1942 she went on to Wellington Teachers’ Training College, also taking BA units at Victoria University College.
Student life in Wellington provided her first period of enlightenment, through the stimulus of lecturers like J.C. Beaglehole and a social life focused on involvement in drama, tramping, and some writing and magazine editing. Fellow student Bruce Mason was the first of a lifelong sequence of notable men and women, mostly engaged in literature, education, or the media, with whom Lauris shared her special gifts for intelligent conversation and warm friendship. This compulsion to exchange and debate ideas had begun in her childhood relationship with her mother. Her autobiography covers her student years largely through quotations from her intimately conversational letters to her mother.
Marriage and motherhood
The Second World War created romantic urgency, but also curtailed some friendships when men were called up for military service. Lauris’s first serious romance was with an ex-student teacher and now military conscript, Trevor Charles Edmond. The romance developed, partly through letters, while she was studying speech therapy in Christchurch, touring with Ngaio Marsh’s Shakespeare company, and working in her first job, at Lower Hutt Speech Clinic. They married at Tauranga on 16 May 1945, a week after the end of the war in Europe. Lauris’s autobiography alludes to the difficulties of a honeymoon for a couple with no sexual experience.
The couple’s life proceeded in the conventional way for that era. They lived in Dunedin and then Wellington, and had their first child in the second year of marriage. In 1948 Trevor was appointed to Ohakune District High School (later Ruapehu College), where he became a dedicated and admired teacher. Lauris abandoned any career, devoting herself to the domestic duties of a wife and mother to six children: Virginia, Frances, Martin, Rachel, Stephanie and Katherine. Their childhoods are crucial to her autobiographical narrative, and their lasting emotional importance is articulated in poems such as ‘Two birth poems’, ‘Mother to daughter’, and ‘The names’.
The literary aspirations Lauris had shown in writing poetry at high school and editing magazines as a student were not wholly suppressed. She had two short stories published in the Listener and wrote draft poems that were finished and published much later. ‘Sunday night’, from that era, already questions the woman’s obligation to ‘wake and sleep in other people’s lives’. She later described herself as lonely with her ‘school-obsessed’ husband, and the company mainly of small children.2 A more positive aspect to the marriage was their shared role as local news reporters for the Wanganui Chronicle, work that eased their financial problems. Her ‘consuming passion for the stage’ also made her part of a small group that put on amateur plays, and she wrote a ‘comic farce’ for private performance.3 Her journal recorded literary aspirations; ‘there was plenty of time to become a real New Zealand poet’.4
Lauris would write forthrightly about this Ohakune phase in the novel High country weather, the memoir Bonfires in the rain, and early poems such as ‘Ohakune Fires’. Her preoccupations were wholly family – the children, her husband’s career, the death of her father, the illness of her mother, and, traumatically, the suicide of her brother John. Seeking promotion after fourteen years in Ohakune, Trevor took the post of deputy principal at Kuranui College, Greytown, in 1962.
Lauris Edmond’s ‘moment of illumination’ at this time has become almost mythic, representing a generation of women’s sudden consciousness of the restrictions they lived under. She vividly describes the moment when she was watching the family play cricket during a camping holiday, and she experienced ‘a kind of somersault ... in my mind’, a sudden realisation that she existed wholly for them, with no identity of her own.5
In 1963 she enrolled as an extramural student at Massey University, intending to complete the degree she had begun at Victoria in the war years. She also embarked on her first individual paying job for 20 years, teaching child-rearing to young mothers. ‘The tiny tutor’s fee was absurdly pleasing.’6 Massey’s literature courses brought another intellectual awakening, as she discovered French existentialism, feminism, and the challenge of English literature. ‘Every word was an illumination.’7 She engaged with wider issues – Lloyd Geering’s challenge to Christian orthodoxy, protest against the Vietnam War, a woman’s right to choose.
In 1964 Trevor Edmond suffered a breakdown after successfully applying for a headship. He recovered and in 1966 was appointed principal at Huntly College, where he was admired for enlightened work with Māori children. But at home, he was becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol, and Lauris found him angrily resentful as she developed her intellectual life. She enrolled at the University of Waikato, where she encountered the charismatic literary mind of Professor Arthur Sewell, who became a mentor and friend. She began to write poems seriously. ‘It was as though some voice in me said, at last, “To hell with it all, this is what you want to do” – and I did it.’8
Trevor was appointed principal of Heretaunga College, at Upper Hutt, in 1968. From 1968 to 1972 Lauris taught English and French there under Trevor, an arrangement that caused predictable difficulties, especially as she also enrolled for an MA at Victoria University of Wellington. She was increasingly committed to her own aspirations and way of life. At this time she accepted Sewell as her extramarital lover. He was the first of a series of older and intellectually-distinguished partners. She was appointed editor of the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association’s journal, a perfect vehicle for presenting high-level ideas in an accessible form. She included a New Zealand poem in each issue. An article for the journal Affairs about literary eminence Denis Glover led to his offering her the editorship of the letters of A.R.D. Fairburn, for whom he was literary executor. Glover also initiated the publication of her first volume of poems, In middle air (1975), and designed the cover.
In 1975, Lauris and Trevor bought a hillside house in Grass Street, above Oriental Bay in Wellington, though by now they were leading separate lives. She became a magnetic figure in Wellington’s literary community, with friends including poets Alistair and Meg Campbell, Mansfield scholar Margaret Scott, novelist Fiona Kidman, and scholar-priest Frank McKay. All was going well in her exciting new life. But then her daughter Rachel, at 21, suffered a breakdown and committed suicide. It was Lauris’s most grievous loss.
In middle air won the PEN Best First Book Award, bringing public attention that was strengthened by The pear tree (1977), Wellington letter, an elegiac sequence for her dead daughter (1980), and the editorial accomplishment of the Selected letters of A.R.D. Fairburn (1981). In 1981 she was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, which gave her a dramatically Gallic residency at Menton, time to write her only novel, High country weather (1984), a version of her Ohakune years and intellectual awakening. When Selected poems (1984) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, she gained international recognition which resulted in more travel, such as the American tour by New Zealand writers in conjunction with the Te Māori exhibition (1985), Writer in Residence at Deakin University, Melbourne (1985), and readings at numerous literary festivals. Distinctions at home included an OBE (1986), the Victoria University Writers’ Fellowship (1987), and an honorary D.Litt at Massey University (1988).
Celebrity did nothing to diminish Lauris’s productivity. Her Selected poems 1975–1994 (1994), and the subsequent collections A matter of timing (1996) and Late song (2000) are landmarks. She became a successful memoirist with Hot October (1989), Bonfires in the rain (1991) and The quick world (1992). The trilogy was abbreviated by her publisher, Bridget Williams, into Lauris Edmond: an autobiography (1994).
Lauris accepted the responsibilities of her literary standing, becoming a reviewer and anthologist of young writing, women’s wartime writing, reviews, love poetry, and ‘essential’ New Zealand poems, serving as guest editor for Landfall (March 1978), guest editorial writer for the Listener, executive member for PEN and for the PEN/Victoria University Writers Conference (1979), member of the Indecent Publications Tribunal (1973–9), foundation advisory editor for the Journal of New Zealand Literature (from 1983), and co-founder of the literary magazine New Zealand Books (1991). She became involved in literary controversies and causes, most publicly in opposing a proposal that the government should finance a residence for New Zealand writers in London.
Her story made her a particular role model for mature women. ‘Not many poets have given birth six times’, commented Fleur Adcock.9 She described herself as astonished that she and other older women had been able ‘to jump on the bus of historical and social change’.10
Lauris’s Wellington life was complex, rewarding, and vitally alive – ‘quick’, in her word. The strands were various: her assiduous writing, ‘that deeply satisfying process’;11 her performances at poetry readings, which confirmed the importance of the spoken voice to her verse; her home at Grass Street, venue for private trysts and lively parties, where she wrote of birds and bush and the fusion of town and country (‘Town Belt’); her grandchildren, adoringly celebrated in ‘Generation gap’ and ‘Late song’; her love relationships, which delighted her but brought no ‘unmitigated happiness and fulfilment’;12 her lingering sense of responsibility for Trevor, whose move to his own home and then death in 1990 surprised her with the sense of loss; and inexhaustibly, the stimulating conversational meals with her numerous friends.
50 poems: a celebration was published in 1999 for her 75th birthday. She was working on poems that became Late song, including reflections on aging and death, such as the droll and poignant ‘The eighth decade’, when she died unexpectedly on 28 January 2000, at home, of cardiac arrest.
Lauris Edmond is secure as a New Zealand poet of lasting significance. A summative selection, Night burns with a white fire: the essential Lauris Edmond (2017), was compiled, appropriately, from the recommendations of her friends. She is commemorated in the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry. She continues to be an icon of women’s emergent consciousness, especially for mature married women. Her place in Wellington’s cultural history is memorialised by an excerpt from ‘The active voice’ inscribed in concrete as part of the Wellington Writers’ Walk, a plaque on Oriental Parade, and a commemorative plaque at 22 Grass Street.