by Lindsey Dawson
Scarlet & Magenta is a historical novel set in the 1880s in the then small town of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. It gives an in-depth view of what it was like for two British women, having come out to the colonies, to find themselves living away from their families, but still bound by the constraints of being British and adhering to the social norms of the mother country.
The two heroines the story revolves around are Violet and Anna. Violet has a scandalous past that was meant to be buried by a favourable but loveless marriage, and by moving to the other side of the world. Anna has also come to New Zealand, with her husband and child. Both husbands are bank managers, of rival banks, so have considerable social standing in the town, and their wives are expected to reflect their status.
The two women, Violet the ‘scarlet woman’ with the scandalous past and Anna, form a friendship. Throw into the mix their combined interest in the "free thinking" movement, a scandal of extra-marital dalliances and unladylike behaviour and its effect on the life of the town, and you have the basis for a well-plotted story line. Good writing allows the reader to be transported into the lives of those members of the upper tier of local society.
Also intertwined through the story is the occurrence of the Tarawera disaster that buried the pink and white terraces, and the effect of that on the local population.
I found the novel gripping, particularly as it is set in Tauranga where the streets are well known to me, and I could relate to it very well. In one passage it mentions the local baker and his bakery. A bakery floor and ovens were uncovered just a couple of years ago in the centre of the now modern city and can be seen in a fenced off area adjacent to a main street, so this gives the novel added authenticity.
The chapters are prefixed by gems that were written for the Victorian women of the day and published in the local Bay of Plenty Times. These now give us further glimpses of life and attitudes of the times.
"A woman is a mighty handy thing to have about the house. She doesn't cost any more to keep than you'll give her, and she takes a great interest in you. If you go out at night, she'll be awake when you get home, and then she'll tell you all about yourself, and more too."
“Ah! It's woman’s mission to make fools of men," sighed a languid fop. "And how vexed we are," said a bright-eyed woman present "to find that nature has so often forestalled us."
Of extra interest to me was reading the Notes by the author at the end of the book. These describe it as a fictional story but with information gleaned from letters written by Lindsey Dawson's great grandfather who was "unmanned" by the suicide of a friend who had formed an unfortunate attachment to a married woman and eventually solved his problems by shooting himself, thus giving us the basis of this novel. There were other instances of the intertwining of fact and fiction that resonated with the reviewer, such as the mention of the Athenree Homestead and the lives of its occupants, that also forms part of the history of the Bay of Plenty area.
For all these reasons I found this novel a particularly delightful read.
Author: Lindsey Dawson
Publisher: Out Loud Press