Lydia Wevers reviews two best-selling historical novels
History is supposed to make you uncomfortable. What is colonisation but a Trumpian property grab, awash with speculators whose scruples are pretty much still-born?
Cristina Sanders’s novel Jerningham is set in the earliest years of Wellington. She focuses on an imaginary colonist, Arthur Lugg, a procurement officer who shares an office with the real-life Edward Jerningham Wakefield. His father, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, is absent from Jerningham, but the arrogant planning and business dealings of the New Zealand Company, their 19th-century attitudes to women and indigenous peoples, and Wakefieldian nepotism play large roles in the narrative.
Her book evokes the period. I like to superimpose historical landscapes when I’m walking around Wellington – removing the concrete gully of the motorway, for example, and replacing it with Katherine Mansfield’s swing bridge. Or thinking about Pat Lawlor’s descriptions of living in Cuba St with its large houses and gardens at one end and the wash of waves at the other. Apparently there were always so many masted ships in port that you could hear their rigging whistling and rattling all the way up the hill. Sanders makes you smell the astringent smoke of manuka, feel the mud and the shifting shingle of Te Aro stream, hear the grog shop on the beach and feel very uncomfortable about the colonists looking around Pipitea and Te Aro flat deciding where and how to build their town.
Her rather prudish character Arthur Lugg is shocked by Jerningham. The volatile relationship between the two men shapes the plot which allows Sanders to dramatise Jerningham and his role in those early wild years of the Port Nicholson settlement, including and up to the Wairau conflict.
Casting Arthur as procurement officer is a brilliant stroke. Through his eyes you see the lack of forethought, the shifty dealings with Māori, goods piled on the beach with nowhere to go, the tradeability of women, the drunkenness, and the floods of incoming settler/investors for whom nothing is ready and whose numbers horrify Māori.
Jerningham himself is a charismatic character, impossible for Arthur to resist unless he’s so angry he throws a punch at him. Sanders sends him off on Jerningham’s infamous visits to Whanganui, where he maintains a house of ill repute, ‘Whare Wikitoria’, presiding over its drunken and licentious customers in an ostrich-feathered hat and a Māori mat (Sanders leaves out the ostrich hat). Jerningham’s courage, his command of te reo, his restlessness and his entrepreneurial instincts, his love of adventure, are all vibrantly detailed.
In her author’s note, Sanders says she has “aimed for authenticity”, especially in the attitudes to “race, culture, gender and class” exhibited by her characters. She says she wishes she could have had a “feisty heroine and woke bloke” but thank goodness she resisted the temptation to reinvent history with a presentist fantasy. But to some extent Jerningham was a woke bloke. He had many Māori friends and understood the possibilities of a different way forward offered by another culture, but in the end was also always a Company man. One of the things that’s easy to forget about those first years of Port Nicholson is how young everyone was. Sanders’ Jerningham is an adventurer, charming, debonair, selfish, promiscuous, intermittently scrupled, and he has a wonderful counterpoint in Arthur, whose bursts of drunkenness and adultery are accompanied by shame and conscience.
Both Te Puni and Te Rauparaha appear in the novel. Te Puni, who was said by Percy Smith to be held in such esteem by members of the tribe that when he spoke, his word was regarded as law, is a unifying, kind, culture crossing character in the novel. He was culture crossing, as is suggested by William Beetham’s well-known portrait of him with Wi Tako and Featherston, in which Te Puni looks like a sea captain. Sanders portrays him as immensely hospitable, reasonable and humorous.
Te Rauparaha and his scary lieutenant and cousin Te Rangiheata, on the other hand, understood all too well what was going on. Sanders negotiates the minefield of the Wairau with great skill.
Jerningham is an accomplished, vibrant and historically grounded novel which deserves a big readership. Sanders wears her research lightly; the narrative is pacy and often exhilarating and though as a modern reader you are made deeply uneasy about the insouciance with which deals are made and white superiority exerted, those homesick uncomfortable years were also filled with joy. Charles Heaphy, looking out “past the harbour island to the far hills” at twilight one evening, says: “Fifteen thousand miles from home in a land without maps … Isn’t it wonderful?”
Deborah Challinor also wears her research lightly. Unlike Sanders (who I wish had done the same but maybe it puts some readers off) she gives her sources for The Jacaranda House, also a novel using historical events. The Jacaranda House is a wonderful pairing with Jerningham.
When I was a student in the late 60s and early 70s, Wellington’s night-life was dominated by Carmen, aka Trevor Rupe. Carmen’s face, bling and salty wit was everywhere. You couldn’t walk round the inner city without bumping into trannies. There was a coffee bar whose name I’ve forgotten in Ghuznee Street owned and operated by huge glamorous Māori women who tottered over with your cup of filter coffee. My flat was burgled and a balldress my mother made me was stolen. The police said I should go round the bars and look for a trannie wearing it. What then? I asked, but the men in blue had no further advice and I wasn’t game to try it.
That was Wellington. The world Challinor describes is the more dangerous and edgy Kings Cross in 1964, where everyone is using and drinking, sex is the commodity market and trannies have to be very careful where they walk. The novel focuses on a flat in Bayswater Road where Polly Manaia lives with Rhoda and Star. They all work as ‘dancers’, in bars, taking their clothes off to dance moves, and spend a lot of time trashed to get through it. I won’t ruin the plot by revealing much about it, but it has a slippery slope momentum, not only in the lives of the characters but in what’s happening in The Cross.
Some 10 years after the events of The Jacaranda House, a novel where you see not only exploitation of socially damaged people but the advance of corruption, development and graft, Juanita Neilsen, a journalist, heiress and Kings Cross resident opposing the development of Victoria Street, disappeared and was never found. Mandy Sayer’s 1995 novel The Cross is a fictionalisation of what happened to her (probably buried in concrete at the base of a development) and you can see a straight line between what Challinor describes and the Cross that Neilsen fought for.
Polly, Rhoda and Star are humorous, bitchy, sad but strong women, estranged from their families, home and culture, making the best of it. The kindness of Rhoda and Star and their resilient resignation to the hatred and violence always in wait for them is remarkable and sadly not far fetched – transgender people are still abominably treated and still sparkle with camp humour. Polly has a more complicated narrative, which is slowly unfolded, and yes things do get better, but the linking point with Jerningham is that here you see the universal effects of oppression and deracination, of colonisation. Māori families suffer social harm and economic fragility at a scale which makes flight to the Cross inevitable, and while, like Carmen, their progress is sometimes triumphant, it’s always against the odds.
Challinor’s depiction of the Cross and its communities is more sentimental than Mandy Sayer’s, and less historically sharp than Sanders’, partly because her canvas is smaller. But she shines a light on what has been, and perhaps still is, a big chunk of our social history. Kiwis fleeing Aotearoa for a better life in recent decades have tended to be middle-class white professionals but it’s salutary to be reminded of that big Māori alternative population that ended up there with the artists and counter cultures of the 1960s and 70s, making their bit of splash.
It’s interesting to read these novels together. Jerningham makes me love the Wellington that endures change – successive headlands jutting out to sea, the curves of the bays – and makes me want to be at Te Aro or Pipitea when it was seashore and there was no concrete, just shingle and mud. The Jacaranda House makes you think about the downstream consequences of all those ships landing their people and goods and punitive systems on the shore.
Jerningham Cristina Sanders (Cuba Press, $37) and The Jacaranda House by Deborah Challinor (HarperCollins, $37) are available in bookstores nationwide.
*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*