Polly Plum: A firm and earnest woman’s advocate: Mary Ann Colclough 1836–1885 by Jenny Coleman (Otago University Press, 2017), 296 pp., $39.95
Polly Plum was the nom de plume of Mary Ann Colclough – née Barnes – who lived and worked in Auckland and Melbourne during the period of first-wave feminism. Author Jenny Coleman suggests that her largely unknown subject’s contribution to the women’s movement, as well as to girls’ education and to countless individual women and girls, was at least equal to that of Kate Sheppard.
An article published fifteen years after her death claimed Mary Ann ‘went down to her grave a blighted woman’. Certainly her life, as Coleman recounts it, wasn’t easy: it included personal loss, public opprobrium, bankruptcy (through no fault of her own) and ill-health. She was dead by 49.
Mary Ann sailed from London in 1857 accompanied by her younger brother. By the time she disembarked in Auckland, aged 21, her brother was dead and their considerable savings had disappeared, possibly at the hands of the ship’s captain. That she survived in her new country and, at various times, flourished after such an unpromising start – especially at a time when single women had few opportunities for making a good life for themselves – is indicative of her courage and determination.
Her biographer suggests Mary Ann emigrated in search of better prospects in the form of employment and/or marriage. She was one of a large number of well-educated and middle-class women charmingly known as ‘redundant women’, who by staying put merely contributed to the over-supply of governesses.
Mary Ann grew up in financially secure circumstances in Clerkenwell with extended family close by. At 15 she attended one of the best educational institutions for girls, Queen’s College in Harley Street, where one of her subjects was the writing of paragraphs and articles for a female readership. Her education – as well as her strength of character – seems to have equipped her to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. She was, according to her biographer, ‘alert and intelligent, with well-developed powers of observation and a sharp, analytical mind’. Her urban youth gave her plenty of opportunities to perceive class and gender injustice and develop a social conscience.
These qualities were what allowed – perhaps even compelled – her to eventually ‘go public’ with her views at a time when women could not vote and married women could not own their own property. The entire gender was strait-jacketed by seemingly immutable rules of what was proper behaviour. To break them was, to many, an outrage if not a kind of sacrilege.
So what were her views? Not radical, compared with other feminists of her time. She believed in marriage and the importance of motherhood. She did not press for dress reform. But she did believe that, although born to different functions, men and women were equal in God’s eyes. And she thought it barbaric that women could not vote, especially when they earned their own living, and that they should be confined to such a narrow range of occupations. Her first forays into newspaper journalism were, says Coleman, ‘a mix of conservatism and outspoken commentary’.
First, though, she trained, and six months after her arrival found employment as a teacher. Then she met her husband to be. Unfortunately, Thomas Colclough was a remittance man, receiving a small annual income from his Irish family on the condition that he stayed put on the other side of the world. Mary Ann left work when she married him, but soon discovered she had hitched her wagon to the wrong star. He failed to provide for his family. Pregnant with her first child, she was forced back to work – a scandalous step for a married woman.
She opened a small boarding school for girls in Otahuhu. Eight months after giving birth she was pregnant again. On top of all this, she was active in literary circles and writing fiction, and in 1866 published her first novel. She was, apparently, gracious about her much older husband’s failings, but by the time she was 31 he was dead and she was left with two children to support. So she began writing articles for periodicals here and abroad to supplement her income.
In 1869 she wrote to the editor of the Daily Southern Cross newspaper, saying that parents, not schools, should be responsible for their children’s religious instruction. This prompted more letters to the editor, and before long Polly Plum responded with a long article on the subject. By the middle of the year, she was a regular columnist for the Cross, as well as a frequent contributor to the Weekly News. Julius Vogel was a personal supporter as well as the former’s proprietor, and he may have suggested her nom de plume.
Newspapers then were a lively forum for community debate, rather as the internet and social media are now. (A young feminist told me recently, ‘I would never have become a feminist without the internet.’) So who can accurately evaluate Mary Ann’s influence as her readership and reputation grew? For every shocked citizen – by no means all of them men – prompted to give her a tongue-lashing for her views and her audacity in airing them, many more must have been moved to re-examine the status quo and find it wanting. And she soon widened her audience by taking to the platform in and around Auckland to deliver lectures on her chosen subjects.
Polly Plum is a valuable book because it documents a previously unsung life. It speaks to its author’s own hard work and determination. But a documentation is not a ‘fine biography’, as its back cover claims. The book reads as something of a lost opportunity. It seems not to have been written for the inquiring lay reader, even one with a particular interest in women’s history. Rather, it feels squarely aimed at academia – the culture rather than the individual reader. There’s nothing wrong with academics talking to each other, especially in more abstruse fields, but a topic like Coleman’s could so easily have had broader appeal and contributed to the general knowledge of who we are and where we come from.
The first deterrent is the book’s prose. It flourishes all the features that make traditional academic style heavy going and likely to bleed material of interest. These include too many long ill-constructed sentences. (It isn’t hard to find fifty or more words between full stops, so that you’ve forgotten the beginning by the time you get to the end.) Sentences are bogged down by qualifying clauses, particularly at their outset. There too many passive verbs – particularly the ‘is not known’ formula, which almost phobically avoids first-person singular. And there’s liberal use of longer words and phrases where shorter, plainer ones would better do the trick.
The second difficulty is just as crucial. A biography is the story of someone’s life; to be compelling, the writer must keep their eye on the narrative ball. Stories are selected from raw material and shaped. What they are not is a record of everything the writer uncovered in their research.
The first page of Polly Plum offers an example. The scene is promisingly human, with 21-year-old Mary Ann getting off the ship in Auckland, penniless and alone. But in the next paragraph we flash back to learn the tonnage of the ship that brought her here and how many passengers it carried, how many of them were in the second cabin with Mary Ann and how long it took to travel between the various points on its journey. We also learn that two other families lost members on the voyage.
What we don’t learn – and the author doesn’t speculate on – is how these facts affected Mary Ann. In other words, what their relevance is for the subject’s story. If the author doesn’t know and doesn’t care to speculate, then such details are better relegated to end notes in order to keep the focus on her subject. Left in the main narrative they derail the sense of story. The reader is left wondering why they need to know these details and whether they need to try to remember them.
This kind of peripheral detail throughout the book leads me to conclude that what Coleman has produced is a conscientious record of Mary Ann Colclough’s life, as far as its facts are known, rather than a ‘living’ biography. No one wants biographers to make stuff up, but, as Peter Wells has written, a biography is ‘one human’s idea of another person’s life’. A good writer – even of non-fiction – needs to be discreet company on the page to engage the reader. Coleman denies us that pleasure.
JANE WESTAWAY is a Wellington reviewer. She is returning to fiction writing after fifteen years earning real money as a partner in Words@Work.