Monday, 13 March 2017

Mary Scott, 1888 - 1979

I discovered a Mary Scott display in Pirongia on a recent road trip following a compulsory coffee stop plus a walk across the highway to the Pirongia Heritage & Information Centre / Te Whare Taonga o Ngaa Rohe o Arekahanara.

Ref: Mary Scott display, Pirongia, 22 February 2017.

A Notable Display

The display features a gingham frame and artefacts from Scott’s writing life – notably her third typewriter. The adjacent bookcase features her prolific output. They even had some editions for sale. We left with It’s perfectly easy – one of Mary Scott’s great titles published by Paul’s Book Arcade in Hamilton, 1962. The striking dust jacket was designed by Geoffrey Ridall.

Ref: Mary Scott, It's perfectly easy.

The publishers, Janet and Blackwood Paul, later moved to Auckland and continued to publish her best-selling novels. No one else was setting their romance novels in the remote farmland of NZ. Some of the titles were translated into Danish, Dutch and German. She was self-effacing about her writing, never claiming to be writing the great NZ novel. It is worth noting that she may have provided an inspiration for another great NZ novel, Man alone. Alan Mulgan and his wife, Marguerita visited often and sent their boys (John and David) to stay. John Mulgan’s novel may have been informed by this rural experience.

An Instagram post of the display case drew immediate interest from friends who had grown up devouring Mary Scott’s work. By the time we left Whanganui we had been lent the autobiography, Days that have been. And on the homeward journey we bought a good edition at a Cambridge antique shop.

What a life!

She arrived on the farm in 1914 as a city girl unfamiliar with domestic work. Her carefree childhood in Napier was followed by education at Auckland Grammar and an MA from Auckland University College. Her new work place, the farm, required expertise with a wood stove, daily bread baking and even soap production. There was no electricity until after the Second World War ended. Fortunately she was an accomplished horsewoman. Mary and her husband Walter arrived on horseback from Gisborne. The autobiography describes the importance of her family and friends in surviving against the odds. Those odds included several fires, accidents and significant isolation and financial hardship.

Writing offered an income source after her attempt at Angora rabbit breeding failed. She also worked as a librarian at Te Awamutu for a period where she noted,

“I learnt too, never to judge people’s tastes by their manner or appearance.” 

The library job also provided accommodation and an opportunity for the two youngest children to attend a primary school.


Her fatal facility

Scott made light of her ability to write, described by Professor Egerton at Auckland University College as her “fatal facility”. Check out the fabulous titles for evidence of this facility. My favourite is A change from mutton. She turned her hand to articles for NZ newspapers, sometimes fourteen articles a month. These included a regular column in the New Zealand Herald supplement, ‘Barbara Bakes’, in Dunedin’s Evening Star and later the Manchester Guardian as described here in the Evening Post.

She got into her stride with a novel a year from 1953 – 1978, sometimes in collaboration with Joyce West for the thriller genre including Who put it there (1960) and Such nice people (1962). Years earlier Scott also wrote plays.

A back-blocks movie series

I was hoping that the Nga Taonga Sound and Vision might have sound files of her reading some of her best sellers. I would love to hear her Breakfast at Six during my bus commute and be transported to another time and place. They do have a recording of her reading a letter and other recordings may surface.

Appreciation for her work is still strong amongst readers around the world suggesting the digital publication rights could be worth investigating for some canny entrepreneur. I will explore possible voices for a series of podcasts and perhaps the film rights. Lydia Wevers’ essay provides an excellent insight in the Dictionary of NZ Biography on Te Ara.

Mary Scott’s work should be recognised as the output of a remarkable pioneer and retained in our literary canon. You won't find her novels in the NZETC but you will find Joan Steven's faint praise in The New Zealand novel, 1860-1965 (published in 1966) where Stevens describes Scott's work primarily “amusing womenfolk”.

She was without doubt a talented writer with a real sense of fun.

Ref: Mary Scott in the Central Library Stacks.
Author: Jane Wild

No comments:

Post a Comment

Kia ora! Please leave your comment below.