Every great writer is a reader from an early age.

In this article Christine Dann examines the vital importance of easy access to good libraries for New Zealand’s first two internationally acclaimed authors, and wonders if New Zealand will produce any more now that both easy access and good libraries are under threat.

If you had been given permission to explore the Parliamentary Library on a weekday afternoon in 1907, you might have been very surprised to see – among the staff and other users in jackets and ties – a teenage girl settled comfortably in a corner, with a stack of books close to hand. If you came at closing time, you might even have overheard her father (a friend of the Chief Librarian, as well as Premier Richard John Seddon) say “Come on, Kathleen, it’s time to go home now.”

It was only because her father (the wealthy businessman Harold Beauchamp) was so well-connected that Kathleen had access to the library, but no one could complain that she did not make made good use of her precious after-school time there. According to the Parliamentary webpage on her activities there “In one of her notebook entries she noted: ‘A wet afternoon in the Library … I have read most strange books here – one on the Path to Rome, one of Maori art’. And in a letter a few months later she wrote: ‘I have been spending days at the Library reading and writing a novel – entitled The Youth of Rewa – it is very much in embryo just at present’.”

“She made extensive use of the library’s collections, reading ‘the lives of innumerable artists and poets’, a great deal of poetry such as Browning and Yeats, and the writings of dramatists such as Ibsen and Shaw and of literary critics. A biographer suggests her favourite authors in the library were ‘Morris and Meredith, Ruskin and Shaw, Whitman and Carpenter, D’Annunzio and the Brontёs’. Her story ‘Taking the Veil’, written in 1922, tells of a young girl who ‘had made going to the Library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now’.”

When parliament was not in session she had borrowing privileges, and her borrowing record includes books by Heinrich Heine, Nietzsche, a translation of Bushido by Dr Inazo Nitobe, the English poets, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and a book on the psychology of women.

By the time Kathleen Beauchamp left the library and New Zealand forever, in 1908, the writer who took the name Katherine Mansfield had already had some short stories published, and was well on her way to becoming New Zealand’s first great and internationally acclaimed writer. Her precocious reading is not at all unusual for writers. Indeed, was there ever a great writer who was not also someone who began reading at an early age, and read voraciously all their lives? Reading is part of the apprenticeship undertaken by writers. New Zealand’s next great and internationally acclaimed writer, Janet Frame, is on record as saying “I read every book in the Oamaru library.”

Unlike Mansfield, Frame did not come from a wealthy family in the capital city. Her father was a railway man, and before marriage her mother was a housemaid to the Beauchamp family (yes, that Beauchamp family). Frame’s family moved around several small southern towns before settling in Oamaru, and Frame was only able to access the books she craved by becoming Dux of her primary school and winning a subscription to what was then known as the Oamaru Athenaeum. This was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the majority of teenage girls (and boys) did not have free access to library books.

That changed after the election of the first Labour government in 1935 with the establishment of free public libraries, and in 1965 with the foundation of the National Library of New Zealand. For over half a century any teenager who wanted to could find a quiet corner in their local public library, or if Wellington-based in the National Library, and read (and write) to their heart’s content.

I well remember the quiet corner and the comfy armchair I had as a teenager in the 1960s in the Canterbury Public Library on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street, surrounded by lovely shelves and shelves of books. (If there are any quiet corners – and teenagers reading and writing in them – in the current central Christchurch library, I have yet to find them.)

As readers, writers and researchers ourselves, the members of Book Guardians Aotearoa are well aware of how much reading it takes to make a writer, and how wide, deep and various that reading must be. So while we can shrug off unprofessional insults such as ‘prat’, ‘idiot’ and ‘disgrace’ coming from Department of Internal Affairs public servants, we find it deeply offensive to be dismissed as ‘bibliophiles’, as though this were something as awful as paedophiles. We also take strong exception to being characterised as part of an out-of-touch elite, who if it weren’t for Covid-19 would be off sunning ourselves on foreign beaches.

We wish! None of us who are working for free in our own time to try and save the nation’s book treasures and its Library has an income anywhere near as high as the public servants who have been telling us to get lost.

Likewise, the closest most of us have ever got to the foreign beaches where Katherine Mansfield spent some time towards the end of her too-short life is Peter Shaw’s beautiful 2003 book Why go to the Riviera, which contains paintings and photographs of Wellington scenes created between 1841 and 2003.

The National Library was still an independent institution then, with its own Act passed that year, so it would have been relatively easy for Shaw to do the research needed into the background of each of the artists, and the artistic styles which influenced them, using the full range of books and other documents in its extensive collections. This would have been essential for the nineteenth century artists, none of whom were born in New Zealand, but it was also relevant for early twentieth century artists, who came from places as varied as Lancashire, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Tasmania. Some were recruited from Europe via the La Trobe scheme. According to the History of New Zealand painting – Influence of European modernism‘ page at Te Ara, this scheme “… played a key role in the development of a distinctly New Zealand style of art. It reinvigorated the tired local scene and liberated a younger generation of artists stifled by stylistic conservatism. The La Trobe scheme artists provided an important link with European modernism and exposed their students to new ideas about colour, pictorial construction, form and technique. They fuelled critical debate about New Zealand art by contributing to magazines and journals.”

Artists need international connections and inspirations. Some artists born in New Zealand have spent all or most of their working lives overseas. Frances Hodgkins was the most notable of these in the early twentieth century, but they also include Christchurch-born Owen Merton (father of the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton). If you want to see the best of their work you will have to visit overseas galleries, including French galleries. And it is to the south of France that you will have to go if you want to see where New Zealand’s most famous author lived towards the end of her life, which was mostly spent in Europe. It’s where other New Zealand writers have been funded to go most years since 1972, to spend three months concentrating on their work.

Because we believe in transparency we have to admit that Book Guardians Aotearoa Advisory Member Philip Temple went there in 1979, but we doubt that this has influenced his views on how wrong it is for the National Library to even think about throwing out most of its books. We hope he drew some inspiration from being in that special place, so far away from New Zealand in space and yet so close in spirit. Perhaps the DIA staff who are busy dissing BGA could even get some better ideas about what it means to contribute to New Zealand’s cultural development if they took a short hike up Molesworth St, turned right on the other side of the bridge, and visited the childhood home (now a museum) of the famous New Zealand writer who loved libraries, and reading, and writing.

If they know who we are talking about, and where her former home is. Given their ignorant comments about people who read, write and value books, branding us as ‘not real people’, one has to wonder.

One thought on “Great libraries make great writers

  1. Well said, Christine. As if the OPC disposal plan and its spurious justifications (ably refuted elsewhere on this site) weren’t disturbing enough, your report of how the BGA have been treated by reps of the the DIA, who are supposed to be trained public servants, is astonishing and disgusting.

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