The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
The Preachers. The nineties were an earnest decade; we have page 27 already noted their sense of responsibility about racial problems, about social distinctions, about religious doubt, about a philosophy of living viable in these islands. Attempts to understand and interpret these questions were paralleled by attempts to teach possible answers. Most of the avowedly didactic novels are poor stuff. A short account of them, however, is needed to fill out the story.
Some "preaching" novels were economic or socialist fantasies of the Utopian variety, designed to show us a Better Way. Julius Vogel's Anno Domini 2000, published in 1889, is a good example of this. It is an abysmally stilted tale of Hilda Fitzherbert, Duchess of New Zealand ("from her earliest years she had never failed in any intellectual exercise"), who in an era of women's equality becomes a great "statesman", marries the Emperor of Britain, reconquers the American colonies, institutes Social Security, sets up Home Rule for Ireland, and establishes equal rights of inheritance for men and women to the imperial throne. The book, as E. H. McCormick notes in his Survey, is "an oblique testament of faith ... in the ideals which [Vogel] had laboured to impose on a generally acquiescent population" during the years of the Vogel boom. McCormick goes on to point out that "three main strands of thought and sentiment run through this extravaganza, as indeed through the later history of New Zealand".3 These are affection for the Mother country mixed with the desire to be free of her trammels, a humanitarian liberal outlook, and a dominant material philosophy which equates progress with cash.
Both this, and Butler's earlier A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, 1863, give an extraordinarily truthful report of the state of mind and spirit of the settlers of the 1870s. The unresolved tension between past and present, the colonial uncertainty as to whether "Home" or New Zealand was "home", and the money-making realism which was the normal daily life of those who dreamed of Utopias— these are notable in Butler's record. At present it is the Utopian aspect of Erewhon that concerns us.
Erewhon is a novel of ideas, with a plot contrived to provide a loose framework for an onslaught on the hypocrisy, humbug, and false philosophy of its time. Butler was exposing pretences in home, school, law, medicine, economic theory, Church, politics and social attitudes to crime and disease. The account of the territory of the upper Rakaia River and the crossing of Whitcombe Pass provides the tough, factual and fully credible material from which alone a well built satiric fantasy can spring. Precise details of navigation and shipwreck serve the same purpose in Gulliver's Travels. A number of things in Butler's settler experiences, including his knowledge of Maori ways, undoubtedly sharpened his impulse to lash the age.page 28
Joseph Jones, in The Cradle of Erewhon, 1959, puts it thus:
"For Erewhon the native background proved enriching; it lent remote-sounding names, a grotesque art, a possibility of being piously regarded as the lost tribes of Israel, one full-length character in Chowbok, and a topsy-turvy code of morals."
Yet for all this, Erewhon is only marginally a New Zealand novel, and its relationship to the Utopian fiction which sprang up in the nineties is a tenuous one.
This fiction of reform includes many queer, forgotten items. Macmillan Brown, professor of English at Canterbury College, under the pseudonym of Godfrey Sweven published two "novels", Riallaro, 1901, a satire, and Limanora, 1903, a Utopian study. Edward Tregear's Hedged with Divinities, 1895, tells of the sole male surviving after a world catastrophe; he is elected king of the women of New Zealand.
There were a number of pamphlet-novels arising out of the land problems, full of amateur, earnest criticism and cranky notions. G. M. Reed's Hunted, 1889, is about an Irish family ruined by the land monopoly. J. C. MacCartie's Making His Pile, 1891, W. Freeman's He Who Digged a Pit, 1889, are others in this surge of stories critical of colonial values. The problem of poverty in the midst of so-called progress is one which found early expression in our fiction, though it is only later writers such as John Lee (Children of the Poor, 1934) and Robin Hyde (Passport to Hell, 1936) who handle it with insight and force.