‘From Medieval English to Postcolonial Studies’ by Janet Wilson, University of Northampton

To introduce this topic, I really have to start with my life at secondary school –i.e.  Wellington Girls’ College, Wellington—where I began developing an interest in languages as well as History and English, and studied Latin,  German and French,  and in my last year even Russian. So when it came to doing Old English and Middle English at University, which was compulsory then if you wanted to major in English,  I found these subjects much to my taste,  partly because I had already studied language as an entrée into  interpreting texts,  but  mainly because of my lecturers who  were inspirational in  introducing these new areas: Harry Orsman, Ian Jamieson, Don McKenzie and the American Nick Doane. I could also havechosen linguistics—which  I have taught  for many years both in New Zealand and the UK– dynamic in the 1960swith the dramatic  changes introduced byChomsky and his school, but  preferred the text-based orientation of medieval English. The Old Englishlaments,  the ‘Seafarer’ and ‘Wanderer’, incomplete and fragmented as they were, were poignant and heart rending.  At 18 or 19 I was into emotional resonances of any sort.  Poetry was always in the background, and often in the foreground of my life even then, but never within my actual grasp as creative act.

If anyone then had said I would become a medievalist I would have laughed in disbelief; although I did wonder what I would do when I left university and felt very ill equipped for the wider world. We werein the middle of acultural and political  revolution which was as profound for New Zealand  as the swinging 60s  was for fashionable London. There was Vietnam and the protest movement of course, But closer to home, by the late 60s New Zealand poetry began to be influenced by American writing,  and performance poetry became big with local poets like Sam Hunt and Ian Wedde. We read Geoff Nuttall’sBomb Culture and Marshall Mcluhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy etc. There was an influx of new cultural theories and  writers. We read books published by the American Evergreen and Grove presses  such as  Samuel Beckett  and slightly  illicit writers like Henry Miller and Annais Nin etc, My boyfriend was an intellectual and enjoyed French new-wave writers like  Henri de Montherlant and Nathalie Sarraute. I remember sitting on the beach at Oriental Bay after my final exams for the MA in English, when university life seemed to be all over,  trying to soak these writersup with the sun and sand. Nothing much stuck.  Life was generally much more interesting outsidethe academic institution than within, but inthose days the two overlapped.   Pub closing hours changed from 6 pm to 10 pm around 1968, but the drinking age wasstill 21, and  my boyfriend bribed the waiters and barmen with tips so that we  couldbe served beer in the George and the Duke pubs. There we would see our lecturers in a different mode –particularly Harry Orsman who was often in the pub, ostensibly collecting slang and colloquialisms for his New ZealandDictionary–amidst  a crowd of writers,  intellectuals, various hangers on and drop outs.  There were paua divers,  posties, rubbish collectors,  fishermen and budding film makers.  Geoff Murphy, then a school teacher and a friend of my flat mate, Ian McDonald, a composer and postman,hoisted a crane in our upstairs flat –above the post office in Kelburn parade –in order to start filming. I met there the actorBruno Lawrence and others; then caught up with them again in Sydney in the early 1970s,and at  the first Australian  folk festival in Nimbin,where Murphy, Lawrence and their families travelled round in a brightly coloured bus labelled Blerta.

I  left  Wellington forSydneyafter finishing my BA/MA degrees at Vic,    in the early 70s, and soon found my way into a new scene that consisted of left-wing  academics and  working-class Marxists, Jack Munday  (leader of a left wing workers’ union) was pushing for new rights for the workers,including  feminists obsessed with equality and intent on gender bending and became  labourers and  truck drivers. It was all the old Sydney push but in a reformed mode—nothing like the serious Andersonian politics of the previous generation. Germaine Greer was a dynamic presencewhenever she returned and so was  Frank Moorhouse, then an upcoming short story writer who got into fierce competition with another  talented short story writer,  the English lecturer, Michael Wilding.Friends for some years,they parted in acrimony—but not before theyhad foundedthe innovative short story  magazine, Tabloid Story, which for a while was distributed by Qantas and Air NZ on the transtasman flights  to NZ on which I flew home from time to time. I had been lucky enough to be employed as research assistant to one of the Professors of English at Sydney University and with in a few months,  I embarked on an MA in Medieval English; then after a couple of years, unexpectedly  moved back to New Zealand to take up  a lectureship at Auckland  University, where I taught medieval English and English language for 5 years, After that I leftfor Oxford.

Let me fast forward ten years.  After completing a PhD at Oxford and a stint of lecturing there and at Trinity College Dublin, I returned to New Zealand at theend of the 80s—to the University of Otago, where I began lecturing in Old and Middle English and even Tudor Literature (under the auspices of the expert in this field, and my mentor, Professor Alistair Fox).  It was a world vastly changed, although even before I left New Zealand  in the late 1970s there had been signs of an awakening  on civil rights, and racial equality, inaugurated by the Maori Land  March from Cape Reinga to Parliament in 1975, and the  occupation of Bastion Pointin Orakei in 1977-78.A decade later New Zealand was in the midst of Rogernomics, and David Lange was about to step down, undermined by Roger Douglas andhis Treasury allies, but society had changed in other ways, especially after the riots  over the  famous Springbok tour of 1981. More importantly,  withthe revision of the Treaty of Waitangi and the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal,New Zealand/Aotearoa was proudly declaring itself bicultural. Universities were now  also known as Te Wananga, there were kura kaupapa (total immersion schools),  for Maori was now  an official language along with English  and there was a controversial move to introduce it into the teaching of language in schools.

Within a few years of my return one of my  lecturers from Victoria University  of Wellington arrived in Dunedin,as his wife, Dr Penelope Jamieson, had been appointed as the first woman  diocesan Bishop of the Anglican Church there  in 1989. Dr IanJamieson took over some of my medieval teaching thus freeing me up to developinto new areas. This unexpected dispensation enabled me to make the transition that othermedieval scholars have also made—into a study of the contemporary. This  change in academic  fashion, of course, is a consequence of enormous social change,   for  ascolonial ties with Britain were disappearing or being renegotiated,  there was a corresponding  move to examine local culture, history  and literature—and of course all the national upheavals since the 1960s, especially  in race relations,  demanded revisionary methods of study. When I was at university in the 60s, New Zealand literature was  covered in one course taught by Father Frank McKay; by the early 1990s it was  well established at Otago, taught by Lawrence Jones and others,  and was beginning to be presented under the umbrella of postcolonial theory,  which offered new ways of thinking about the power structures of colony and empire, centres and margins, and about modes and processes of identity formationfollowing independence. In general the ancient cultures and their languages,  like Old Norse and Anglo Saxon, the study of which had been a staple of  the English curriculum since the colonial university system in New Zealand and Australia, were being seen as of diminishing relevance.Through the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st c, medieval studies—i.e.  Old and Middle English and Old Norse –waned everywhere except in Oxford and Cambridge where they are still a popular component of the undergraduate degree . In their place were new disciplines like women’s studies and theory, area or regional studies, film and media, and cultural studies,  postcolonial and diaspora studies. But in my case the change of academic interest  brought to the fore another side of my life, my pervasive  and entrenched connection with New Zealand literature and with New Zealand writers.

As the daughter of a writer,I had always been conscious of  New Zealand writing, not just as a way of life,but  as a crucial  point of connection with the world around me. As a child, I would look at the books on my father’s bookcase, I Saw in My Dream  by Frank Sargeson  and The Gorse Blooms Pale by Dan Davin, fascinated  by what the titles  evoked.  My father was a long-term friend of Frank Sargeson, and they corresponded for years. When I was  about tenmy  mother took us four children tovisit himin his bach on Esmonde Road in Takapuna , Auckland (we must have been visiting my aunts,   her sisters,  who live d in Auckland and their families) ; to my astonishment he gave each of us four childrenhalf a crown, an unheard of sum in those days. Later as we walked amongthe vegetables admiring the garden, my little sister Katie lost hers and began to scuffle through the earth looking for it and thento cry. Noticing something was wrong Frank Sargeson  spoke to my mother and lo and behold another half crown was produced. An amazing act of generosity which  has stuck in  my mind ever since.  I met Sargeson on several occasions after I returned to Auckland in 1974, going to the  Esmonde Rd cottage with my father in the evening often to drink a glass of the awful brew he called lemora—a yellow sweetish drink like sherry with  had very little real flavour or  kick. When he  heard I was teaching Chaucer he became very interested and opened a book of Chaucer’s works , pointing  to various bits of verse,  I think in‘The Pardoner’s Tale’. I wish I had kept a record of that particular conversation, for when I came to  write an introduction to a new edition of his stories a year or so ago, I was puzzled  by the enigmatic title of one of his earliest sketches ‘Chaucerian’. I think he uses it  as a coded form for  ‘real life’ as captured in literature  in the way Chaucer did, rather than life as lived unthinkingly—or written about in clichés as  a school of New Zealandwriters allegedly did before Sargeson came along (and which he knowingly displaced).  But also he alludes to the sexual ambiguities and misdemeanours  that Chaucer  writes , especially in relation to the clergy and other religious figures like the Pardoner, defining a double standard in behaviour which Sargeson  would have relished.

Maurice Shadbolt was also a friend of my father and visited us once when my father was firewatching in the Kaingaroa Forestand  we, the family,werethere as wellduring our summer holidays. He was quite young then, and self possessed, puffing a pipe and talking loudly, curious about all that my father was doing—the bincoluars for picking up  fires, the planned  burn offs when he had to be in position to  report on the smoke, the  activities like deer hunting. Nightly deer hunting was a feature of our rather dull existence in the middle of nowhere during those weeks — my father and brother with the gun and the dog, a foxie called Sally. We ate backstakes and  legs of venison after they had been hung for days  to become less gamey. My father was proud of how he could live virtually off the landas Sargeson did with his productive, fertile and well -tended garden. Barry Crump was just coming onto the literary scene in those years (the late 50s)  and I remember reading  his first book A Good Keen Man, in either  the Ngapuketerua or Wairango  lookout,  laughing hilariously, but also with recognition:  we had deer cullers just like Crump and his mates  living down the road, very young men who sometimes dropped in and made my 12-year-old heart flutter,but also making my father afraid ofaccidentally  being shot at by  them when he was out hunting.

I  met other writers I met in the course of my own pursuits as a university lecturer, although my father’s name may have opened doors. Janet Frame I first met in 1974 when the English poet Jon Silkin and his then wife,  the short story writer,  Lorna Tracey, were visiting Australia—they came on to New Zealand, and I organised their trip. They both wanted to meet Janet who was then living in semi-rural retreat in Shakespear Bay on the Whangapora Peninsula about 50 km from  Auckland (King,  389),  so I drove them to her place. She came out when the car drew up, waving  some papers. When the introductions were over she explained what they were.  The first was a doctor’s letter saying that she did not have schizophrenia;this would have been written by Dr R.H. (Bob) Cawley,the psychiatrist who treated her in the Maudsley Hopsital and who had helped overturn the original verdict. Janet often showed this or similar letters  to visitors and critics who she thought would misrepresent her;  the other was a record of her father’s possessionsthat he received upon discharge from the GreatWar—a double bed and something like a dresser. In Michael King’s biography of Janet, Wrestling with the Angel,are her comments on this visit as ‘tremendously rich and interesting’, with  ‘an unusual kind of penguin-like bird appearing for his [Silkin’s] benefit and a magnificent sea creature being stranded at his feet’ (King 393). I later met Janet again on several occasions with my father,  after I returned to New Zealand,  and in  1993, at a time when several of us in the Department of English at Otago were editing the Journal of New Zealand  Literature we held the first ever  conference on Janet Frame, to which academics  from Australia and further afield came. This was my first foray into Frame studies, and I really slaved over my paper‘Postmodernism or Postcolonialism in Living in the Maniototo and The Carpathians’),  as I do whenever I write on her work. At some stage we decided to invite her and I remember ringing her up; she was quite pleased about the conference but said that no she didn’t think she would like to attend. Wisely. I mention these three writers because I have written on their work, and of course the personal acquaintance has not informed what I have written, except perhaps for Maurice Shadbolt, as I did write an essay which claimed that his work shows that he did not understand women very well. Later, after it was published, I met him at an Art Gallery openingin Auckland and I  said I hoped he didn’t mind. He patted my hand reassuringly, as though he had forgiven me. I hope so.

In England it was another story because I met a different kindof writer, the expatriate. The key figure in this very different orientation to New Zealand was Dan Davin whom I met on my first trip to the UK in 1976 (the introduction was provided by Maurice Shadbolt). Dan and his wife Winnie were great enthusiasts about New Zealand, where Dan was a name, although his works were not as well read in the 60s when I was growing up as they had been in the 40s and 50s. They were also very fond of New Zealanders and entertained a circle in the local pub in Oxford where they drank everynight, of people from Oxford University Press where Dan Davin worked until 1978, various  literary and academic friends and  often visiting kiwis.  The firstnight I met them they invited me to stay and so I did on another occasion, climbing up to the fourth floor of their house in Southmoor  Road, to sleep in a bed they said had been previously slept in by Dylan and Caitlin Thomas. The  dislocation of being a writer  on the other side of the world from your homeland, was one that Dan suffered from, I think, for he was always asking friends and relatives about details of events, when he went back (for his novels and short stories).  From 1947,  the date of his first novel, Cliffs of Fall,all his published work was written in the UK,  including what I would say  are his bestshort stories, about  growing up in Southland,  collected in The Gorse Blooms Pale(1947)./ Some of these were written when he was fighting in Crete and Greece and on leave in London during World War II.

The other writer I met here and who is a friend of many years’ standing,  is of course,  Fleur Adcock. Fleur came to the UK in 1963, and her  first volume The Eye of the Hurricane,  consisting of poems written before she left, was published in NZ the following year, Since then all her work has been published in England and she sees herself very much as an English poet. In my study of her work I  trace the idea of home—her ambivalence about  not quite belonging to New Zealand, her sense of a true destiny in England, the home of her ancestors. This appears in many poems,  some  written about going back to New Zealand to see family and friends. I see her as an expatriate who has chosen to belong to this society, but in later poems, as for example in Time Zones(1990), she becomes something of a citizen of the world. The ways that  she brings together  the two hemispheres—finding coincidences and differences between them, commenting and sometimes consciously bridging the gap,  is a distinctive feature. A relatively  early poem, written in the decade after she arrived here, ‘On a Son Returned to New Zealand’, shows  the conflict of  loyalties that she undoubtedly experienced, with the comment ’no-one can be in two places at once’. The poem begins in Athens where she and her son Gregory have been visiting,  then moves to London where she is now  tidying up, after he has left,  the holiday being over,  and ends with the thought of him now returned  to his father:  ‘He was /already in his father’s house,  on the / cliff-top, where the winter storms roll across / from Kapiti Island,  and the flax bends/before the wind. He could go no further. / He is my bright  sea-bird on a rocky beach.’

Over the years, since I returned to the UK in 1998, I have made regular trips home, and  my own work has  developed further in the fields of diaspora and postcolonial writing,  with  a focus on New Zealand and often Australian cinema and literature as well. I became editor in 2001 of a journal  called World Literature Written in English, which in 2005 was taken over and published by Routledge as the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. As I suggested before, this is a field that includes all ex-colonial countries—from the French, Portuguese, Belgian and Spanish empires as well as the British, and so the  journal encompasses a very broad sweep of contributors, writers and regions. Being editor for a decade has given me an unprecedented bird’s-eye view of how  this  field is developing.  It hasbecome far more prominent in the British academy in the last decade and I like to think I have been part of that change, with journal editing, conferences I have organised at the University of Northampton, at which I teach, and Birkbeck, University of London,  where I was for a while, Fellow in New Zealand Studies, and essay collections I have edited. My interest in New Zealand writing from the point of view of diaspora – through the studies and editions I published  on Dan Davin and Fleur Adcock in 2007– was rekindled in 2008 when I  co-hosted with Dr Gerri Kimber  an international conference  at Birkbeckon Katherine Mansfield to mark the centennial anniversary of her arrival in London in 1908. Mansfield holds an ambiguous position in the country of her birth, because she lived most ofher life in Europe and was associated with the international movement of modernism, not realism, the genre that is the core of the New Zealandliterary tradition. So although Iwent to the same school as her and lived very near her family home in Thorndon, and read her stories and the biography by Anthony Alpers when at school,  I never really got to grips with her work or life. Coming across her work again in 2008, now much older and living in the same part of the world as she did, was like discovering her for the first time. So my work on Mansfield is very much my current project and I hope to publish a book on her in due course.

NZ then comes and goes, at times on the edges of my life,  at other times more central.  This must be true of all of us who choose to live away from home. I prefer to live here because  of the greater opportunity and broader horizons, and because it gives  me a critical distance,useful for writing and comment. NZ culture of course continues  to flourish outside New Zealand, in other parts of the world—witness the  wonderful NZ compositions, performances and music that featured at the London  Festival last year.  Research on and about NZ  is carried on in academic institutions, but also  through learned societies, and is  showcased in conferences, seminars and presentations.    To promote such research in  the UK and Ireland and  raise the profile of New Zealand Studies, is the brief  of the New Zealand Studies Network(NZSN)  which was launched last year , encouraged and supported  by  Birkbeck , the  University of London, and the High Commission.The NZSN, with an executive base in London,  holds regular seminars,  poetry readings, book launches, and colloquia.Next month we will hold  our inaugural conference on ‘New Zealand’s Culture: Histories, Sources, Futures’.

This  current involvement in promoting New Zealand culture and research is  just one thing that has happened in my life,seemingly by chancerather than by design, and I sometimes wonder about intention and the bigger picture;  for as this talk shows, I never would have thought at the beginning that my life would have taken the directions it has, being shaped by both my earliest influences, by   apparently random decisions,  as well as by what circumstance throws up. I don’t specially believe in destiny, but maybe it does exist in some form or another  and we must see it for what it is. Over thirty years ago I met  by chance  in the Kiwi pub in Auckland, a New Zealand poet, Kevin Ireland,  who was then an expatriate, living in London; he was on a return visit  to New Zealandwith his  wife,  Caroline, and they were staying with his friend Maurice Shadbolt.Six months ago, in January of this year, Kevin and I married.  We remet in  Auckland in December 2007, just after his Caroline’s death, on my first return visit to New Zealand and Australia for three and  half years, a visit paid for by my mother who wanted to see me. Kevin had apparently not forgotten that first, chance  meeting  though–as he  describes it in a poem which was read at the wedding, called ‘How it all began’:


I remember your first look

that throwaway glance,

those shrewd fastidious words


the smile half formed

then shrugged aside.

That’s all it takes


and then you feel the  tingle

and you know for sure

this is the beginning.


A Moment’s open gaze,

a classy, sharp remark,

a moment that will forever


hold its breath

and secure all things,

in every single pure particular.


It has been a life of hardship at times, but it has also been one of peculiar privilege,  for I have been lucky in the people I have met and the friends I have made. I have found it satisfying to discover a way of writing about what I  think on various  topics  and different writers in ways that  I hope will encourage further thought and research, In particular I hope that New Zealand Studies will flourish and prosper in the UK and that the New Zealand Studies Network will provide a fulcrum for research and  creative endeavour based around New Zealand in this part of the world. I have no doubt that abandoning Medieval English and moving into Postcolonial Studies was the decisive change that helped  set my life on the course for which it seems to have been destined.

From Medieval English to Postcolonial Studies’ was delivered to  New Zealand University Graduates’ Association, at the New Zealand High Commission on 15 June 2012 by Janet Wilson, University of Northampton.