By Karyn Hay
1893. Frances, about whom her father remarked that trouble followed her wherever she went, boards a ship and sails to New Zealand. She’s a young woman who won’t wear a corset – a photographer seemingly well-suited to a country that’s poised to grant women the vote. Or perhaps it’s that the new country is suited to her, as she finds here a “youthful freshness…a shruggIng of the shoulders when it came to aristocracy.”
If you’re under an illusion that the Victorian era was inviolably puritan in its morals, Frances’ suitcase of photos of her friend Dolly will have you rethinking. As will the behaviour of others among the settlers.
Once here, Frances visits a family in Tauranga, goes to a circus and a ball. That’s about it. Really. It isn’t until the last few of the 341 pages that anything interesting happens, when one of those saucy postcards of Dolly goes astray.
Otherwise, pages of ephemera – details of costumes, houses, people, and conversations – give a portrait of the time. Is it a realistic view of settler society in the late 1800s? I’m not sure, but I expect the mix of characters drawn to here, primarily from Britain, could be typical of the period – families given to social pretensions, single men who indulge in drink, gambling, opium. And, sadly, perhaps the attitudes to others such as “filthy chinkies”, lazy Maoris, “Heathen Hindoos”, and “Darkie Doods”.
Conversations without much obvious point may be indicative of the times too, but they approach the tedious when reported on the printed page. Ironically, it is Frances who is said to nearly “faint from ennui” at a lengthy explanation of street-lighting in Auckland, and perhaps it is with a sense of mischief that Hay includes other comments such as the tedium of having “to listen to the boasting of the celebrated artist”. Or her reference to the “verbosity of detail”. I’d put into that category things like 2 pages on the style of a parasol. Even more so, 2 pages on the subject of dog and rabbit poo on a lawn.
Author: Karyn Hay
Publisher: Esom House