26 January 2009

Jane Mander part 2: Story of a New Zealand Writer

Once I'd finished The Story of a New Zealand River, it didn't take long to also polish off The Story of a New Zealand Writer – a biography of Jane Mander by Rae McGregor. I found it interesting and inspiring, but kind of in a cautionary-tale kind of way.

She's someone who was quite thwarted in her life. She was born in 1877 and grew up in the Far North, where her father cut down Kauri trees for timber. She was a teacher for a time, and later, when her father's political aspirations led him to buy The Northern Advocate newspaper, she became a journalist and worked for his paper. Probably not the first time, and certainly not the last, that she was to be useful to him.

She was already 35 when set off overseas to do a journalism degree in New York. She didn't finish the four-year course, but in the 20 years she spent overseas she wrote and published six novels, of which The Story of a New Zealand River was her first (and, according to her and others, her best).

During this time money was a constant struggle, and it was lack of money that finally drew her home at age 55. While she was away – and in fact, before and after – she is not known to have had any romantic entanglements with either men or women (some have assumed that because she returned to NZ with a short severe haircut, that she was a lesbian, but apparently there's no evidence for this).

Her family were keen for her to return, and said she would have peace and quiet to keep writing. Her father promised her enough money to live on. The reality turned out rather differently. Like many unmarried women of the time, she ended up as an unpaid housekeeper for her elderly and miserly father, and her mentally ill sister. To get a bit of money, she wrote a book review page for a newspaper and did occasional radio broadcasts. But she never published another novel.

As well as Mander's life, The Story of a New Zealand Writer also had a final chapter about the aforementioned controversy over The Piano's similarity to The Story of a New Zealand River. The plot thickens, because Jane Campion had at one point been asked to direct the adaptation of the book, which had been written by friends of hers. She decided against it, but not long after The Piano was underway. There was talk of legal action, but none eventuated. No one will or can talk about what actually went on, so we might never know.

To be honest, I don't think I would have tried to adapt The Story of a New Zealand River for film – or at least not with a lot of changes. As it stands, the hero in particular would have been too much of a lecturing git.

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