Sylvia Ashton-Warner

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Elizabeth Janeway

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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 she was confused too.

Perhaps she was at the time, as a wife. She cannot afford to be as a writer, in the present. And indeed she is herself aware that something is wrong, for she speaks of her book as being "unsound artistically on account of the balance disturbed by loving." The phrase is revealing. It indicates how Mrs. Ashton-Warner elides her life and her work. No doubt her life was "disturbed by loving," and her book is unbalanced—not by loving but by a literary failure to distance herself from her experience and treat it objectively.

One can see how this mistake comes about, for Mrs. Ashton-Warner's success as a teacher is the result of a whole-hearted commitment to her work. What she has to tell us about this is serious and full of insight…. She reached [the children] by listening to what was within them instead of imposing orthodox irrelevancies, by respecting their fears and using their strengths.

Of course she could only do this by enlisting her emotions as well as the children's and committing herself totally to her work. One sees how she comes to confuse the two, and how the confusion might carry over to writing. Unfortunately, irredeemably, it is the work which presents itself as important and interesting and not the self revealed here.

Elizabeth Janeway, "Teacher Down Under," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1967, p. 53.

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