The Seasonwife by Saige England (Bateman Books, 2023), 288pp, $37.99
This is a debut novel of clearly defined characters—they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’—in a tale of a young Irish woman who is abducted from Sydney in 1832 by a whaling captain who trades in human heads. Bridie Murphy is taken to New Zealand where Robbie Fitch, her tormentor, establishes a whaling station. Local Māori offer Manaia as a ‘seasonwife’ (very like Bridie’s own position) to Fitch, though in reality she is tasked by her tribe to spy out the tauiwi intentions. In an echo of Fiona Kidman’s novel about Betty Guard (The Captive Wife, 2005), The Seasonwife spins a Dickensian-style tale of colonialism, ambition and greed, notably involving white men.
The novel opens with a vivid scene of a young Māori man being ‘hunted’ in the Australian bush and then takes us into the death of Bridie’s mother in Sydney, which, in effect, leaves two young people in a vulnerable situation.
The poverty of this setting is neatly captured with the keening Irish women, all having been plucked unwillingly from their homeland, and the butcher cutting the dead woman’s hair to sell. Missionary Quentin Cuthbert makes his first, unwelcome appearance with his ‘damp, rained-upon Bible’, praying for ‘good, God-fearing women’.
So, the stage is ready for ‘Uncle Robbie’ to step in. ‘Since forever it seems, he has played the part of the friendly uncle, but whatever he was to her ma was not kind nor brotherly.’ He is a mock version of the rich uncle, and Fitch has dandy pretensions with his fine clothes and beaver topper: ‘on his way to gentryhood’.
Even though Bridie is the daughter of a convict, she soon learns about the underbelly of old Sydney town as Fitch proceeds to sell her to a rich gent. Here is a recurring theme of the novel—the rottenness that lies below the veneer of wealth. Not only does Justice Wells abuse Bridie, but he also has
a cabinet that contains a row of human heads. One seems familiar to Bridie—a Māori man she was drawn to on the street—and she feels their presence.
Something comes now, comes from the cage that is the cabinet, the raging range of spirits whose remains have become an Englishman’s ornament.
Of course, Fitch and the ‘gentleman’, fixed on their negotiations, have no idea of the spiritual element in the room.
Bridie is taken by Fitch to New Zealand, and life on board ship is very unpleasant. Bridie is enslaved, tied physically to a mast to prevent her from falling overboard, both symbolically and literally in bondage to Fitch: ‘How she loathes the sea-broth stink of him.’ She fantasises about knocking him out to cut off his balls and: ‘Slice the sausage cock, let it fall, dribble blood’.
Meanwhile, in complete contrast to Bridie’s invidious situation, Manaia in Piripiri Bay plays innocently with baby seals in a waterfall pool. Hers is a gentle life of aroha, guarded by a hawk and filled with longing for her erstwhile lover, Kauri. The village is a harmonious place run on protocol and hard work. One can only wonder what kind of meeting will take place between these peaceable people and the horrid whalers, these ‘black-hearted creatures with round, bloated eyes’.
In fact, all goes well at first contact, with giggling Māori children climbing on board the ship that anchors in their bay. The scene seems strangely innocent for these ‘New Zealanders’ with ‘Smiles in their eyes and on their lips.’
They obviously haven’t met any heinous whalers before.
Plenty of foreshadowing guides the reader on: Manaia’s nightmares of ‘the worm’ that wants it all, ‘land, forests, birds, fish and all the water’; Cuthbert’s fears about how the ‘tired, cold and foul-tempered’ crew will behave on land; Manaia’s feelings of foreboding about the arrival of the tauiwi.
Bridie and Manaia, the two young women at the heart of this novel, have much in common, including the gift of second sight. They bond via the breath of a hongi: ‘In this meeting with the woman there is the deep and rising comfort of shared strength.’ The moment gestures towards the freedom in Manaia that Bridie longs for: ‘What if she could dream her own future outside the machinations of sailors and settlers, of men?’ Bridie is also drawn to Māori for their good qualities (so different to those of the whalers): ‘She was among people who have refined senses …’
But the whalers are here to kill whales, and the two women bond again over the relentless slaughter, their grief being: ‘A meeting of laments.’
It is not only the women who are sensitive to this brutal intrusion: the land itself and the bay—once pristine—becomes a hellhole of whale carcasses and burning fires rendering oil. It’s a Joseph Conrad-like scene of bloody exploitation and horror, and even Bridie ‘smells of whale death’.
In nature, Bridie, guided by Manaia, can find and express her true freedom and realise a link to the past, even if it is only fleeting:
Feels, Bridie does, the spirit of herself wakening. A song under her, an ancient walking song, a cold dark path song, a wending home to the hearth song.
Robbie Fitch is certainly a colourful villain. A ‘ticket-of-leave man who only had a half-share in the ship he commanded’, we hear quite a lot about his snake-tattooed cock and his toileting habits in a way that surely signals his base nature. He is a dangerous jester, his mood changing on a whim. At the Māori village, Cuthbert wonders ‘how long he can keep the brute at bay’.
At times, it’s hard to take the puffed-up, swaggering Fitch seriously as a character; he’s more of a piratical caricature. The colourful, cartoonish language—the cant, or jargon—that Fitch uses—‘Listen, you addle-headed cove cock-suckers’—both underscores and over-emphasises the fact that he is a brutal man. His abominable behaviour, too, places him beyond any pale of decency, as when he whips missionary Cuthbert, tied naked to a ship’s mast, with a rope, ‘a cowering dog whipped into wretchedness’, for pure entertainment. He beats Bridie several times, once with the bough of a tree.
Darker yet, Fitch has been procuring heads of Māori to trade back in Sydney, as he details in a letter to Justice Wells. ‘I am a master, sir, not only at whaling and sealing, but at provoking war and preserving the spoils.’ He is a psychopath who thinks nothing of killing for profit.
Of course, one can only hope he will meet a sticky end.
In a disturbing scene, Fitch parades Bridie in front of his pirate crew and during the ‘crazed festive antics’, she ends up chopping off his infected finger and then secreting it away to create a curse. When it seems that things can’t get any worse, well, Fitch tosses a head at Cuthbert in a flamboyant show of disrespect to the dead, and there follows a horrible scene involving baby seals.
Yet despite the dominance of Fitch’s dastardly character, at the heart of this narrative are the preserved Māori heads, commanding our interest. Bridie ‘whispers apologies to them’ and ‘sees people who deserve to be buried’.
Fitch’s motley crew of whalers are as just as hyperbolically nasty as he is, living only to guzzle liquor and chase women when they can. These examples of Pākehā are in stark contrast to the refined local tribe and Manaia’s ‘world of aroha and manaakitanga’.
The missionary Quentin Cuthbert turns out to be the most nuanced character in the novel with his God-fearing evangelism and secret past. His redemption comes via acceptance into the tribe.
He is also the one white male with a conscience and some kind of moral compass, possibly because of his time spent with a Northern tribe where he had a ‘wife’ (ironically, perhaps, a seasonwife). There are several sides to Cuthbert, giving him some depth as a character: the man riddled with guilt, the evangelical missionary, originally Irish but raised as a ‘Protestant boy’, and the more liberal man who understands Māori reo and customs. His dilemma is to find the courage to protect Bridie and the village. And yet, he has psychopathic Fitch to contend with. ‘Could anyone ever be more trapped than he is right now, in this place at this time?’
With his many failings, this man of God is at the margins of a brutal, burgeoning society and caught between two worlds.
The latter part of the narrative gets a little loose as Cuthbert finds redemption in the Māori village; another tribe attacks the whaler’s camp; Fitch seeks to execute his plan of escape; and a confrontation scene between Fitch and Bridie devolves into a curious mix of comedy and drama.
What goes around, comes around. Just as Bridie, on the voyage over to New Zealand, was lashed to a mast and treated like a slave, so Fitch is destined to become a slave of sorts to the Māori tribe—that is, once he has been hunted down, in the same manner he once hunted down the young Māori man in Sydney to secure his head.
The Seasonwife provides a genre mash-up of Aotearoa history via the reductive lens of good versus evil. It’s a breezy page-turner, though often also as pungent as a whaling vessel’s smoking try-pot.
TINA SHAW is a novelist and editor based in Taupō. She won the 2023 Michael Gifkins Text Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript.