Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling
in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945 by John Newton.
Wellington, VUP (2017).
RRP: $40.00. Pb, 368pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
John Newton’s Hard Frost (the first part of a trilogy) shows us a fresh way of looking at New Zealand literature of the 20th century. It details the pleasures of essential texts. It also ranges from mountaineering to moa excavation, from beauty pageants to the history of psychoanalysis.
Newton invites his readers to make a journey with him from the present tendency to dismiss the period for its ignorance of Māori- and women-ignoring attitudes. He sets about this dark and fractured landscape by asking why this generation of writers failed to respond to the genius of Katherine Mansfield. In this extract, for example, he writes of Sydney Janet Kaplan’s response to Mansfield: “on ‘representation enlarged to include interiority, which itself becomes a prime subject for fictional treatment.’” He goes on to write:
This is an altogether different version of Mansfield driven back on ‘what you find in yourself’. That her fiction takes an inward turn is no more than we might say of Joyce or Woolf or Marcel Proust. But Sargeson, unable to envisage her in this context, is deaf to Mansfield’s modernism. He appreciates neither her technical innovations nor the psychological acuity that today seems to apparent in them. (p. 43).
In a climate which was crammed with a generation of gay writers such as Frank Sargeson, the genius of Janet Frame and the prolific Charles Brash, Newton wonders why these literary models were largely ignored. In his exploration of the post-modern world where meanings were suspect and teased the reader with their baffling shape-changes, he assumes the need was for writers to move the human heart, to confront and examine sex, gender, loss and heartbreak, but not to be imprisoned by them. Austere in tone and content, Hard Frost immediately announces the presence of concision, and not a little gravitational insight. Gender exemplifies Newton’s strengths. He writes about Ursula Bethell, Blanche Baughan, Robin Hyde, Frank Sargeson and Katherine Mansfield along the spectrum between mystery and disclosure.
In his chapter on ‘Writing and gender (and mountaineering) c. 1928)’, Newton writes:
I’ve observed already that the sexual liberation of the 20s represented for women an ambiguous kind of progress. The female subject of the new sexual science was not only capable of sexual enjoyment, but desired it and was entitled to it. And increasingly there were the knowledge and means by which (other social factors permitting) women could control their fertility. Even a pathologising discourse about lesbianism may have had, for some women, a legitimating effect, allowing them to name their desires, lessening their sense of isolation or confusion. (p 141).
So here we have the process of revolution in sexuality among women of the era, which came to be followed by the manliness in male writers. In Chapter 5, ‘Taking poetry seriously? Manliness in Fairburn and Glover’, Newton says:
The nationalist paradigm was forged by men, who wrote according to its parameters, were validated by it and have continued to be valued in light of it. At the centre of this chapter are the two male poets who most explicitly illustrate this argument. The canonical profiles of Glover and Fairburn rest on bodies of work that in each case are slender and uneven; but they wrote the kinds of poems that the moment made possible, and in the fantasmatic economy of literary reputation they have been richly rewarded. (p 189).
Hard Frost heralds a lucidly argued work with wit, subtlety and sophistication. The deftness of phrasing owes something to the passion and insight with which Newton writes. The fluent and unhurried cadences of his writing are flexible enough to accommodate wide-ranging shifts of tone from the serious to the poignant, but his work is always thoughtful, alive and humming with possibility. Hard Frost is that rare thing: a collection lucidly argued that gives the reader insight into the revolution in sexuality in some of New Zealand’s most famous writers.
 John Newton taught for two years in the English Department at Melbourne and from 1995 to 2009 in the English Department at the University of Canterbury. He now lives in Wellington.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).