Story: Fiction

Page 1. The first novels, 1860s and 1870s

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Fictional works about or including New Zealand appeared in the late 18th century, but the first home-grown novels were not published until the 1860s. These set the pattern for later-19th-century fiction, which followed established British tastes for adventure, romance and interest in faraway places.


The first novel published in New Zealand was Henry Butler Stoney’s Taranaki: a tale of the war in 1861. Stoney‘s ‘novel’ is lightly disguised personal experience and excerpts from military dispatches.

The following year Isabella Aylmer became the first woman to publish a novel about New Zealand. Distant homes; or, the Graham family in New Zealand (1862) is modelled on the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson and is probably based on letters from a family member, as Aylmer never visited New Zealand. It includes many mistakes, including that thermal pools cover everything (such as food and bathers) with liquid stone.

Benjamin Farjeon, who worked as a journalist in Dunedin, published his first book, Shadows on the snow: a Christmas story (1865), a Dickensian melodrama set on the Otago goldfields, before he became a successful popular novelist in London.


Samuel Butler’s journeys in the high country, where part of his novel Erewhon is set, are recorded in the place names of the region, such as Mt Butler and Butlers Saddle. Erewhon Station is near Butler’s Mesopotamia Station in inland South Canterbury.


Samuel Butler, a major British literary figure of the 19th century, began his career in Canterbury, where he lived from 1860 to 1864. Erewhon (1872) – an anagram of ‘nowhere’ – is a utopian novel set in an imaginary country, which begins in the Southern Alps and becomes a version of Italy. It has sometimes been seen as the beginning of the ‘man alone’ theme in New Zealand literature.

Another early immigrant novelist was Vincent Pyke, who wrote novels of the Otago goldfields. The best-known is The story of wild Will Enderby (1873), a lively tale of adventure and romance on the goldfields.

Charlotte Evans’s two light romances A strange friendship and Over the hills and far away (both published in 1874) used New Zealand material but are nostalgically English.

How to cite this page:

Lydia Wevers, 'Fiction - The first novels, 1860s and 1870s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Lydia Wevers, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 1 Aug 2015