19 January 2009

Jane Mander part 1: The Story of a New Zealand River

So fiction and avoidance of spoilers won out and I finished reading The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander, before finishing The Story of a New Zealand Writer about Jane Mander.

Have any of you read it? It's an interesting book, first published in 1920. It's one of those books I'd heard and heard about as a classic New Zealand novel, but had just never gotten around to reading it before.

The first thing that struck me was that it begins with very old-fashioned attitudes - such as English=good, colonial=bad. But it actually ended with what seemed to be some fairly radical attitudes for a book of it's time - or at least a New Zealand book of it's time.

I'd heard that there was some connection of the story of The Piano - the film by Jane Campion - that there were similarities with The Story of a New Zealand River, and that there was some talk of legal action against her by the people who had the rights to the novel.

So I was reading it looking for similarities, and there certainly are some: a British woman (English in the book, Scottish in the film) with a name beginning with A (book=Alice, film=Ada) travels to an isolated part of the north of New Zealand with her piano and her spirited daughter (book=Asia, film=Flora - and in the book she also has infants Mabel and Betty) to live with her new-ish husband who she doesn't love. But she does grow to love another man of lower social status.

So far, so much sexual repression. But really that's about where the similarities end. The film takes place over a fairly short time, while the book is over more than a decade. The characters are fairly different, and in the book they're generally more likeable and more restrained.

There's also a lot more lecturing in the book - mainly of Alice (who isn't mute, unlike Ada) - and there's a lot about 'free thinking'. I was interested to read that Jane Mander has been very influenced by The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (as reflected in the similar titles) which is also very concerned with radical free-thinking ideas and non-traditional morality. But The Story of a New Zealand River is written in a more standard narrative form than its predecessor, which is more modern, disjointed and, at times, downright mystical.

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