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In the 19th-century New Zealand Novel, fiction takes YOU personally.
SSar's Beast
At the end of 2008, I noticed a poster in the English department advertising a slightly unusual variant on the usual Honours research essay. (In New Zealand, ‘Honours’ is an additional year tacked on to your Bachelor degree, and the rules vary between subjects, but you are encouraged to spend at least part of the time in self-directed research rather than in a taught class).

This variant offered the chance to contribute to Victoria’s New Zealand Electronic Text Centre initiative, by writing footnotes and an introduction to a novel written in New Zealand during the 19th century which had been digitised by the Text Centre. Which novel was up to you. There’s a list.

It looked exciting and scary. It looked as though it would be the perfect option for me because I am interested in getting into editing and publishing. It looked as though it would require genuine historical research – not something I’m trained in – such as visiting other cities, and microfiche, and interloans, and intense stuff like that.

I convinced myself I couldn’t fit it into my schedule for 2009. (Then, of course, I succumbed to temptation and joined Robert’s Chaucer paper because I just couldn’t pass it up). By 2010, I hadn’t looked much into it, so I chose a novel from the list pretty much at random. The Bird of Paradise appealed because it had no reference to Australasia, or so it claimed. It was set in the United States of America. “Why??” I wondered. So I began.

The book was billed as a comic romance, but despite the light style, it’s been a little difficult to get through, because the prose is Tyrian purple and studded with references unfamiliar to me, which I am required to follow up in my role as foot-noter. I have not been pushing myself – until recently – and nobody’s been pushing me – my supervisor and I have spoken only three times this year. So I’m not actually all the way through the thing yet.

My historical research was also rather lacking. I don’t really know how to do it. Using the National Archives, I found out when the author arrived in New Zealand, and on what ship. I found out some of the places he’d lived. I failed to find any reference to the children the book was dedicated to, or the mother of those children. Stymied, I briefly abandoned the search.

Then a friend put in some search terms for me, and found some things which threw the search wide open again. The biggest reference to my author – and some other digging confirmed that it was certainly him – is in the write-up of an incredibly scandalous and long-running divorce case which was worked out in the Melbourne courts. My good author was alleged to be a drunkard, to have slept with all the female servants, to have treated his wife with incredible cruelty (the eventual grounds for divorce), and at one point to have scared her out of the house with their infant son, who caught a cold and died as a direct result of this incident.

Okay, I thought. Some of that can go in my essay, but… I didn’t really want to know any of that.

Then I got a bit further in the book, and the penny began to drop. My main character, Eugene, (a doctor, like the author) marries this woman, Marvel, who seems perfect at first, but turns out to be no good.

I began skimming furiously.

So, Marvel turns out to be scheming and evil. She does her best to steal the children away from Eugene. Something causes the death of one child, although it’s not Eugene’s fault – he’s a loving parent. But Marvel doesn’t reach “the summit of mendacity” until her father dies, and she uses her inheritance to finally get free of Eugene. The divorce court rules in her favour, due to all the plots she’s hatched. The children, screaming and wailing, are consigned to their mother’s care.

Some comic romance, huh?

Meanwhile, In the Melbourne paper archives, I read that my author’s wife did not formally attempt to initiate separation proceedings until the death of her father and the receipt of her inheritance…

His mind was stunned; when their father rose the children rose. As he walked down the aisle they followed him along the carpet, around the court to the opposite side.
In martyrdom, bidding them farewell and silently wishing them Godspeed, he formally consigned them into the charge of their mother. He turned and walked away—humbly walked away.
They ran down the aisle away from their mother after him instantly, but were captured by Carrick and Lord Dundreary and carried back screaming to the granite-hearted Marvel.

This stopped being fiction a while ago.

The divorce court ruled against Dr. William Henry Dutton, who moved back to New Zealand (where he’d been living, off and on, as their marriage soured). He then published his book – a “comic romance” in marketing terms, but apparently his own story of how he’d been cruelly robbed of his children (whose innocent voices he captures quite well, actually, in the dialogue).

If one historical clue is correct, he died in the same year as his book was published.

He wrote in The Bird of Paradise that Eugene died an utterly broken man.

This is not what I signed up for. I wanted light fiction with an interesting connection between New Zealand and America; I didn’t want to be tempted to judge between a newspaper write-up of a drunken bastard of a husband and the same [white, well-educated, professional] man’s treatise on his wife’s treachery. Disguised as a novel.

I don’t know what to do with this information.

I kind of get, now, why he set it in America. Anything else would be too close, would bring life and literature too closely into conjunction. (And at the same time, the part of me which is doing an assignment is still wondering what kind of appeal the American setting would have to a New Zealand readership of the time, and how he got his information).

(There’s a similar sort of divided approach in contemporary views. The Otago Witness actually publishes a reference to the scandalous Dutton divorce case on the same page as it mentions that Dutton has been appointed to the Arrowtown hospital. Which is a very weird thing to do.)


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But this is so exciting! I'm really jealous of you running into such a scandal - instant interest for your introduction, at least. Of course it's tough to pick between his voice and the newspaper as who is "right", but perhaps (after discussing with your supervisor and maybe an historian or two?) you could just talk about this confusion in the introduction. it seems like a lightly fictionalised, highly personal account of his divorce... etc etc.

As for making judgement. Again, talk to an historian, but I would have said that in the C19th it would have been standard for a woman to lose custody of her children after a divorce, and so that if this woman really wanted her children a divorce would have been a really risky step and a court would usually have been biased towards the father (who after all could always marry again to provide the children with a mother.) But... well, YMMV. To my mind the guy is probably a bit self-deluding. But I haven't read it, so!

It is really exciting! It makes a lot of things make weird sense. But don't worry, I'm only tempted to make some sort of judgment. From my point of view, there can't be any right. I'm only an editor writing a 5,000-word essay. However, the authorial intention trap... hm. That's tricky. I may become overconfident about what I think Dutton was really trying to do.

See, I agree that the wife is probably risking a lot more. It makes me curious about who her family was - if they were particularly well-established or well-off or something like that. But the father also stood to lose a lot; his professional reputation didn't exactly come out of that mess very well; if she was desperate, or bold, enough, she could do him a lot of damage. In fact, Dutton left the country again after the case, so... Pretty tragic and sordid case, from whatever angle.

^!^ It's funny; it makes the fiction I'm reading uncomfortably real, but it also makes me feel as though I've stepped into fiction myself, by such a dramatic discovery.

Do you know what's silly? I really miss Writers' Window and feel genuinely horrified that it is not online anymore. I knew this would happen one day but of course when I tried to go back and poke around after an absence (of how long? five years? six?) I was disturbed to see it gone.

How are you, my dear?

I'm well. My life is busy; there's so much to do in the present that I don't worry about the future. I've never planned my life out much beyond a year or two in advance.

Joel is good for me.

I miss WW too, although I know I couldn't give it the commitment now that I gave it then. I still have small fantasies of looking up Raewyn and Anne, or sending them a basket or something handmade. They had to know what a difference they made to many people's childhoods and teen years.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that you still blog here! :)

I was looking for WW as well, and I just realised that it's gone.

You think we'd be able to find Raewyn or Anne on facebook?

Hope you're doing well. :)

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