The Stories of Eileen Duggan edited by Helen J. O’Neill with an introduction by John Weir (Victoria University Press, 2019), 342pp, $35
Let’s start with a shallow dive. Here’s Duggan describing two siblings in ‘The Solvent’:
Both were tireless workers. Those great bones of theirs could bend to burdens that would cow others. And in them was a broody touchiness where others were concerned, combined with a cuttle-fish skin when they hurt others. They never forgot underneath. Their resentments were like eels rising and uncoiling when the waters were stirred again
Eileen Duggan. Irish, Catholic. Born 1894. Raised in Tua Marina, just north of Blenheim. In her time, New Zealand’s most famous poet. ‘The greatest woman poet of this age,’ said the Dublin Review; ‘Exceptional,’ said the New York Times; ‘Doing for us what Katherine Mansfield did for the short story,’ said Railways Magazine.
But Duggan’s road was no easy one. When she was an adult her parents and sister died in quick succession. Viral infection almost killed her as a girl, leaving her with—as John Weir says in his informative introduction—‘shaking hands and head’. Worse than the infection were Curnow, Fairburn and Glover—they denigrated her poetry, they blocked her from various influential anthologies. After all, where they were modernism, she was musty Georgian verses.
The bastardly treatment of her poetry came long after these stories were written. The first bunch—The Wish of his Heart and other stories—were from the 1920s; the second—The Reason and other stories—were written pre-1940 to celebrate Aotearoa’s ‘centenary’. A few were published at the time, but for the most part this book is a debut, 100 years after the writing.
Here’s Weir again: ‘Duggan’s stories might perhaps be viewed as a little bridge between Mansfield’s world and the remarkably different world of Frank Sargeson’. John Weir and Eileen Duggan were friends. He has written a significant introduction, much of which covers Duggan’s life and her life in relation to her poetry. Just the last few pages deal with the stories themselves. The fact is the pair enjoyed a good deal of cake together, and over cake, in 1970, Duggan gave Weir these stories. They fitted into three categories, the first two of which make this collection. (The third—‘usually with a religious motif and written for a particular reading public’—do not feature.) The introduction remains quiet on the editing of the work, noting only that editing and preparation were done by Helen O’Neill.
Enough context for now. After all, the serious writer—and that paragraph from ‘The Solvent’ flags a serious writer—wants only their work judged. Not their work in relation to other writers, not their work as it relates to the difficulties under which it was produced. The Wish of his Heart is made up of nineteen five- or six-page stories, each one bite-sized to appeal to magazine publishers and set either in fictional Waihoi (read: Tua Marina) or Wellington, where Duggan lived for most of her life.
The siblings so marvellously characterised in that paragraph from ‘The Solvent’ run a farm, throw famous parties and meddle endlessly. ‘Romance seemed to rouse the devil in them. The sight of others’ happiness stung like a nettle.’ Not that they were all bad. ‘They liked to be at the helm and they liked even more to be seen there. But it is by action one must judge and they certainly put themselves out at floods and funerals.’
Then—and this is rapidly sketched—the brother sells the farm they’d both worked and takes land in the North Island before retiring to marry and live in the city. The sister meanwhile ‘drifted further south and held situations ranging from “general” to “housekeeper”, all of them grinding’. Waihoi—the collective—is not impressed. ‘Why should the ram browse while the ewe starved?’
The story ends in Wellington with a chance meeting of a Waihoi local and the sister, giving the reader some perspective on the sister’s attitude to her brother and the way her life has turned out—which, with respect to themes/content, gets into the guts of Duggan’s work. Flawed characters who work hard are unlucky in love (especially women) and, one way or another, come up against the views of the community.
In the introduction Weir cites Duggan’s description of the Tua Marina community: ‘there was public opinion based on a code of honour and decency which was in itself a deterrent from wrong-doing, yet made compassionate allowance for human nature’.
In all the stories, especially those set in Waihoi, the melded populace is another character, leaning over the fence, judging, wheedling and scolding. Young women should seek to marry, they should obey their husbands and bosses and parents, they should stick to the straight and narrow. It’s within the fracturing of these expectations that Duggan sets her stories.
In terms of language, Duggan’s is a funny, sharp, marvellously descriptive tongue:
‘She picked up the teapot like it was a pistol.’
‘The great grief-drenched notes streamed out like banners.’
Point of view roves. When it works well, such as in ‘His Son’, the reader is an owl in the rafters, taking in the gossip: ‘The wind of talk rose again. One of its gusts reached the factory manager.’ The sensation is of attending a hui of some kind—all viewpoints are heard, the story’s full picture is painted. Where this doesn’t work is when point of view shifts too early, confusing the reader.
The characterisation is often brilliant. This from ‘Old Madame’:
Old Madame gripped the knobs of her chair with that violence of impatience that was so strangely at variance with her inert feet. At the base she was slow and feeble while at the top she boiled with life.
Intriguing, at times almost subversive content, great language, strong characterisation—but what lets Duggan down are her endings. Corseted perhaps by length requirements, or by the social expectations she explores, her endings, at best, feel a little forced. At worst they are sermonic (‘Her Creed’) and saccharine (‘The Bond’). Others (‘The Section’, ‘Changed Circumstances’) deploy the ‘O. Henry’ snap in the tail. Good always seems to prevail; the reader is taught a lesson. Where, in my view, the short story ending needs to open the world, too often in this collection the sense is of a world narrowing.
The Reason and other stories—the second volume included in this collection—is an entirely different project. To celebrate the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi Duggan wrote twenty-two stories, all told from the point of view of a significant historical figure. Kupe leads off, Sidney Holland finishes.
Here’s Tasman’s first look at Aotearoa: ‘The hills, blunt-headed, mastodonic, glowered back at him, and their bared tusks, running at the water, seemed to dare him to advance.’ Captain Cook is next—Cook, who ‘knew his men as a bird knows his claw’.
Governors, prime ministers, churchmen, nuns, writers, explorers—they roam about enraging the Māori, loving the Māori, all the while thoughtfully observing the sea, sky and everything in between. And how they do describe them: ‘It was a squally day; the sky blew at times in long linked gusts, or with the sudden rushes and uncanny lulls of a haka; the waves rifted sharply and ran white down to their troughs.’ And then: ‘On the horizon later, a cumulus cloud rose upward in great bursts of wool like a split bale and the sunset dyed the swelling flock a fabulous gold.’ The split bale, the haka—marvellous only-in-Aotearoa imagery.
Structurally, Duggan imposes a similar template on most of the stories in this set. The main character’s larger purpose in Aotearoa is described—how and why they are here. Cook exploring, McKenzie politicking, Mother Aubert helping the down-and-out. Woven through are details of lesser ‘street-level’ incidents. Tasman deals with a young man whose fiddle has been confiscated, Father O’Reily meets a drunk whaler whom he helps to reunite with his family. Side-tales serve to humanise and explain the motivations of the ‘grand’ figure, as well as driving a more entertaining side of the narrative. Another weave is backstory: in almost every case the main character reflects (usually sentimentally) on life in the old country.
The stories in this second collection are not as limited by length requirements as those in the first. The result is both entertaining and edifying. Not that it’s easy screwing so much history into the short story form, and some stories suffer from too many facts—‘Compensation’, for example—but when she gets the balance right—‘Reconciliation’—the result is excellent.
But as with the first collection—and at risk of overemphasising this—what makes this set of stories worth reading are the descriptions, the sentence structure, the rhythm and beauty of the language.
Advice or speculation at the conclusion of a review makes my throat ache, but I will quickly ask this: How would Duggan’s fiction have benefited from time in Paris? Or London? Where artistic freedom was coveted, where other artists strove, where stories didn’t need to be a certain length, where the form of a story was more fluid, where her brilliant language and characterisation could have been her spring-board?
But enough daydreaming. Let’s go out with Duggan describing Richard Seddon:
He bore down upon the street as a chested happy cock bears down upon the fowl yard, and men seemed to scuttle before him, a thing of which, he, with his abounding vim, was supremely unconscious. In his passion for work he must have thought God over-considerate in decreeing a Sabbath, for he could hardly remember a week that had enough days for him; and as he strode, his hands clenched and unclenched in minor decisions.
BRETON DUKES is the author of What Sort of Man (2020) and two previous collections of short stories, Bird North (2011) and Empty Bones (2014) (all VUP). He received the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary in 2011. Breton lives with his wife and three young children in Dunedin. His interests include cookery and swimming.