The Open World, by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, 2012), 295 pp. $37.99.
In recent years there has been such a proliferation of writing set in the Victorian times that an entire ‘neo-Victorian’ genre has sprung up out of it. The period offers particularly fruitful pickings for literary endeavour, given that the legal possession of New Zealand, which was marked by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and tested by the land wars of the 1860s, occurred under the reign of Queen Victoria.
Stephanie Johnson bases her latest novel The Open World upon the largely forgotten colonial figure of Elizabeth Smith, who was also the author’s ancestor. Smith served a circle that included Sir William Martin, New Zealand’s first Chief Justice, and George Augustus Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop. She journeyed to the embryonic country in the early 1840s as ‘companion’ to the invalid Mary-Ann Martin, and was essential to the operation of the Native Hospital established by her employer. Increasingly disillusioned with colonial life, she returned to London in the 1860s, and died soon after.
Working within the black and white outline of the known facts about Smith’s life, Johnson manages to add colour; some of it hallucinogenic. Elizabeth Smith was a jane-of-all-trades: variously nurse, lady’s maid, needlewoman, laundress, cook, silver-polisher, midwife. Johnson’s version of Smith is also a hopeless opium addict, who gleefully shares out the ingredients of her ‘little black bottle’ to those around her.
While she’s skirted by shades of Dickens’s comic grotesque Mrs Gamp, Johnson’s Smith is also a woman prone to deep earnestness and yearning, or poreirewa. By the time readers meet Elizabeth she is elderly, and debilitated by physical complaints. Her longing for the two adult sons she has left behind in the colony, Henry and Ish, is countered only by some belated correspondence, and by her displaying their framed ‘likenesses’ in her sleeping chambers.
The disability of old age has turned this once self-determined peripatetic into a recluse haunting lodging rooms, railway carriages, and friends’ tea-rooms. She is limited to recalling her colonial past through the haze of her body’s pain, a haze exacerbated by the mixtures and compounds of her murky Cup of Grace. She is slow; her teeth have rotted; her looks have dulled. Nonetheless, she delights in the ‘disguise’ of her old age: ‘don’t all old women look alike with their white caps and collapsing faces, all individual colour and beauty erased?’
Surfaces are always an important harbinger for characters, as for the reader. Elizabeth’s friend-cum-caregiver, Mr. Griggs, searches for the young face within the old, while the mysterious Miss Tripp, with her uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth’s son Henry, searches without success for the good looks she was promised in the woman who briefly replaced her mother as her father’s wife.
The narrative is constructed in layers, so that the authority of any single character’s point of view is undermined by the observations of others, including the unsettling switches to first-person in the voice of Elizabeth. What the characters are looking for are stories on which to graft their (mis)perceptions, and the reader is invited to participate in this process from the beginning.
We tend to encounter Elizabeth when she is conjuring up letters that she ought to be writing. She is always intending to write her life story. She wants to offer a corrective account of her marital history for her sons; she wants to write herself into the memoirs of Mary-Ann Martin and Sarah Selwyn; she wants to share her experience of a liminal and mysterious New Zealand, before the wars, before her return to England. Many scenes of the novel occur when Elizabeth is a passenger in transit, her actual travels vying with rapid flashes of her drug-infused memories. Her past is like the landscape slipping past the train windows, or a boat slicing through water.
Elderly in Victorian England, the medicinal quality of the opium she imbibes inflects her perceptions. The Maori she left behind in New Zealand have a mythical or magical aura to them, emphasised by the interwoven moments of superstition and the occasional eruptions into spoken Maori. George Rupai, her son Ish’s cabin-mate on the way to New Zealand, curses the sharks he catches for the ship as taniwha, while having the power to transform the melancholic Ish (but only for as long as he is around), then disappears once the ship reaches the new country.
It seems that all Elizabeth can ever cling to is a recessive sequence of likenesses, approximations, imitations. While the Maori christened her Mata Te Mete, she refers to herself variously as Elizabeth Horelock or Horlock, was once Hoggs, and has purposively adapted the surname Smith. A complex web of association reveals that the first name of Miss Tripp, Kitty, is a revision upon Elizabeth’s dead child, Katie, while ‘Miss Tripp’ is in itself a pseudonym. Further, Mary-Ann Martin truncates Elizabeth’s lessons in Greek, Hebrew and Maori by assuring her that a familiarity with the name of the new country in each language is sufficient.
As if mixing one of her tinctures, Elizabeth is constantly measuring, selecting, editing and reworking aspects of her life. Her friend William Cotton’s journal epiphany that ‘A man either says too little or too much’ haunts her own self-fictionalising. Did she ever love her second husband? Could she have saved her daughter’s life? What does Miss Tripp want from her? Where is ‘Home’? Just like her beloved New Zealand, Elizabeth’s life is always under construction, always being built up in certain ways, and set back in others.
The subterfuge of the narrative is undermined by the final chapters, which veer toward the tidy resolution of plot that we associate with the Victorian novel. There are a number of emotional reunions between Elizabeth and the important figures of her past colonial life, some stock theatre scenes, and a few too many coincidences. There are some rather overdone references to M.E. Braddon’s 1862 bigamist sensation novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, while Elizabeth’s encounter with George Rupai on the river Thames, with his tale of disappointing his benefactor, recalls Dickens’s 1861 novel Great Expectations. Thankfully, however, Johnson departs from the conventions of Victorian fiction by withholding the all-important death scene from us.
Likewise, Elizabeth’s letters remain unfinished. The big revelation Miss Tripp has planned fails; but then Miss Tripp is a red herring, as another unforeseen revelation usurps the ending Elizabeth has settled upon for her life story. Johnson’s novel thus resists the temptation to fix a ‘final version’ of the events in Elizabeth’s life. After all, this is a story of likenesses, and what we are reading is a likeness of what could have been written if the real-life Elizabeth Hor(e)lock Smith had indeed published her memoirs.
In sum, The Open World is a moving tale of a bereaved woman attempting to justify to herself the way her life has turned out under the trying circumstances of Victorian England. ‘It was the best it can be between a man and woman’, Elizabeth recalls at one point, of her first marriage. ‘The very best. I draw that old love around me, as worn as an old quilt, still warm enough to comfort’. The same kind of warmth suffuses Johnson’s effortless-seeming, brilliant reworking of her ancestor’s life.
AZURE RISSETTO is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland with a special interest in neo-Victorian fiction.