Ashton-Warner, Sylvia 1908–
Ashton-Warner is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and nonfiction writer who often draws on her experiences teaching Maori children in her native New Zealand. Her novel Spinster is a vehicle for her philosophy of education, which calls for an integration of the inner and outer self before communication with others is possible. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
"Spinster" is a first novel of singular literary quality and impact. Told in impressionistic style, it often conveys the poetry and color of a special kind of experience from within the mind of a woman of sensibility. But, eventually, in depicting the mental and emotional frustration of this title character, it makes her so much a case-book spinster that she fails to hold our sympathy….
That it is possible to be simultaneously a vulnerable, childish, self-centered woman, an inspired teacher, and a dedicated artist is doubtless true in life, but it is extraordinarily difficult to present convincingly in fiction. In life an artist's character is judged in the light of his work, and this provides its own perspective. In fiction the author must provide the perspective, and if like Sylvia Ashton-Warner she does not do so, she runs a considerable risk.
Ruth Blackman, "Children and Conflicts," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1959 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), April 2, 1959, p. 7.
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[In "Spinster," the] spinster in question is Anna Vorontosov, a teacher in New Zealand, working mostly among Maori children—sensitive, alive, unskilled in protective evasions, tortured by memories of a past sexual relationship that took some kind of unexplained wrong turning. Everything about her is credible, and yet one never catches oneself thinking, How well the author has imagined this character! One simply responds immediately, as if it were all happening in the room where one sits reading. Analyzed, Mrs. Ashton-Warner's technique seems quite simple; everything goes into the present tense, the voices of the children continually chime through Miss Vorontosov's unbroken solipsism, and nothing is allowed into the picture that might suggest an author, a sensibility outside Miss Vorontosov's. (p. 169)
"The hazards and glamour of communication" would be a good short description of what "Spinster," a first novel, is about—as if the continual presence of this crowd of half-articulate children, teeming and tumbling in the center of the story, had given Miss Vorontosov an awareness that communication is a miracle in itself, that it is a strange thing that we should use language at all, and an even stranger thing that real ideas and emotions should actually, by this means, make the journey now and then from one skull into another…. [The relationships in "Spinster"] are shown as endlessly delicate and unpredictable. And the identity at...
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Nancy Wilson Ross
Many people, including this reviewer, who read Sylvia Ashton-Warner's first novel, "Spinster," closed the book with an exhilarating sense of personal discovery. Here, one felt, was a fresh voice. Though the writing seemed at times almost willfully oblique, the novelist demonstrated a singular creativity in her account of an unconventional New Zealand school teacher's experiences….
Mrs. Ashton-Warner's present novel, "Incense to Idols," … tells the story of a worldly young Parisian widow….
As in "Spinster" the story is told in the form of an interior monologue. Thus the reader learns, from the heroine herself, that Germaine is young, ravishingly beautiful, fond of drink, exceptionally gifted, devastatingly soignée, and fascinating to the opposite sex. An inordinate amount of attention is paid by the author—and one can only conclude, with a novelist of Mrs. Ashton-Warner's stature, by deliberate design—to detailed descriptions of what the heroine is wearing. Yet these costumes sound much more like clothes from a provincial main street emporium than from the wardrobe of a chic young Parisian. This seemingly minor point cannot be overlooked because of the emphasis Mrs. Warner herself places on it. It is impossible to believe that Germaine is a sophisticated Parisian, or, for that matter, a gifted artist…. [In] general, the heroine seems more a frustrated suburban matron than a free-wheeling young widow…....
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To those acquainted with Henry Arthur Jones' Michael and His Lost Angel and Albert Camus' The Fall, Incense to Idols will not be unfamiliar. Like the former, though at greater length, it examines the symbiosis between sinner and saint. Like the latter, but the utterance feminine now, it employs the first-person form of the novel of confession.
This does not mean, however, that it is a potpourri of predecessors. Inescapably personal in approach, it has a latitude and longitude of its own, and though it is sometimes perfervid, over-symbolic, somewhat Pelagian ("sin achieves a more profound depth in its ugliness than sanctity in its pleasantness"), it is an original creation. (p. 292)
Like Spinster, Miss Ashton-Warner's previous novel, Incense to Idols carries weight on several levels. One surely, considering today's obsession with sex, is that it is never salacious in its many references to free-living. Another, no doubt, is its will to be just to everyone concerned. These are, of course, but introductory virtues. Those of pertinence to the novelist's art must begin with achievement of character. In this respect it is interesting to see how everyone of consequence in the book is individualized. Outstanding strengths and weaknesses are the means. (p. 293)
In [Germaine] it would seem, Miss Ashton-Warner has successfully captured a type characteristic of our period—the...
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On the surface ["Teacher"] is a record of Miss Ashton-Warner's 24 years in an "Infant (elementary) School" for Maori and white children in New Zealand. Yet it is more than that—a vivid journal of incidents, personalities, sudden moments of insight, and a philosophy of education which emerges through reflection upon experiences. It should have great value not only for those interested in the problems of education in old cultures and new nations, but also for those concerned with the future of civilization—for all anywhere who live and work with children. (p. 1)
Miss Ashton-Warner's book … carries implications that reach far beyond the classroom, for she is one of those teachers convinced that education must learn—and learn quickly—how to take its part in enabling the young of each generation to grow in their understanding of the forces in human society which determine civilization's future….
"When a war is over," Miss Ashton-Warner writes, "the statesmen should turn their attention to the infant rooms since it is from there that comes peace or war." This is neither fanciful dreaming nor sentimentality. There is no trace in her of either. Her experience, her self-searching and questioning—for she is her own best critic—have led her to a deep conviction that the releasing and directing of the creative energies in young children is not merely a teaching matter but an international matter; it has to do with...
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Readers of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's earlier and uniquely germinal books, "Spinster" and "Teacher," will not be surprised that in her new novel, "Bell Call", she is still concerned with education. Once again the geographical center of the book is a school in her native New Zealand. This time, however, the conflict is not within the school itself. It is between vested authority and one mother who goes to almost inconceivable lengths, in defiance of the law and in the name of freedom, to keep her 6-year-old son out of the school….
"Bell Call" is primarily the story of this demon of tenacity … and of her stand against the Philistines….
As an argument over the relative values of discipline and freedom, "Bell Call" is inconclusive. As a novel, it is too reiterative and static. Miss Ashton-Warner is still the passionate pedagogue of "Spinster" and "Teacher." She still has her strange cadences and bright bursts of imagination, but in this latest of her books, she is less of an artist.
Virgilia Peterson, "Bennie Wasn't Ready," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1965, p. 40.
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["Greenstone"] is a fable for adults by an author who, since her extraordinary first work of fiction, "Spinster," has treated the novel as fresh territory rather than exhausted terrain….
[Ashton-Warner] has passionately held convictions about the education of the young, and the channeling of destructive energies into creative ones. It is not too surprising, then, that this former instructor of 5- and 6-year-olds, has chosen the vessel of the fairy tale of This Side and That Side, where "reality … is unacceptable and seldom used as a workable fact," to contain her vision of a loving, eccentric "ideal" family, and her dream of two different but complementary cultures, the Maori and the Western….
A good deal of credit for the tone of the family belongs to Puppa's brilliant bedtime allegories. They are the highlights of the novel, with just the proper amounts of fantasy, morality and irony. Story time is a Lilliputian Socratic scene, with the children constantly interrupting, innocently asking profound questions like, "D'you have to think to be pretty?" to which Puppa replies, "You do to be beautiful." Starring roles are often assigned to Truth and Beauty, who have snappy conversations with one another, and everyone, including the reader, is heartbroken when Mumma cries lights out….
That her unconventional approach to home life is a practical impossibility, the author acknowledges by her choice...
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Anyone who has read Sylvia Ashton-Warner's most successful books, Teacher and Spinster, might pretty well predict the milieu and tone of [Greenstone]. Again we have the clash of the Maori and white cultures in New Zealand, the charmingly impossible children caught with photographic intensity in moments of overwhelming exultation or abysmal childish sorrow. Again the conflicting mores of white and black are treated knowingly and intelligently, but in the irritatingly comforting, arch, romantic, impetuous manner which, presumably, thousands of Ashton-Warner readers have come to know and love….
Mrs. Ashton-Warner is, one feels, a good person. She admires passionate intellect and detests bigotry and sterile provincialism. She loves and beautifully describes her lush New Zealand countryside. So where does she go wrong in this at times absurdly hoked-up book? It is, calamitously, her sense of novel-writing—of dramatic event—that is quite off. The landlord, threatening the Considines, says, "I want me money!" Considine's old flame, presumably a handsome, worldly woman, confronts her former lover—now the father of those thirteen—and weeps, "You owe me a son, you bloody traitor … you're a meanie."
Finally, we understand that Mrs. Ashton-Warner is not a novelist at all, but an excellent schoolmistress, firm, trenchant, and passionate. It is when she tries to imagine—to create...
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Books by Sylvia Ashton-Warner have a kind of Marshall McLuhanism about them. They are essentially reworkings of the same material: the years she spent teaching Maori children in New Zealand, the emotions she put into her work and her living and the methods of teaching she devised…. Some of her discoveries are recounted [in "Myself"], as they were made during the years this diary covers, 1941 to 1945, and they are, as ever, interesting, vivid and revealing. But most of Mrs. Ashton-Warner's attention is turned to her personal emotions, as the title suggests. The result is a curiously unnerving document, confessional in its candor at times, but lacking a comerent center. In spite of the title, that missing center is the author's own sense of herself….
With Mrs. Ashton-Warner, one does not know where to begin. What does she think of herself? There are times when her tone is almost hysterically self-adulatory, when she reports triumphs and compliments and men falling in love with her as if she were telling herself an adolescent daydream….
Her relationship with her husband is equally puzzling. She cries out that she loves him, then seems both to ignore him and take him for granted. He is the head of their two-teacher school, and she cares passionately for his professional approval; but what can their personal relationship be? I ask not as a gossip, but as a reader; and it's no good Mrs. Ashton-Warner telling me that...
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[The theme of Three is not] in its way, an original theme: but Miss Ashton-Warner certainly brings it to life. She gets the inextricable tangles of selfishness and real love in all her people with convincing truthfulness; she doesn't judge them or bother about what God may think of them; she just creates them as human personalities caught in a real human situation. Which, in this reviewer's humble old-fashioned opinion, is what the novel is for. (p. 183)
Patrick Cruttwell, "Fiction Chronicle: 'Three'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1971, p. 183.
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[Spearpoint,] Sylvia Ashton-Warner's report of her experience in an "open" primary school in Colorado, is delightful, literate and personal. She knows she is a good teacher; she is openly pleased or displeased with herself and with others, or with the whole shebang; and she unselfconsciously and meticulously records her teaching triumphs and failures.
But the book is more than a record of her slow and sometimes impatient progress toward order and discipline in the face of their opposites … and toward the development of a teaching that is successful, to the degree that it is also a learning. Working "organically" with the children, she is also aware of the organic tie between the American classroom, or whatever it may be called, and the great American outside….
[Despite her] emphasis on and exploitation of uniqueness, Miss Ashton-Warner, like any teacher, is tempted to make generalizations to ease her work. Every so often she looks for a ready umbrella under which to crowd her charges. She suggests, for example, that the failure of her children to question her on occasion comes from their watching television so much and having to accept everything they're told by the tube since, obviously, they can't answer back or question back. That's just not right: I've heard children talk back to sets, and I certainly used to have to answer myself for something said or shown on the screen….
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Carolyn F. Ruffin
Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes "I Passed This Way" from the road, not from her destination. Her title is past tense, but this partial autobiography is the past recalled to answer present questions.
She tells time by the number of schools she attends in childhood, by the teacher's residences her family captures like an army on the move, and by the artist's retreats she builds for herself. All the while Sylvia is asking, as she will when the autobiography closes, what will I be—a teacher, an artist, a writer, a mother, a child, a wife?
In her book she is each of these at some time. For several taxing years she is all of these at once. Yet, in telling how she passed this way, she is most of all what comes of being what you must be despite all challenges. What gives this book its power is Ashton-Warner's scrap with the cautious and the blindly secure. She takes on bureaucracy of the spirit as well as red tape in institutions.
Her scrappiness fills the book with straight talk. She delivers swift, deft perceptions. Often her native New Zealand is the target. "I'd rather see education falling down and getting up again in the open slather of experiment as in the United States than playing it safe within the letter of the law. The concern of New Zealand for safety, its crippling caution."
Her wide-ranging love gives the book its poetry, its humor, and an array of carefully drawn human beings....
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Linda B. Osborne
In I Passed This Way, Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes of her "innate disposition to become other people … their feeling became my feeling contagiously." As an educator she had the ability to listen to her students and to elicit their deepest concerns. Now, in her autobiography, she is both listener and voice, drawing freely on memory and feeling to illuminate her life and work. (p. 32)
The remarkable strength of her inner life shows itself even in the shaping of her autobiography. She concentrates on feelings and personal growth, on family and important friendships rather than external events. Though she writes of the period from 1908 through 1978, there is little mention of both world wars, and only briefly of the Depression as it separates her family. She does not describe the births of her children or the death of her mother. Nor does she discuss most of her students individually, or detail the writing of her famous books Spinster [and Teacher]….
Rather, she builds her self-portrait through a series of images that hold for her a special meaning. It is autobiography as art, selective and visionary, grounded in impressions, memories and dreams as much as fact. This is in keeping with her work in "organic teaching," and her emphasis on the "key vocabulary" of a person or group—listening for, searching out those words that "'touch the true feeling,'" in a child, supplying "the conditions...
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