Story: Fiction

Page 4. Women writers, 1920s and 1930s

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Jane Mander

Jane Mander’s The story of a New Zealand river (1920) continues to have historical importance. Based on Mander’s nomadic early life, due to her father’s work as a sawmiller and bushman in Northland, the novel describes the culture clash that ensues when the rough sawmill boss marries a cultivated, piano-playing Englishwoman, who brings with her to the bush her children from an earlier marriage.

The title echoes Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African farm, which Mander had been reading, and reflects her wish to evoke a deeply local New Zealand. It is thought to have been part of the source material for Jane Campion’s film The piano (1993). Mander wrote several other novels while living in New York and London in the 1920s. Only one of these, Allen Adair (1925), about the Northland gumfields, has been reprinted.

Jean Devanny

A sensational book of the 1920s was Jean Devanny’s The butcher shop (1926), a desolate and violent novel about adultery and murder on a King Country station. Its frankness about sexuality and feminism meant it was banned on publication in New Zealand and also in Australia, Boston and Germany, but it sold well in the UK. Devanny moved to Australia in 1929 and became a very active member of the Communist Party. She published numerous other novels, of which the best known is Sugar heaven (1936).

Robin Hyde

Robin Hyde was the pen name of Iris Wilkinson, who considered herself primarily a poet, but whose imaginative, political and innovative novels have remained of great interest to contemporary readers and critics for their feminist politics and experimentalism.

Secret name

Iris Wilkinson’s pen name commemorated her son, Christopher Robin Hyde, who was stillborn in Sydney in 1926. She took his name as a gesture of defiance, since the pregnancy and birth had been kept a secret from everyone except her mother.

The godwits fly (1938), an autobiographical novel, is the best known. It was preceded by Check to your king (1936), a novel about Baron Charles de Thierry which is critical of colonisation, and two novels based on the war experience of an ‘outlaw’ soldier, Starkie (James Douglas Stark), Passport to hell (1936) and Nor the years condemn (1938). In 1937 Hyde published Wednesday’s children, an ironic fantasy which criticised the social choices available to women. She died by suicide in London in 1939.

Popular fiction

A prolific author of popular fiction, Isabel Maude Peacocke wrote 50 novels for children and light romances set in Auckland. She had a large readership in England, where her work was published, but was not well known in New Zealand, where her books were not widely distributed.

Nelle Scanlan’s Pencarrow series, four family-saga novels published between 1932 and 1939, have been credited with creating a readership for New Zealand fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Scanlan published several novels in England before the Pencarrow books (which offer a very conservative view of colonial life) made her the most popular novelist of her generation.

Another successful writer published between the wars was Rosemary Rees, whose novels aimed at what became the Mills-and-Boon market of romance readers. She was less well known than Mary Scott, whose internationally successful rural domestic comedies began with the publication of her ‘Barbara’ newspaper sketches in 1936. In the early 1950s Scott followed up with a series of novels set on backblocks farms in the North Island. The best-known of these are Breakfast at six (1953) and Dinner doesn’t matter (1957).

Ngaio Marsh Award

In 2010 the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel was inaugurated. Any crime, mystery or thriller novel written by a New Zealand citizen or resident and published in the preceding year is eligible.

The queen of the popular-fiction writers was Ngaio Marsh, who divided her time between New Zealand and England. She is best known for her 32 detective novels featuring Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, the first of which was published in 1934. Four of these are set in New Zealand: Vintage murder (1937), Colour scheme (1943), Died in the wool (1945) and Photo-finish (1980). The majority of her novels have English country settings like those of her great rival Agatha Christie, and use the same formula of solving a murder puzzle.

How to cite this page:

Lydia Wevers, 'Fiction - Women writers, 1920s and 1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

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