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Stevan (Treleaven) Eldred-Grigg Biography

Stevan Eldred-Grigg comments:

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Grey Valley, New Zealand, 1952. Education: University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1970-74, M.A. (honours) 1975; Australian National University, 1975-78, Ph.D. 1978. Career: Postdoctoral fellow, University of Canterbury, 1981; writing fellow, l986, scholar-in-letters, 1991, Victoria University; New Zealand writing fellow, University of Iowa, Iowa City. Awards: A.W. Reed memorial book award, 1984; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1988. Agent: Curtis Brown, P.O. Box 19, Paddington, New South Wales 2021, Australia.



Oracles and Miracles. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1987.

The Siren Celia. Auckland, Penguin, 1989.

The Shining City. Auckland, Penguin, 1991.

Gardens of Fire. Auckland, Penguin, 1993.

Mum. Auckland, Penguin, 1995.

Blue Blood. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1997.

Short Stories

Of Ivory Accents (novella). N.p., n.d.


Radio Play:

Oracles and Miracles, from his own novel, 1989.


A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth. Wellington, Reed, 1980.

A New History of Canterbury. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1982.

Pleasures of the Flesh: Sex and Drugs in Colonial New Zealand 1840-1915, 1984

New Zealand Working People, 1890-1990. Palmerston North, DunmorePress, 1990.

My History, I Think. Auckland, Penguin, 1994.

The Rich: A New Zealand History. Auckland and New York, Penguin, 1996.


Manuscript Collection:

Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

I'm a provincial writer, a writer of social comedy. My province is Canterbury, centred on the city of Christchurch. It's the comedy of a little white world, a small society, a very precise place. My novels resemble my province, a province whose history is as long or short as the history of the novel. A province civil, sociable, not unconcerned with style.

We write, though. We lie. We make meanings where there can be no meaning.

* * *

In the mid-1980s Stevan Eldred-Grigg switched his attention from history to fiction in order to challenge the customary "literary portrait of working class life" in New Zealand, which he saw as being "very remote from working class reality."

I knew … that most of the people who had written serious history and fiction in New Zealand during the middle years of the twentieth century had been male and Pakeha. I also knew … that most had been middle class…. The worker who turned up in the pages of mid twentieth century literature was almost always a man… . And these working men were not only male, they were usually also itinerant, solitary and homeless. The working man was Man Alone. He lived in a world of "casual workers and rouseabouts," "station hands and street loungers."

In a series of short stories and in his celebrated first novel, Oracles and Miracles—though not in a much earlier novella, Of Ivory Accents, which predates his socialist convictions—Eldred-Grigg set out to focus on the city rather than the country and on women rather than men. Rehabilitation of the Maori he has evidently left to New Zealand's rapidly expanding body of Maori writers.

Oracles and Miracles does not have a strong story line. Based on interviews with actual working-class women (and originally conceived as an oral history), it simply documents the lives of Ginnie and Fag from their births in 1929 through the Depression and World War II to their twenty-first birthdays. The method is akin to the realism ofArnold Bennett, but it must be said that Eldred-Grigg is not yet as adept as Bennett at suggesting human depth beneath the welter of surface detail.

Ginnie, who does not deviate from the working-class context of her birth, enables Eldred-Grigg to evoke what he calls the "grit and texture" of the times. Her working-class dialect is particularly well realized. Fag's voice is different since—like Eldred-Grigg's own mother, incidentally—she has realized the Cinderella myth by marrying out of her class and has cleaned up her idiom. Whereas Ginnie makes political statements unconsciously (as when she observes that "the two words 'good' and 'work' didn't have anything to do with one another"), Fag can stand apart from her upbringing and comment on it quite explicitly. Thus when she shows her husband-to-be (who, incidentally, closely resembles Eldred-Grigg's own father) round the working-class suburb where she grew up, she tells us that she "started to see it in a new way, thinking how strange it was that to him all this seemed interesting, important, this dreary old stamping ground of South Christchurch." Here she has become the mouthpiece for Eldred-Grigg's own concern about the destruction of working-class culture by the capitalist ideology of consumerism promulgated by the media of the day—including a popular magazine called Miracles and Oracles.

Ironically, at the very moment when she recognizes the authenticity of working-class culture, Fag is already in the process of deserting it for what turns out to be a sterile bourgeois existence. Ginnie, on the other hand, finds a partner from within the working class and seems happier at the end. The novel has been criticized for its naive implication that "it's better to be working class and know it as long as you marry for love." The author himself insists that he did not intend this moral and that what he calls "the tragedy" of both sisters "is not that they don't find love but that they do."

These problems with the conclusion to Oracles and Miracles are not resolved by the disappointing sequel, The Shining City. Fag is still married—happily enough, it would seem, though she continues to live in a sterile middle-class suburb, where her behavior and idiom (now considerably closer to her working-class origins than they were in the earlier book) mark her out as an eccentric. But she is a minor character in the book, whereas Ginnie scarcely features. Instead the focus is on the formative years of two young men of the next generation: Fag's son, Ashley, and his cousin, Christopher, a scion of pure patrician stock.

The Shining City is in effect the obverse of Oracles and Miracles in that it focuses on the exploiting class rather than the exploited class. Eldred-Grigg the historian had already critiqued the Canterbury squattocracy mercilessly in his early works, A Southern Gentry, A New History of Canterbury, and Pleasures of the Flesh. In The Shining City and—more memorably—in The Siren Celia and Gardens of Fire he levels the same critique in fictional form. In all three novels an exploited working class is glimpsed from time to time, but the primary focus is on the foibles and corrupt practices of the landed gentry.

Gardens of Fire is closely based on fact. It is a compelling reconstruction of the disastrous fire of 1947 that destroyed Ballantynes—Christchurch's premier department store. Forty-one employees died in the blaze, and Eldred-Grigg's account rests the blame for their deaths squarely on the shoulders of their bosses.

The Siren Celia is based not on fact but on an earlier work of New Zealand fiction—George Chamier's A South Sea Siren, first published in 1895 and reprinted in 1970. Eldred-Grigg explains that he took from Chamier's novel "all the bits that I thought worked really well and reinforced the themes I wanted to take up. I fed these chunks into my computer. Then I deconstructed them all and built them up again the way I wanted them." Other material is introduced from Chamier's earlier novel , Philosopher Dick, and from the writings of Sarah Amelia Courage.

His principal purpose in modifying Chamier was, he explains, to emphasize "questions of gender and class." So the landed gentry of Canterbury are effectively satirized, and the siren (who in Chamier's account was—according to one critic—"altogether too snaky and sinuous for modern belief") is shown to be the victim of a series of boorish and incompetent men. It is in his depiction of one of these men, the protagonist, Richard Raleigh, that Eldred-Grigg departs most radically from his source. Chamier's "philosopher Dick" finally abjures the siren, takes up an honest profession, and seems set to marry the respectable Alice Seymour; Eldred-Grigg shows him degenerating into a corrupt entrepreneur with whom the siren is finally unfortunate enough to contract a marriage. Eldred-Grigg has done to Chamier precisely what Shaw's Plays Unpleasant did to the Victorian well-made play.

Eldred-Grigg also felt that Chamier "didn't have the ability to dramatize"and tried to remedy this deficiency. He wisely cut the chapters in Chamier that amount to miniature Socratic dialogues led by "philosopher Dick" (Raleigh), but his version of the actual events of the story is really no more dramatic than Chamier's; as in Oracles and Miracles and The Shining City, the text conveys little sense of felt experience, even when Raleigh purports to be succumbing to the charms of the siren.

Mum continues the story, now with Ginnie as seen from the viewpoint of her children Jimmy and Viv. The alternating first-person voices work surprisingly well, as does the use of a real person—New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh—in Blue Blood. The novel depicts Marsh in 1929, when her career was just beginning, and places her in the middle of a mystery that calls to mind her later writings.

—Dick Corballis

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