Gone to Pegasus by Tess Redgrave (Submarine, 2018), 280 pp., $35
A passion for music, and its ability to connect the most dissimilar of women, Eva McAlester and Grace Coles, lies at the heart of the novel Gone to Pegasus. Divided into four parts that correspond to musical tempos, the story is set in February 1892, and from the outset provides the reader with vivid, engaging evocations of place: Dunedin, New Delhi and Lake Wakatipu.
The novel opens in Dunedin, and we follow twenty-year-old Eva as she leaves her house on Pitt Street, walks past Knox Church, through the Octagon and on to Princes Street. Eva is about to audition for a part in a choir, and as she passes three men playing Vivaldi she is reminded that her husband has been incarcerated at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.
Grace is an avid supporter of Kate Sheppard’s suffrage movement. Grace’s husband James is vehemently opposed to his wife’s passionate involvement in women’s rights. But if anything his disapproval, rather than acting as a deterrent, spurs Grace on, and as the story progresses we learn that Grace has never felt bound by convention.
When Eva realises the severity of her husband’s condition and that he will need to be treated for some time, in an effort to support herself she advertises her services as a music teacher. Responding to the advertisement, Grace turns up unannounced at Eva’s house. She is not interested in learning to play the piano, but instead offers a fee to simply be allowed to listen to Eva playing. Initially reluctant, Eva relents; and although she has reservations about Grace, her willfulness, her bold dislike for convention and her passion for women’s rights, Eva finds that Grace’s attentive listening releases something she never thought possible:
As soon as Eva played the first bars of Chopin’s ‘Heroic’ Grace was on her feet, almost dancing as she raised her arms overhead and began to sway. There are startled gasps and sighs from diners and then a hushed quiet as Grace’s wrists began their own exquisite performance, turning in soft circles above her gold scarf. Eva knows that everyone in Eichardt’s dining room is entranced as she plays on, following Grace’s lead.
As their stories develop we learn how different the women’s backgrounds are. Eva’s is depicted as the more conventional and religious; she is willing to accept society’s definition of wifely duty, while Grace is the opposite. Raised in India by a mother who was passionate about music but for the most part disengaged in her daughter’s childhood, Grace grew up among the servants of the household, assimilating much of the country’s culture and mores. Grace baulks against convention. She challenges Eva, not only in the area of musical expression but also in how she perceives herself as a woman.
Both women have difficult relationships with their husbands. Eva’s husband William suffers from the impact of a childhood trauma that comes to the fore when he marries, and he is eventually committed to Seacliff. Grace’s husband is domineering and cruel and appears to have little or no idea of Grace’s past or who she really is.
Grace harbours secrets that will ultimately threaten the women’s relationship, and events come to a climax when Grace and Eva visit the Cold Lakes in winter. Eva finds herself greatly inspired by the lakes and mountains:
Eva finds a place to sit on her own. She is elated as she looks back down the twisting valley. She is so pleased she came. Nothing is intimidating now. Everything is turning to sound. There is still snow from the big fall on some of the treetops and beyond them are mountains, one towering above the others, alabaster white against the lavender sky.
It is here that Eva begins composing her sonata, Gone to Pegasus, and the title, which means something quite different at the start of the novel, takes on a more creatively imbued significance in the final section of the book. While visiting the lakes Grace realises that she can no longer keep up her deception: in order to live the life she envisages she needs to make a life-changing decision.
When the story returns to Dunedin, Eva is unaware of Grace’s decision, and while understandably upset and angry when she finds out, she focuses on rebuilding her relationship with William, who until now has remained at Seacliff. When William subsequently disappears Eva finds comfort in music and her newfound passion for women’s rights. The novel comes full circle a year later when Eva plays at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington as Kate Sheppard takes to the pulpit to rally for female franchise in the upcoming spring election.
In this final section there is a striking elicitation of landscape and how it has inspired musical composition:
And then she [Eva] is off, her fingers on the piano unfolding through the Adagio sostenuto to the Cold Lakes and the majestic Snow Wings, where the gentle trace of finger down a cheek spins magic across the Wakatipu waters to the confluence of the Greenstone and Caples Rivers. Beyond, through mountain beech, the Lentando misterioso takes her further and further into the heartland of New Zealand, to the source of the Arahura – the birthplace of the healing greenstone that embodies aroha.
She reaches the Patetico appassionato and lets her fingers soften towards the end of the third movement. Eva’s notes are flowing from her own wellspring, a place she discovered at her frontier.
I enjoyed reading Redgrave’s Gone to Pegasus. As I mentioned earlier, it is vivid in its evocation of place and time. It is well paced, and Redgrave’s descriptions of the landscape are particularly poetic and pleasingly rendered. I was interested to read about the attitudes towards New Zealand’s suffragists, and of how, despite being vilified, they persisted and succeeded in gaining the vote for women in 1893. At the heart of the book is the bond that is forged between two women through music, and the notion that music can help us to access otherwise undiscovered parts of ourselves. This belief permeates the novel. As an avid classical music fan, I think it would have been useful if the notes could have included reference to the musical pieces alluded to in the book; perhaps if the author has a website, she could include links to the music.
Two other minor quibbles: although I appreciate that the focus of the novel was the relationship between Eva and Grace, as a reader I was really interested in the Seacliff subplot, which was very much in the background and conveyed through letters from Eva’s husband and her correspondence with Dr Truby King. Also, as an Irish New Zealander, I was mildly irked by the stereotypical depiction of the pugnacious Irish miner in Part II.
Overall, however, Gone to Pegasus is a well-researched, evocatively written debut from Tess Redgrave.
MAJELLA CULLINANE writes poetry and fiction. Her second poetry collection, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing (Otago University Press and Salmon Publishing), was published this year. Her debut novel The Life of De’Ath (Steele Roberts, 2018) was recently shortlisted for the New Zealand Heritage Book Awards. She is a PhD candidate in creative practice at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago.