New Zealand Historical Fiction’s Coming of Age

Loren Teague

Historical novel writing can be measured and weighed by the age of a country. The first historical writings in New Zealand can be traced back to Captain Cook, Samuel Marsden and Edward Gibbon Wakefield. These explorers and adventurers, among others, traveled from the Old World to the New during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries beginning with Captain James Cook in 1769, who was the first to discover New Zealand. Their writings in the form of journals and letters, narratives, and diagrams were not fiction but an interpretation of what they had witnessed—pure fact, no doubt embellished by imagination.

Not so well-known compatriots, ordinary men and women of all social classes also left their impressions in literary form. One such man is John Barnicoat, a surveyor living in Nelson, one of the earliest settlements in New Zealand. His diary is reckoned to be one of the best of his era because his style is so accessible and is written from the perspective of a man employed by the New Zealand Company to survey land for settlers. Out of personal interest, he also surveyed the people, both Maori and European, in great detail due to his keen technical and perceptive skills of analyzing and recording—a prerequisite of his occupation.

New Zealand has been fortunate in that there are many historical accounts still surviving available to the public in library and museum archives—a wealth of untapped material waiting to explode into the historical novel.

Whalers like Captain Jacky Guard, perhaps one of our most infamous historical characters, narrowly escaped death when his ship was driven ashore near Cape Egmont, Taranaki. Hostile Maori attacked him and his crew, capturing his wife, Betty Guard, and their children. A Maori warrior clubbed Betty Guard on the head, but a tortoiseshell comb saved her from this almost fatal blow. Jacky Guard escaped and sailed all the way to Australia to raise a troop ship to rescue his wife, and, once reunited, both of them carved out a life in New Zealand setting up a whaling station. When she died many years later in her mid-fifties, she still had pieces of the tortoiseshell comb embedded in her scalp.

fiona-kidman-captive-wifeSuch fascinating tales like these form the basis of fiction. The story of Jacky and Betty Guard has recently been portrayed in The Captive Wife by Fiona Kidman (Random House), one of New Zealand’s most treasured authors. The Captive Wife is a bestseller, rich in historical detail and is a fascinating story of an early adventurer and his wife as they fought for survival. It is a compelling account where we can feel the ground tremble from the feet of Maori warriors and sense the fear the European captives had of their flesh being eaten.

The early immigrants who came to these shores were not prisoners forced to leave their homes for a penal colony like those of our close neighbour, Australia. The people who came to New Zealand left their homeland for various reasons. Some wanted to own their own land, others to escape from the confinements of Britain and, for many, to experience excitement and adventure.

In order to understand how the New Zealand historical novel has evolved into a bestselling genre in this country today, we have to study New Zealand history and her people very closely. New Zealand stands out as a country that has a reputation of innovation and a pioneering spirit. There is a certain pride in what has been achieved as a young country, and this is consequently reflected in the literature and desire to shout out to the world that we may be a small country of four million people but we are rich in history—and in heart.

But out of this patriotism one pertinent question arises. Is our historical fiction different from any other?

Let’s start with the Treaty of Waitangi, a historical document signed in 1845 by both Europeans and our native inhabitants, the Maori. It is an agreement depicting how the country should be governed and forms the basis of our cultural and political agreement today. And for those who can see beyond the ink and paper, this document contains a wealth of history through its sub-text. The Treaty is classed as a living and breathing document, and as this article is being written the Treaty is being circulated around the country—a classic example of the past reaching into the present and vice versa, much like a historical novel does.

The old Maori proverb, “He wahine, he whenua e ngaro ai te tangata,” meaning “for women and land men die,” makes good material for a novel. So perhaps the first novel published in New Zealand in 1861 was very apt—Major Henry Butler Stoney’s Taranaki: A Tale of the War. A depiction of the land wars combining fact and fiction.

Angelina by Gerard HindmarshFor the next sixty years after the Treaty, New Zealand fiction can be classed (according to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand) into four main groups: recording pioneer experiences, exploiting an exotic setting, preaching for good causes, and interpreting New Zealand life. After 1920 the recording novel died out, while the preaching novel faded, too. The exploiting novel continued to flourish, offering popular entertainment in romances aimed at women and masculine action yarns.

Probably the most influential category was the interpretation of New Zealand life, for it is that model which could well be called the ancestor of historical fiction today.

Naturally, authors brought their own cultural perspective depending on what country they originated from. One such immigrant was Alexander Bathgate, whose Scottish-flavoured novels like Colonial Experiences in 1874 became very popular. His writing is lively and refreshingly candid. For a time he was part owner of the Saturday Advertiser, a weekly journal established in 1875 to foster a national spirit in New Zealand and encourage colonial literature.

The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander was published in New York early in 1920 and in London a few months later. Her novels are landmarks in the New Zealand literary landscape, for her characters are normal human beings depicted in a time of great social change. It is said that she made the New Zealand landscape acceptable to the world. There are strong similarities between the award winning movie, The Piano, and Mander’s novel.  Any link has been strongly denied by the film producer Jane Campion, yet still speculation remains. Rae MacGregor, who wrote Jane Mander’s biography, The Story of a New Zealand Writer, (University of Otago Press) portrayed Mander as a woman of strong character and vigorous mind, a product of her New Zealand upbringing. Can it be any wonder that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote in 1893?

Let’s fast forward to the years 1930 to 1960, where New Zealand has survived two world wars. By now, second and third generation New Zealanders, while still connected to Mother Britain, yearn to break loose and emerge as a separate identity. A new nation is forged. In the 1960s, Bert Munro challenged the God of speed on his motorcycle – The World’s Fastest Indian – and won. He lived to tell the tale, but not to see the recently released movie, starring Anthony Hopkins. Munro’s recent biography, The Legend of Burt Munro by Tim Hanna (Penguin NZ), goes some way to explain how this ordinary man achieved his life’s ambition.

Kitty by Deborah ChallinorLorain Day, Commissioning Editor of HarperCollins NZ, is of the opinion our New Zealand historical fiction is no different to any other in that we have the same elements of story, character and retelling of our history. However, she thinks there is a perceived difference in style and tone. She says, “Our history is so much more recent—we have a shorter chronological span of years within which to tell our stories, and I think they often reflect the directness of the Kiwi character, and the rawness of the experiences in a new land—something which British historical fiction doesn’t do, having much more diverse range of periods to write within and still be historical.”

HarperCollins NZ brought out the bestselling family saga by author Deborah Challinor, comprising Tamar, White Feathers and Blue Smoke, under their trilogy name, Children of War. Each of these titles continues to reprint and sell on four years after the first book was published in 2002. Challinor’s recent novel, Kitty, has just been released and speculation is that it will go straight to number one just like her previous novel, Union Belle.

But in analyzing the growth of the New Zealand historical novel, we need to ask: why is this genre so popular nowadays?

Some say it is simply because the people of today want to learn about the people of yesterday. The public don’t want dry factual history books but reading material that provides entertainment. There have been political and legal issues by the Maori and Europeans over land resources for some years now, and the general public wants to understand what has brought the country to this point where we have to decipher history before legal settlements can be made. It is also widely known that the baby boomers (those born between the years 1946 – 1964) were never taught New Zealand history, and there is a real hunger for it.

Kaye Kelly, author of Cross the River to Home (Random House), says: “For too many years, we looked to the countries of our ancestral roots for our history. Nowadays we have a very real sense of ourselves as a nation which, in turn, leads to a natural curiosity about our forbears.” Cross the River to Home is set in the 1870s and is the story of an impossible love between a half-Chinese woman, Mai, and Henry, a young immigrant from England who has come to New Zealand in search of his sister. With family ties, racial prejudice and the local community conspiring against any match between Henry and Mai, their futures promise to be bleak. This tale, set on the wild, west coast of New Zealand, is a place where many Scottish and Irish immigrants also made their home, a region steeped in the history of gold field lore. Kelly also adds, “Until now, historical novels, indeed any genre with New Zealand backgrounds, were largely ignored by overseas publishers. Thankfully, that’s becoming a thing of the past as evidenced by two top German publishers vying for the rights for Cross the River to Home.”

Cross the River to HomeKaye Kelly’s publisher, Harriet Allan of Random House NZ, agrees. She says, “Our human history isn’t long (in comparison to many other countries), so until recently it wasn’t history so much as the familiar recent past—the time of great-grandparents, that everyone knew about—and so hadn’t acquired the distance for romanticism, intrigue, mystery, etc. Instead the vast and rich histories of overseas countries seemed much more interesting. However, time has brought a different perspective and New Zealanders are now interested in their own stories and identity—no longer looking to define themselves through their connection to the UK and other countries but by their own unique past.”

Naturally, since New Zealand is a nation of immigrants, each culture will have its own unique story to tell of its forebears. One in particular is Gerard Hindmarsh, freelance journalist. His novel, Angelina (Craig Potton Publishing), depicts the life of his Italian grandparents. At just 16 years of age, his grandmother, Angelina Moleta, left the tiny volcanic island of Stromboli off Sicily to travel to D’Urville in New Zealand, a remote island on the other side of the world. From the age of eight she had been betrothed to her cousin, Vincenzo Moleta, who was twice her age. Facing the fierce tides and weather of this wild island on the edge of Cook Strait, and having to cope with loneliness, the incessant toil of a pioneer farm, and the bitterness of a developing family feud, Angelina found solace in an unlikely friendship with a high-born Maori woman, Wetekia Ruruku Elkington, who lived nearby. Together they shared their own struggles, their different cultures and lack of English language, a process that awakened Angelina to her own inner strengths. It’s a tale of hardship and love, both elements that are timeless in historical fiction. The novel, written in the first-person viewpoint, has strong characterization, and the reader could easily be persuaded this story has actually been penned by Angelina and her husband and not by the journalist author with his brilliant imagination and writing skills.

A growing number of children and young adults are also showing more interest than ever in history, and this is reflected also in the increasing publishing of military history and historical fiction. Ken Catran’s book Letters from the Coffin Trenches (Random House) is a historical novel about World War I as seen through the eyes of seventeen-year-old enlistee, Harry, and his girlfriend, Jessica. This poignant story is told in the form of letters between the two, revealing their gradual disenchantment with the war, its cause and effects.

Letters from the Coffin TrenchesAlthough New Zealand historical fiction is very popular with New Zealand readers, according to books editor Conor Quinn, of the monthly New Zealand Writers E-zine (an electronic magazine owned by the NZ Society of Authors, www.authors.org.nz), surprisingly this is not reflected in the frequency of review titles selected by New Zealand reviewers. He states that NZ historical fiction is chosen at the same rate as most other genres, while crime fiction remains the most popular. Generally, however, he has received more positive feedback on New Zealand historical fiction titles. He says, “The subject matter strikes more of a chord with the reader than the average novel. This appears logical when we consider that the most voracious readers are often of the more mature variety, but with the general popularity of historical fiction throughout New Zealand we must consider other factors. I believe it’s a curiosity of our own past combined with the fact that many of the most talented contemporary writers are successfully trying their hand at historical fiction.” Conor sees only more writers aiming for the same, and hopefully, with the same ongoing success

But for those aspiring historical fiction novelists hoping to break into the market, Lorain Day, Commissioning Editor for HarperCollins, advises writers to explore more than the early period of colonization. She says, “I receive hundreds of manuscripts each year of which many are historical romances, and they all try and replicate what has come before—enough of the trials of the long journey out and vomiting and fever below decks as howling storms shred the sails and babies die and are tragically buried at sea—the best historical novels are by those authors who have moved beyond what has become cliché and are exploring the breadth and depth of our history.”

Our stories might be widely sought after in our own country, but what about the rest of the world?

The truth is New Zealand historical fiction still has a way to go to be internationally recognized. One of our problems is that many readers in other countries just aren’t aware of what we are publishing. We need to ask: do our marketing and publicity strategies need to be overhauled? Or even reinvented? With the advent of the internet, selling books isn’t limited to a local market—there is a global readership just waiting for something refreshingly new.

On the home front, with the huge number of popular and literary fiction titles being imported into New Zealand from the UK and the USA, there has been a real threat of our own stories being swamped. Yet, still our historical fiction continues to carve out its niche and gain popularity.

We only need one New Zealand historical novel or historical author to hit the overseas bestselling lists, and that would highlight what we have to offer. Like the film industry, where the world spotlight has now swung to New Zealand after the international success of Lord of the Rings, surely it has to be only a matter of time before the same thing happens to our literature.

When it does, perhaps then we can say truly say that New Zealand historical fiction has come of age.

Please note: This article pertains only to works which are relevant to the New Zealand land or people. Expatriate New Zealanders who have made reputations overseas with work not featuring New Zealand are not included, as is the non-New Zealand work of local authors.

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Loren Teague is a Scot who works in the New Zealand book publishing industry as a manuscript assessor. Her first historical romantic novel, Highland Rebel, was published in April by Whiskey Creek Press in the US, and received an Honourable Mention in the Richard Webster Popular Fiction Award—New Zealand’s only award for popular fiction. She has been a finalist in the Romantic Novelist’s New Writers Award (UK).  Update: Sadly, Loren passed away in late 2009. She was a talented novelist and a passionate advocate for New Zealand historical fiction.

First published in The Historical Novels Review, Issue 37, August 2006.

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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