Review: Out of the Shadows: The Life of Millicent Baxter

Review:  Out of the Shadows: The Life of Millicent Baxter, by Penny Griffith PenPublishing, Wellington, New Zealand, 2015. 262 pp.

ISBN 978-0-473-33510-6

shadowsMillicent Baxter (1888-1984) spent most of her life in or near Christchurch and Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand. She was a peace activist, a human rights campaigner (as it would now be called), an active member of many organisations that covered a wide spectrum from Amnesty International, the Country Woman’s Institute, Catholic groups, an Alpine Garden Society and a Naturalist’s Field Club (with whom she still managed to camp for 9 days when she was 93 years old) – a list that offers a tiny sample of a mature adult life devoted to good causes and a commitment to social, spiritual and political improvement.

In spite of all these activities, it was Millicent’s fate to be known usually as the daughter of illustrious parents, as well as the wife of a renowned pacifist and the mother of a famous poet. The purpose of Penny Griffith’s affectionate new study of her life, meticulously annotated, is to remedy the matter and to establish Millicent’s fame in her own right, and in so doing to amplify her autobiography, The Memoirs of Millicent Baxter (1981), a guarded and evasive account of an absorbing life. This objective is subverted by the fact that much of the book simply has to be about its four main ‘other’ characters. There is no escaping them or their distinction.

Her father was Professor John Macmillan Brown, one of the founders of Canterbury University, in Christchurch, a successful dabbler in investments, as well as one of New Zealand’s leading intellectuals and academic benefactors; her mother was Helen Connor, who was the British Empire’s first woman honours graduate. Millicent ‘s mother died when she was 15 and despite her father’s tutoring, or perhaps because of it, she turned out to be an academic disappointment to him, but she managed to graduate, was well-read and well-travelled, and though she had a ‘tendency to self-effacement’ she was also contradictorily forthright and headstrong. Her life until her thirties was one of privilege.

Everything altered when she tracked down and married Archie Baxter, a rabbiter and farmer, who became New Zealand’s most eminent pacifist – a man subjected to horrific army brutality. The marriage was a happy one, and eventually Macmillan Brown seems to have partly forgiven his elder daughter and to have aided them, not too uncomfortably, to get through the Depression and the years that followed.

Archie and Millicent’s second son, James K. Baxter, was to become one of the country’s finest poets. There are problems with their difficult relationship that Penny Griffith enters bravely but sketchily, then drops. She is rather intimidated by her subject and she gives Millicent the benefit of every doubt. I am not convinced that such indulgence can always catch the essence of this contrary, courageous, generous, loquacious and formidable woman who also lacked the insight to engage with a prime enigma on her own hearth.

Kevin Ireland

Kevin Ireland, OBE, is a New Zealand poet, short story writer, novelist and librettist who has won many awards including the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.  Born in Auckland, he lived for 25 years in England and worked for the Times newspaper for 20 years.