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Barbara Anderson Biography

wellington stories girls school

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Barbara Lillian Romaine, 1926. Education: Woodford House secondary school, 1939-43; University of Otago, Dunedin, 1944-46, B.A. 1946; Victoria University, Wellington, 1979-83, B.A. 1983. Career: Science teacher, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Wellington, 1947, Hastings Girls' High School, 1961, and Queen Margaret's College, Wellington, 1964-67; medical laboratory technologist, public hospitals in Napier, 1948-51, and Wellington, 1972-78. Awards: Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant, 1988, 1991; Victoria University fellowship, 1991; Goodman Fielder Wattie award, for Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1992. Agent: Caroline Dawnay, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Girls High. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1990; London, Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife. Wellington, Victoria University Press, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1992; New York, Norton and Norton, 1993.

All the Nice Girls. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1993;London, Cape, 1994.

The House Guest. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria UniversityPress, 1995.

Proud Garments. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria UniversityPress, 1996.

Long Hot Summer. Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria UniversityPress, 1999.

Short Stories

I Think We Should Go into the Jungle. Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1989; London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.

The Peacocks: And Other Stories. Wellington, New Zealand, VictoriaUniversity Press, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"I Thought There'd Be a Couch," in Vital Writing: New Zealand Stories and Poems, 1989-90. N.p., Godwit Press, 1990.

"We Could Celebrate," in Speaking with the Sun. Sydney, Allen andUnwin, 1991.

Play

Gorillas (produced Wellington, 1990).

Radio Plays:

Eric, 1983; Impossible to Tell, 1984; Hotbed, 1984;Close Shave, 1988; The Couch, 1988; Backwards Glance, 1990.

* * *

Barbara Anderson may not have been published until she was in her sixties, but since beginning, the works have tumbled over themselves to be released to a growing readership. Anderson explores the inner workings of everyday lives, with all their incongruities and foibles, making the reader witness to the often contradictory nature of family life and romantic love. The short stories in her first published work, I Think We Should Go into the Jungle are an eclectic collection, demonstrating a variety of thematic interests that defy easy categorization. Anderson's technique, however, is more easily definable. She often constructs her stories out of the tension of unlikely conjunctions and juxtapositions. Gaps found in the strange marriage of extraordinarily disparate ideas provide the reader with the space for creative intervention, which is a prerequisite for any story's completion. In Anderson's view, the story is not entirely an authorial product. It is produced through the combined efforts of reader and writer. Anderson has described herself as a devotee of the "fleeting-glimpse school of short fiction" and it is these glimpses which take the reader on a journey behind the scenes in ordinary lives that in the writing are never merely ordinary, in fact they teem with imaginative inconsistencies which Anderson paints with a characteristic wry humor and attention to detail.

The last two stories of I Think We Should Go into the Jungle anticipate the characters and locale of her second work, Girls High. Anderson's shift into the discontinuous narrative structure of Girls High, is signposted via the episodic variety of "School Story," which anticipates the plural points of view employed in Girls High. Like the minimalist plotting of Girls High, "School Story" is held together by the rivalry of Miss Franklin and Miss Tamp. In the final story in I Think We Should Go into the Jungle, "Fast Post," Anderson inaugurates what would be a recurring theme in Girls High as well as later novels, namely, the proximity of sex and mortality.

In Girls High, Anderson has devised a work that falls between a collection of short stories and a novel. There is a fixed cast of characters, a unifying locale, the school, although not all the happenings occur in the school, and temporal progression from the first staff meeting of the year to the final event of the school year, the Leavers' Play. Having paid her respects to certain nominal unities, Anderson trusts her work to the diverse consciousnesses inhabiting her book. The titles of all the stories, except the first and last, indicate that what we are witnessing is filtered through individual characters. For instance one title reads, "Miss Franklin Remembers the Smell of Pepper," and another, "Mr. Marden Thinks about Carmen." The syntax of the titles scarcely varies, consisting of subject, abstract verb, and object. An emphasis on introspection allows Anderson to avoid spatial and temporal confinement as the memories and thoughts of her characters often travel well out of range of the school and the present. Anderson seems to be suggesting that the banality of the quotidian, which is often within immediate view, is a deceptive front that hides significant depths.

The stories in Girls High proceed as much through their gaps as through their revelations, like those in I Think We Should Go into the Jungle, and in the later collection of short stories The Peacocks. One aspect of the discontinuities in Girls High is that character is not a fixed constant, but the discrepant outcome of the interplay of different points of view. Anderson's choice of play for the school leavers, Mother Courage, perhaps serves as a covert retrospective comment on how her characters are situated vis-à-vis the reader. The many angles trained on any particular character discourage identification and ensure, if not alienation, at least a dispassionate distance. The minimalist but clumsy plot of Girls High confirms Anderson's discomfort with and incapacity for a too ready rationalization of life, a theme which continues through her later novels.

In 1992 Anderson published Portrait of the Artist's Wife, which won New Zealand's prestigious Wattie Award in the same year. This novel extends Anderson's thematic preoccupation with the uneasy balance between relationships and creativity, one that becomes increasingly prevalent in her later novels. Portrait of the Artist's Wife opens with a posthumous book launch and ends with the death of the author of that book, Jack McCalister. What lies between these two events is the story of Sarah, and of Jack, and of a relationship that spans forty tumultuous years. From a shared 1950s childhood in "the Bay," these two escape their families as teenagers and set up house in Wellington, attempting to juggle his writing and her art with a lack of money and the inconvenience of an impending baby which preempted the registry office wedding. In the ensuing years Anderson's novel illuminates the selfishness of her characters in their singular pursuits of creativity, he as a writer, she as an artist, and their ability to be terrible together but even worse when apart. In London on a writing fellowship with their 18-year-old daughter Dora, Sarah discovers she is pregnant again at 36. The situation is made more difficult in view of a recent reconciliation between Jack and Sarah after acts of betrayal, adultery, and desertion. When Sarah suggests to Jack that the baby might not be his, his supreme confidence in his masculine domination of the relationship is evident. He pauses, then dismisses the suggestion outright, telling Sarah that not only is the child his, it will be a girl and she will be named Emily. At Emily's birth his "I told you" claims even this event as his own. Anderson depicts with clarity the shifting roles of wife, mother, and mainstay of the family Sarah is forced to undertake, and the battle between these roles and her desires as an artist, while Jack, despite brief bouts of parental and spousal concern, carries on an archetypal life of drinking, infidelity, and fiction. This reconciling of personal artistic desire with family obligations is a recurring theme, which Anderson explores from many angles in her writing.

Critics of Anderson's work often focus on the untidy nature of plot in her novels. However, in sacrificing the neatness of a plot that has one or two central characters as the primary focus, Anderson draws together a cast of extras who loom largely and do sometimes threaten to overshadow the main events. A feature in all Anderson's writing is her vivid characterization, so that even minor players are finely drawn, often remaining with the reader long after the novel is read. There is Mrs. Leadbetter, the politician's wife in Portrait of the Artist's Wife, consulting her notebook of notable people, where a crossed out name means a dead wife. In Proud Garments there is Carla, the regal Italian mistress who never leaves Milan but whose presence reaches beyond the grave. Or consider Wilfred Q. Hughes, who keeps the dresses of his three dead wives hanging in a shed and displays them proudly to visitors in The House Guest. Dead women's stories are often crucial to the plots of Anderson's novels. In The House Guest it is the ghost of a woman writer (Wilfred Q. Hughes's third wife) who provides both the novel's title and the mystery to be unraveled. However, it is the unconnected deaths of Robin's childhood sweetheart wife, Lisa, and elderly Miss Bowman that open the novel out into an exploration of the ephemeral connections of discordant lives that is Anderson's oeuvre.

In Long Hot Summer, Anderson returns to "the Bay" where she herself grew up, and to the 1930s, in a beachside story of family summers and racial tensions firmly located in the temporal milieu of early twentieth-century New Zealand. The filmic plot of this novel means that once again the cast of extras are vibrantly depicted, while the film itself ("Lust in the Dust") provides the plot device which enables Anderson to anchor the themes of belonging, desire, and racism which circle through the novel. The two narrators are mother and daughter, and their differing perspectives on the events of the summer give the reader a sometimes comic, sometimes painful reminder of the distances between child and grownup. Ann and Lorna's dreams, musings and betrayals preoccupy them, and their interspersed accounts of the summer at Laing's Point provide counterpoints in commentary. They are witnesses as members of the Laing family assert their Maori heritage, and as the relationship develops between Isabel Clements and Tam Ropata, crossing color barriers and giving voice to seldom spoken but deeply held racist views.

The eventual departure of 'Bel and Tam provides the novel with its penultimate filmic moment, that of the riders in silhouette against the skyline on a ridge, a clichéd off-into-the-sunset moment which is almost saved from bathos by the final moments of the novel.

It is in the junctures between cliché and originality that Anderson writes her extraordinary stories. Anderson resists moral commentary in her novels, instead she lays out the often messy moments of relationships and family for the readers to recognize and to judge for themselves. The gift of observation makes Anderson a novelist who weaves a story leaving spaces for the reader to add their own colors, but the gaps that she leaves do not diminish the reading, rather they provide spy holes for the reader to press up against with their own eyes.

—Doreen D'Cruz

, updated by

Shana Tacon

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