Letters to Grace: Writing Home from Colonial New Zealand, edited by Jean Garner and Kate Foster (Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2011), 224 pp., $40.00.
This ‘found’ collection of Victorian-era letters is moving in a way no carefully crafted writing could be, primarily because they are real and private documents. The letters are only grouped together because they survived a tidying binge after their recipient’s death, but together they provide a fascinating insight into their writers’ lives. Part of this fascination is that we can read the same stories from different angles and over time (most are from 1862 to 1871). The often raw emotions and ongoing struggles are made all the more powerful when couched in the genteel and affectionate language of a Victorian lady.
Grace was the sister-in-law of two sisters, Agnes Emma and Rose who married two brothers, and moved to Canterbury in 1853 and 1861. These three women were close friends before they were tied through marriage, and most of the book consists of letters from Agnes Emma and Rose to Grace. There are also a few letters from another New Zealand-based sister-in-law, Sarah, and a beloved niece, Agnes Mildred, who was Agnes Emma’s daughter but who looked upon Grace as a mother. None of Grace’s letters to New Zealand have survived, but it is clear she wrote regularly and her letters were hugely important to these women.
The first letter sets an ongoing theme: the care of children, which for these women often means distance and death, sometimes causes great pleasure (even boasting), and always entails anxiety. Agnes Emma begins by thanking Grace for looking after her daughter, Agnes Mildred, who was sent back to England for her education when she was only ten in 1861. Mother and daughter would not see each other for another eight years. The next topic is the birth and death of Rose’s first child – and thankfulness that Rose is still alive ‘… she had a trying time of it but God in His just mercy spared her to us though the dear little Baby was only permitted to glad its parent’s eyes and cheer their hearts for 13 days, when it died.’
Loneliness is another constant, especially for Rose. She writes to Grace to describe her and her husband’s pain at losing their first-born but says it has brought the couple together: ‘It would indeed be dreadful for either to have to mourn alone.’ However, as Rose’s husband, John Hall, became a prominent politician, she did indeed spend much of her married life alone, worrying over the health of her subsequent children.
Agnes Emma had an even more difficult husband in George Hall, who had bad health, became heavily indebted, and was severely depressed. However, she says far less about his problems than Rose or her daughter Agnes Mildred. She must have been good company. Describing an accident with a servant and a chair she notes, ‘As to the chair it is a decided case of dissolution of partnership back, legs, seat and spills all ready to set up on their own account.’
Agnes Mildred inherited her mother’s liveliness but not her unwillingness to complain. Her life exemplifies the ongoing difficulties of being caught between two worlds. As there were so little opportunities for education in New Zealand, at great cost her parents sent her to England for an education that made her all the more unhappy when she returned to New Zealand. She also genuinely missed her English family, as did all these women.
The book is packed with small treasures for historians. There is an extensive introduction, the letters are amply accompanied by background notes on people and events, and there are useful appendices, a full bibliography, and photographs of many of those mentioned. Its spacious layout also makes it enticing for the general reader, as of course do the contents. We forget how terrifying childhood illnesses were, as was the constant spectre of tuberculosis, and the dangerous oddness and inadequacy of much Victorian medicine. The complete lack of political news is also extremely odd to the modern reader, and shows the separation of male and female spheres of action. Another difference in world views comes out in the writers’ resignation to ‘God’s will’, seeing sorrow as a just punishment, and longing to meet family again in Heaven. What does seem familiar is the importance of photographs – even if the media and costs have changed.
For these women, relationships mattered above all else. Although it was difficult to find time to write these letters, letter-writing and receiving were sacred tasks, as they nurtured the bonds of friendship and kinship. There were also pragmatic reasons for keeping these connections. Grace represented a link to the resources of ‘Home’. Agnes Emma needs her to parent Agnes Mildred. Rose needs her to order tablecloths and dinnerware as Rose and John climb the social scale. The maintenance of good relationships, including apologies and explanations in case of offences, is another central theme.
In the ‘Family comment on publication’ one of Rose’s great-granddaughters, Julia McKellow, writes that there was a lot of family discussion about whether the letters should be published. ‘… be aware that you are being invited into the everyday but very private lives of these extraordinary, resilient and hardworking women’.
Gratitude to the family and their forebears should accompany our respect. Reading these letters strips away at least some twenty-first century opinions about nineteenth-century colonists. At times, these letters reveal loneliness, exhaustion and even anguish. Rose, a well-off woman for her time, by 1869 wrote, ‘One gets very tired sometimes both in body and mind and longs for rest. Were it not for the hope and wish to see our darlings grow up I should not care how soon the end came –.’ Readers may wonder how much women with even less resources (and no time to write at all) felt about their lives of never-ending work.
For their writers, resilience was not an intellectual ideal, but was how they kept on caring for those they loved. In our response to our increasingly challenging social and physical environments, we could learn much from Grace’s colonial correspondents.
NICKY CHAPMAN is a writer and editor. Some of her colonial forebears arrived in 1858. She lives in Port Chalmers, near Dunedin.