Sylvia Ashton-Warner Elinor Baumbach - Essay

Elinor Baumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 fiction—that she dissolves into bathos. In Greenstone only the Maori have a significant reality, for we are being taught creatively about them. All else is disfigured by the stereotype of romance.

Elinor Baumbach, "In the Valley of the Maori," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIX, No. 12, March 19, 1966, p. 39.