Gone to Pegasus by Tess Redgrave
Wellington: Mākaro Press (2016)
RRP: $35. Pb, 280pp
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson
Tess Redgrave is a journalist and editor, and she currently works at the University of Auckland as a media relations advisor. Gone to Pegasus is a carefully-plotted and absorbing work, detailing the growing friendship and care between two women in a time of significant social change.
It is 1892 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Eva McAlester and her husband William have recently arrived by ship from Wellington, and after three years in their uncertain marriage they are committed to a fresh start. William is a Scotsman who had sailed across with his family, and with the death of his beloved sister and his own precarious mental state, times are trying. Eva is a stronger character, dignified in body and mind, and she is troubled by her husband’s distress. A philosopher by training and inclination, William reads and recites the poetry of Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche, and is also the teller of his own stories. He is a sensitive and gentle character. Yet it is these stories which cause him the most trouble, for lines between reality and fiction continue to dissolve.
After one alarming incident too many, Eva seeks advice, and those answer the call with a need for immediate incarceration. The memory of William hiding under their bed marks itself upon her as a ‘bruise just below the surface of her being’. William is deposited in Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, and both he and his wife are deeply unhappy. Her family urges Eva to return to them, yet she is determined to stay in Dunedin and carve out a life. This life is to revolve around her beloved piano playing and singing in the church choir, as well as a growing awareness of her rights as a woman.
Also relatively new to Dunedin is another young couple, Grace Savita Coles and her husband James. They are quite a different pair from the McAlesters, and from each other. After a brief and impassioned courtship, which included whirling and twirling in London’s social scene, they have discovered a mutual loathing of each other, though pockets of difficult affection at times remain. James is a surveyor: personally ambitious and willing to employ whatever deceit may be needed; Grace is a lively and unconventional figure, bohemian and already relatively worldly. Unlike Eva she is spontaneous and easy of movement and speech. With her background growing up as a privileged white woman in India she brings certain affectations and cultural influences to small-town Dunedin, wearing dazzling head scarves and turbans and not hesitating when in public to dance or speak up, if it is at all called for.
In the wider local and nationwide scene, campaigns for reform around prohibition, and also a woman’s right to vote, gather momentum. Grace throws herself into the suffrage meetings and protests wholeheartedly, earning the growing wrath of her husband who supports the ministerial candidate and avid suffrage-opposer, Henry Fish. James would be content for Grace to limit her public interaction to painting watercolours in the Botanic Gardens. When Grace and Eva cross paths through their shared interest in piano playing, it is only logical that they will draw close, seeking something in the other which each is lacking. With their designated significant others either unwilling or unable to fulfil their basic emotional needs, the two women spend increasing time together.
There are two prominent aspects which support this narrative. One is the structure, and the other is the idea outlined in the title, Gone to Pegasus. Concerning the structure, the story is set out in three main sections which are named after musical terms (adagio sostenuto, lentando misterioso, and patetico appasionato), followed by a short coda. The growing intimacy between the two women is enabled by their piano playing lessons, which over time equates to a ‘delicate dance between them of surrender and restraint’. It is a vital coupling in itself and speaks of healthiness, and of healing, to both participants. Redgrave details their interactions sensitively.
The second important aspect is the motif of Pegasus, the winged stallion of Greek legend, which struck the earth with its hooves, uncovering wells of fresh spring water. In this novel the men both take on qualities of Pegasus, not only in their flight from the women, but also that in doing so, new opportunities burst fresh for Eva and Grace. Both women additionally grow to share the notion of “gone to Pegasus” being a euphemism for their absent husbands. Yet in their absence they find great opportunity.
This novel’s release coincided with the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and strongly felt throughout is the sense of individual and collective battling, and a sense of gritty early Dunedin colonial life.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.