Romance was the queen of 19th-century fiction. Even novels whose subject was the New Zealand wars tended to adopt a romance formula. Almost all novels by women in the 19th century followed a romance plot, often interwoven with family saga, which allowed colonial experience, or ‘local colour’, to be reported.
One of the most prolific of these writers was Louisa Baker, who wrote 16 novels under the pseudonym ‘Alien’. Baker grew up in Christchurch. She married at 18, and moved to Dunedin when her marriage broke down. She later settled in London, where she published her first novel, A daughter of the king (1894). Like her contemporaries Ellen Ellis and Edith Searle Grossmann, Baker was part of the ‘new woman’ movement in literature, and believed that raising women’s status within marriage would improve their lives.
After Ellen Ellis published the autobiographical novel Everything is possible to will, her son, Willie, bought as many copies of the book as he could find and burned them. He was upset by the portrayal of his father as a drunk.
Ellen Ellis’s Everything is possible to will, published in 1882, promoted women’s rights and temperance. It was largely autobiographical, about a woman who marries a businessman who turns out to be an alcoholic, and moves with him to New Zealand.
Edith Searle Grossmann was a university graduate at Canterbury and a teacher. Like Baker and Ellis, she did not have a happy marriage, and lived apart from her husband. Grossmann’s novels are progressive in their views of female suffrage, the social status of women and equal opportunity. Her best-known work is The heart of the bush (1910). The heroine, Adelaide Borlase, has to choose between two suitors, an effete Englishman and a rough New Zealander, who personify the problems and virtues of colonial culture.
Māori were a constant source of fictional interest in the latter half of the 19th century. John White, official interpreter to Sir George Grey, collected Māori historical traditions and would tell stories such as ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ to sizeable audiences in return for Māori stories. He wrote novels based on Māori oral tradition. The best-known of these are Te Rou (1874), an ethnographic novel about Māori life, and Revenge: a love tale of the Mount Eden tribe, which was published posthumously in 1940.
The most popular subject for novels about Māori was the New Zealand wars. Australian Robert Whitworth’s Hine ra was published in 1887 and followed by Hume Nisbet’s The rebel chief (1896), Robert H. Scott’s Ngamihi (1895), the well-known Australian author Rolf Boldrewood’s War to the knife (1898) and a number of others. Conservative and sensational, these books have been described as ‘Maorified romances.’1
A premier prophet
In 1889 former New Zealand premier Julius Vogel published a utopian science-fiction novel called Anno domini 2000. A number of aspects of the book were subsequently realised in real life. It was set at the dawn of the 21st century. Women dominated governments and poverty was a thing of the past. The novel included air travel, electric labour-saving devices and a social-welfare system.
Clara Cheeseman’s A rolling stone (1886) recounts its hero’s colonial experiences as a romance. George Chamier’s Philosopher Dick (1891) and its sequel A south-sea siren (1895), which have been described as the most substantial 19th-century novels set in New Zealand, take a more critical view. Philosopher Dick is about an educated shepherd who is out of place on a high-country sheep station. The novel describes colonial life, and examines rather than just recording it.
Edith Lyttleton, who wrote under the name G. B. Lancaster, was one of New Zealand’s most widely read popular novelists overseas. She wrote about men who worked on back-country sheep stations in Sons o’ men (1904) and subsequent novels. In 1909 Lyttleton went to London, where she wrote prolifically.
William Satchell is the best-known of the early-20th-century novelists. The land of the lost (1902), set in the kauri-gum fields, and The toll of the bush (1905) were both reviewed enthusiastically. As in Edith Searle Grossmann’s novels, the New Zealand bush was a potent force in his fiction. Satchell’s last novel, The greenstone door (1914), is widely considered his best.