Fitz: The colonial adventures of James Edward FitzGerald, by Jenifer Roberts (Otago University Press, 2014), 392 pp., $40
This is a first-rate and welcome biography of one of the most interesting of all New Zealand’s nineteenth century celebrities and his equally fascinating, multi-talented and adored wife, Fanny Erskine Draper. Jenifer Roberts is an accomplished and experienced English author, and also happens to be one of their numerous direct descendants – a great-great-granddaughter. But rest assured: this is no reverential hagiography. Far from it. This is very much a true ‘warts and all’ life of a man, some of whose legacies are still with us; and perhaps her most interesting reassessment of the ancestor she and other FitzGerald descendants had been taught to idolise, has been to establish that he was certainly bipolar – which explains not only his spectacular mood swings and bouts of depression, but much else about his character.
James Edward FitzGerald (1818–1892) –‘Fitz’ – was one of the most ubiquitous of all our many remarkable nineteenth-century public men and first generation politicians; described by his fellow contemporary politician, civil servant and commentator William Gisborne as a meteor flashing across New Zealand’s political firmament. In his day he was, in company with Sir George Grey, one of the few whose reputation extended beyond New Zealand. Fitz was a large, handsome man with an often almost alarmingly vivid personality, and his contemporaries wrote about him extensively, chronicling, with emotions ranging from astonishment to exasperation and even withering scorn, his often extravagant and inconsistent behaviour. His flamboyant arrival in Lyttelton, his famous dog-cart named the Circulating Medium with its scarlet, six-feet diameter wheels, and his spectacularly daring opening of the hazardous Sumner–Lyttelton road have become part of Canterbury folk-lore. And contemporary politicians, no matter how badly mauled by his blazing oratory, never failed to be charmed by his jokes and singing of Irish songs late at night after the debates had ended, when cigars were lit and the brandy flowed in Bellamy’s. He charmed and annoyed, but also invariably fascinated his contemporaries, even those closest to him; he could never be ignored.
Fitz was a true, multi-talented renaissance man: an all-round intellectual, colonial reformer, essayist, poet, artist, woodcarver, civil servant, journalist, politician, orator – perhaps the most outstanding of his time (although it was an age of political orators unmatched in our subsequent history). He was also a farmer, a singer and, always, a controversialist. His 1862 speech on M?ori civil and political rights, and the need to incorporate Māori representatives into New Zealand’s political system, was almost universally considered the greatest speech made in the colonial parliament, and was remembered long after his death by all who heard or read it.
The first of Canterbury’s gentlemen ‘Pilgrims’ to leap ashore from the Charlotte Jane, he had already been the first secretary of London’s Colonial Reform Society, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s secretary – before they fell out and became mortal and utterly unforgiving enemies. He was appointed the first editor of the Lyttelton Times; then Canterbury’s first Superintendent; and then in New Zealand’s disastrous and almost farcical first parliamentary session of 1854 he was, briefly, the country’s first acting Prime Minister. As Canterbury’s immigration agent in London between 1858 and 1860, he was an untiring and influential propagandist on all colonial matters because of his close personal friendships with W.E. Gladstone, Lord Lyttelton, and his relative by marriage John Robert Godley. On his return to Canterbury he founded and edited the Press, which mounted a campaign in fierce opposition to W.S. Moorhouse’s dynamic and imaginative Lyttelton Tunnel and railway schemes, which Fitz stigmatised as Canterbury’s new ‘Yankeeism’ – a reckless and radical expansionist drive that was, he feared, swamping what he believed to be the high morality of Godley’s and his own unashamedly anti-democratic High Tory and Utopian founding ideals.
In the bruising colonial political world of the 1860s he won fame and eventually notoriety as an occasionally brilliant but divisive figure, whose inclusion in Weld’s disastrous ministry in 1865 was a major factor in its downfall. After that, his bitter and almost obsessive hatred of the era’s most dominant politician, Edward Stafford, drove him into the political wilderness. Simultaneously, his private business affairs reached crisis point as his creditors foreclosed, took control of his Press newspaper and practically bankrupted him. At this nadir in his life when his spirit was all but broken, he was saved by none other than Prime Minister Stafford, who appointed him our first Comptroller-General of Finance and government auditor. This appointment had its element of farce; with FitzGerald and Stafford no longer on speaking terms, Stafford’s offer was negotiated by the young Edward Wakefield (Stafford’s secretary) and by Fanny who, by the end of 1868, had borne ten children (and was fated to bear three more), and was herself by now almost at breaking point and determined that finally Fitz must find secure and well-paid employment.
Fitz remained in office as Comptroller until his death aged 76 in 1896. In office he was outstandingly successful, achieving a reputation for innovation, encyclopaedic knowledge and integrity that made him the model for future government auditors throughout the Australasian colonies. With this late flowering of success he became not only a founder of the Public Service Association, but was also the first president of the Incorporated Society of Accountants, while his writings and public lectures on all kinds of literary and philosophical subjects additionally made him one of the brightest of intellectual beacons for New Zealand’s emergent younger generations.
The story Jenifer Roberts tells, however, is not just about Fitz. It is equally about Fanny, and originally the book was to be her biography. However, the discovery of much hitherto unknown FitzGerald material in a number of family and other British archives, persuaded Roberts to widen her horizons. As a result she has been able to present new and significant information about FitzGerald’s life, in particular before he reached New Zealand; facts which those of us who had previously written about him never knew existed. And in doing so she has revealed a far less brilliant early career than we have hitherto been led to believe.
Like that other great nineteenth-century polymath, Sir George Grey, FitzGerald in old age reinvented and embroidered much of his past, but now this great-great-granddaughter, with all the calm detachment of the true historian and without any diminution of her own affection for Fitz, has set out some unvarnished truths. In Fitz’s version of his life story he was cheated of a high academic place at Cambridge by ill-health; he embarked on a walking tour of Scotland and Ireland (about which he told famously entertaining stories for the rest of his life); he was rejected by the Royal Engineers because of poor eyesight; he personally reorganised the British Museum in 1849 and unselfishly made himself redundant; he gave up a brilliant political career in London to be a Canterbury Pilgrim; and later in life he rejected the offers of two colonial governorships for health reasons.
As Jenifer Roberts now reveals, none of these were true. The sad fact is that by the time he and eighteen-year-old Fanny embarked on the Charlotte Jane, Fitz’s life had been a succession of failures. As the fifth son of an absentee Irish landowner who sired 17 children in all, he was far removed from any possibility of a helpful inheritance and could no longer hope to live in England in the style to which he had been born. He had, in short, no prospects, as George Draper, his loathed father-in-law, recognised when he forbade his family to attend the wedding and ordered their servants to draw the curtains as they might for a funeral. Like many of the other gentry’s younger sons who sailed with him to Canterbury, New Zealand was Fitz’s last hope for carving a respectable career.
Most did thrive in the new land. Fitz, in spite of his real and imagined health problems, achieved more, in the wider sense, than his fellow emigrants; yet the credit for those achievements was largely due to the equally gifted Fanny’s strength of character. As Fitz himself described her, she was ‘one of the rarest companions God ever gave a man for a wife’. Borne down so often by Fitz’s thoughtlessness and hypochondria, by the constant child-bearing, the heartbreak caused by the deaths of so many of their children in the 1880s, and the sheer drudgery she had to endure as so many of his grand schemes collapsed into failure, Fanny’s love was perhaps the one constant in his life. She is the real hero of this absorbing, well-designed biography.
EDMUND BOHAN is a Christchurch historian, biographer and novelist. His biography, Blest Madman: FitzGerald of Canterbury, was published by Canterbury University Press in 1998.