Literary cartography in the backblocks

This talk was delivered at the National Library on Thursday 9 June as part of the series of talks on cartography being jointly presented by the National Library and Victoria University of Wellington. This series runs throughout 2016. Check the events section of our website for future events.

Jane Stafford is professor in the English Programme of Victoria University. She is the co-author of Maoriland: New Zealand Literature, 1872-1914 (2006), the co-editor of The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012), the co-editor of volume 9 of The Oxford History of the Novel, The World Novel to 1950 (2016), and the author of Colonial Literature and the Native Author: Indigeneity and Empire (forthcoming, 2016).

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Illustrated back from a Mary Scott book, showing sheep being herded.

Implied maps

Literary cartography is a form of literary criticism associated with the Italian literary critic Franco Moretti who argues that novels can be read in terms of plot, in terms of character, in terms of moral message. But they can also be examined in terms of their implied map. Pride and Prejudice is the narrative of the Bennet sisters various courtships; it is a character study in pride and prejudice, character and judgment. But it can also be seen as a map – the Bennets’ house next to the Lucas’s, apart from the village unlike Mrs B’s sister, but not as apart as Pemberley. London on the edge, garrison towns.

Settler literature has at its basis a map. It is formed of concentric circles: the primeval, pre-settlement outer ring takes up most space, often unnamed and configured as uninhabited, encircling a cleared space of variable size and unstable borders, at the centre of which is the house. There may be a garden or a farmyard, in-between locations, sharing the qualities of both the natural space and the domesticated. All these borders are in a continual state of flux. The settler map will note connections to the outside world of the wider colony – tracks, paths, roads, railway lines, rivers. But these are often tenuous or even suppositional. And there are gestures to distant, shadowy, half-realised towns and cities on the periphery, and beyond, to the imperial centre.

The settler map persisted in the twentieth-century popular literature of magazines and newspapers, often written by women authors and situated on women’s pages. There, the various conventions of the romance, the humorous sketch, and the domestic melodrama are played out against the map of the farm. The farmhouse is domestic space but permeable to, shaped by, and deriving meaning from the undomesticated outside, just as the farm is regulated and purposeful space fringed by and encroached on by the unregulated yet – and perhaps hence – enticing bush.

The Barbara series

Mary Scott’s Barbara sketches were published in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s in a variety of popular and ephemeral local sites – newspapers and magazines, and as radio talks – and collected in five volumes: Barbara in the Backblocks (1936), Barbara Prospers (1937), Life with Barbara (1944), Barbara on the Farm (1953), and Barbara Sees the Queen (1954). Loosely centred on the eponymous Barbara, a farmer’s wife and a version of Scott herself, the stories deal with everyday farming experience, shaped by the generic structures of romance, comedy, tragedy, melodrama and social satire.

In Scott’s collections, place is not identifiable for her readers in exact cartographic terms but instead categorised by the overarching descriptor “backblocks”. This Australasian term was first used in a literal sense in the 1850s for “a (surveyed) block of grazing land remote from the main station or homestead, or from the coast”. But it soon acquired a more general sense of a remote and sparsely settled hinterland, hence the antithesis of urban, sophisticated, connected space. The word’s meaning thus shifted from geographical particularity to the culture associated with and derived from that location, a culture which Scott both defines and celebrates as an ethos or world view. The backblocks are characterised by the virtues of practicality, lack of fuss or pretension, modesty, and a closeness to the meaningful worlds of nature and of work. The term becomes a short-hand for these values.

The plots of Scott’s Barbara stories are based on this backblocks cartography, set in native forest, clearance, and domestic space with, at the distant outer rim, the town. The story “Graves” encapsulates the typical ensuing narrative: “a bush section, a Government leasehold, not easy, and encumbered with a mortgage” where the farmer has “felled his own bush, enough to make a start, then built his little cottage and brought back his wife”. (Mary Scott, “Graves”, Barbara and the New Zealand Backblocks. New Plymouth: Thomas Avery and sons, 1936, 74.)

Hard times

These twentieth-century stories are different from the earlier, more celebratory narratives of nineteenth century settlement. The Depression years saw a sharp decline in the prices for primary commodities that were the backbone of the economy. The progress of land clearance and the establishment of arable farming on what had recently been virgin forest became rapidly uneconomic. The cultural centrality and perceived gentility of the farming family in society had to be rewritten to incorporate a sense of the physical setting as unforgiving and arbitrary rather than one rewarding skill or courage. Physical work in this context is neither ennobling nor necessarily effective. The external world, at the outer rim of house, farm, and encircling bush, is, in these stories, too often that of banks, mortgages, mortgagee sales, bills, debt, the humiliations of poverty – and failure in the form of moving to the town. In one Barbara story, the husband reports, “Last night I had dreamed that my mortgage had taken material form and was sitting on my chest”. (Mary Scott, “Barbara Bakes”, Barbara on the Farm. Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1953, 20.)

The farmhouse is central but at best problematic. In “one story, the house is “built on about the only level acre of ground on the place”, and “not much of a house when you go there – two rooms and a lean to of corrugated iron”. (“The True Story of Two Loads”, Backblocks, 213.) In another, the house is small and the walls are thin. (“Elizabeth Goes to School”, Backblocks, 1.) In several stories, houses collapse and are taken back by the bush. (“White Flowers”, Backblocks, 168-78) In “Graves”, the narrator contrasts his memory of visiting the harmonious home four years earlier with the present-day traces of subsequent failure: “Utter indescribable loneliness and hopelessness everywhere. The very air was heavy with it”. (“Graves”, Backblocks, 76.)

Gendered cartography

The bush is both feared and admired. “White Flowers” is set on a marginal farm, a cleared one hundred acres “hard-won from the grudging forest”. (“White Flowers”, Backblocks, 168.) To counter the grimness of her surroundings, the wife plants white flowers. The balance between forest and clearance is disturbed by this. Her attempt at the alteration of the physical space which surrounds the house are at odds with the pragmatic purposes of the farm. At the story’s conclusion, when the narrator returns five years later, “the forest had stalked gauntly forward”, all marks of human habitation and human agency have been removed:

The cottage had fallen into horrible decay; the doors had gone; you could enter by the gaping hole where the chimney had once stood; the windows had been wrenched from their frames... [there were] dark holes in the floor... (“White Flowers”, Backblocks, 178.)

The only sign that there was once a house are the flowers, “aloof, triumphant, immaculate” although they are not necessarily invincible in the face of the bush: “even the trails of starry-white clematis that now grew almost at the door could not mask the grimness of its threat”. (“White Flowers”, Backblocks, 178.)

The aspirations of the women characters are set against the pragmatism of the male, usually to the disadvantage of the women. Male markers on the landscape are represented by the cleared bush; women make more tentative interventions – farm yards, gardens, domestic interiors, often precariously maintained against antagonistic physical surroundings. In “The True Story of Two Loads” the men struggle to drag a piano up a “steep spur” to the house, muttering “What beats me is what any woman can want with a piano in a place like this?” But they concede the wife’s ability to create an (almost) appropriate environment for it: “Not what you’d call an ideal ‘ressydence’, but she made a home of it. Being the sort to make a home out of a packing case and a couple of benzene tins”. (“The True Story of Two Loads”, Backblocks, 212.)

Dear enemy

In all these stories, the bush is a constant encircling and threatening presence – an illustration in Scott’s 1944 collection Life with Barbara shows a photograph of dense bush with the caption “Dear Enemy”. (Life with Barbara, facing 64.) Aesthetic considerations are at odds with the land as economic opportunity. “September frost,” remarks the narrator in “Spring Song”, “joy of artists, anathema of farmers”. (“Spring Song”, Barbara on the Farm, 7.) In “Elizabeth Goes to School”, the counterpoint between the beauty of the landscape and the tentative, inadequate nature of the (literal) inroads that have been made on it and into it are evident:

...the view was beautiful. It looked over range after range of blue misty hills to the sea in the distance, and in all that view there was no human habitation, all the hills were covered with bush and in front of the house the clay road was knee deep in mud. (“Elizabeth Goes to School”, Backblocks, 3.)

Yet the grimness of the unoccupied and untamed space and its unknowable qualities are associated with the sense that to live in the threatened, adjacent sites – farm and farmhouse, contiguous with bush – enables an authenticity not available to town-dwellers. In “Traps” the narrator concedes “upon these hills the climate was more bleak, the land poorer” with “log-strewn paddock” and “ugly lean-to dwelling”. But, he maintains, here “is to be found height, beauty, freedom”. (“Traps”, Backblocks, 181.)

Resolutely Pākehā

It is clear from Scott autobiography The Days That Have Been the farm in the Barbara stories is based on Strathallen the farm Scott and her husband worked for thirteen years. (See Mary Scott, Days That Have Been: An Autobiography. Auckland: Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1966.) The farm is in the King Country and on the cusp of the Waikato region, site of military action and subsequent land confiscation in the mid-nineteenth century land wars.

Yet the landscape throughout the Barbara stories is resolutely Pākehā. In “A Gallant, Gay Domestic”, there is a Māori character, Ruiha, but she is similar in her humorous demeanour, comic English, and naive view of the world to Barbara’s Irish farmhand Paddy. In “We Take a Holiday”, Hori gulls Barbara and her husband into looking after his stash of illicit alcohol. But these are individuals, located on an unspecified periphery – or off the map. Ruiha is said to come from the “kaianga”. At the conclusion she returns there to nurse her wastrel husband and dies with him, a condensed version of the “dying race” narrative popular in earlier settler literature. The kaianga has no sustained presence on the geography of this or of any other story in the Barbara collections. If Māori have been present on the land Barbara and her husband farm, they are now – like Ruiha and her husband – gone. The bush is empty and uncharted territory with no indication of previous ownership or habitation. Title to the various farms in the stories are vulnerable to the present-day forces of banks and mortgagee sales, not to the previous Indigenous owners. The map these stories presuppose has excised this potentially troublesome space, and the European inhabitants prefer an unmanageable and unstable bush to an even more problematic Indigenous human presence.

Maps of nowhere

These are narratives which are intensely conscious of their isolation – maps of nowhere. Roads feature as part of each story’s geography but only in terms of their insufficiency, their failure to connect – they are clay, knee-deep in mud, bush-tracks. In “Elizabeth goes to School” there is a seven-mile walk with a sledge to the road and the “service-car” or bus. (“Elizabeth Goes to School”, Backblocks, 6.) In “The True Story of Two Loads”, the house is reached “by a three-foot track for five miles and then three-quarters of a mile up a steep spur to the house”. (“The True Story of Two Loads”, Backblocks, 213.) In the story “The Landslide”, a series of disasters – mechanical troubles with an ancient car, errant pets and farm animals, and finally a literal landslide – prevent Barbara and her husband from getting into town so that they can participate in a political landslide on Election Day. (“The Landslide”, Life with Barbara, 23-9.) In “The Bread-line”, the townie brother protests he cannot come to the farm “as those clay roads of yours would disturb the equilibrium of Edgar the Peaceful”, though he is sure his sister “will find some way to negotiate the morass”. (“The Bread-line”, Backblocks, 62.) For the sister, the beginning of the metalled stretch of the road acts a border between the known and the unknown, the latter to be feared even though it is a frivolous holiday with her rich brother and the known “the bare and hungry farm with its dreadful weekly mail of bills for rates or interest or living”. (“The Bread-line”, Backblocks, 63.)

Urban blight

While individual characters may wish to move from the backblocks to the town, the stories as a whole do not endorse this. In “Madonna of the Corner Shop”, a widow regretfully leaves her “little empty cottage” and goes “down from the mountains she loved to the town on the plains”. (“Madonna of the Corner Shop”, Backblocks, 132.) In “Rock – A Memory”, with “bush encroaching, stock deteriorating, money growing ever scarcer”, a family is forced to “go from the quiet places we love to the uncaring town”. (“Rock – A Memory”, Backblocks, 31.) In “John O’Dreams”, the boy going to school must move “from the peace of the brooding hills and the protecting forest to the great practical world of men and women”. (“John O’Dreams”, Backblocks, 57.) These journeys are often described as being “down” – in a physical sense from the hill country to the plains but also a spiritual and moral descent.

Urban space is compromised and hostile. In “Our Trip to Town”, the husband contemplates

the prospect of a long day on hot pavements in town boots, and the knowledge that by midday my feet would have mysteriously ceased to resemble human appendages and have become twin balls of fire... (“Our Trip to Town”, Life with Barbara, 39.)

In “We take a Holiday”, the city is a place of constriction rather than leisure, constituted by a group of negative descriptors – crowded, bleak, dingy, shabby, noisy – where the holidaying couple sit in the “grey light” of their “small stuffy room”. (“We take a Holiday”, Life with Barbara, 82.) In “Barbara Sees the Queen”, the boarding house is called “The Oaks”, misheard as the more appropriate “The Hoax”, and the only public spaces are “strange and unattractive milk bars” and “rather low cafés”. (“Barbara sees the Queen”, Barbara Sees the Queen, 24.)

In “Morning”, a family leaves their desperately marginal farm, “defeated... by the cruel hardness of the times”, (“Morning”, Backblocks, 194.) by dint of an inheritance from an aunt. As the story begins the wife lies in bed listening to the early sounds of the town from which she mentally constructs a map of an ordered world. She visualises the children’s “five minutes’ walk along clean pavements to school”, (“Morning”, Backblocks, 194) the milk delivery, the electric lights, and the newspaper at the door with delight. She contrasts the urban space she now occupies with the geography of the bush she has left behind: “She had been afraid of the towering hills. Of the dark and silent bush, of the streams... the sullen mass of roaring water”. (“Morning”, Backblocks, 193.)

Her husband lies beside her listening to the same sounds but with dread and regret. As she constructs a mental map of order and civility, he translates the same sense impressions into an alien landscape of “hard, relentless, unfriendly” streets where the “faces of the neat homes [are] hostile to his sore heart”. (“Morning”, Backblocks, 198.) She sees connection, a future in this setting; he cannot. Transferred to the new site, he reverts to the former lost one, “the only world he knew”, in his dreams:

The home he had made. Beyond the casement window he looked out on a mass of tumbled hills – some bush-clad, dark and mysterious, some in rough pasture, strewn with logs and stumps, but carrying fresh and healthy grass... (“Morning”, Backblocks, 190.)

Even animals hate the town. In “The Square Peg”, the shepherd dies and his mother takes his sheepdog Dan, renames him Mowgli, and forces him to live with her in her “trim little villa” with its “life of tiny interests, of trim gardens and hard, paved streets” instead of in the spaces of his ancestors, “bred... in the windy hill country” and used to walking on “springy grass”. (“The Square Peg”, Life with Barbara, 115)

Movement in either direction is fraught; once in the town, getting back to the backblocks is as difficult as leaving them. In “We take a Holiday”, the routes which fail to efficiently connect the farm to the outside world become barriers to returning from that world:

...the trouble was that no fast train would take us, and that the slow ones, which seemed kindlier and more humane, had nearly all stopped running... sometimes it was a bus that carried us; anon it was a milk lorry; again a passing traveller heard our story in some wayside pub and gave is a lift; sometimes it was actually a train that had forgotten to stop running. So we moved on and on, but with no hope of ever arriving anywhere. (“We take a Holiday”, Life with Barbara, 85-6.)

Transport arteries are exits, escape routes even, but not of a kind that is validated. “The Old School” disapproves of the young teacher who “bears the back-blocks quite tolerantly, provided only his car is garaged at the school gates and that the road to freedom is well-metalled...” (“The Old School”, Life with Barbara, 156.)

The environs

There are few structures other than the farm on this map, few signs that signify society or the civil. Church is mentioned only in terms of distance and obligation: in “Milk and Honey”, the out-of-touch vicar preaches to his Depression congregation that the backblocks are a “land filled with milk and honey” and then invites himself to lunch at the farm where the larder is utterly devoid of food. (“Milk and Honey”, Backblocks, 107.) In “Harvest Humours”, “snugly gaitered and oil-skinned”, he takes credit for the rain that has almost ruined the hay-making, reproves Barbara and her husband for missing church, and invites them to the Harvest Festival “to celebrate the easy and successful gathering of the harvest”. (“Would I be afther stickin’ him with a little sharp fork?” asks the Irish farm-hand Paddy sotto voce (“Harvest Humours”, Barbara on the Farm, 30-1).) Several stories describe the arrival of unwanted guests, invariably from the town where the realities of farm life are not appreciated, and the consequent attempts to feed them without revealing the dearth of provisions available.

School is a destination beyond the familiar geography of bush and farm, something that impels the children of the farmers – all middle-class and aspirational if poverty-stricken – to leave. This departure is not without difficulty: “Elizabeth goes to School” narrates the improvisations of the parents as they attempt to equip their daughter; (“Elizabeth Goes to School”, Backblocks, 7.) in “Every Chance” the boy’s “last years at school had only been managed by dint of a crippling mortgage, and already wise-acres were prophesying a slump”. He has to pretend success to justify his parents sacrifice back on the farm. (“Every Chance”, Backblocks, 102.)

Well-meaning disorder

If the task of the majority of these stories is to attempt to create spatial and emotional order, those that concern Barbara herself – narrated by her unnamed husband and humorous rather than sententious or melodramatic – play against this impulse. Proto-feminist and, in a contained manner, transgressive, Barbara functions as an agent of well-meaning disorder, cheerfully incompetent at conventional housewifely tasks and unconcerned by the demarcation between the rigid proscriptively domestic and the outside space of men’s work. “The Town Scores” is typical:

She rose early, declared it was too good a day to spend indoors, and, having passed lightly through the house with a broom, she went out and caught her horse. Then she announced her intention of coming with us to the back of the place for the morning. (“The Town Scores”, Life with Barbara, 60.)

As the five volumes of Scott’s Barbara series proceed, there is a growing encroachment by the inhabited, communal world outside the farm, reflecting the social and economic changes in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1950s – from the Depression, to the Second World War, to the prosperous 1950s. “[W]ool and mutton are up” says the husband in “Should Auld Acquaintance”, and plans a trip to town. (“Should Auld Acquaintance”, Barbara Sees the Queen, 110.)

Home and Home

In the 1944 collection Life with Barbara there is more of a sense of international space: the outer ring of the map is wartime Britain and emotional connection is played against physical distance. And the map of the farm readjusts to parallel the map of the war. In “The Old Woman Prepares” a woman whose sons are fighting in the army overseas displaces her anxiety by work. Thus the progress of the war in North Africa and Europe is mapped by parallel, responsive and mimetic activity on the farm:

Crete was the reason for digging up the whole vegetable garden. El Alamein made it necessary to begin a new asparagus bed. When one of the boys was wounded she spent all day wheeling great barrow-loads of manure out of the paddocks into the garden... So one afternoon when I came in at the back gate and found most of the furniture sitting in the yard, I started back appalled. Whatever had happened? Was it good news or bad? (“The Old Woman Prepares”, Life with Barbara, 111.)

In the final collection, Barbara Sees the Queen, the 1953 visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to New Zealand re-establishes the map’s outer limit as Britain and the connections of Empire and Commonwealth. Physical distance is again mitigated by emotional closeness and attachment; the royal couple are England brought bodily to the colonies. Barbara and her husband loyally travel to the city to see the visitors. But their experience is literally partial: the mass of population means that “(with 7,000 others)... we were privileged to have a good view of Her Majesty’s hat, her hair and brow, and her waving hand”; on another occasion they see “her handbag and the Duke’s elbow”; and on the final attempt her “shoes and stockings and the hem of her skirt”. (“Barbara Sees the Queen”, Barbara Sees the Queen, 24.) It is only when they return to “X... our own home town” that they coincide with the royal tour and they are able to see “Her Majesty for ten minutes. All of her. And His Royal Highness too”. (“Barbara Sees the Queen”, Barbara Sees the Queen, 27.) The urban location may seem to be the hub but in fact the peripheral but authentic location – the backblocks, in fact – reasserts its centrality.

By Jane Stafford

Jane Stafford is a professor in the English programme at Victoria University.

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