The March of the Foxgloves by Karyn Hay (Esom House Press, 2016), 400 pp., $84 (limited hardback edition), $32 (paperback)
Never judge a book by its cover.
This is a very reasonable rule to which I usually adhere. But in the case of Karyn Hay’s The March of the Foxgloves, it was very hard for me not to start judging even before I had read a word of the text. I am one of the lucky ones who were sent the de luxe hardback limited edition (as opposed to the less expensive paperback version). The dust jacket is a tasteful cream-and-purple, with the word ‘Foxgloves’ printed in gold and a front-cover image of a woman in Victorian clothes apparently weeping. The cover underneath the dust jacket is that deep purple that we associate with plush velvet curtains. The endpapers are an equally tasteful pale-green-and-white fin de siècle motif, looking like the sort of wallpaper that Oscar Wilde might have tried to live up to. Scattered through the text are line drawings by Rung Rutjanavech, almost (but not quite) like late Victorian illustrations. Then there is the special feature, which apparently does not appear in the paperback edition. Twelve naughty photographs of the Australian burlesque performer Sina King, shot and framed like Victorian erotica. In black-and-white, and in some cases artificially tinted, she poses and bares her handsome derriere and breasts (but not her pudenda). Very tasteful. Were it not for Ms King’s modern face and expression in some shots, these pastiches would be perfect reproductions of the type of thing your great-great-grandfather might have had a quiet wank over.
Altogether, the presentation tells me that this must have been a very expensive book to produce.
So, before yet reading a word of the text, what do I already know about Karen Hay’s second novel? I know that it will have a Victorian setting, that it will focus on women, and that there will be a titillating aspect. And thus it proves.
The tale in set in London and New Zealand in 1893.
Frances Woodward is a forward-thinking ‘New Woman’. She refuses to let her body be constrained by a corset, she prefers not to wear gloves, and she thinks it is foolish to have skirts so long that they trail in the mud. Occasionally she preaches to others the advantages of sensible clothing. She asserts herself by taking an independent profession and being a photographer, so the text has quite a bit of information on the cumbersome equipment she carries. Frances Woodward has a social conscience and photographs reality. In one episode she visits the London slums and captures their fearful sordor. But to make a living she produces and distributes clandestinely soft porn postcards (oh very well – ‘erotica’ if you want to pretend they’re something else) featuring her buxom and forthright friend Dolly Dunlap. So now you know what those twelve photos in the de luxe edition are all about.
On the pretext of doing a photographic travel assignment for a magazine, Frances comes to New Zealand. But this is after some sort of scandal in London. Frances is apparently escaping from a sexually exploitative bounder called Benedict Hunt. There are dark hints about his role in her past – how he made her ‘the mistress of his gratifications’ (p. 22) and how he would ‘subtly ridicule and degrade her when they were alone together’. (p. 148) Of course we lust to know what exactly happened between them, and what exactly the scandal was. This is the cunning text-bait that keeps us reading. Far be it from me to spoil things by saying how it all turns out, but I think I’m allowed to remark that the solution, in the closing chapters, is a bit of an anticlimax. I can’t help noting, too, how incongruous it is that such an assertive and knowing woman as Frances has got involved with such a first-class swine in the first place. Did all her New Woman impulses turn off to feed the plot?
Not that it really matters.
Across the best part of 400 pages, Karyn Hay has produced a very entertaining novel. She writes a good, clear and detailed prose, and produces an engaging account of colonial New Zealand, from muddy Queen Street and the boarding house where Frances stops briefly in Auckland, to the crowded and uproarious Bleakley household where Frances comes to live in Tauranga. There are briefer views of an opium den in Auckland, a ‘decadent’ chap who spouts poetry while seducing women in his hut in the bush, a circus and an over-elaborate party and dance designed to welcome Frances to her new home. True, some of her descriptions can go on a bit, and the banter between Frances and the Bleakley children does outstay its welcome. But the attractive qualities of the novel, together with the long back-stories Hay gives to most characters, make The March of the Foxgloves the type of novel that will beguile many people’s long holidays.
You can accept it as a romp if that is what you want. But trying to interpret it as serious adult fiction is a bit of a problem.
Whenever I read ‘historical’ novels I am a nitpicker in looking for anachronisms. I could find none in this book. Hay has clearly done her research thoroughly, whether she is referring to Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler in London or the poetry of Baudelaire, the type of cuisine enjoyed in middle-class colonial households, the technical details of nineteenth century photography, or how people comported themselves on the steamships that took them from one New Zealand settlement to another.
So far, so good. But, in spite of the accuracy of physical details, there is a larger sort of anachronism at work here, as there is in so many historical fictions. It is the anachronism of giving leading characters the sensibility of people of a later age – the sensibility of our age, to be precise. Frances Woodward is really a third-wave feminist plonked into the era of first-wave feminism.
It is obligatory for any modern novel set in the Victorian era to depict all ‘respectable’ people as rank moral hypocrites. Thus it is here. Of course one of the customers for Frances’ smutty postcards is a bishop, who comes to ogle in Frances’ studio when Dolly does poses plastiques. Of course part of the plot concerns a frustrated middle-class housewife in Tauranga, yearning for sexual satisfaction outside marriage. The subtext is that all these people are just waiting for the great sexual liberation that will flourish and make everybody so happy by the late twentieth century. This is as much a cliché as the caricatured French chef who is employed by the Bleakley household.
In terms of historical accuracy (now I am getting serious, aren’t I?) there’s a big paradox in this novel. Karen Hay’s purpose in setting The March of the Foxgloves specifically in 1893 would appear to be that that was the year when women in New Zealand gained the vote. So it can be an appropriate setting to comment on the condition of women and their freedom. But how does she present the campaign for women’s suffrage? Apparently it is something that horrible hatchet-faced churchgoing people oppose, in contrast to those jolly free-living people who covertly drink, have sex and live bohemian lives. In her stay in Auckland, Frances has an awful puritanical and churchgoing religious landlady, Mrs Skeffington, who would never sign such as thing as the big petition for women’s suffrage that is circulating. In a spirit of rebelliousness Frances, not yet a resident of New Zealand, signs it with Mrs Skeffington’s name.
The way these episodes are conceived is the direct opposite of historical reality. In the 1890s, the backbone of the New Zealand women’s suffrage movement was an organisation of churchgoing Protestant ladies called the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The main impulse of the WCTU (including Kate Sheppard) was to give women the political power to oppose the demon drink and other such filthy male habits. In other words, the likes of Karen Hay’s Mrs Skeffington would have been the very people who would have signed the suffrage petition enthusiastically and helped the WCTU with its campaigning.
I’m sure that Karen Hay’s research was wide and thorough enough to let her know this. But in the interests of an entertaining romp, she has chosen to play to current stereotypes. Fair enough if you know that this well-written entertainment is a romp. But let’s not pretend that it is a really illuminating look at our past.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet, historian and teacher who holds a PhD from the University of Auckland. He writes the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.