The Expatriate Myth: New Zealand writers and the colonial world by Helen Bones (Otago University Press, 2018), 248pp., $35
In New Zealand it is common to talk about ‘OE’: Overseas Experience. Living in what is termed the antipodes, far from the centres of finance, population and power, fosters an attitude where travel is a rite of passage for the young. For those working in the arts it has been presented as imperative: how else would the aspiring find an audience and sufficient remuneration to survive while pursuing their calling? The siren call of London, Paris etc. began with white settlement, and it has persisted ever since.
In this timely book, which began life as a PhD thesis, Bones examines the act of expatriation and its effects on a writer. To stay at home was commonly regarded as risking silence; to abandon home meant that the writer also left behind the settings and scenes that fired their fictions and poetry. In order to become published in the greater market the author had to appeal to its readers. Just as Antipodean accents can mutate in Britain as the alien attempts to fit in, so too can subject matter. Australian crime writer J.M. Walsh rewrote a novel, set in Geelong, for the British market – with an unexceptional Blighty background. Such erasures robbed the writer of their distinctiveness and often their significance for the national literature.
In choosing the word ‘myth’ for her title Bones makes a declaration of intent, and her approach takes no prisoners. She primarily addresses two questions. Was the leaving of Aotearoa really so necessary? And what happened to authors who did not take this drastic step? She finds even the terminology dubious: being ‘ill-defined and slippery’, yet loaded with negative meaning and loss. She duly takes note of the preceding Australian writing on the subject, yet when she approaches the New Zealand experience she is rather more radical, and genuinely innovative too.
She begins by attacking notions that the colonies were anti-culture, something very clear from reading reports in Papers Past of overseas touring troupes purveying anything from opera to blackface, and the lists of books advertised for sale. Nor were the antipodes so cut off, especially after the arrival of cable and the mail steamers. Fergus Hume heard by cable of Wagner’s death in 1883, and got a topical and terrible elegy into a Dunedin paper within days. Such early support for writers in local papers Bones finds typical and helpful. Book publication was rather more difficult, given the small population in the colonies. And yet Margie Michael has established that the first New Zealand crime novel, Gilbert Rock’s 1888 By Passion Driven, was published in Dunedin and sold a print run comparable to that of a modern novelist.
The tendency on both sides of the Tasman has been to dismiss colonial literature as limited, but Bones shows that New Zealanders were busier and more productive than has been generally recognised. She questions whether overseas recognition did require expatriation. Isabel Maud Peacocke, for instance, never left New Zealand yet achieved success in Britain as a children’s writer. Others, like Ngaio Marsh, travelled back and forth, or, like Jane Mander, maintained connections across the globe. Bones terms them ‘rootful’ rather than ‘rootless’ in their transnational mobility. As her numerous examples show, the archetypal exile Katherine Mansfield is in fact exceptional and atypical.
Not every writer ventured overseas to escape stifling provincialism. Some were journalists and were expected to travel as part of the job. William Pember Reeves has been cited by Eric McCormick as a literary émigré – something only partly true for, as Bones correctly notes, he actually left for a post as agent-general in London. He was rather better in this role than as an author. Others, such as gay men, may have chosen to avoid living in a place where everybody knew their business. The law against homosexuality was punitive, and wider literary circles provided support and the safety of greater numbers.
Not everybody found an overseas literary experience beneficial. Australia’s Henry Lawson was effectively destroyed by it, returning as a hopeless alcoholic. Another Australian, poet Grace Jennings Carmichael, died in a London workhouse. Mansfield also died early, but achieved canonical status as the epitome of the modernist literary exile.
Britain came as a rude shock to many, being conservative and cramped with dire food and weather. It was also not particularly welcoming to the returnee, being extremely competitive. Inside connections helped but did not guarantee success. Virginia Woolf, who Bones describes as the ‘ultimate insider’, was still marginalised by gender. Those with family back home or financial security had the advantage and could avoid the sheer drudgery of hackwork to survive.
Some exiles also found kindred souls. Bones notes that antipodeans formed networks, which she terms ‘Anglo-Colonia’. This was particularly noticeable before Australian federation, but continued afterwards. Sydney’s Bulletin magazine was indiscriminate in reporting the London achievements of both Australians and ‘Maorilanders’, such as Arthur Adams. In London the British Australasian was a focus for colonial aspiration, though Bones duly cites the role of clubland, starting at the universities.
Ultimately writers express a particular worldview, formed by their national experience and ineffably present even if not directly voiced. Home is not the colonial ‘Home’ of England, but something they carry with them and make anew wherever they are. Some of course will be dissatisfied, no matter where their find themselves. Bones quotes Monte Holcroft on this theme: ‘Aren’t we impossible creatures?’. In one of the strengths of this book, its tables, Bones shows that book productivity was not affected by an author’s residence: those living overseas were not necessarily published in significantly greater numbers.
There is, with this table and with others in the book, a caveat, however: they exclude Fergus Hume. Hume was born in England, came to Dunedin as a small child, and there grew to man’s estate. He is claimed by Australia, despite spending only three years there, on the strength of the best-selling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), with its Melbourne setting. The book’s success brought him to England, where he spent the rest of his long life. As a popular author he jettisoned his colonial settings; only his short story ‘A Colonial Banshee’ is wholly set in New Zealand. Although other such references are scant in his work, he stated he ‘belonged to New Zealand’. Certainly Hume should be considered an expatriate – the slight problem for scholarship being his more than 100 novels, which would surely skew the tables and/or the argument. Olaf Ruhen stated that Hume ‘changed the face of the popular novel’, a remark quoted in this book. He does deserve more attention here.
Another problem with the overview approach is that life stories, which tell the tale of the writer as well as the work, have to be omitted for reasons of space – a pity with the less familiar names. H.B. Marriott Watson is only described as writing forty-three novels which the OCNZL found ‘undistinguished’. He had a good reputation in England, as did his partner, poet Rosamund Marriott Watson. How was his literary practice affected by hers, which does not come into the scope of this book, she being English? Rosamund has been the subject of a recent biography, and H.B.’s reputation is not fixed in stone either: his occult tales were reprinted in 2004 by Ash-Tree Press, an American publisher specialising in the literary weird.
That apart, there is much to enjoy and be informed by in The Expatriate Myth. Bones takes on two major orthodoxies: the modernist artist in exile, and the later myth of literary nationalism, where location and setting determine whether a work and its creator function as part of the New Zealand canon. She wins on both counts. The book is scrupulously researched, extensive in its scholarship, innovative and fearless. I can but end with her concluding words:
This is a story about much more than New Zealand, and this is what cultural nationalism fails to recognise: that the answer to what it means to be a New Zealander – if there is an answer – cannot be found simply by looking within the country.
LUCY SUSSEX’s most recent book is Blockbuster (Text) about bestselling New Zealand crime author Fergus Hume.