Author gets to know an ancestor

By Carroll du Chateau

Carroll du Chateau talks to writer Stephanie Johnson about her special bond with her latest subject.

Stephanie Johnson felt her great-great-great grandmother gave her permission to write her story. Photo / Supplied
Stephanie Johnson felt her great-great-great grandmother gave her permission to write her story. Photo / Supplied

Stephanie Johnson is "reluctant" to hang her new novel, The Open World, on the fact that the Victorian heroine is her own great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Horelock Smith. As the author of four other historical novels, Johnson wants this one to stand on its own merits too.

But this time she will find it hard to remove herself from her brave and hard-working ancestor. "The more I wrote about Elizabeth, the more I loved her and got on with her too," she says.

Readers are also getting hungrier for new information about the early settlement of New Zealand, wanting to know not only about the wars and the men, but about the women who built society.

Says Johnson, "Kids at school are learning a lot about New Zealand, but told from a point of view I don't necessarily hold with. There's not much sympathy for those of us who call ourselves 'proudly Pakeha'."

Elizabeth Horelock Smith's story is upsetting, as true(ish) stories so often are.

The daughter of a merchantman who ran a small fleet of trading ships, she was relatively well educated for a girl in England's Victorian era. But her social standing crashed when she married Tom Hogg, who turned out to be a bigamist.

Not only was she abandoned by her "husband" when his first (real) wife appeared, her father died in a fire and she had to bring up her two sons alone.

When Thomas Henry, the elder of the boys, emigrated to New Zealand, Elizabeth and her younger son, John Elisha, or "Ish", followed. Elizabeth was 38. She worked her passage as the "companion" of Lady Mary Ann Martin, who was travelling out to meet her husband, New Zealand's first Chief Justice. The other famous passenger was Bishop Selwyn.

Once in New Zealand, Elizabeth became the close friend and workhorse for the sickly Mary Ann. Although they both helped set up and manage the Native Hospital in Judges Bay, Elizabeth's lack of social standing meant she was consigned to being a behind-the-scenes worker. Only to the Maori was she "Mata Te Mete": a loved and respected curer of the sick and comforter of the dying.

Which was part of the reason Johnson wanted to write Elizabeth's story. "As a companion to her beloved Lady Martin, Elizabeth stood uneasily between servant and friend," she says. "Mary Ann Martin took so much of the credit ... yet she was so sickly she couldn't do much."

Indeed, when a new play, On The Upside Down of The World, was performed by the Auckland Theatre Company last year, informing audiences about early Auckland's Native Hospital, none of us knew that the woman who did most of the back-breaking nursing and work for Mary Ann Martin, the heroine of the play, was Elizabeth Horelock Smith.

Writing a part-fact, part-fiction historical novel is tricky. "You do your research," says Johnson. "And then you kind of throw it out on the wind and let the story-teller part of your brain take over."

In this case, the fact part of the book came from "a handful of [Elizabeth's] letters" that had been kept at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, plus a much larger collection of Thomas Henry's letters and papers. Henry became Judge of the Native Land Court (where he earned a reputation for being too generous to the natives). Ish became a solicitor.

The second interwoven part of the story involved a trip to London and Buxton, "a sort of English version of Rotorua".

"At that point I threw away a lot of what I'd already written, and started again."

Throughout the "story-teller" side of the novel, Johnson had the feeling "Elizabeth was haunting me. Some rather spooky things happened that I couldn't explain".

Eventually she decided to go to a psychic. "She reckoned she got in touch with Elizabeth, who told me to be careful. She didn't want me to get too close to the truth. There was something about running away from a fire. And that Smith wasn't her real name.

"After that I felt a sort of loosening ... almost that she'd given me permission."

So, guided by instinct, stories about Elizabeth she'd heard from her grandmother, and the facts, Johnson put together a fascinating account of her great-great-great grandmother's life.

Despite the deprivations and social snubs, Elizabeth emerged as a fun-loving, fiery and resilient character who carried a small bottle of a personal potion she called "The Cup of Grace". It contained cloves, sugar, brandy and a good slug of laudanum and was liberally dished out to those in need, including Mary Ann.

Johnson believes that Mary Ann's ongoing illness may well have been anorexia nervosa. She also made her a virgin, possibly because, as was the practice of the day, her husband may have been warned that she was too ill for childbearing.

As she aged, Elizabeth "had this obsession about going back to England," which mystified and irritated her sons.But England did not offer the comfort she hoped for. Elizabeth died, almost penniless and with few friends, in a London lodging house.

"In England I gave a lecture at the Centre for New Zealand Studies," says her great-great-great-granddaughter, "and we went out for dinner in Islington afterwards. I said, 'down there is Cross St. That's the lodging house she lived in'," says Johnson. "And the man looked at me and said, 'Cross St? You're a real, real, Londoner'. And I had this huge sense of belonging. It was just so lovely to feel it."

The Open World (Vintage $37.99) is out now. Stephanie Johnson will talk about the book and writing reconstructed biography at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival on May 13.

- NZ Herald

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