Helen Watson White
Enough Horizon: The life and work of Blanche Baughan by Carol Markwell (The Cuba Press, 2021), 324pp, $40
Logs, at the door, by the fence; logs, broadcast over the paddock;
Sprawling in motionless thousands away down the green of the gully,
Logs, grey-black. And the opposite rampart of ridges
Bristles against the sky, all the tawny, tumultuous landscape
Is stuck, and prickled, and spiked with the standing black and grey splinters,
Strewn, all over its hollows and hills, with the long, prone, grey-black logs.
—from ‘A Bush Section’, B.E. Baughan (1870–1958)
The stature of poet Blanche Baughan is such that the whole of her long poem ‘A Bush Section’ was included in Oxford’s 1997 Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, a century after she published her first volume of verse, in London in 1898. It is not only because of her literary achievements, however, that Carol Markwell has sub-titled her biography of Baughan ‘The life and work’.
Enough Horizon: The life and work of Blanche Baughan encompasses three major stories: the British-born poet’s upbringing in a family beset by trauma; her pursuit of a writing career in New Zealand, where she emigrated in 1900; and her drive to improve the prison system here, when she discovered what Markwell calls the ‘utter failure’ of our institutions to address inmates’ needs.
A fourth story continues alongside these: Baughan’s deep love of the natural world led not only to poetry but also to travel, to writing about the diverse landscapes of her new home, and to her development of a unique spirituality. Although Markwell was aware that Baughan wrote well-known poems like ‘The Old Place’ and ‘A Bush Section’, she admits she had no idea the poet ‘was also an early feminist, a conservationist, a hard-working prison reformer, a botanist and a follower of Vedanta’.
The over-arching story of Enough Horizon (Baughan’s phrase) is of a woman educated (at London University) to a level unusual for girls of her time, who became a reader, writer and debater of social issues all her life. She never stopped learning about her own society. As a student volunteer, for instance, she was shocked by Londoners’ living conditions when she worked in the Settlement Movement, delivering social services to the urban poor. Later, involved in the local community wherever she made her home, she led book discussions and study groups for WEA (Workers Educational Association), which operated in rural New Zealand as well as in towns—’widening intellectual horizons’, as Markwell remarks, using a phrase close to Baughan’s own.
Markwell’s biography aims to represent her as much as possible by ‘her own words and the words of those who knew her—through published and unpublished manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, memoirs, diaries and letters’ as well as ‘poems, short stories, travel articles, reports and other writings’. This is a rounded portrait of someone who, although determinedly single, lived a very full life and delighted in relationships with women and men, fellow writers, fellow pacifists—people of all classes and kinds.
The book has an unusual genesis. Having known of Baughan first through her poetry, Markwell relates how she encountered the social worker Baughan while researching the life and times of Alice Parkinson. The subject of Markwell’s 2014 biography, Parkinson was convicted in 1915 of the murder of ‘Bert’ West, her child’s father who, when the child was stillborn, reneged on his promise to marry her. Sent far from her home in Hawkes Bay, a distressed Parkinson was serving a life sentence in Christchurch when Baughan visited her in Addington Prison (later called Addington Reformatory), listening to her story, writing to her family and negotiating with officials for her release.
Markwell describes Baughan as one who ‘lived and wrote in her own way and with a stubborn kind of integrity’, which was as much seen in her prison work as in her poetry. To many she is now known as the founder of a New Zealand branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Halfway through the book, Markwell reproduces Baughan’s ecstatic description of a mystical experience she had in 1905, while living on a remote farm on Banks Peninsula and writing about nature with the fresh perceptions of an immigrant. Her ‘epiphany’, wrote Baughan, was a sense of being ‘swept up and out of myself altogether’. ‘I felt one with everything and everybody.’ Markwell makes this a pivotal point in the narrative by presenting it five years on, just before Baughan leaves the place called Long Lookout where she had her vision, and goes to live in Christchurch, in the seaside suburb of Clifton. This is where, from her home called ‘High-up’, Baughan started the prison visiting which ultimately overtook her other activities and became her life’s work.
The ‘one-ness’ revelation Baughan described seemed to gather in all the purposes and practices of her life so far, and helped put them in perspective. It was in 1910, newly arrived at Clifton in a community of people drawn to the beautiful cliff-top site, that Baughan began having doubts about her primary vocation as a poet. Since Markwell describes Clifton as a stimulating environment, drawing creative ‘artists, musicians, market gardeners, flower growers, early environmentalists, thinkers of all kinds’, she finds it ‘hard to understand’ why Baughan was losing her poetic inspiration at this point. But she quotes a letter Baughan wrote to a friend many years later as a ‘clue’ to how she was feeling. From the letter: ‘Don’t you subscribe to the absurd idea that B.E.B. Sacrificed Poetry to Prisoners’; and the response: ‘Nothing of the kind—the poor woman never abandoned Poetry: Poetry forsook her…’
Baughan didn’t, of course, stop writing. Given her occupation as journalist, she continued to publish her popular nature essays. ‘In the Southern Alps’, which appeared in London’s The Spectator on 20 August 1910, went on to join six other pieces of hers in a collection published by Whitcombe & Tombs in 1916 as Studies in New Zealand Scenery. As Markwell points out, there were poetic elements in the style Baughan chose for conveying her love for nature, always more passionate than sentimental.
After the pivotal experience of 1905, Baughan referred to herself as a ‘Nature mystic’ and was joined in her spiritual quest by one who would prove a lifelong friend: Berta Burns, from whose writings Markwell takes many of the most revealing remarks and stories about her subject. Burns was very clear that the tramper and traveller Baughan was practical and down-to-earth—no dilettante: ‘When she put her feet to earth, she always reminded me of a sure-footed goat; her feet went just where she wanted them to and stayed there. Her movements were lithe, graceful and very purposive.’
Markwell sets out the principles of Vedanta in a chapter describing the ancient Hindu philosophy to which both women subscribed. Liking its broadness and inclusivity, Baughan was drawn to this version of ‘one-ness’ that sees everything as interrelated and is consistent with science. Even before that, says her biographer, ‘the ground was already prepared’. Although her BA was in Classics, Baughan studied German language and philosophy, and ‘read and admired the American transcendentalist writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman, who had themselves been earlier influenced by Eastern religions.’ After travelling to San Francisco in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe, she established a student-teacher relationship with several Vedantan swamis in California, making connections maintained by correspondence on her return. As Markwell notes, she had ‘interesting mail’.
The main principles Baughan adopted from Vedanta were self-surrender and service to others, both consequent upon following the ‘inner light’ she had perceived in her epiphany. Markwell traces those consequences in her relation of Baughan’s seamless transition from paid journalism to unpaid humanitarian work, beginning with visiting women’s prisons. After meeting two girls who had run away from Te Oranga, a home for girls with criminal convictions, Baughan made it her study to understand the prison system as it was—desperately in need of reform. But that wasn’t her main focus; rather, she gained the inmates’ trust, learning the particulars of each individual case, keeping in touch by letter, at once a teacher and advocate and, for one prisoner, the ‘godmother’ he’d never had. Markwell quotes an interview Baughan gave to the Ladies Mirror in about 1924:
My own “class” numbers about fifty … I have boys, girls, men, women, drunkards, murderers, thieves and forgers, and can honestly say that I find good in them all.
Turning 60 in 1930—an age at which many people retired—Baughan moved to Akaroa, to yet another house that once again was situated ‘high up’, with views over harbour and hills. While visiting was no longer possible, her habitual letter-writing continued with prison inmates and authorities all over the country, as well as her many other writer friends.
Markwell has interviewed women who remember Baughan from their childhoods: her humour and generosity, love of animals, her garden. Throwing herself into local activities, at age 66 Baughan even became the first woman on the Borough Council, and that—perhaps because of her association with controversy—is remembered too. Indeed, Markwell was told, ‘In Suffrage Year, 1993, a group of Akaroa women gathered at the school and community library to read extracts from her poetry and prose and to pay their own tribute to her.’
A major product of Baughan’s life in Akaroa, and the result of much preparation, was a book of prisoners’ stories, using pseudonyms, co-written with her Howard League friend Frederick de la Mare and published in 1936 to educate the Department of Justice and the public at large. The People in Prisons of its title, Markwell remarks, were ‘a group heard a lot about by the public but very rarely heard directly from’. These self-told stories are eloquent: as one inmate asks, ‘Is starving a dog really the best way to keep him from biting?’
Bearing ‘the entire expense of its publication and distribution’ could have meant Baughan was disappointed when People in Prisons didn’t sell. Instead, she arranged for copies of the book to be sent free ‘to all members of Cabinet, all judges and all magistrates, and to anyone else in the penal system who might be involved in decision making’, adding local libraries and ‘parsons’ to the list of possible recipients. To illustrate how important this humanitarian project was to her in the ‘here and now’, Markwell quotes a letter to her co-author in September 1939 when war was declared. De la Mare, as a lawyer, had taken care of issues that might bring lawsuits from senior officials in the prison system, whose response to the book was expected to be hostile. Baughan writes:
I’m especially glad you got it all over before people have got it into their heads that nothing but the War matters.
It was not until late in life that Baughan told her own prison story, of how her maternal grandfather, who had killed a man, was incarcerated as suffering from criminal insanity. Her mother Ruth also suffered severe mental illness and was removed from the family, having possibly been the cause of her husband’s early death. In an unpublished semi-autobiographical novel called Two New Zealand Roses, which she gave to her friend Burns, Baughan went some way to explaining her extreme interest in psychology and criminality, and also her determination that she should not marry and have children, for fear these family traits were hereditary.
Markwell’s excellent book, with illustrations, full notes, index and bibliography, serves her subject well. It is a fascinating personal version of a historical period, where Baughan’s work stands out as enlightened and forward-looking against a background of what we’d now think of as preventable suffering—in her own family, and in prisons up and down the land.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin poet, writer, photographer and critic, in recent years reviewing non-fiction books for Landfall and opera for NZ Opera News.