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Dr Lydia Wevers: Books and their readers

July 27th, 2018 By Lydia Wevers

On 28 June 2018, in Parliament’s Grand Hall, the Turnbull Library launched the ATL100 centenary programme to commemorate Alexander Turnbull’s death and the gift of his library to the people of New Zealand. The event marked the beginning of a 30-month period of celebrations and events, culminating with the centenary of the library’s opening in 2020. The Hon. Tracey Martin formally launched the centenary celebrations and hosted the Friends of the Turnbull Library Founder Lecture given by Dr Lydia Wevers. Lydia explored the connection between the book and its reader, the collector, Alexander Turnbull, and his collection.

Lydia is not an employee of the National Library, and as such her ideas and opinions are her own.

Listen to the Founder Lecture

Stream the talk (49 min):

The sound of the pūtātara played by Watene Kaihau, heralds the start of the proceedings.
The sound of the pūtātara played by Watene Kaihau, heralds the start of the proceedings. Photo by Mark Beatty

Introduction by Rachel Underwood

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. Haere mai, haere mai, haere mai. Welcome to all our distinguished guests. The Guardians of the Turnbull Library, Bill McNaught, National Librarian, members of the Turnbull Library Trust Board, Peter Murray from the Department of Internal Affairs, and all friends and staff of the Library. Necessary health and safety messages...

We thank the Member of Parliament for Wellington, the Hon. Grant Robertson and Speaker Trevor Mallard, for giving the Friends permission to hold this event in these august environs. The Grand Hall and Legislative Council Chamber, where I imagine the Queen sits when she happens to come here and open Parliament. Many will recall that we were here to mark the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Turnbull Library in 2010.

Today marks the centennial of the death in wellington of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull. This morning, after a tribute event at the Turnbull Library we made a hikoi to lay wreaths at the Turnbull family headstone in the Bolton Street Cemetery. It’s a very easy place to get to so do make a visit to it. We acknowledge Alexander Turnbull’s enduring legacy in the collection he gathered which continues to grow and inform, now held in perpetuity under the National Library Act, which provides for oversight by the Guardians of the Turnbull.

The Friends Founder Lecture is a long tradition to mark this anniversary, intended to highlight the importance of research in the Turnbull collections, to increase our understanding of the varied influence on our national life. This is also the basis of the Friends Annual Research Grant.

With great pleasure I now introduce our speaker, Professor Lydia Wevers. I will select from her long list of academic achievements the publications, the contribution to education and community service, so that there is still time for the actual Founder Lecture. Lydia Wevers has a strong record as a literary critic, historian, an editor and reviewer, in print and on radio. Now Emeritus Professor, Lydia retired last year after 17 years as Director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University.

Former Vice President of the New Zealand Book Council, Lydia is known for her contribution to many writers and readers festivals over the years. She has edited and written many anthologies and books on literary topics, including Traveling to New Zealand: an Oxford anthology, Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, and Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World.

Lydia was awarded the ONZM in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to literature. And in 2014 the Royal Society awarded her the Pou Aronui Award for service to the humanities. We especially honour her long commitment to the National Library and the Turnbull Library. In her previous role as chair of the National Library Trustees and as the first chair or the Guardians of the Turnbull Library, making her a most fitting person to give this Founder Lecture.

After the address a vote of thanks will be given by distinguished historian Malcolm McKinnon, himself a former Founder Lecturer. Please welcome Lydia Wevers.

Lydia Wevers delivering the FOTL Founders Lecture for 2018.
Dr Lydia Wevers. Photo by Mark Beatty

Books and their readers (05:35)

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou Katoa. Minister, President and Friends, staff. First – Thanks to Rachel – she has been President as long as I can remember. Tough but unfailingly helpful, courteous, committed. My own long association has brought me many friends at ATL who are here tonight. There are also a number of former chief and deputy chief librarians and family of former chief librarians. Thank you for your century of care. In particular I thank current ATL staff – Oliver stead, Fiona Oliver, Anthony Tedeschi, Audrey Waugh and most of all Joan McCracken, who has helped me assemble the marvelous images of readers you will see towards the end of the lecture.

The French scholar Robert Escarpit said something in 1966 that I have always found evocative. Answering the question ‘What is a book?’ a question that perhaps most of us here tonight wouldn’t think of asking, he said

… a book is not a thing like other things. When we hold it in our hands, all we hold is the paper: the book is elsewhere….A book is sold, bought, passed from hand to hand, but it cannot be treated like an ordinary commercial commodity, because it is, at once, multiple and unique, in ample supply yet precious. (The Book Revolution 1966, 17).

I like this remark because it points to the obvious but nevertheless mysterious gap between the physical object of a book and the promise it offers, a promise of different worlds and knowledges, a promise which can only be unlocked by reading, a complex cognitive process sometimes described as decoding, a term which seems entirely too mechanistic for my own experience. The title of my lecture tonight, ‘Books and their readers’, puts a bit more weight on that conjunction than it can really support – the link between books and their readers is tantalisingly incomplete once the scene of reading moves into history. Robert Darnton, the American historian, wrote some years ago that the great mass of readers are beyond historical research. If the author is dead, in Roland Barthes’ famous phrase, the reader is deader. Just as the book is somewhere beyond the paper that constitutes it, the reader who has absorbed that book is further away still. Which is to say that books on a shelf, in a library, in the hand, are one thing. The passage and expression of their contents in the world is another. Tonight I hope to move a little between those two points.

We are here tonight to celebrate Alexander Turnbull, and his library. Turnbull died on the morning of this day 100 years ago, not very far from this spot, in Bowen St. hospital, next door to his library, now the sadly empty Turnbull House. He was not quite 50. I am just old enough to remember, as an Honours student, looking at some of the Katherine Mansfield print collection in the elegant reading room in Turnbull House. Not for the first time in my life, I was captured by the enchantment of a library. And what a library it is! Turnbull was just 17 when he bought and read the book he later identified as the first book of his collection, J.H.Kerry-Nicholls’s 1884 The King Country or Exploration in New Zealand. On the flyleaf he wrote ‘This was the first book of my collection. I bought it to read going out in Ionic Dec 1885.’ Turnbull’s biographer, E.H. McCormick points out that he makes here a rare factual mistake about the ship – it was the Doric – but for Turnbull the clutch on his memory was not the ship but the book.

On disembarking he went on a tour with an English friend referred to as P (his name was Pulford) and two others to the Hot Lakes, just in time to see the Pink and White Terraces before the Tarawera eruption. Like many travellers who kept diaries in the late nineteenth century he drew on his reading of Kerry-Nicholls to illustrate and inform what Rachel Barrowman has described as his rather prosaic account of this journey (Barrowman, 1995, 4). It was perhaps this experience which decided him to begin constructing a comprehensive collection of books about New Zealand, writing to his dealer in 1893 that ‘Anything whatever relating to this colony, on its history, flora, fauna, geology & inhabitants, will be fish for my net…’. (McCormick, 1974, 122).

Nucleus of a National Collection

The collection Turnbull memorably gifted to His Majesty the King, was to be a public reference library and form the nucleus of a National Collection intended, as he said to Gilbert Mair, to aid future ‘searchers after truth’. It represented 33 years of collecting and amounted to 55,000 books, drawings, prints, paintings and manuscripts on which he spent the greater part of his patrimony. To put that number into perspective, it is worth noting that Sir George Grey, the next largest donor, gave 14,000 volumes to Auckland, Dr. Hocken, Turnbull’s great rival, described by him as a ‘most entertaining little man’ gifted 4,300 volumes to Dunedin, Robert McNab the historian 4,200 to the Dunedin Public library and Charles Rooking Carter 1,000 vols, to the New Zealand Institute. (Barrowman, 24) In giving his library to the Crown, Turnbull cannily ensured that it would not be ringfenced by regional priorities, and it has indeed become a world famous collection.

Dr Lydia Wevers delivering the Friends of the Turnbull Library Founders Lecture in the Grand Hall.
Dr Lydia Wevers delivering the Friends of the Turnbull Library Founders Lecture in the Grand Hall. Photo by Mark Beatty

Scholars agree that Turnbull was neither a scholar nor a writer but a collector though his letters as a young man do not prefigure the activity that consumed his life. They are full of London gossip, opinions on pretty girls exchanged with his brother Robert, going to the races, dining out, going to plays and spending time, a lot of time, at London clubs. He met a number of well-known authors at the Vagabonds club, such as Israel Zangwill, known in his time as the Dickens of the Ghetto, J.M. Barrie and Jerome K Jerome, and notes being ‘drawn into an Ibsen controversy’. There are references to his reading and books he likes – Kipling’s Life’s Handicap for example – but Turnbull’s exuberant sentence about how he showed Frank Kebbell, a friend of his brother’s, around London, sketches in the life enjoyed by a young man of means in 1891:

‘I have lunched him, Lyriced him, dined him, debauched him, Conversazioned him, Corinthianed him Empired him..I think I’ve done my duty by him. …Any more Colonials you want “shown round”?

Nevertheless by the winter of 1893 Turnbull had amassed a collection of 1,500 volumes, and three years later he expanded his New Zealand collecting into the Pacific. Rachel Barrowman notes that his acquisition book from July 1898-1902 lists over 2,800 printed volumes, an average of 700 per annum or 2 per day. His big collections began in England – Cook and Pacific voyaging, New Zealand, Scottish history, English literature including Milton and the art and history of the book. The Milton collection began with a letter to the bookseller Quaritch in 1892 and his first acquisition arrived later that year.

When he returned to New Zealand in 1892, steeling himself, as McCormick writes, to accepting the idea of life in Wellington, collecting took a seasonal turn with his summers given over to yachting. His account of a cruise in the Iorangi to Queen Charlotte Sound in 1901 is Turnbull’s only publication and in it, as he recounts the joys of following in Cook’s footsteps, you also see the exuberance of a sporty young man.

16 December ‘Breakfasted at 8a.m. and afterwards had some practice with the rook rifle at floating preserved meat cans.’ (Account of a cruise in the Yacht “iorangi” to Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand. 1902).

‘That night we played skittles on the cabin floor; we played cribbage, and we played ping pong with a tennis ball and our hands, Bert fairly astonishing us with his famous “smash or knock-out” blow. Jack was a cautious player then, and no one could have foreseen that in only a few months he would develop into the “ Pride of the Thorndon Yacht Club Ping-pongers” with his curly “serves” and lightning “returns”.

New Years Eve in Picton – “ we landed and marched to Oxley’s hotel, where drinks were ordered, varying from a ”A pint of gin Miss”, to “ A drop of cherry brandy in a spoon please”.

In 1902 the New Zealand Free Lance remarked that when Turnbull was not collecting books or learning something new you would find him in a yacht. New Zealand Free Lance, 14 June 1902.)

It is never clear how much of a reader Turnbull was – most evidence of his tastes and habits has been absorbed by time. In 1898 he wrote to a Sydney friend that he did not have much time for reading, his favourite hobby, since his father’s death, which left him running the business. He is unlike, for example, Henry Atkinson, whose 1850 diary includes a ‘list of works read by me in 1849 and 1850’, a list which includes Alison’s History of Europe in Twenty volumes and all Milton’s English poems, about which Atkinson comments that he has

Read Paradise Lost twice through and intend to read it often again. You can never read it too often.

Turnbull’s references to reading his books are scattered. In his account of the cruise on Iorangi he quotes both Cook’s and Banks’s journals, and writes

What memories the name “Ship Cove” called up to us. As youngsters we had all devoured Cook’s Voyages, and no one who had done so could soon forget the persistent, almost affectionate way in which Cook returned again and again to this pleasant spot in the course of his three voyages. 

Collecting Milton

Presumably the records of Turnbull’s dealings with booksellers to some extent reflect his current reading as McCormick argues, but they are patchily preserved, with decade long lapses. Rachel Barrowman says the genesis of the Milton collection cannot be found in his youthful literary tastes or his early collection which features only a Milton textbook from his years at Dulwich College. The likely spur seems to have been cost-by the 1890s Shakespeare was too expensive so Turnbull shrewdly opted for Milton as the jewel in his crown, which is the decision of a collector. He went after fine copies of first editions, a request he specified to his dealer about Paradise Lost in 1897. What he referred to as his bibliomania meant being a connoisseur, hunting out rare and perfect copies and setting great store on the book as an object. He had many of his books beautifully bound in London, declaring that “ they can’t bind out here to save their lives’ (McCoprmick, 119). An article in the Timaru Herald in 1924 rhapsodized over Turnbull’s ‘bindings in panelled, mottled, tree and inlaid calf, crushed morocco, full levant morocco, seal, Russia and vellum. (Barrowman 5)

Turnbull’s chief Australian competitor William Dixson, wrote to Turnbull in 1914 likening them both to Mr Dymock, another collector, who ‘likes to handle (physically) anything out of the ordinary & this seems to have the effect of flattering his “amour Propre” as well as creating a personal interest in the book itself. He is like me, as, I understand, you are also – in that he gets a great deal of pleasure in anticipation without which the “fruits of possession” would be – to me – flat, stale & unprofitable; just the opposite to some of the Americans who are grabbing everything’. (McCormick 162)

A group of people sitting in the audience and a portrait of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull.
Right: Robert Stewart Clouston's portrait of Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, 1909. Photos Mark Beatty

Card catalgoue

The directions and amplitude of Turnbull’s library are testimony to someone who, as his housekeeper Emily Brouard noted in later life ‘lived only for his books… almost a man of silence. Sometimes I’ve seen him go for days without saying a thing, then he’d have to say something, just to break the monotony.’(Barrowman, 23) But there are few traces of Turnbull in his library other than his bookplate -he was not an annotator, he didn’t spill his tea on the page, he didn’t write diary entries about what he read, he didn’t turn down the corners to mark his place. One of the most evocative remnants of Turnbull’s care for and presence in his library is his card catalogue. There is only one box of these remaining, and it is not clear why these particular cards still exist, each filled out in his lovely even hand. In themselves these cards offer a tiny history of the evolution of library systems. Half way through the box, the cards reverse, so their non-Turnbull face is on view. On the back of a sequence of cards is the typewritten text of a speech, perhaps given to Turnbull staff, or to the Library Association, about library practices, by a now anonymous librarian.

Other cards are grouped as ‘Problem Cards’. This one, for one of the Milton texts, has, evocatively, Found in Art Room written on it. Collectively Turnbull’s cards suggest the transformations that occur in the life of a library, itself a living thing, and subject to the usual fluctuations of human organization. But these are traces that make the librarians visible. The readers are another question.

The Turnbull Library monumentalizes Turnbull as a reader but his carefully curated and nurtured collection shows hardly any marks of passing readers – or if it does I have not seen them. It is very unlike the Brancepeth station library, a small private Wairarapa collection which operated at the other end of the spectrum from Turnbull, collecting the cheapest books available and dedicating itself to recreational reading. Brancepeth’s books reveal some of their reading history in the way they look, read to death , dirty, loved. Despite the disintegrated gatherings and the dirt, they are miraculously preserved. They also vividly illustrate reader practices in their copious marginalia. Some of these comments, like this one, illustrate the irritations of an attentive reader, while others contextualise books in the reader’s daily life. The books were sent out to work camps and their marginalia partly reflects the exigencies and boredom of working life – noughts and crosses, etc.

Some of Brancepeth’s daily records were recently found mouldering in a box in the stables, undisturbed since an office clean out in 1908. These notes had been on an office spike, and show to the day what one of the employees, in this case the station clerk, had been reading. But Brancepeth is a serendipitous and unusual resource. As the anonymous speech notes on the reverse of Turnbull’s catalogue cards observe, many of the books in greatest demand at the end of the nineteenth century were printed on very poor quality paper which made them brittle and fragile. Most libraries withdrew or destroyed these dirty and damaged books, but Brancepeth, which was relatively unburdened by librarians, never got rid of anything. It has made it possible to see the outlines of a group of readers, and something about their tastes and preferences, and because the station clerk was a compulsive reader and writer across a number of modes, it has also been possible to track in fine detail his spectrum of attitudes, responses and reading choices. But if you don’t have Brancepeth’s records how do you find readers and how do you get a glimpse of the shape reading makes in their emotional and social lives?

I am going to focus primarily on one writer and how readers of his work show themselves over time, drawing on National Library/Turnbull resources, especially Papers Past.

The Grand Hall and Legislative Council Chamber.
The Grand Hall and Legislative Council Chamber made for a glorious backdrop to the Founder Lecture. Photo by Mark Beatty

Pickwick Club and the inimitable works of 'Boz'

Three months after the ships of the New Zealand Company had deposited their passengers and baggage on the foreshore at Petone in January 1840, the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator announced the founding of a Pickwick Club in Wellington. It seems remarkable to me that one of the first acts of social organization in the makeshift settlement of Port Nicholson should be to found a club based on a novel by a then relatively new writer. Here is an image of ATL’s earliest copy, 1836, 19 fasicles in their original green printed covers. It was presented to ATL in 1963 by Dr FS MacLean.

It was of course the Pickwick Papers that launched Dickens into global fame and perhaps the young men whose idea it was were simply trend spotters but there seems to have been some essential link between Dickens’s comic novel and the assertion of cultural identity. As the newspaper put it:

To our friends in England, this cannot fail to awaken the most pleasing sensations; as it tends to prove, that in this remote region of the globe – this land of savages – Englishmen relish the inimitable works of “Boz”, and that they desire to spread the fame of the author in their adopted land.

The club had literary ambitions. At its spring meeting it was resolved that the members should devote a portion of the funds to the purchase of periodical publications ‘best calculated for the spread of information among their number’, and a further portion to a Medal, to be awarded to the best production in prose or verse of a member of the Club. But like its progenitor, the Wellington Pickwick Club held its meetings in a tavern and wavered on a blurry line between high literary aspirations and convivial drinking. Despite the Club’s library and professedly cultural and philanthropic ambitions, it is notable that when the colony celebrated its first anniversary, the keynote event was a horse race won by one of the Pickwick Club members for the ‘Pickwick Purse’ of 15 guineas.

The original Wellington Pickwick Club, after a brief burst of publicity, disappears from view in Papers Past, but Pickwick’s name continues to be applied to associations, events, individuals, race horses and ships. Here are two examples from later in the century – the Pickwick Camp, and the Pickwick Knitting club. There is someone reading aloud in front. On the back it says they took it in turns, but unfortunately we can’t see the book. References to the characters and events of The Pickwick Papers recur throughout colonial papers. In 1874 the Riverton Correspondent for the Otago Daily Times describes a court case by comparing it to the famous breach of promise suit in The Pickwick Papers:

Had Dickens been present on the occasion I venture to say that the world would have heard less of Bardell v Pickwick and more of Rogers V. Petchell and Kerr. I have witnessed the proceedings in a few Police Courts in my time, but those enacted on this occasion beat all.

(17 July, p3)

The case in question wasn’t even a breach of promise case but involved a claim for £20. What is both interesting and typical is how easily the correspondent’s mind turned to Dickens for its point of reference and comparison. Dickens’s novels are the great touchstones of nineteenth century life; they provide a kind of glossary of characters and situations which illuminate social and emotional dynamics. Dickens’s most famous court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House, is a continual reference point for legal cases, both in the courts and in newspapers, across the globe. The Grey River Argus in 1866 reports on an expensive litigation over a small amount of land and calls it Jarndyce v Jarndyce on a small scale. These references are never explained. Examples of the extent to which Dickens’s novels and characters lived in the heads of his readers are everywhere – Mrs Gamp, the drunken and incompetent midwife in Martin Chuzzlewit is a portmanteau figure for anyone, but particularly a politician, making a bungle. She is also used, particularly in relation to George Grey, to insinuate alcoholic excesses. In 1845 The Nelson Examiner, fulminating against Governor Fitzroy, declares

You should have a representative government-you should have a check upon these pilferers, these Artful Dodgers of the State…. Do not send a helpless Oliver Twist, to keep in countenance by his company or presence the awkward or skilful pickers of the public pocket, whose depredations and peccadilloes he is utterly unable to prevent…

(February 1, 1845)

Gradgrind, the infamously hard school board superintendent in Hard Times, notorious for his dedication to the pursuit of profit and his saying ‘Facts, hard facts are what I want’, is continually cited. The first local reference is in the Wellington Independent in 1862 – the novel was published in 1854 – and by the mid-1860s calling someone a Gradgrind is a pervasive form of critique. Examples of Dickensian characters populating letters to the editor, editorials and opinion pieces are innumerable – Dickens’s fiction shapes the landscape in which thinking occurs but also in which readers actually lived. The house in Karori that Katherine Mansfield’s family moved to when she was a child, described in her story ‘Prelude’, was called Chesney Wold, after the grand estate of Sir Chester and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. Reweti Kohere’s 1951 autobiography, The Autobiography of a Maori, described his 1870s childhood home, a small cottage where three families lived, as follows:

Since this house was built with timber from a wreck, it might truly be said of us, as was said of the Peggotty family in Dickens's story, that we lived in a wreck. (102)

Turnbull probably read Dickens from a young age, as an 1847 copy of The Pickwick Papers, part of the cheap edition of Dickens’s works published by Chapman and Hall, has his bookplate and his father’s ownership inscription in it, suggesting it was part of the family bookshelves. In a letter of 1891, discussing the problems posed by his father’s alcohol addiction and the family’s projected return to New Zealand, (‘Father has been on the jamboree – whisky being the cause this time’ he wrote to his brother Robert) Turnbull likens himself to Mr Micawber. ‘I have a good deal of ‘Micawber’ in my nature, and occasionally, for a day, I let things drift, hoping that something may turn up…’

(22 July 1891)

Turnbull collected some early and rare Dickens – an 1838 copy of The Pickwick Papers printed in Launceston Tasmania – the first pirated edition – has his bookplate and an inscription in his hand on the upper flyleaf. But perhaps the closest thing to tracking Turnbull as a Dickens reader is suggested by what remains inside the 40 volume set of the Works of Charles Dickens published by Chapman and Hall in 1906-8. Inside Volume 29, Great Expectations, is a 5d. Wellington Corporation Tramways Ticket and in vols 36 Miscellaneous Papers, Plays and Poems, and 39 The Life of Charles Dickens Volume 1, are newspaper items about Dickens.

McCormick’s biography refers to Turnbull reading on public transport – perhaps a moment of Turnbull as a reader surfaces briefly here, though, frustratingly as is usual in trying to track readers, I can’t exclude the possibility it is another reader’s ephemera. But Dickens also makes his presence felt in other material ways. Here is a marble bust of Dickens on the windowsill in the Deputy Chief Librarian’s office in Alexander Turnbull House. It shows John Reece Cole, later to be Chief Librarian with busts of Dickens and the famous Victorian actor Henry Irving, who played many Dickensian characters onstage, including David Copperfield, Bill Sykes and Wackford Squeers.

From here I am going to show images of readers but I won’t be speaking about them.

Despite his currency and fame, Dickens was not a universally approved choice of reading matter in the nineteenth century. A sequence of letters in the Otago Daily Times in 1866 furiously discusses converting the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, a circulating subscription library with failing income, to a free non-circulating public library. E.W Alexander wrote that funds, ‘now with difficulty devoted to the purchase of high class and costly works, would then be applied to obtaining a larger supply of those books more generally read’. John Hay, infuriated by the proposal, and the terms in which it was put (apparently Mr. Bathgate author of the proposal for a Free Public Library described the Athenaeum as a ‘mere receptacle for trashy novels’) stormed off to the Athenaeum and listed every book that had just come in from circulation, a list that ranges from Spenser’s Faerie Queene to works by von Humboldt, Thucydides and Macaulay. He claims, in tones of high dudgeon, that the new proposal would disadvantage working men, who would be expected to ‘repair to an institution for instruction’, but then be told:

All these stories of Dickens and Thackeray that you are told are so entertaining, are bad for you… all these magazines and tales are for the subscribers; they are not for working men. There you have got hold of an interesting book but a subscriber is waiting for it…it is not a book for a working man. And so on through all the Gradgrind philanthropy of the day.

(1 October, 1866, p4)

Dr Brian Opie, Emeritus Professor, and Jim Traue, former Chief Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Dr Brian Opie, Emeritus Professor, and Jim Traue, former Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo by Mark Beatty

J.E. Traue, former Chief Librarian of the Turnbull, has shown in his important work on reading and the library explosion of the nineteenth century, that from the 1860s public and commercial lending libraries in New Zealand were shifting strongly towards recreational fiction and away from bookstock dedicated to self-improvement and what Alexander called ‘high class and costly works’. Evidently there was disagreement among the library users of Dunedin about which category of book dominated in the Athenaeum and what the purpose of a library should be, a debate reflected in the wider society and internationally. And it is not coincidental that as libraries began to reflect the power of fiction to inhabit reader imaginations and stimulate their appetites for print, the idea of the writer as a celebrity took hold.

Dickens, of course is the great star of literary celebrity in the nineteenth century. Lionised in the States and at home, toured, dined, feted and pirated, the fame and presence of the author sold more and more editions of his works and the newspapers run continual articles, serials and stories by or about Dickens. Dickens never came to New Zealand, though in 1847 he contemplated coming here to start a magazine after receiving a bad review in the Times. Unluckily perhaps for us it was a fleeting 'What if' moment. But his readers came here in droves, bringing with them their cherished sets of his novels.

Trollope's paper petticoats

Later in the century Anthony Trollope did come, on what has been called the first celebrity tour of Australia and New Zealand, and wrote a book about it, imaginatively titled Australia and New Zealand, which infuriated readers on both sides of the Tasman for its factual errors and unflattering opinions. He asserted that Australia had ‘an atmosphere in which everything seems to be rowdy and have about it a flavour of brandy and water’. New Zealanders, Trollope said, were even worse, surpassing their Australian rivals in getting drunk. But as soon as Trollope announced his intention to make an antipodean tour in 1871-2 the newspapers filled with items about his projected journey, and after he had landed in Australia, the papers here reported every speech, every visit and every curiosity, including a much syndicated article which I wish described a genuine curiosity but I’m pretty sure is a spoof. It advertised “richly embroidered paper petticoats at one shilling each. Each petticoat contains an installment of a new novel of great domestic interest by Anthony Trollope entitled Tucks or Frills. The story will be completed in fifty weekly petticoats’.

Former Founder Lecturer and distinguished historian, Dr Malcolm McKinnon, seated between Dr Lydia Wevers and Alastair Bisley.
Seated between Dr Lydia Wevers and Alastair Bisley is Dr Malcolm McKinnon, former Founder Lecturer and distinguished historian. Dr McKinnon delivered the vote of thanks. Photo by Mark Beatty

Judging by book advertisements and occasional references to his novels in the papers Trollope had an established readership in New Zealand before his arrival, but his profile and presumably sales, soared around the time of his visit. While down south Trollope visited Tuapeka and wrote approvingly of the well-thumbed books in the Athenaeum:

Carlyle, Macaulay and Dickens are certainly better known to small communities in New Zealand than they are to similar congregations of men and women at home. I should have liked Tuapika had it not snowed so bitterly on me when I was there.

(Vol. 2, 336-7)

However, some degree of swotty preparation may have lain behind Trollope’s impressions of the Tuapeka settlers. On August 15 1872 the following letter appeared in the Tuapeka Times.

SIR-Can you tell me the reason why there was such a rush to the Athenaeum last week? Amongst those most frequently at the institution recently, I noticed several who set themselves up as great authorities in literature, and who are in the habit of claiming familiarity with the writings of every author that wrote since the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden. Is the explanation suggested by a friend of mine, viz., that many who intended to be present at the dinner proposed to be given to Mr Trollope, wanted to find out the titles of the books that gentleman has written, is order that they might not be considered ignorant cusses, correct? Yours truly


(We don’t know.-Ed)

These readers who surface around Trollope and Dickens are what I think of as a reading shadow. They appear by inference in bookseller advertisements and the proliferation – Traue calls it an explosion – of public libraries in the nineteenth century; they slide in and out of letters to the editor, editorials and articles, mostly under pseudonyms; and they sometimes leave their mark in the pages of books. Some readers are traceable in their self-production as readers, like Sir Robert Stout who wrote pamphlets about reading, or Harry Atkinson’s diary, or Mary Taylor’s letters to Charlotte Bronte. Reading represents social and cultural capital, as Ignoramous from Tuapeka points out, but is also part of the social fabric and constitutive of a deep self. As in many of the photographs that have been shown as I speak, reading is a self-absorbed and often solitary activity that the majority of readers don’t record. The colonial newspaper is like a river in which a more shadowy reader can be glimpsed, because what lies in a reader’s head, in their imagination and in their heart, is being used to think about something else.

I would have an even more fragmentary sense of readers in history than I have outlined in this lecture without the wonders of Papers Past and the collections of the Turnbull Library. E.H. McCormick, Turnbull’s biographer, a brilliant and dedicated scholar, painstakingly worked through microfiche and hard copy, materials researchers can now often bypass. But it is not Papers Past that makes the Turnbull the world-famous institution it is. It is the comprehensiveness of Turnbull’s collecting, his willingness to spend pretty much what he had to accumulate his 55,000 volumes, which are not separated into trashy novels, fine specimens and improvement literature, but are generously inclusive, and form the robust core of what we might wish to know or learn or enjoy about our nation and its many parts, and the long textual and artistic history that lies behind us.

Side by side images of the audience.
Photos by Mark Beatty


Atkinson, Harry Albert. Diary, 1850. Richmond-Atkinson Family: Papers (MS Group-0077) MSX-3034

Barrowman, Rachel. The Turnbull a library and its world. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.

Barthes, R. ‘The Death of the Author’. In R. Barthes, Image, Music, Text (pp. 142-148). London: Fontana Press, 1977.

Darnton, Robert. The Kiss of Lamourette. London and New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1990.

Escarpit, Robert. The book revolution. London: George G. Harrap & Co Ltd, 1966.

Kerry-Nicholls, J.H. The King Country, or, Explorations in New Zealand. London : Sampson Low,
Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1884.

Kohere,, Reweti T. The Autobiography of a Maori. Wellington: A.H. And A.W.Reed, 1951.

McCormick, E.H. Alexander Turnbull. Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1974.

Taylor, Mary. Mary Taylor, Friend of Charlotte Bronte: Letters from New Zealand and Elsewhere. Ed Joan Stevens. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Traue, J.E. ‘The Public Library Explosion in Colonial New Zealand’. Libraries and the Cultural Record 42:2(2007), 151-164.

Trollope, Anthony. Australia and New Zealand, 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873.

Turnbull, Alexander. Account of a Cruise in the Yacht “iorangi” to Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand. Wellington : Privately Printed, 1902

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Meg Tasker
10 August 2018 1:31pm

Thanks so much for recording Lydia's lecture, and providing the transcript - very valuable, and of interest to many 'across the ditch' - a most fitting celebration of the Turnbull centenary and its contributions to knowledge.
Meg Tasker (Victorian Studies colleague)