- I passed this way by Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Virago, 499 pp, £12.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 86068 160 2
- Spinster by Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Virago, 269 pp, £2.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 86068 161 0
- Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Virago, 224 pp, £2.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 86068 162 9
Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888, Sylvia Ashton-Warner in 1908 and Janet Frame in 1924 – three New Zealand women each of whom has achieved some measure of literary fame or reputation outside the country in which she was born. They have in common that they have worked uneasily in (and always breaking out of) the fictional mode. The fictions of all three are forms of autobiography while autobiography tends towards fiction. It is the self they are struggling always to define, or to create, and the self is founded on fact but not exclusively composed of it.
All three gain and lose by being New Zealanders. Mansfield escaped from the colony, as it was then, only to live and die severed from her true subject-matter, too often dressing it up in middle-class clothes, smoothing its colonial rough edges for her English readers, first and foremost of whom were the Blooms-buries who thought her vulgar. Janet Frame suffered early in life the New Zealand repression in its medical form whereby (as she puts it in her latest novel) ‘dis-ease is classed as disease,’ and she has since lived as a recluse in New Zealand, with frequent travel abroad. Ashton-Warner lived all her working life until the age of 60 in New Zealand, often in her fiction speaking through the persona of a foreigner (Anna Vorontosov in Spinster, Germaine de Beauvais in Incense to Idols), As a writer, she did not receive her due in New Zealand, and after the death of her husband she spent most of a decade abroad (a good deal of it as a teacher in North American universities) chanting over to herself with satisfaction: ‘I’m no longer in New Zealand.’
What these writers gained from being New Zealanders, I think, was the same in each case – the lack of any profoundly etched social identity, so that the raw, untrammelled, human personality and intelligence is over-layed with very little and breaks out easily into abundant self-expression. They are not hidebound by forms and decorums and literary convention. In the writing of each at its best there is clarity of vision, an uncommitted intelligence, a capacity for both passion and detachment: and the detachment is never far removed from a sense of comedy which is a form of revolt against all prevailing pieties. Anna Vorontosov in Spinster, visited by the senior Schools Inspector who brings with him two distinguished academic visitors, records:
he ... introduces me to the others; Mr This and Mr That. They’re both modestly dressed men ... Indeed the smaller of the two might well have been some roadman who had just helped the larger out of a drain
– which is very close to the note of Katherine Mansfield’s comic deflations of the masculine order, such as the occasion when she feels faint at an exhibition of Naval photographs in 1918 and is assisted by ‘two Waacs and a Wren’:
They asked me ... whether I had lost anybody in the Navy – as though it were nothing but a kind of gigantic salt-water laundry.
Mansfield and Ashton-Warner have a histrionic quality which the more retiring Frame lacks. They are both chameleons, ventriloquists, with a perfect car for the speech of others, and the ability to cast themselves into a role. Both were troubled from time to time by this habit of role-playing, though it was part of their fiction, and Ashton-Warner fairly early sorted out for herself what was essential and inessential to it:
After that concentrated think I feel a good bit better, I’m finished playing a role. Now I’m me. There’s an incredible tendency in this last shaking year to imitate those I admire. God Almighty, I saw it! Patterning myself on other people ... where would I get and what would I be? A carbon copy of other people? I’m determined to stay how I am and be damned.
That was written (in Myself) when she was 34, the age at which Mansfield died.
The role of the artist had (I suppose has for every artist) to be played: both chose it for themselves before they chose to be writers. Mansfield thought at first she would be a cellist, and might equally have been successful as an actress and singer; Ashton-Warner veered between piano and paint before settling for the pen. Socially, Mansfield the expatriate had to conceal ‘the little colonial’ under some suitably respectable literary persona; while Ashton-Warner had to bring her native flourishes down to the space New Zealand society permits for individuality – never enough to swing a cat in. Since both were unsuccessful in these required acts of self-limitation, they were both victims of the kind of malice that can be illustrated by Frank O’Connor’s description of Mansfield as ‘the brassy little shop-girl of literature’, or by Virginia Woolf’s complaint that she ‘stank like a civet cat’ – the latter (if it requires translation) recording simply that the Woolf nose judged the Mansfield perfume to be insufficiently expensive. These, I suppose, are examples of a peculiarly British snobbery: but that a parallel repressive malice has operated against Ashton-Warner in New Zealand (‘cutting him/her down to size’, it’s called) must simply be recorded without examples.
Both these women sustained their ambitions and carried themselves over obstacles by dreaming, and the dreams were opposite and exactly complementary. Ashton-Warner’s dream was of freedom, the life of the artist in Paris and London, a studio, intellectual friends (‘artists, musicians, writers’) and lovers – all of which Mansfield had. Conversely, Mansfield’s dream was of health, a stable marriage, children, a garden, an outdoor life (‘the earth and the wonders thereof – the sea, the sun’) – all of which Ashton-Warner had. Together they make up the two faces of a common (but not, of course, uniquely) New Zealand syndrome. More interesting perhaps is that they are the two faces of the modern woman who wants both kinds of self-fulfilment – which I think Ashton-Warner finally achieved, and which Mansfield would probably have achieved too if there had been antibiotics to cure her TB. They were perhaps fortunate, however, in being born early enough to discover their individual needs without benefit of feminist theory. Neither woman wasted energy in trying to eliminate the emotional and psychological consequences of sexual biology.
Their backgrounds were markedly different: Mansfield the daughter of a wealthy merchant and banker and an ailing mother, Ashton-Warner the daughter of an invalid father and a schoolteacher mother who worked to feed and clothe ten children. In their teens the differences become more marked: Mansfield sent 12,000 miles to a private school in London, Ashton-Warner riding ten and more miles on horseback each day to a back-country high school. Even so, the differences may be less significant than the likenesses in the earliest and most formative years: middle position in a large family, love and rivalry among female siblings, early musical training, and space in which to grow, the discovery of the self set free, not in society, but in a benign yet challenging landscape.
All her life Ashton-Warner has been protesting, inwardly at least, that she is an artist, not a teacher. But as the child of a working mother she was inside a classroom from her earliest years. As a teacher, she took her own babies into the classroom. Her husband was also – and always – her headmaster. And when he died and she went abroad to satisfy a lifelong ambition to escape into a fuller artistic life, she was soon working in North American universities as a teacher of teachers, remitting money to New Zealand to help support a daughter who had been widowed young, and grandchildren. At the centre of much of her work there is the figure of a teacher who is at once brilliant and erratic, reluctant and original, failing to satisfy the pedestrian requirements of a system which itself fails to foster the true individuality and needs of the growing child. When her grading marks are low (as they always are) she wants to resign; and the artist in her is always chafing to be free of the classroom. Yet she can write (it is Anna Vorontosov in Spinster) at the end of the summer holidays: The truth is that I am enslaved. I’m enslaved in one vast love affair with seventy children.’
During the period of her training as a teacher, her future was balanced between two dreams – one of the artist’s studio, the other of conventional love and marriage. Everything fostered the one and obstructed the other. She married a fellow teacher, moved with him to a sole-charge school in the remotest part of the country, and bore three children. After the second birth she was asking to be allowed to teach again. Her husband objected but she won (he would later repeatedly talk her out of resigning) and the pattern of their life together was established: he headmaster of small remote schools teaching predominantly Maori children, she mistress of the infant room where she evolved the reading method based on what she calls a ‘key vocabulary’. The best insights are simple, and hers was that her Maori infant pupils were failing to progress in reading because the imported books (usually Janet and John) bore no relation to their lives and emotions. She discovered that for each child there were certain key words related to their day-to-day lives and to their feelings. Find one of his or her key words and the child who had taken three weeks to learn and forget a phrase from Janet and John would learn it in a few seconds and retain it. (A typical list for one of her Maori infants reads ‘butcher-knife’, ‘gaol’, ‘police’, ‘sing’, ‘cry’, ‘kiss’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Mummy’, ‘Rangi’, ‘haka’, ‘fight’.) She wrote and illusrated her own reading books for Maori children, making multiple copies one at a time by hand. The story of how these books developed, proved successful in the classroom, and failed to gain the recognition of the New Zealand Department of Education (which also inadvertently burned the final master copies she submitted to them), is one of the saddest, and most sadly convincing, she has to tell. Maori frustration and violence, she believes, begin in the infant room and in the slowness or failure to read, which puts Maori children behind their Pakeha schoolfellows. Gang violence, and the disproportion of Maoris in New Zealand gaols, follow.
The books she put together and the stories she told in the classroom were mostly drawn from the children’s accounts of their lives, and written in the kind of English they spoke. Among the examples in Teacher are some of the stories her infant pupils wrote for her as they progressed:
Mummie got a hiding off Daddy. He was drunk she was crying.
I went to the river and I kissed Lily and I ran away. Then I kissed Phillipa. Then I ran away and went for a swim.
Our baby is dead. She was dead on Monday night. When Mummie got it.
When I went to sleep I dreamt about the war. The Chinese never won. The Maoris won.
But words were not her sole medium. Paint, music and dancing were equally important. Her aim was a classroom in which the creative spirit would be fostered and violence correspondingly defused. Her idea of education was less to put in than to draw out. As a trainee, she had observed a successful and worthy teacher who achieved those high grading marks that were never to come her way, who kept order without using the strap, and whose class was generally happy. But, as she writes in I passed this way, no mind developed there
as a personally operating organ in its own right ... What you came up with was sixty small imprints, of Miss Little ... It was the kind of schooling that produced efficient rather than interesting people, promising to supply a fine army one day ... and a subservient people.
By comparison, Ashton-Warner’s classroom was to be unpredictable but bursting with life. Sometimes, listening to her play the piano, her children would one by one lay aside what they were doing and join in a spontaneous dance. This was for her a moment of collective inspiration. She created a medium in which the individual wills and talents of the children could meet and join and find expression, while each remained itself, unique and untrammelled. Community and not conformity was her aim.
Meanwhile she was writing, recording in diaries her successes and failures in the classroom, her relations with her husband and with her passionate friend ‘Opal’, her attempts to create the conditions in which she might write more purposefully, and something of the progress of her first (unpublished) novel, Rangatira. Some of these diaries (in which ‘Opal’ is given the male identity of ‘Dr Saul’) were reshaped and published in 1967, more than twenty years after they were written, as Myself, a piece of fictional autobiography or autobiographical fiction as worthy of reprint as anything she has published.
Of the three books under review, Teacher was the earliest written. Half of it is a straight account of her theory and practice in the classroom. The second half is a diary, ‘Life in a Maori School’, which brings the theory to life with a series of observations and reflections taken from day-to-day experience. Both sections are excellent, and indispensable to the fullness of the picture; and those who have thought of Ashton-Warner as a woman all heart and of small intellect (she sometimes writes of herself as if this were true) should look in particular at her straight expository prose, which has the clean sharp efficiency of a first-rate mind.
Teacher was completed about 1953 and for ten years Ashton-Warner tried unsuccessfully to have it published in New Zealand. Spinster was written in part to give fictional form to her account of how she had found ways of teaching her Maori pupils to read. It was published in 1958 in England and America, her first big success as a writer, reprinted numbers of times and filmed with Shirley MacLaine in the leading role. It became a point of reference in discussions of educational theory, but still no one would publish Teacher in New Zealand where she most wanted it to have its effect, and she at last allowed the book to be published abroad. It came out first in 1963 and like Spinster it has been through a number of reprints including a Penguin edition.
In Spinster (reissued now with a rather prim introduction by Fleur Adcock) Ashton-Warner puts her spinster-teacher Anna Vorontosov in the same ‘pre-fab’ classroom with the same Maori pupils described in Teacher. Into the school comes a young teacher, Paul Vercoe, confused in his feelings and confusing to Anna, who seems to believe that she is holding him at arm’s length while we as readers, hearing the events in direct first-person narrative from her, nevertheless recognise what she fails to see – that it is she who wants him, while his primary attentions are directed to a Maori pupil who bears him twins which die at birth. It is this illegal love affair and its imminent consequences, and not, as Anna imagines, his relationship with her, that seem to lead to his suicide – an event rendered with a curious comic gusto which I suspect signifies that half-way through the book Ashton-Warner’s imagination had had enough of this somewhat conventional fiction and wanted to get on with something nearer to the heart of her own experience.
So there is a perceptible fault-line between Spinster as documentary and as plotted fiction: this is all the more clearly recognised because we have in Teacher the autobiographical material which reveals how far the classroom scenes are drawn directly from life and even from Ashton-Warner’s day-by-day records of it. Anna is supposed to be a virgin and it is often not the character but the novelist whose broad knowledge of life gets into the writing (as when she speaks of ‘the physical conversation of love-making’, and ‘the fear – and-joy ... of the labour ward’). Spinster deserves its reissue as a ‘modern classic’, but as a novel it is less unified than her next, Incense to Idols.
But incense to idols was too much for her readers in New Zealand. It was not just the heroine’s sexual freedom and her determined worship of Baal but (I think) the wit and extravagance of it all that was found offensive. (Told that God loves her, Germaine de Beauvais observes that the Traffic Superintendent seems pretty interested too.) A novel which included a scene in which the heroine and her doctor-lover admire a tiny foctus in a wineglass aborted at eight weeks, of which he may or may not be the father (she’s not in a position to be quite sure), he referring to it as ‘she’, she insisting on ‘he’ – this, as Ashton-Warner wryly observes, ‘weeded out my fans overnight’. She had done something as original on the page as she had done in the classroom, and her ‘grading’ in literary circles sank correspondingly low. Towards the end of the 1960s when Dennis McEldowney, in the periodical Landfall, made the one serious attempt to consider all her work, he was publicly rebuked for it by Landfall’s former editor, Charles Brasch, who declared Ashton-Warner unworthy of such attention.
That is not the end of the story, however. More books have followed including a novel set in London, Three, which is as economical as Incense to Idols is copious, and which is Ashton-Warner’s most successful working of autobiography into the fictional mode. The recent presentation of the New Zealand Book Award for non-fiction to her autobiography I passed this way perhaps signals Ashton-Warner’s return to favour in New Zealand, where she now lives in retirement.
In a passage central to an understanding of New Zealand (and no doubt other Commonwealth) literature, Maurice Duggan’s teenage rebel Buster O’Leary, driving a Fergusson tractor on Puti Hohepa’s farm with lines from Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ running through his head, looks up to see Fanny Hohepa sitting on a fence playing her ukulele and singing. How is he to reconcile Puti’s ‘ruined acres’ with the ‘twice five miles of fertile ground’ of the poem? Or Fanny and her ukulele with the ‘damsel with a dulcimer’? There is, Buster observes, a ‘discrepancy between the real and the written’.
This ‘discrepancy’ is acute during the colonial phase, but it continues insidiously, long after. It is there in the infant room with Janet and John, and later with poems and stories in which fruit trees blossom in April, snow falls at Christmas, and the sun goes around to the south. That Maori children can’t cope with it is an important fact, but not more important than that European-New Zealand children who can do so at some cost to their sense of identity.
Meanwhile the education system, expressing our national insecurity, works hard to impose uniformity. If we have no confidence in a collective identity, we can’t be permitted one as individuals. It is not the depth of the social imprint that produces fear of rebellion but on the contrary its shallowness.
Most of her life Sylvia Ashton-Warner has been in the classroom, which is, I think, the furnace in which the new society is forged. There, as in her writing, she has offered passion, style, extravagance, a lavish public expenditure of the self, as her form of rebellion against that uniformity which comes from fear and uncertainty.