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Enough Horizon –The life and work of Blanche Baughan, by Carol Markwell: a book review

By Helen Watson White in All Sorts

discovering a little know early feminists, conservationist, prison reformer and more in a recent biography of her life.

Enough Horizon –The life and work of Blanche Baughan,
by Carol Markwell: a book review
Logs, at the door, by the fence; logs, broadcast over the paddock; Sprawling in motionless thousands away down the green of the gully, Logs, grey-black. And the opposite rampart of ridges
Bristles against the sky, all the tawny, tumultuous landscape
Is stuck, and prickled, and spiked with the standing black and grey splinters,
Strewn, all over its hollows and hills, with the long, prone, grey-black logs.
—from 'A Bush Section', B.E. Baughan (1870-1958)
On first reading this poem I was struck by how modern it seemed. It belongs, however, to our time as a colony, when settlers were razing acres of native bush to clear the land for farming. When its author emigrated here in 1900, Queen Victoria still ruled her Empire from a country many New Zealanders called Home.
Blanche Baughan became a 'New Zealand poet' almost the moment she arrived, writing vividly of what she found in her new context. Her stature is such that 'A Bush Section' was included in Oxford's 1997 Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, a century after she published her first volume of verse. But it is not only because of her literary achievements that Carol Markwell has sub-titled her biography of Baughan 'The life and work'.
Markwell's book encompasses three major stories: the British-born poet's upbringing in a family beset by trauma; her pursuit of a writing career and wider horizon in New Zealand; and her drive to improve the penal system here. A fourth story continues alongside these: Baughan's deep love of the natural world led not only to poetry but also to travel writing and to her development of a unique spirituality. Although Markwell knew her poetry, she had no idea Baughan 'was also an early
feminist, a conservationist, a hard-working prison reformer, a botanist and a follower of Vedanta'.
The over-arching story is that Baughan, educated to a level unusual for women of her time, was a reader, writer and debater of social issues all her life; she never stopped learning about her own society. As a student she volunteered in London's Settlement Movement, delivering social services to the urban poor. After a decade of prison work, when she might have retired, Baughan led book discussions and other community studies organized by WEA (Workers Educational Association), and became at age 66 the first woman to serve on Akaroa's Borough Council.
Markwell's biography represents her as far as possible by 'her own words and the words of those who knew her'—through illustrated newspapers, memoirs, diaries and letters as well as poems, short stories, journalism and reports. It is a rounded portrait of someone who, although determinedly single, lived a life full of relationships with women and men, fellow writers, fellow pacifists—people of all classes and kinds.
Having known of Baughan first through her poetry, Markwell relates how she encountered the social worker Blanche while researching the life and times of Alice Parkinson, the subject of Markwell's 2014 biography. Alice, who had been convicted of murder, was serving a life sentence when Blanche visited her in Addington Prison, listening to her story, writing to her family and negotiating with prison authorities for her release.
Markwell describes Baughan as one who 'lived and wrote in her own way and with a stubborn kind of integrity', which was as much seen in her prison work, including the founding of the Howard League for Penal Reform, as in her poetry.
Halfway through her text, Markwell reproduces Baughan's ecstatic description of a mystical experience she had in 1905, when she was living on a remote farm on Banks Peninsula and writing about nature. Her 'epiphany', wrote Baughan, was a sense, of being 'swept up and out of myself altogether'; 'I felt one with everything and everybody'. This pivotal point in the narrative comes just before Baughan goes to live in Christchurch, in the seaside suburb of Clifton. This is where she started the prison visiting which ultimately overtook her other activities and became her life's work.
After the intense spiritual experience she had in 1905, Blanche referred to herself as a 'Nature mystic' and was joined in her spiritual quest by Berta Burns. Markwell sets out the principles of Vedanta in a chapter given to the ancient Hindu philosophy to which both women subscribed. Attracted by its inclusivity, Baughan was drawn to the perspective of 'one-ness' that sees everything as interrelated and is consistent with science.
The main principles Baughan adopted from Vedanta were self- surrender and service to others, both consequent upon following the 'inner light' which she had perceived in her vision. Her prison service involved befriending inmates, learning the particularities of each individual, keeping in touch by letter, being both a teacher and advocate, for one the 'godmother' he had never had. Markwell quotes an interview she gave to the Ladies Mirror in 1924: 'My own "class" numbers about fifty... I have boys, girls, men, women, drunkards, murderers, thieves and forgers, and can honestly say that I find good in them all.'
I did not expect to learn of such a radical switch in purpose in one I had categorized as a poet, plain and simple. It was gratifying to learn Baughan was fulfilled in self-giving, when she had such skills, such caring and such wisdom to give.
Helen Watson White
A longer version of this article was published on 1 April in Landfall Review Onliine.