Page 1: Biography
Shadbolt, Maurice Francis Richard
Author, journalist, playwright, film-maker
This biography, written by Philip Temple, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Maurice Shadbolt was a leading figure in the growth of a New Zealand literature during the second half of the twentieth century. He was the first New Zealand author to earn a good living as a full-time writer, although the stresses of maintaining an income sufficient to support a large family worked against his creative development. All his novels and short-story collections were published internationally, several in translation, and though some critics rated him as a second-tier author, he sustained a wide readership to the end of his life.
Maurice Francis Richard Shadbolt was born in Mount Albert, Auckland on 4 June 1932, the first of the three children of Francis (Frank) Clement William Shadbolt, a relief worker, and his wife, Violet Kearon, a secretary. Frank was a grandson of pioneer timber miller Benjamin Shadbolt, who settled at Duvauchelle on Akaroa Harbour in 1859 after travelling from Hertfordshire via the Norfolk Island penal colony and Tasmania. Shadbolt identified strongly with his father’s family, whose lives and misdemeanours were to figure in his fiction. His mother’s only brother, Joseph Kearon was, however, his chief political and philosophical mentor. Both Kearon and Frank Shadbolt were engaged in Communist-inspired work for the unemployed.
During the 1930s Depression years, Frank moved to wherever he could find work as a quarryman or a Post and Telegraph linesman. Shadbolt lived in at least a dozen homes before he left school. In 1937, the family settled in Te Kūiti, where Shadbolt received most of his education at its primary and district high schools. A wider education lay within the environment of the provincial town and its families, including Māori, and among the surrounding farms and the bush-covered hill and cave landscapes of the King Country. This environment was strongly reflected in his early stories and novels.
Education and journalism
In 1947, Shadbolt moved back to Auckland with his family. He finished high school at Avondale College before enrolling at Auckland University College in 1950. He did not complete a degree and spent much of his time engaged in socialist activism, especially during the 1951 Waterfront dispute. At university he began lifelong friendships with novelist Maurice Gee and poet Kevin Ireland, who was to endure as his closest literary colleague. As a student, Shadbolt earned some income from performing as a conjuror. He credited this with teaching him that ‘nothing is ever quite what it seems’ and that ‘craft and cunning can go a long way’, perspectives that were to govern much of his creative writing.1
Shadbolt’s first forays into short stories won him a trip to the Communist-inspired 1952 Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in Sydney. After his return, he became a reporter with the Taranaki Daily News, based in Hāwera. Writing about all manner of events and people, day after day, soberly or creatively, established a work ethic and amplified a knowledge of the human condition that he was later to draw on to imaginative effect. The pressures of this work eventually caused one of the bouts of depression that afflicted Shadbolt throughout his life.
While working in Hāwera, Shadbolt met a fellow reporter, Australian Gillian Eve Muriel Heming. They became engaged soon after Shadbolt’s 21st birthday and were married in Auckland on 21 November 1953. With Heming he fathered four children: Sean Francis (1960), Brendan Ray (1962), and twins Daniel Maurice and Tui Louise (1965).
National Film Unit
After a brief stint working at the Waitakere Gazette, Shadbolt shifted to Wellington in May 1954 to become a trainee director for the National Film Unit. Over the following three years he directed a number of Pictorial Parade films, notably on Opo, the Hokianga Harbour’s ‘friendly dolphin’, and on artist Eric Lee-Johnson. Lee-Johnson later remarked on the strong visual quality of Shadbolt’s writing.
Shadbolt was hampered by the bureaucratic strictures of the Film Unit and turned to reading and writing fiction. He began associating with other Wellington writers, in particular poet James K. Baxter, who became his literary mentor. His first short story was published in the New Zealand Listener in June 1955, and later in the year another appeared in the literary quarterly Landfall. Under the guidance of its editor, poet Charles Brasch, Shadbolt published more stories in Landfall, establishing his place as a young writer of note.
Shadbolt became disillusioned with communism after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. But he took the opportunity to attend with Gill the 1957 Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow as New Zealand delegates. They travelled for four months through China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Shadbolt became the first New Zealand writer to visit Georgia and Bulgaria.
During the two-year domicile in London that followed, Shadbolt put together a collection of short stories that was published to acclaim as The New Zealanders in 1959; he would work as a professional writer for the rest of his life. Maurice returned to New Zealand in 1960, and four years later he bought the Titirangi property above the Manukau Harbour that remained his home until his final years. In the basement study of 35 Arapito Road and, from 1972, in the section’s bush studio, Shadbolt produced the bulk of his life’s work.
His early work attracted much critical acclaim in England but Shadbolt decided that, as a writer, he was ‘engaged, perhaps for life, in an obsessional love-hate affair with a strange fact of life and history called New Zealand’.2 He recognised that New Zealanders were eager for stories and books about themselves after more than a century of dominance by the British literary tradition, and his novels drew almost entirely on his experience of New Zealand and New Zealanders. He was sometimes criticised for writing with consciously nationalistic themes.
Maurice Shadbolt’s fiction career fell into three broad periods. During the first, from the mid-1950s until the early 1970s, his work strongly reflected the world of family and provincial life in which he had grown up. He came to see the short stories he published between 1955 and 1964 as ‘love affairs’ leading to the more permanent relationships demanded by the novel.3 But he worked many of the characters and themes portrayed in the stories into the fabric of his saga Strangers and journeys (1972), which he had begun writing in 1963. Re-reading his stories in 1978, he wrote that he seemed to be ‘revisiting a lost innocent land, a New Zealand which no longer exists’.4
After Strangers and journeys, Shadbolt turned to contemporary issues in the novels A touch of clay (1974) and Danger zone (1975), and in an unfinished manuscript, ‘The death of David’. Deeply reflective of his own personal life and relationships, these exacerbated his tendency towards depression and led to a creative cul-de-sac.
Shadbolt escaped this with the ‘big, bawdy’ novel he had always promised himself, The Lovelock version (1980), a sprawling, comic saga with a mixture of fictional characters and re-imagined historical figures in an alternative history of New Zealand.5 This led him to conclude, ‘Let the 19th century become my milieu’, something that had always been the ‘shadow which falls between the lines of my most 20th century tales’.6 This impulse informed the trilogy of New Zealand Wars novels, Season of the Jew (1986), Monday’s warriors (1990) and The house of strife (1993). The three-part novel Dove on the waters (1996) concluded his novel-writing career.
In non-fiction, his collaboration with international photojournalist Brian Brake produced the celebratory New Zealand: gift of the sea (1963) and he also compiled the country’s first motoring guide, The Shell guide to New Zealand (1968). His international journalism projected New Zealand, and Polynesia, to a worldwide audience.
For a decade from the mid-1970s, Shadbolt travelled widely in Europe, often on journalism commissions for Reader’s Digest. His research visit to Gallipoli in 1977 prompted a deep interest in the ill-fated First World War campaign that was said to have triggered New Zealanders’ self-awareness as an independent nation. This led to the Gallipoli section of The Lovelock version, the play Once on Chunuk Bair (1982) (filmed in 1991), and the television documentary Gallipoli: the New Zealand story (1984). The latter was based on interviews with veterans which formed the basis for his book Voices of Gallipoli (1988).
The literary quality of his writing was uneven and critics fastened on this to rate him a second-tier author. Shadbolt was to find friendship with artists, including Colin McCahon, Pat Hanly and Michael Smither, more rewarding and sustaining than relationships with his peers in an often critically hostile literary world. But this hostility had little impact on his many readers at home or abroad, or the judges who awarded him numerous prizes and fellowships. He was joint winner of the Landfall prose award in 1957 and the only author to win the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award three times (1963, 1967 and 1995). He won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book of the Year Award for Strangers and journeys in 1973 and Season of the Jew in 1987. He was a placegetter in 1981 for The Lovelock version, which also won the separate New Zealand Book Award for fiction. Shadbolt received the NZ Literary Fund’s Scholarship in Letters four times (1960, 1970, 1982 and 1990) and in 1963 he was the fifth Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Later in life he was an Auckland University Literary Fellow (1987) and Waikato University’s Writer in Residence (1992). He was appointed CBE for his services to New Zealand literature in 1988 and given an honorary doctorate by the University of Auckland in 1997. He spent the following year in Menton, France, on the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship.
Through his writing, Shadbolt was an early Pākehā proponent of the need to recognise and embrace Māori culture in national life. His position as a pre-eminent author also lent weight to his role campaigning in print against the Vietnam War for a decade from 1965. In 1972, as part of the protests against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, he sailed in the yacht Tamure towards the test site of Mururoa and Tahiti. This experience formed the basis of his novel Danger zone (1975). He also took an active part in protests against the Springbok rugby tour in 1981.
Shadbolt’s personal life was often tumultuous, and he was involved in numerous extra-marital relationships. After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1971, he married television personality Barbara Christina Magner in Auckland on 17 December 1971. They had one child, Brigid Louise (1971). Following divorce from Magner in 1978, he married actress Bridget Mary Armstrong in Titirangi on 9 December 1978. After dissolution of this marriage in 1992, he married author Elspeth Somerville Sandys in Duvauchelle on 20 November 1993.
By 1997 Shadbolt was suffering from the onset of dementia. There was a genetic element to this – his mother had also suffered from degenerative mental illness – but it was exacerbated by his innate tendency to depression and an increasing alcoholism. His last work was the erratic memoir From the edge of the sky (1999), a successor to his earlier One of Ben’s (1993).
In 2000, Shadbolt entered Avonlea Hospital and Home in Taumarunui, where he remained until his death on 10 October 2004 at the age of 72. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered from dementia with Lewy bodies. His funeral was held in the church where he was first married, Auckland’s St Matthew-in-the-City, and he was buried in Waikumete Cemetery, West Auckland.
Shadbolt never claimed to be anything other than a storyteller, and the scale of his readership and the wide range of his awards confirm he was the best of his time. In 1993 he wrote, ‘There is only one reason to write, and it is not to serve literary fashion or scholarly fads. It is, as it was in the beginning, to get a grip on our existence’.7