Spinster as a Work of Art

Ian Richards

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'In no time I have lost the rights to the story. It is told emphatically and graphically and severally in different mediums of English and on various pitches, with argument and excitement and stand-up actions, and with vast appreciation from the large audience, far more vividly than I ever could, until, near the end, out of pride alone, I determine to battle my way back into it. After all it was my story and I had it first.' Spinster[89].

In 1955 a 47-year-old New Zealand woman named Sylvia Ashton-Warner, living in obscurity in the backblocks of the country's North Island, had her first novel accepted for publication by Secker and Warburg in London. The manuscript had already been rejected by New Zealand publishers, but now Ashton-Warner's dreams of artistic glory were to come true--emphatically true, almost to the level of fantasy. Entitled Spinster, her novel was eventually published in 1958 and was an immediate success.(1) The first two printings sold out within months and a U.S. edition was arranged by the American publishers Simon and Schuster. On its debut in America Spinster was even more successful; it became a bestseller and was listed by Time magazine as one of the ten best books of the year. Soon MGM bought up the film rights and a dreadful movie version of the novel appeared in 1961: Two Loves, starring Shirley MacLaine and Laurence Harvey, and filmed entirely in Hollywood. In New Zealand Spinster joined a group of significant works--Ian Cross's The God Boy, Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry, M.K. Joseph's I'll Soldier No More and Ruth France's The Race--which were all published within a short period in the late 1950s and which led to a feeling amongst the local literary scene that the New Zealand novel had at last arrived.

Meanwhile, Ashton-Warner was still living in the backblocks and still attempting to juggle the many demands of her life--her work as a teacher, her marriage, care for her children and her creative ambitions--and it was soon clear that she had not the slightest idea of how to react to sudden fame. She did not give interviews, she spurned fans, rejected honours and even refused membership of P.E.N. or an entry in Who's Who in New Zealand.(2) Lynley Hood's biography of Ashton-Warner, Sylvia!, suggests that Ashton-Warner had a remarkably self-constructed personality--something she shared with many New Zealand writers of the mid-twentieth century--and that this, as much as the unprecedented nature of her fame, may explain why she desired to avoid public scrutiny. For artistically-minded people of the period just becoming a writer at all in New Zealand's narrow and anti-intellectual environment was an achievement, an effort requiring a massive expenditure of will and the isolation of the self from society. It can be no surprise that the compensatory creation of a heroic, though fragile, personality often went hand in hand with the creation of works of literature. Several more novels by Ashton-Warner followed, along with a spectacularly popular non-fiction book entitled Teacher which earned her cult status overseas as an educator, and a memoir which won the New Zealand Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1980.(3) Nevertheless, Ashton-Warner continued to make no secret of her disdain for her philistine native land. She even committed the sin of preferring to leave the country and to live for some time overseas. Spinster remains her most successful novel, and it is still one of the most successful literary novels ever published by a New Zealander, but it is not entirely unfair to suggest that Ashton-Warner rejected the New Zealand literary world in her own lifetime and that New Zealand literature rejected Ashton-Warner after her death.

Spinster has largely been forgotten, and the forgetting started early. Frank Sargeson, in a private letter to Janet Frame, encapsulated much of the lukewarm reaction amongst the literary community to the novel's publication when he observed: 'I decided her novel was a freak affair of strange but genuine distinction'.(4) Indeed, contemporary commentators seemed convinced that there was something a bit messy about the novel; it received little sustained critical attention during Ashton-Warner's lifetime and it has earned almost none thereafter. In 1963 Allen Curnow complained in an essay on Bill Pearson's recently published Coal Flat that: 'There is something starved and formless about the novel where characters lack precise orientation within a world whose limits are known, and known to be established objectively', and he then used Spinster as his example in contrast to Coal Flat's desirable specificity.(5) M.H. Holcroft thought Spinster was flawed by emotionalism and sentimentality.(6) In 1969 Dennis McEldowney published an extensive piece on Ashton-Warner in Landfall and carefully observed connections between her life and the common threads that tend to run through her novels. He explained that Ashton-Warner's novels, including Spinster, suffered from a problem of 'embodying emotion in acceptable form, or any form at all; as it were of grounding it', and with minimal evidence he announced this a weakness common to New Zealand women writers.(7) C.K. Stead, in a much more appreciative essay first published in The London Review of Books in 1981, praised Ashton-Warner's writing as 'not hidebound by forms and decorums and literary convention'.(8) But when Stead's essay was republished in revised form in his collection Kin of Place in 2002, he noted in the introduction his own disappointment that his advocacy, along with the increase of interest in New Zealand women writers fuelled by Feminism, had not led to any revival of interest in Ashton-Warner's work.(9) Lynley Hood's Sylvia! won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award in 1989 but it did not result in any greater critical attention for Ashton-Warner's novels. The place or role of Spinster in the New Zealand literary canon, as one slowly begins to form, remains far from secure. The novel has been described with the oxymoron 'minor classic', although New Zealand literature is hardly so replete with classics as to have a second tier of masterpieces.(10)

Just as importantly, Spinster also failed to stay popular with the reading public once its initial vogue had passed. One reason for this appears to be the personality of its protagonist, Anna Vorontosov, the spinster-teacher of the novel's title. Anna teaches infants in a rural New Zealand school, and most of the pupils in her charge are poor and Maori. The novel's first half develops her growing relationship with Paul Vercoe, a handsome but troubled young teacher-in-training who has just begun work at the school. Anna and Paul grow close, but Anna rejects Paul's advances while unaware that he is at the same time sleeping with a pupil named Whareparita, who is legally underage. Whareparita becomes pregnant with twins, who then miscarry and die, and Paul kills himself. The second half of the novel then deals with Anna's development of the 'key vocabulary', a breakthrough she has made in the teaching of reading to her Maori pupils. At the same time she becomes infatuated with Mr W.W.J. Abercrombie, a Senior Inspector from the Department of Education, who has seen the potential in her new approach to teaching. Anna becomes excited about her prospects, but when she receives no improvement in her grade as a teacher from the Board of EducationIs inspectors, she appears to renounce teaching and leave the country. Thus whatever Anna's charms may have been for readers in the 1950s, she seems unappealing in a Feminist-influenced world because she never fits easily into the category of the outright female victim nor of the self-empowering independent woman. To our contemporary tastes she is strong and weak in the wrong places. She is clearly tough and a survivor, and yet she remains frightened of sexual intimacy with men (and perhaps even of emotional intimacy) and she is sadly in awe of male authority-figures like inspectors. She is capable of acting the equal of Paul Vercoe, but she can then be submissively shy about him almost on the same page. Anna is a non-conformist and she works day and night to improve the lives of the Maori children in her care, yet she is crippled with guilt over her teaching style and feels no special identification with the members of the local Maori community, nor with any other downtrodden people in the book. Anna has achieved a hard-won independence, and yet instead of attempting to step outside of society's label 'spinster' she seems repressed and fearful. Indeed, it seems to be Anna's mercurial nature, as much as any single attitude on her part, which frustrates the expectations of contemporary readers.

This same complaint of frustrating expectations might be made about Anna's creator. The current trend towards seeing the writer's personal authenticity as the key to merit in a work, even with a work of fiction, has not served Ashton-Warner well. Ashton-Warner could be eccentric, self-absorbed and silly as her biography shows, though in this she is no different from legions of other authors. Nonetheless, V.S. Naipaul has noted that: 'A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others'.(11) Lionel Trilling famously complained of an unhelpful legend surrounding Jane Austen, and the perceived myth for Sylvia Ashton-Warner is of the dotty married woman who wrote a book about a spinster and then dared to criticise her own country when she became a success.(12) Ashton-Warner's later fame as an educator has also further encouraged the view, prevalent on the book's publication, that Spinster is just a poorly fictionalised account of her own teaching life and amounts to 'pedagogical propaganda in fictional form'.(13) To read Spinster fruitfully now, therefore, it seems best to segregate the book from its creator and from her professional and private life. Likewise it seems useful to examine Spinster separately from the distraction of Ashton-Warner's other written works, since they are books that insist on deriving from, or impinging on, her most famous novel. How does Spinster appear as a work of art when it is finally viewed in isolation?

The first and crucial step to any consideration of Spinster--and to bringing some order to its messy nature--is a decision on how to read passages such as the following, where Anna breaks down before the Headmaster, Mr Reardon, over the disappearance of her fellow teacher, Paul Vercoe.

All at once I fall into a deep crying. I'm just lost in it. I feel the Head patting me helplessly on the shoulder. 'My little mother fell by the wayside,' I tell him, 'but not from lack of courage.'

'I'll notify the Board, Madame Voronotosov.'

The bell has well gone and the assembly waits noisily unattended. Then we hear the leaders take over and silence.

'I'm terribly sorry you have been upset over this business.'

'I want to go to Kazakhstan,' I cry harder: my cream smock is drenched with handkerchief duty, 'where her little person lies. My father took her on with him in the cart with me.'

'Don't cry, Madame. Don't cry.'

'I want to go to Kazakhstan. Her black hair won't be dead yet.' Marvellous things are happening in the lines. We hear the smart orders of the leaders, the tread of orderly feet and the leaders take over in both classrooms.

'You take the day off.' He pats my shoulder diligently.[153-4]

Is Anna really talking to the Headmaster about her past in Kazakhstan, or is she only imagining that she does? Because Spinster is presented from Anna's point of view, with its author above the fray in the usual Modernist fashion, the novel provides no clear answer. In fact, since the novel is related almost entirely in a form of stream of consciousness, very little useful background detail is provided for us about Anna at all. She mentions that her hair 'being black, picks up anything in the air'[16], but it is unclear whether she is tall or short, or large or small, and we cannot really see how she might look to others. Instead, however, we are always aware of what Anna is thinking or feeling, as conveyed through the subtlety of Ashton-Warner's language. Although Modernist authors are supposed to remain absent from their texts, such writers occasionally use dialogue or the insertion of more objective pieces of writing to hint at some kind of distanced perspective on their unreliable protagonists, but Ashton-Warner--even though she includes portions of the Maori children's conversation and writing in her novel--does almost nothing to offer us any perspective separate from Anna's. A rare example of Ashton-Warner getting around the limitations of Annas point of view is when Percy Girlgrace, Paul Vercoe's replacement at the school, points out to Anna the names of her important visitors: 'Professor Montifiore and Doctor Augustus from the University'[222], after Anna has nervously forgotten to remember their self-introductions except as: 'Mr This and Mr That'[218].

Without any wider frame of reference to help us, an assumption thus has to be made about Anna's reliability as a narrator. It can only be an assumption, and it is one which will influence our entire understanding of the novel. Dennis McEldowney reads melodramatic statements like: 'I want to go to Kazakhstan'[153] as coming directly out of Anna's mouth, and therefore he naturally reaches the conclusion that this forms 'a disintegration of the novel' which leads through a failure of language 'to the world of the romantic novels'.(14) Similarly, Allen Curnow writes of Anna: 'She leaves us, for nowhere, to consummate her implausible romance'.(15) Indeed, if what is happening on the page is merely a reportage of the novel's own action without any distortion occurring through the mediation of Anna's mind, then Spinster is inevitably a rather dull melodrama, at times formulaic (as in its treatment of Paul Vercoe as a love interest), at times silly (such as the unconvincing notion that Anna Vorontosov is an emigre from the Kazakh steppes) and always as poorly grounded as McEldowney has claimed. But it is worth observing that in the passage above the Headmaster never responds directly to Anna's talk of Kazakhstan. It may be that Anna's sudden speech about her dead mother is something like an internal soliloquy which only appears to be spoken aloud. Anna, after all, is still dealing with the shock of the recent death of her pupil Whareparita's babies and of any inkling she has about their paternity. The details of the assembly, the Headmaster's words and his touch on Anna's shoulder may anchor the story in time and place, but it is quite possible that much of the remainder of the passage is heavily influenced by the thoughts raging in Anna's mind, with a great deal that she would like to say not in fact said out loud at all, and with no clear boundary between fantasy and reality precisely because Anna is not able to provide such a boundary. Moreover, in the same passage, when the Headmaster has finished consoling Anna, she announces: 'I didn't mean to say all that. I was only going to say that his "is not an ill for mending"'[154]. The quotation Anna makes is from A.E. Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad', and after it two long quotations follow in the midst of the narrative itself, both taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem 'My own heart let me have more pity on', which further confuses the integrity of the text. Anna may well feel that she has been talking about Kazakhstan, but just how much in this jumble has Anna actually said out loud to another character?

To make the assumption that nothing about Kazakhstan is spoken out loud because the novel's action is located more or less totally within Anna's mind--and this essay will proceed on exactly such an assumption--is to read Spinster as a complex and fascinating story mediated in its entirety through the psychology of a spinster-teacher, a person who has an almost cliched sense of melodrama and a histrionic strain of self-pity. There are, furthermore, a few valuable clues suggesting that Ashton-Warner may have intended the novel to be read in just this way. One is that, in all the outlandish passages involving Anna's Kazakh past in the book, other characters never actually respond to such outbursts or question them. This holds true for the other Romantic, melodramatic types of passages in the book as well. When Anna talks to the Headmaster about her drinking, at first denying that she is any kind of drinker, she then launches into a sudden confessional monologue beginning: 'I used to drink myself to school until W.W. put me at my ease about Inspectors, and I still drink myself to church, and I like sherry with Schubert on Saturday night. But all that extra with Paul was out of character'[143]. Once these revelations are concluded, however, Anna notes: 'I lay a hand on my cheek, trusting that the Head's mind is still turned away. I couldn't speak like this if I knew it were turned towards me'[14]. Similarly, when Anna slips a mention of her old lover Eugene (who seems connected with her Kazakh past) into an exchange with Percy Girlgrace, the gossipy Percy fails to acknowledge this conversational titbit.

'Madame! Surely you've learnt not to take Inspectors seriously by now.'

'I've learnt not to blame them by now. Eugene taught me not to blame others for our own misfortunes. If I'm nervous it is because of my own failings. The mistakes have been mine all along.'

'If you didn't expect anything you wouldn't be nervous. You'd be sitting in another teacher's room this minute, aidling away the taime like me.' He sways a fashionable foot.[229]

Anna talks to others about her remarkable past as 'the Vorontosov'[150] and about her secrets, but they never talk to her about such matters.

A further clue suggesting that there may be fantasy at the heart of Anna's view of herself is that Ashton-Warner makes no effort at all to have her protagonist seem exotic. New Zealand in the 1950s contained a small but very visible population of refugees who had escaped war-torn Europe, but Anna in no way resembles them. She speaks English in a perfectly natural manner--it is Paul Vercoe who speaks in stilted language--and she is comfortable with Kiwi items of vocabulary such as 'pre-fab'[141] and 'stopbank'[51, 188, 205], or with an expression such as: 'He laughs like anything'[23]. She does not find New Zealand's iron roofs or cabbage trees unusual and she accepts late-night shopping on Fridays without comment.(16) Anna does not even seem to feel any particular sense of distance from her environment. On the contrary, she is remarkably adept at understanding Maori culture and the nuances behind the indirect form of conversation adopted by Rauhuia, the grandfather of one of her pupils, when he asks her 'to protect Matawhero'[37]. Once she even speaks Maori among her Maori charges: 'He mea nui rawa atu ki te ako i aku...tamariki maori'[116]. On one rare occasion in which Anna thinks like an outsider, she notes: 'Marriage means a lot in New Zealand circles'[254], but since marriage is a stressful topic for Anna it is not a surprise that she might retreat somewhat into fantasy when pondering it. Anna also thinks of 'wounded pride, so developed in New Zealand men'[17], similarly suggesting that it is when considering relations with the opposite sex that she feels least at home.

Indeed, yet another clue that Kazakhstan may not be real is that, for Anna, thinking about her exotic past seems to be a reaction to stress and serves as a form of psychological retreat. Kazakhstan makes its first major appearance in the novel when Anna drives Paul Vercoe out of her house, having previously thought in a moment of weakness of giving herself to him. At the same time she is still acting in denial that Paul is the father of Whareparita's now dead twin babies. After Anna announces that: 'I refused myself to a leader of men'[149], presumably meaning Eugene, she works herself up into a fury and, just prior to striking Paul, shouts: 'I am the Vorontosov! My father's home was on the steppes of Kazakhstan. He broke in that wilderness. By God, I'll break your wilderness!'[150].(17) This strange passage may herald not so much McEldowney's 'disintegration of the novel' as the disintegration of Anna's mind. Exactly how Anna sends Paul away is unclear, but it is unlikely to have been in the operatic manner that Anna offers up as her version of the event--the facts are elsewhere, outside Anna's own perspective and ours. Anna entertains fantasies about returning to Kazakhstan and working in a laundry. Her largely self-creating melodramas may have their origin in her Russian surname (Vorontosov is a historically famous Russian family name), but they always occur at moments of great psychological pressure in the book: rejecting Paul Vercoe, anticipating a bad grade as a teacher from the Board of Education's inspectors and, at the close of the novel, Anna's fears of a bad grade being proven correct.(18) In contrast, during the period in the novel when Anna feels happiest, which is when she enjoys the interest and the 'aura of protection'[190] of Mr Abercrombie, the Senior Inspector, and she is able to indulge in her attraction to him, Anna observes: 'I have stopped thinking about another country and soap-suds to play with all day long'[190]. She even notes, 'the past is gradually and surely changing from its characteristically vivid inner life to no more than humus for the mind to draw on, and in the wide, wide world behind my eyes, before so sodden and damned with memory, now concerns itself with the present'[217].

In any case, to make an assumption about how reliable or realistic Anna's outlandish statements in Spinster may be requires a consideration of just how deeply the narrative is embedded within Anna's psyche. Anna is fond of using the expression 'the world behind my eyes'[45] throughout the novel, suggesting that she is conscious of having an active imagination. Even from very early in the book she also makes it plain that hers is a mind with no 'top layer'[8], an expression which is repeated on several occasions in Spinster with variations, and which seems to indicate that Anna believes she has a particularly open and vulnerable mentality that is appearing to us, as it were, unfiltered.(19) We are thus clearly meant to read the narrative as located far down within Anna's mind. Interestingly, however, at first glance the book's seemingly straightforward use of language does not entirely reinforce this, a feature which contributes somewhat to the novel's sense of messiness. For Spinster is not written in the pure stream of consciousness of, for example, Molly Bloom's flowing interior monologue in the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses. Similarly, Anna's thoughts seldom break into an objective narrative in the staccato-note form that typifies Leopold Bloom or Stephen Dedalus's thinking in the first half of Joyce's novel: a style that shows up as distinct and obvious among the more conventional past-tense storytelling. Instead, unlike Ulysses, Spinster's writing is in the present tense and not especially avant-garde, and yet all of it seems to be involved in Anna's stream of consciousness: the narrative, the depictions of other characters and even the dialogue. Spinster reads as if Anna is always aware of our presence and is telling us the whole story in a confidential way even as things happen.(20) This telling is not a reminiscence but something which stands between us as readers and the objective truth of the story at every point while the events actually unfold. Thus there is also an element of performance to what constitutes Anna's stream of consciousness--despite her professions of having no top layer to her mind--which is unusual in literature. It is unusual because literary writing tends to employ stream of consciousness as a means of stripping away performance and of getting behind a character's speech and actions to the essence of the character's personality contained within an otherwise objective narrative. But in Spinster, regardless of the many trappings of conventional objectivity in the novel's use of language, nothing can be read as completely trustworthy.

It is perhaps of interest to note in passing that, when Modernist authors do not provide clues to any larger frame of reference outside the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator, this is often done in order to present the mentality of a madman. Probably this is axiomatic, since the greater the gap between reality and a person's perception of reality then the more likely it is that the person will be insane. A typical example of such a book is Ernesto Sabato's 1948 novel The Tunnel, where the protagonist, a demented painter named Juan Pablo Castel, describes why he has killed his lover, Maria Iribarne. The novel sticks rigidly to Castel's point of view and the obsessive process of his thoughts. Although it is clear that Castel's strange but logical analysis of his relationship with Maria is the product of a diseased mind, Sabato offers us no wider frame of reference with which to judge just how far from the truth Castel has strayed, or even what little he may have got right about the unhappy relationship. As readers we are just as trapped in Castel's mad point of view as is Castel himself, and thus we are unable to see or assess any alternative version of events. We must struggle to understand Maria's motives and actions through the narrow, tunnel-like perspective we are given. Castel's paranoia about what may really be going on soon mirrors our own reading experience. But unlike Spinster, from the very first sentence, in which Castel confesses to the killing of his lover, The Tunnel offers plenty of clues as to how it should be read.

Though by no means uniquely idiosyncratic, Ashton-Warner's unusual method of recording Anna's thinking offers us what is ultimately a highly artificial style. But this is a style of writing buoyed by the shifts of tone and the vibrancy of its language, and it disguises its artificiality because it is so expertly done. Since everything involves a telling, Anna's confidentiality can both unify the language and yet also allow variety. Within a single page there may be a ellipsis which seems to indicate a pause and deepening in Anna's thoughts as they are conveyed to us ('Standing among the Little Ones outside in the trodden frost, and with infinitesimal Lotus in my arms I look back into those years of Inspectors...yes, as an Infant Mistress, I fail all right'[12]), while a few paragraphs later Anna may briefly explain her children's ways to us in an aside ('"Course!" supplies the chorus. "Course" is their abbreviation of "Of course"'[12]). Remarkably, such drastic changes of tone never seem to jar, and it is to Ashton-Warner's credit that Anna's language, her relentless, swift and versatile telling, keeps this jumble pleasurable.

However, the text's comparative artificiality is further complicated by the interpolations, which often appear as discrete sections, presenting the speech and writing of the children under Anna's care. Intensely charming as these isolated interpolations are, the novel once again offers no clue about just how they relate to Anna's thinking or to the book's overall narrative method. Yet somehow the interpolations feel contained within Anna's perspective. The children's speeches, beginning early in Spinster with: '"Miss Vorontosov," inquires Mohi, "how old do you weigh?"'[5], feel as if they break into Anna's narrating voice and thoughts from somewhere outside in the wider world, and often they include Anna's replies. The same feeling of intrusion from beyond applies also to the snippets of the children's writing that appear, beginning with '"I had a good day last night," writes Mohi'[24]. Writing of this sort is composed within the classroom and thus has a strong impact on Anna's interior world.(21) But there is little helpful consistency to the manner in which these speeches or writings are presented in the book. Some other dialogues amongst the Maori children in the novel appear within the more standard narrative text and are not isolated into discrete sections in the way that the interpolations are. An example is when Matawhero complains: 'Aw hell I hate writing'[224] in the course of a conversation within a standard portion of the text, while Anna persuades him to write to his dying grandfather, though this conversation occurs shortly before the carefully written and finished letter appears as an interpolation in textual isolation. There are also places in the novel where lengthy quotations from poetry appear within the standard portions of the narrative without isolation, and so are presumably part of Anna's thoughts. A good example is Anna musing over some tea and a book of poetry on the question of 'how other people handle their memories...'[22], which is followed by a six-line quotation from Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's poem 'To Memory'. The quotation is then itself interrupted by: 'Oh...! The bell!'[22]. All this is messiness indeed.

Thus even classifications which might usually be employed by critics to tidy up a novel, like 'standard' narrative, 'isolation' and 'discrete sections', are misleading in relation to Spinster, a book which shows an almost Post-Modern disinclination to respect conventional boundaries. The entire novel proceeds through a series of vignettes located in Anna's mind, some long and some short, although these never generate any sense that the story--or even the stream of Anna's consciousness, such as it may be--is heavily broken up. The vignettes and even the interpolations among them are separated by breaks in the text of varying size, but again with no discernable pattern. The sizes of the breaks do not appear to be related to gaps in time or shifts of topic. Their inconsistency is such that on one occasion in the book, when Anna has visitors in her classroom to view her key vocabulary in operation, ellipses and a paragraph break are used instead of a textual break to substitute for a temporal gap.

Mr Abercrombie strides over to the piano and closes the lid upon Tai's melancholy octaves and sends him back to his room and here we are having reading all over again...

...After school, while the sweepers wait outside the door with their brooms, laconically challenging each other, the four of us sit on the low tables and thrash it out.[221]

Somewhat later, near the end of the story and perhaps to suggest the damaged state of Anna's mind, an ellipsis even starts one vignette after the normal textual break in the narrative: '...For a few days I teach quietly on, neither speaking nor touching my Little Ones'[256]. There are also several seemingly random page breaks early and near the middle of the novel[44, 49, 70, 142, 165], two of which[49, 70] are headed with quotations from poetry (by Gerard Manley Hopkins) although the others are not.

This peculiar totality of stream of consciousness and inconsistency of patterning amount to an immense instability in the text, but it is an instability which is by no means all accidental--some instances are obviously meant to be playful. To contrive this playfulness, Ashton-Warner has made certain facts in the novel deliberately vague and malleable, and they are offered up in the same sort of variety as the endlessly amusing errors that Anna's pupils tend to make with the name Voronotosov. Despite retaining a convincing aura of realism, Spinster is never consistent about such fundamental details as Anna's age, how many pupils there are in her class, or the sexual nature of her past relationship with Eugene. This is precisely because such information is rooted solely in Anna's often evasive mind. Anna tells the Headmaster: 'There are three things I never disclose. One is my age, one is my bank account and one is the thing that is worrying me'[152]. Furthermore, other details about Anna's life which we might reasonably expect to learn are never supplied at all, such as how long Anna has been teaching at her school. Certainly Anna remembers 'how wild were my thoughts of resigning last year when the grading came out'[188], suggesting that for her stress, unhappiness and dreams of escape may have an annual cycle. When the summer holidays approach she thinks of contacting 'the Lodge' with 'that cabin for me on the Lakeshore'[187], as if she has had a regular holiday arrangement for several years in a row. In addition, many of Anna's comments also indicate that she has been in the teaching profession for a long time, as when she mentions that her 'yearsful of mistakes'[199] constitute: 'All the work of my youth'[86]. But just how long Anna has been at the school, the size of the school, even the size of the town Anna lives in and its name and location, are never defined or explained, because Spinster does not supply any information outside of Anna's immediate and changeable perspective.(22) Indeed, it is not the facts of Anna's life but rather her feelings, no matter how mercurial they may be, which make up the certitudes of the book.

Despite this vagueness concerning the background of Anna's narrative, however, Ashton-Warner herself can be impeccably meticulous about other details in the novel when they do impinge on Anna's consciousness. At the book's start Anna sits in 'the corridor in the Big School'[16] amid coats and shoes, although the reason for this is not supplied until much later: some carpenters are 'walling off the corridor for a staff room'[52]. Still later the new staff room is completed. Similarly, the cabbage trees which Anna tries to save at the beginning of Spinster are removed and a new infant room is built, all with admirable internal coherence within the book. Ashton-Warner is likewise careful about foreshadowing major events such as Wareparita's pregnancy, Paul's suicide and the discovery of the key vocabulary. Even the novel's collections of tiny vignettes are neatly organised into five large sections that are labelled in accordance with the changing seasons, with each section very roughly half the size of the one that precedes it.(23) Spinster begins by establishing a typical working day for Anna, then moves through Anna's relationship with Paul for approximately the first half of the novel and develops Anna's relationship with Mr Abercrombie and the discovery of the key vocabulary in the second half.(24) Thus, along with getting the details right, Ashton-Warner makes the novel's large-scale structure a model of stability itself.

Spinster is also intricately bound together in a more organic manner, largely through devices of repetition. One obvious example is the repeated interpolations of the Maori children's speech and writings, which despite their inconsistency of form early commentators were quick to notice appear somewhat like a chorus to the book's action.(25) The frequency and charm of the interpolations does a lot to help unify the book. Another unifying device is the use of simple motifs--Anna's mind having no top layer, legs clasping her neck as guilt, the two volcanic vents of creativeness and destructiveness, the idea of thee and me--which are introduced with care and mostly in the early pages of the novel. Indeed, Spinster is at its weakest when Ashton-Warner eschews this sort of organic simplicity and tries to impose more sophisticated, 'literary' touches upon the book to add unity, such as the quotations from poetry that are sprinkled about in the text or set up as epitaphs. These include snippets from Kipling, Mary Coleridge, Hopkins, Spender, Tennyson, Dowson and Longfellow, among others. Most of these poets were noticeably old-fashioned even for the 1950s, although they are conceivably poets an artistically-minded spinster might like. In addition, Ashton-Warner occasionally tries to be too literary in her dialogue, such as the following self-consciously 'clever' exchange over a cup of tea between Anna and Paul about the visit of an inspector.

'Make it strong! Make it strong! Put real tannin in it. Put brandy in it. Put bromide in it! Put anything in it. Shoes, coats, cats, chalk....Must I meet this man, Mr Reardon? Save me from this monster, Mr...'

'Madame, Madame V'ront'sov. Drink this and you will be monster-proof. You will be, will be...shall we say...obsession-proof. I,' he claims grandiloquently, 'am the Tender of obsessions!'[56]

Such interlocutions in the novel may be examples of Ashton-Warner writing pompously in something like a provincial imitation of real literature, or they may instead be further instances of the novel's action being mediated through Anna's extravagant and Romantic imagination. Unfortunately, though, at the level of language in the text these exchanges of clever dialogue offer little to distinguish good writing from bad.

Almost all of the clever and stagy dialogue in Spinster involves Paul, which leads to the question of how we should read Paul himself when, once again, few indicators are offered by the book. Paul accounts for a lot of the melodrama in the story--for a twentieth-century novel Spinster has a considerable amount of melodrama--and he exists in the narrative mostly as a Romantic, Byronic figure. This is certainly how Anna sees him, and it seems to be how Paul sees himself, but this aspect of his character is seldom convincing for us as readers. The nature of Anna's relationship with Paul is also unconvincing. Anna is endlessly flirtatious with Paul and yet she is always coy about any real intimacy, while he on the other hand appears to be constantly drawn to her, as if she were a femme fatale who is experienced in seduction and matters of the heart. When Paul meets Anna in the town on a Friday night, he leans drunkenly against the window of her car and pronounces her 'the most fascinating women I have ever met!'[62], although Ashton-Warner supplies very little build-up in the novel for this intensity of passionate interest. Anna responds to this advance from Paul as though she were a little tempted. But then she drives him home and, on the way, she loses any desire for him that she might have.

Nevertheless, Paul's attentions are unrelenting, and Anna continues to alternate between the temptations of her interest in him, usually expressed with a worldly-wise suavity, and an icy aloofness which seems based on fear and inexperience. When dancing with Paul at the school ball and feeling aroused, Anna tells him: '"I want," I begin, "to be your home"'[77]. But despite a great deal of flirtatious talk that follows this announcement, Anna soon begins thinking of Paul in a non-sexual way as 'the son that I refused Eugene'[78], or as one of her Little Ones, the children in her charge. On one occasion Anna intuits, as if with the social antenna of a sophisticate, that she is about to hear 'the classic "I love you", the routine declaration'[74] from Paul (and she is left disappointed when he does not oblige). But later in the novel, in a manner that is not at all sophisticated, Anna offers up a naive and obvious Freudian slip when she observes 'Paul coming up the aisle, I mean the street'[158]. Anna acknowledges that Paul's good looks are 'straight off a magazine cover'[17], but she can also think of him in a much more distanced fashion as 'just a young man dissatisfied with his job and looking for a little normal comfort'[105]. At times she even refers to him comically as 'Shall-we-say'[35, 63]. It is plain, then, that Anna values Paul's attentiveness rather more than Paul himself; she finds his attraction to her is more invigorating than his physical presence. This may help explain why, after Paul's suicide, Anna can so quickly and easily fill his place in her emotional life with that of the inspector, Mr Abercrombie, when the inspector exhibits a growing interest in her educational methods.

But just how much are we to believe Paul's character as presented to us? Everything about Paul is counterfeit or comes out of literature. Anna thinks of him from almost the first pages of Spinster as if he were a remarkable and somewhat mysterious man, but when eventually Paul appears in the novel in person he proceeds to use the strangely stilted manner of speaking that will be typical of him.

'Blessed are they,' he observes in an unnecessarily loud voice, 'who have their battles fought for them. I--I mean, Miss V'ront'sov,' he says, missing no less than two syllables of my name, 'that the wind blows you good luck.'[17]

From this Anna quickly deduces that Paul is not a New Zealander. Over the course of the book Paul also hints that he was 'turned out of the orphanage'[78] and went to sea, and that he was a patient at 'the Naval Psychological Hospital in England'[107]. This is exciting and dramatic, but it invites the question of how, despite being a foreigner with a possible history of mental health problems, Paul has become accredited as a primary school teacher-in-training in New Zealand, even if there exists an 'Emergency Course in which teachers are trained in half the time to meet twice the difficulties of the staff shortages'[5].(26) Paul's background, though vague, is rough and Romantic, and yet he seems unusually cultivated. He is able to quote Balzac and Trollope, and is knowledgeable about the now obscure poet Francis Thompson. As a result Anna thinks there is 'a mixture of culture and gutter in his voice'[5]. Later in the book, when professing his sexual attraction to Anna, Paul wishes that he and she 'could have a holiday on the continent together'[71], as if they were conducting their relationship in Britain. Paul even nurses artistic ambitions, as a singer and then as a writer, hoping in a somewhat naive way to use art to 'talk to the world'[81] and thus achieve a form of personal validation. The egotism behind these aspirations seems to doom them, but significantly both of these artistic projects require Anna's help and encouragement. This is because, in addition to everything else, Paul is self-pitying and, for a young man who has apparently experienced so much, he is surprisingly immature.

But again, how much of what is presented can be trusted as the real Paul, since his character is mediated so totally through Anna's thoughts? Is he the ridiculously pompous figure who appears in passages such as: 'He bows profoundly. "Praise," he observes. "How simple a thing to so, so...shall we say...exalt!"'[105]. Does Paul really speak with the stiff, over-correct manner of an upper-class European (at least as they appear in romance fiction), a manner which Anna herself never uses, despite her being ostensibly from remote Kazakhstan. Once more, the book offers us few clues as to how much we should accept Anna's version of Paul as accurate, but two salient factors are worth taking into consideration. The first is how much Paul resembles Anna. At one point Anna complains to the Headmaster about Paul: 'He's got no respect for law and order and custom. He doesn't care what other people think'[139], a complaint rich with dramatic irony since it applies equally to Anna and her unorthodox teaching methods. Paul's instability, his drinking, his artistic ambitions and his underlying desire to find validation from others through them, his dubious foreignness, his nervousness and his histrionics, even his sexual behaviour in terms of how he acts teasingly towards Anna without making any genuine physical advances, all mirror Anna herself. Anna appears to have cast Paul in her thoughts as a minor version of her own personality. (In contrast, she does not do this later with the inspector, Mr Abercrombie, who is presented as a more fatherly, protective individual.) It seems possible then that the real Paul may be much less a copy of Anna than the figure we are shown and forced to see through Anna's eyes.

One further clue that Paul's character may indeed be at variance with the way Anna perceives him--and moreover, it is a clue as to why his character might be so much more distorted than the other characters in the book--concerns Paul's secret relationship with Whareparita. Anna remains in denial about Paul's sexual connection with Whareparita all through the novel, so that at no point in Spinster does she ever admit, even to herself, that Paul is sleeping with an underage pupil and has fathered that pupil's twin babies. Yet Ashton-Warner, the author, is at pains to show us that Paul is without doubt having sex with Whareparita, that he is certainly the father of her children and that Anna is therefore deceiving herself. Hints of the relationship appear early in the book, such as Whareparita's mysterious collapse when playing on the basketball (netball) field, which is probably due to the early stages of pregnancy. This causes Anna to ruminate: 'There was something else the matter with her. What was it? Oh, something under my nose, I suppose.'[33] On another occasion while Paul is casually flirting with Anna, and Anna in turn is assuring Paul that her feelings are 'strictly maternal'[73], Whareparita walks past and has her good looks described in considerable detail by Ashton-Warner, so that Paul 'appraises the flowing body of Whareparita and does not reply for a moment'[73]. There is clearly a great deal more to Paul than Anna is ever willing to let us see. It is thus worth raising the question--unanswerable in a novel limited so thoroughly to Anna's viewpoint--of whether Anna is, in fact, just a romantic distraction initiated by Paul so that world will not see where his true sexual interests are directed. Even Anna herself, when first contemplating Paul as a newly arrived teacher-in-training, wonders: 'Why has he chosen children? Why isn't he married, with a surplus of women after the war?'[5]. Is Anna perhaps being used by Paul precisely because she lives in such a fantastic space within her own head, so that she plays the role of Charlotte Haze, the unwitting mother in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, to Paul's sexually predatory Humbert Humbert?(27)

Anna's reaction to the revelation of Whareparita's pregnancy is necessarily complex. She is surprisingly unfazed by Whareparita's age--the girl has just turned thirteen--and she focuses all her attention instead on the thought of a man 'helping himself to a lovely child and bequeathing her the consequences'[126]. Anna resorts to coping through a form of black humour, cynically commenting to the Headmaster: 'Co-education de luxe'[127]. In her continued state of denial about Paul's involvement she does not understand why he can be 'so disgracefully happy'[127], but later, when Whareparita's unborn babies miscarry under somewhat mysterious circumstances, she observes Paul's sorrow and concludes that: 'Something has destroyed his equilibrium'[148].(28) Anna is then quick to cast herself in the role of the creator of Paul's evident unhappiness. Paul quits his job and she assumes that it is because she spurned his professions of interest in her the night before, when she angrily told him to 'get hold of a gun and blow your carrion inside out!'[150]. When Anna sees Whareparita a little later in town, dressed up and in the company of a shearing gang, she can only ask herself:

How could a young man like Paul, tuned up with want, possibly pass by a loveliness like that, day by day at school, to hound a witch like me? How can he not have desired her? Has his inclination for me been the reason he hasn't required her?[157]

This display of blinding egotism is the nearest Anna allows herself to come to guessing the truth, and its irony is the nearest the novel comes to providing a frame of reference that might allow us to judge just how far Anna's point of view is from forming an accurate account of events.(29)

Anna's depiction of Paul may not be accurate or even very convincing, but that Paul is a troubled young man is beyond any dispute, as he commits suicide after the death of Whareparita's babies and his subsequent departure from the school. Paul's death is not shown directly in Spinster--it occurs during one of the breaks in the book--and Anna's immediate reaction is also absent, so that her grief goes largely unrecorded. Instead, Ashton-Warner offers us the distant, icy Anna who focuses on the dark humour arising in the reaction of others to the grim situation. Anna notes how one of the parents of her pupils, tasked with cleaning up after Paul's suicide, says in the manner of Lady Macbeth: 'Oi never knew a man had so much blood in him!'[165]. Anna also calmly suggests, in the absence of any suitable alternative, that Paul's body should be laid out in her drawing room.(30) When this is done and she is left staring at Paul's corpse in its coffin, Anna reacts by shutting down her emotions, gliding quickly over how Paul's face resembles the faces of Whareparita's babies and thinking instead: 'I didn't understand you enough, Little One. I didn't have my key'[166]. Paul's place in Anna's emotional life is here reduced to the easily-managed level of a small failure in education.

Because the novel, as usual, reflects only Anna's state of mind, little heed is paid to the consequences of Paul's death and the story moves on quickly. The funeral appears only in the briefest form, with Anna in her continuing state of denial unable to understand Whareparita's expansive sorrow or why Paul is being interred with Whareparita's dead twins. To maintain her self-delusion Anna even choses to include gossip she overhears at the bus stop on how there couldn't have been 'a thing' between herself and Paul because, at the funeral: 'Miss Vorontosov did not drop one tear'[167]. Later Anna may insist that her heart is 'hourly tightened by the memory of Paul'[174], but in the absence of his attentions and importuning she gets over him in surprisingly short order. At the school Paul is replaced by a teacher named Percy Girlgrace whom Anna, with a remarkably new insightfulness, observes is gay. She notes, 'he would have been married by now had he met the right man'[160]. Percy is therefore separate from Anna's flirtatious interests, and her thoughts begin to focus more and more on Mr Abercrombie. Not only is Paul thus at variance from the man he appears to be in Spinster, but it seems that the reality of Anna's relationship with him, built on Paul's deception and Anna's denial, may also have been substantially different from the one presented to us at times through the medium of Anna's mind.

The sentimental fantasising in Anna's relations with Paul, and with men in general, stands in marked contrast to the unblinkered harshness of her attitude to race, and in particular to the Maori children around her. Anna sees the children in her care as made up of 'the brown, the few white and the brown-white of the New Race'[6]. She is keenly aware of the distinctiveness of racial differences, so that: 'Only in blood and by blood, claims my mind, can the races mix'[10]. In the same way racial distinctions, though usually without special prejudice towards any one racial group, form a routine aspect of her teaching practice. When Anna has new pupils in the class she complains to herself that 'these new entrants from the pa don't know what obedience is. Only the white ones sit down, and smartly'[203]. She announces that: 'No Maori I have met yet knows how to pour tea'[183] and also that Europeans 'don't dance at all unless it is suggested to them'[102]. Five-year-old Maori boys' 'attention span is about two seconds'[243]. A Pakeha boy in Anna's classroom, Mark Cutter, is 'a little white boy who likes the right things in the right place at the right time'[14] and is 'ugly and earnest and respectable and distressingly clean and forgets nothing'[26]. Even Irini's 'industry has plainly come from the Chinese half of her'[214]. Anna usually thinks quite consciously in terms of 'brown Rangi'[60] or 'white Mark'[26].

But above all, Anna's Maori children, who make up the overwhelming majority of her class, are characterised by her as unruly and violent. Sometimes this is shown through the distancing lens of comedy, as in the following passage:

'Miss Vottot!' cries little brown Ara, 'Seven he's got a knife! He's cutteen my stomat!'

'Whareparita, disarm Seven.'[25]

More often, however, violence is presented through the means of an unsettlingly frank reportage, especially in the interpolations that present the children's writing:

'Just because,' writes Rongo, whom I have been thinking the most adored child in Maoridom, until she took to writing,

'Daddy got wild

and so I got

wild because

Daddy was drunk.

Then he hit Rongo.'[175]

Plainly, Anna can perceive that the children's aggression and unruliness in her classroom is a reaction to poverty and a violent environment in the home. However, it should be noted that, for Anna, it is not only her Maori pupils who bring the consequences of domestic abuse into the school, so that her Pakeha pupil Dennis 'has the shifty eyes of the child thrashed too early by his mother'[15]. Nevertheless, the Maori rural poverty that triggers violence is often depicted shockingly in its deprivation:

'Daddy,' writes Blossom, his ton-weight boots still for a blessed moment, 'went shearing on the truck.

He took

the blankets with

him and. He

took the


Within the local Maori community family relations are collapsing, so that Anna can ask a pupil: 'How does he come to be your brother if he was once your cousin?' and is told: 'Mummie knows'[32]. Alcohol is an ever-present destructive force. Thus although Irini's mother doesn't have fourpence to pay for a school pencil, Anna is aware that 'this is the home where eighty-four pounds went down in drink one night last week; the child allowance for a family of ten and all the wool bonus for mothers'[25]. Occasionally, as in the above, a lesson concerning family breakdown can be gleaned directly from Anna's thoughts, but more often than not her observations require our active participation as readers at deducing the origins of domestic abuse. An example is when the Maori children (but significantly not the Pakeha children) are required to have T.B. tests that involve injections, and Anna notes that there is 'little of the uproar I have known elsewhere'[99]. We are left to infer that Maori stoicism has been forged in violence within the family. Moments like this in Spinster belie any suggestion that Ashton-Warner is merely a romance novelist.

Anna's opinions on race do not conform to the assimilationist view of the 1950s, which argued that all children were essentially the same and that Maori children needed only the proper encouragement to fit in with Pakeha norms. Even the Headmaster, a liberal assimilationist, looks forward to the time when he can raise the standards among his Maori pupils sufficiently for his school to become 'habitable for the white children who belong here. And who drive past this gate every day'[252]. Anna seems to share no such illusions. Her views result above all from the daily harassments of her job at the sharp end of education, and while those views are not pretty and are certainly not sentimental, Anna remains fundamentally well-disposed towards her Maori pupils, sensitive to their true needs and aware of the corrosive presumptions of white superiority prevalent in the society in which they must live. Race is an acute issue for Anna precisely because society makes it so. A good illustration of this is an outbreak of head lice in the class, a common problem in mid-twentieth century New Zealand schools and one often hysterically associated by middle-class parents of the time with poor Maori children. This incident occasions the visit to Anna of an indignant Pakeha mother referred to only as 'Parent Number One'[121]. The parent complains that she has found 'two dozen loive things'[122] in her son Patchy's hair. Anna's response is to have Whareparita comb the children's hair at school, and this in turn leads the mother of Mark Cutter to object to 'having a Maori to clean a white child's head'[135]. Mrs Cutter has already put her daughter in a private school to avoid what she terms the 'terrible Maoris'[80], and she explains to Anna that head lice is the reason 'all the white children left this school'[135]. Lice may, or may not, be the only reason for the shunning of the school by white parents, but it is a fact that Mark Cutter is one of the last remaining Pakeha pupils. Anna's views then, though the product of a sense of grim reality, are enlightened in comparison to the views of the majority of white people in the town. She even asks herself 'whose side am I on in these racial interchanges?'[15].

A further hint that Anna is well disposed towards her Maori pupils is the frequency and care with which their speech is recorded in Spinster--at least to the extent that such recording reflects the state of Anna's mind. Significantly, the children appear to be eloquent in the Maori language even if their English is limited, so that one child can tell Anna that he came from a school in 'Whakamaharatanga'[21], rolling the long name off his tongue, but when asked if his teacher there was old or young the same child can only answer ''ung'[21] in English.(31) Nevertheless, the unforced lyricism of the Maori children's English stands in notable contrast to the flat language used by the Pakeha children, and to the stilted language used by the Pakeha adults in their attempts to be polite, particularly by Paul. Indeed, the charm in the Maori children's speech often lies in the natural way that it subverts Pakeha expectations of civility, as when the children quiz Mr Abercrombie about his reasons for visiting Anna. A Maori boy named One-Pint opens the questioning:

'What you fulla come for?' he asks cheerfully.

'I came to see Miss Vorontosov.'

'You her boy-friend?' inquires Matawhero delicately.

'He got the grey whisker,' observes Seven.

'Who's your name?' asks Tame.

'How old are you?' asks Waiwini.

'Do you gets drunk?' checks up Bleeding Heart.

'Wead the B'ue Jug,' suggests Patchy.

'He might be an Inspector,' warns Mark, 'My mother said you've got to look out for Inspectors.'

'I read to you, ay,' Wiki nestles up to a leg-pillar.[111]

In the above exchange, as elsewhere in the novel, the Pakeha speakers have their speech rendered as bland and dull, like Mr Abercrombie and Mark Cutter, or as distorted by alterations to the spelling, like Patchy. In other parts of Spinster, for example, the Pakeha Parent Number One usually has her Kiwi vowel 'I' stretched to 'Oi', and a tighter, upper-class version of the same thing comes out of Percy Girlgrace's mouth as 'Ai'.(32) But the Maori children, in comparison, generally have their English rendered only through the more natural device of the manipulation of syntax, with the inclusion of an occasional word, such as 'fulla' or 'ay' above, indicating the specialized use of a word common in Maori English. On a linguistic level, then, the appeal of the Maori children's English comes not from any picaninny effect of rendering it as absurdly twee, but rather from its comparative lack of affectation within the context of the book, reinforcing its appearance of charming naturalness.

The second half of Spinster deals with Anna's teaching methods, their development and the reaction of the authorities to her innovations. In comparison to the previous sections that introduced Anna and followed her relationship with Paul Vercoe, the text in the novel's second half is much less ambiguous. This is because in order to show Anna's development as a teacher Ashton-Warner must supply something more of an objective frame of reference beyond the confines of Anna's mind--namely, more of the clues to a wider view that we are accustomed to finding amongst the fractured narrative of Modernist novels. Whatever may have been the nature of Anna's relationship with Paul, as a teacher she is far less self-deceived. In fact, in the second half of Spinster it is really other people who are deceived about Anna, since Anna is presented to us in an almost idealised form: Ashton-Warner uses the long-established paradigm of the neglected genius. When she is teaching Anna is gentle and vulnerable (as shown in her tendency to histrionics and her occasional reliance on alcohol), but she is also sincere, resourceful and tough. She explains to Mr Abercrombie that she has burnt her workbook because: 'I can't stand the planning of it. The clockwork detail. I can't bear the domination of it. I hate the interference of it between myself and the children'[113-4]. Similarly, her attendance-roll books are not tidy and sometimes the Headmaster has to complete them for her. With her students in class Anna works in a way that is altogether more intuitive. Always alert to any 'organic movement'[60] in her classroom, she prefers 'the design of the current rhythm on the blackboard in place of a time-table'[227]. Early in the novel she scolds herself for slipping into 'the old worn track of telling a child how to do a thing instead of leaving it to his own effort and his own way'[39]. She smacks a new boy's leg because he is making a gunfire noise that offends her, but some moments later she re-evaluates the noise and her reaction to it, and recognises that even this violent sound 'is a powerful creativity from the very storeroom of his being'[40].

Anna largely defines herself through what she does in her class, seeing the pupils in her care as somewhere between child substitutes and the means to spiritual salvation. She is fully aware of this and states that: 'I have a refuge after all, I realize: other people's children'[114]. Being a teacher is the bedrock of her personality, which is one reason why inspectors pose such a looming threat. Anna's commitment to her job is total, so that during her holidays she works at producing school readers in her retreat, Selah, a workroom in her house which is presented as resembling the garret of a solitary Romantic artist. There Anna can be so distracted from the world that she dips her paint brush into her teacup while 'involved in the intellectual birth of short three-word sentences of Book Two'[187]. When Anna berates her own talent and thinks 'my books are just one more of my monumental mistakes'[117], the irony employed by Ashton-Warner is obvious. The books are most certainly not mistakes. In the same way, we can tell that Anna will be no more than momentarily downhearted when, on receiving a low grade from the school inspectors near the start of the novel, she concludes: 'I'm a very low-ability teacher'[90]. Our capacity to make these judgements derives precisely from our being supplied with the clues necessary to step outside Anna's mentality--the evidence of her commitment and efforts, and her trappings of Romantic genius--and from these clues we can gauge the true meaning behind her words and thoughts. However, lest we harbour even the slightest doubt about Anna's abilities, towards the end of the book Ashton-Warner has Mr Abercrombie reassure Anna: 'You're a wonderful teacher!'[251], corroborating all that we have meanwhile gleaned from the text.

Anna's teaching methods are thus an effective response to the reality of her situation as an educator, and over the course of the book she develops her view that the mind of a child is 'a volcano with two vents, destructiveness and creativeness', and that 'to the extent that we widen the creative channel we atrophy the destructive one'[245]. The crucial development which allows Anna to test this thesis is her discovery of the key vocabulary. Indeed, it says a lot about Ashton-Warner's conception of Spinster that this discovery, rather than Anna's relationship with Paul and her part in his death, forms the climax of the book. Ashton-Warner prepares for the revelation of the key vocabulary almost from the beginning of her novel with carefully placed moments of foreshadowing. Anna is shown early in Spinster working in Selah on a third attempt at producing Maori infant reading books. She tells herself that: 'The thing is to draw freely, letting out these images that have intense meaning for me'[41], and in so doing she fails to understand that she must not look for what has meaning to her, but rather to whatever has meaning for her pupils. Anna then also fails to react to a valuable hint which is supplied immediately after this passage in one of the interpolations of the Maori children's speech. Ani announces that she never says the word 'basket' because: 'I allays says "kit"'[41]. Hearing this, Anna understands that the imported school readers used in New Zealand classrooms bear little useful relation to the reality of her pupil's lives, and most particularly to the lives of her Maori pupils. However, she does not consider using the language of her pupils themselves in consequence as the basis of an alternative form of reading. Guilt, which she feels is 'born from What Other People Think'[67]--in this case, the guilt in feeling that her pupils' environment and language cannot measure up to overseas standards--prevents her from finding the key which will resolve the problem of infant reading and learning.

In order to discover the key vocabulary, Anna must therefore first cease to act the way she is supposed to, in accordance with the norms of middle-class Pakeha society and its inspectors. Instead, she must embrace a more fluid sense of identity, becoming a more 'kaleidoscopic personality'[66]. This injunction is remarkably similar to the mid-twentieth century Existentialists' rejection of 'bad faith', or the self-deception and role-playing that limit one's true freedom, though the command 'to thine own self be true' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Polonius.(33) Above all, by being true to herself Anna can become free to identify with others to a higher degree and thus to realise that the key she seeks lies in how her children really are, and in what has true meaning for them, rather than in what matters to her or in how they are supposed to be.(34) Anna's pupils are not well-behaved British or American children, nor will they ever likely be transformed into some colonial, assimilated version of model children overseas. The children in Anna's class come from a much harsher environment, and so Anna is right to intuit early in the novel that the key to her pupils' learning 'has traffic with violence'[68].

But Anna's disinclination to acknowledge the prevailing harshness of her pupils' environment as a simple truth, rather than as a problem to be dealt with, forms a major barrier to her understanding of why her pupils cannot manage to learn with the imported school readers. Midway through Spinster, when producing her own readers for children, Anna recognises 'the violence creeping into Book Two, both implied and actual'[177], but she is still slow to accept what this must mean. In fact, it is finally the word 'kiss' in one of her readers, internalised quickly by her Pakeha pupil Patchy, and more importantly internalised just as rapidly by her Maori pupil Tame, that makes Anna realise with the necessary empathy that 'this word is related to some feeling within them; some feeling that I have so far not touched...'[179]. The ever-benign Mr Abercrombie, who is present at this moment, supplies the last piece of the puzzle when he suggests that 'kiss' might be 'the caption of a very big inner picture'[179]. Crucially, however, it is Anna who suddenly grasps the real significance in this, and who, like an artistic genius distracted by an instant of true inspiration, then goes on developing the importance of her discovery in the depths of her mind even while talking out loud to Mr Abercrombie about the trivial matter of extra space in her classroom.

What Anna at last begins to understand is that other less than salubrious instincts, such as sex and fear, must be the source of further caption-like key words for her pupils. In an experiment, she asks her pupils what they are afraid of. The Pakeha child Patchy announces: 'The alligator', but the Maori children all declare: 'The ghost'[180-1].(35) Anna then teaches her pupils the words 'kiss' and 'ghost', and the next morning 'here are these non-readers recognizing these words from one look the day before; children who have stalled on the imported books for months'[181]. A few days later, with the presence of Mr Abercrombie once again acting as a catalyst, Anna has another moment of inspiration in which: 'The whole system of infant room vocabulary flashes before the inner eye as though floodlit'[189]. It is the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud that provide Anna, and us, with the conceptual framework to understand what is occurring. Key words like 'police', 'butcher-knife' and 'fight'--language not normally at all associated with infant learning--can be elicited from the pupils as if through psychiatric therapy, and as a result a pupil's 'mind is unlocked, some great fear is discharged, he understands at last and he can read'[197]. Anna observes that: 'Even the white children, for all their respectability and painfully good manners and distressing concern with cleanliness, have their own exciting vocabularies'[198]. In addition to inducing an improvement in reading ability, the results have a therapeutically calming effect on the pupils as well, atrophying the destructive volcanic vent in the children's minds just as Anna had hoped. The especially violent child Seven, who is perhaps the ultimate test for the key vocabulary as Freudian therapy, is transformed into 'one of the loveliest boys on the roll'[244]. Hinewaka, a withdrawn girl who has had 'treatment and operations on her inturned feet since birth'[42], begins triumphantly drawing pictures of 'little girls with their feet turned out'[238].

The key words for Anna's pupils thus confirm what Spinster has been showing us all along: the poverty and endemic violence in the lives of the school's damaged but resilient children. Indeed, the interpolations of the children's speech and writing, embedded all through the book, turn out before our eyes to contain the very seeds of the key vocabulary, and so we are able to share in Anna's sense of discovery. The examples from the imported reading books may seem unbearably bland to us as adult readers, though they are certainly familiar.

Look at the green house.

Father is in it.

It is Father's home too.[215]

But the very blandness of the language of the imported material carries with it an implicit judgement of how its child-readers should be, a norm that we as adults are predisposed to believe. However, to understand the key vocabulary and its therapeutic powers, we, like Anna, must also transform ourselves into accepting without judgement the normality for the children of the violence that is depicted in their own writing, rather than reacting with the natural yet interfering sentiments of horror or sympathy.

Mummie said to Daddy

give me that money else I

will give you a hiding.

Daddy swear ta Mummie.

Daddy gave the money

to Mummie. We had

a party. My father

drank all the beer by

hisself. he was drunk.[214-5]

Only by going beyond disapprobation can we make the empathic engagement necessary to reach the children at their own level, and only then can we, like Anna, comprehend the liberating value of the key vocabulary. We have to stop treating the children's interpolations in the book as merely charming and decorative, or as a kind of separated chorus, or even as a shocking indictment, and read them instead as an integral part of the text. Anna observes that 'primer children can write their own books. They actually are'[215]. In contrast, it is the somewhat fusty quotations from English poetry that are merely decorative in Spinster and which can be discounted as peripheral. Indeed, it could be argued that this is precisely why these literary touches appear scattered throughout the text: in order for them to be dismissed. After discovering and refining the key vocabulary's methods, Anna notes that the tricky business of eliciting key words from her pupils requires her own frame of mind to be properly adjusted, and that 'as long as I keep away from town, keep the padlock on my gate, and avoid poetry, my mood is usually right'[204].

Of course, neglected genius still requires recognition to validate its existence, and in Spinster this arrives in the form of Mr Abercrombie. Throughout the novel Anna has been something of a fairy-tale character, craving acknowledgement and respect for her teaching from the world, and yet denied any by the wicked inspectors. However, Mr Abercrombie changes all this, and from his first appearance it is clear that Anna is attracted to him. He is described in more physical detail than most of the other characters, as a 'large, immaculate man' who has 'sedate grey clothes, groomed grey hair and an austere grey top lip'[108]. Anna soon declares that he 'stands within the door of my mind. Other men, the Head, Paul, and Eugene step back'[117], and she begins the awkward combination of flirtation and distancing that characterises all her relationships with men who appeal to her. For Anna, Mr Abercrombie is 'the most singular personality in my professional life'[182], and as an unwitting assistant in the discovery of the key vocabulary he is also: 'Father to my creating thought'[233]. He even helpfully prevents other inspectors from interfering in Anna's classroom. But by far Mr Abercrombie's most significant role in Anna's world is to be someone who supports her by recognising and encouraging her special talents as an educator.

In fact, Mr Abercrombie is scarcely alone in encouraging Anna. The Headmaster has long been supportive and is presented as an idealist and a quietly heroic figure who, Anna observes, 'ignores promotion to a school three times the size of this'[186]. But as a senior official Mr Abercrombie's opinion carries weight, and in addition he brings in his wake a series of still more senior people from the Department of Education and academia, experts who visit Anna and appreciate her methods. Ashton-Warner thus provides two levels of educational authority in Spinster. On the one hand the mid-level authorities, the usual inspectors, disapprove of Anna's teaching methods, but these men are shown to be unimaginative petite-bourgeois bureaucrats, the administrative equivalent of the middle class. The higher authorities on the other hand, who belong to 'some aristocracy of the intellect'[208], and who, like Anna, are familiar with advanced writers such as Herbert Read, all approve of Anna's methods and are even prepared to visit her and coax information about her ideas from her. We are therefore left in no doubt about the value of the key vocabulary and, crucially, we too are invited to join in with the approving elect. It is perhaps Ashton-Warner's ability to include her readers so often in her novel's process like this that accounts for much of Spinster's capacity to attract us.

Under these circumstances, a better teaching grade from the Board of Education might seem like a remarkably unimportant goal for Anna, but we see everything in the book from Anna's desperately insecure point of view and we are fully aware of her need for a sense of 'returned professional status'[233].(36) In fact it is not just Anna herself but the wider applicability of her new infant teaching methods which is being inspected and evaluated, and in any case Anna would very much like to be acknowledged as 'the coming Infant Mistress of New Zealand'[242]. Mainstream acceptance would mean that she could be 'part of the world again, part of country [sic] again and among my own kind'[242]. In addition, Percy Girlgrace injects some useful suspense into the story when he tells Anna: 'You may be the Senior's whait-haired boy but it doesn't mean that he will be allowed to approve of you'[229]. The fairy-tale atmosphere of the story is further augmented when the Headmaster makes Anna promise not to open the envelope that will arrive with her grading. This promise Anna then disobeys, only to discover 'that there has been no increase of grading whatever'[256]. It would seem that Percy Girlgrace is right and that Anna and her methods are not destined to become respectable amongst the members of the Board of Education as a whole, although this inference, like so much else, remains ambiguous by the close of the book. Even as Anna despairs we hear that a new infant room is being constructed for her of just the type that she would most desire. The Headmaster pointedly comments: 'It's just made for you, Madame. All your ridiculous ways will fit in here. Anyone would think it was ordered in accordance with your methods'[262]. The Headmaster is even going to preserve the picture Anna has painted on the wall of her old classroom. The tide of history, all this suggests, is firmly in favour of Anna and her breakthroughs in education.

Nevertheless, an atmosphere of hopelessness does seem to loom over Anna as the issue of an improvement in her grading comes into focus near the end of the novel. When under renewed stress as the inspection period approaches, Anna starts drinking again and worries about the consequent smell of alcohol on her breath. Already by the close of the 'Winter' section of the book Anna begins a process of retreating into her own mind once more, and she notes: 'In the world behind my eyes I'm the life of the party'[239]. When she finally receives the letter with her grade from the Board of Education in the concluding 'Spring Again' section, Anna appears to imagine receiving a long-anticipated letter from Eugene at the same time. (This communication from Eugene seems to be imaginary because, incredibly, Anna puts her ex-lover's letter aside to read her grade first--a suggestion that Eugene's letter exists only as a fabricated psychological crutch.) In any event, on learning of her unsatisfactory grading Anna's fantasies about leaving the country for Kazakhstan--if indeed they are fantasies--then return with a vengeance. She appears to book a ticket on a boat overseas under the name 'Anna Mistake'[256], even though the name is an obvious pseudonym and would not appear in her passport. Anna's thinking becomes as fractured and unstable as the text itself, and her students perceive the strain as showing on her face. Mohi exclaims: 'She used to be pretty that other day. Now she is ugly!'[257].

Anna buries her handmade school readers and her key vocabulary scheme in two white boxes, like Whareparita's dead twins, and uses migraines as an excuse to be away from the school. Nevertheless, she says nothing to the Headmaster or to anyone else about an actual resignation from her job and her plans for departure. Instead Anna makes a long, self-dramatising farewell speech to the flowers in her garden. The personification of the flowers here and at other times in Spinster, notably at the book's opening, seems eerily reminiscent of the writing of Janet Frame, who had published a book of short fiction, The Lagoon, in 1951 and her debut novel, Owls Do Cry, in 1957. There is little likelihood, however, that Frame's writing had any direct influence on Ashton-Warner. But in a remarkably Framesian manner Anna thanks her perennial flowers for 'the year we have lived together'[266] and imagines their response, with the whole passage suggesting her withdrawal from reality and some form of mental collapse. The two small final passages of Spinster that follow, in which Anna is on board a ship reading Eugene's letter, with its delightful though improbable hints of a future together and: 'A cup of tea and a son, my love'[268], and in which Anna retreats into the role of a Maori child comforted by an unspecified fatherly male, could perhaps indicate a genuine return to Europe. But they can more easily be read as indicating a descent into a trap of delusional fantasy. Spinster may ultimately be a novel about madness after all.

Anna's has a 'self-sown personality'[191], largely self-constructed and made up of many conflicting parts, as she is well aware. She prides herself that 'under pressure one can think on several different levels at once'[198]. Anna's mind is in a state of continual flux, and she observes early in the novel that her mentality contains: 'This mood, that mood. This thought, that thought. This passion, that passion; this memory, that'[68]. Exactly whether Anna Vorontosov is from exotic Kazakhstan and has a long-lost lover named Eugene cannot be objectively determined; but this should not be too obvious in a novel which aims to be true to Anna's experience as it happens, for at times in Spinster Anna believes that she is from Kazakhstan and has an ex-lover named Eugene, and that is surely enough. Anna has not one fixed personality but rather many--the foreigner, the Kiwi, the femme fatale, the old maid, the cynic, the idealist, the brilliant educator and the crank--and she is always the type of person whom she believes she is at any given moment. In fact this very fluidity in Anna's sense of identity is both her strength and a weakness. It supplies Anna with the flexibility to discover the breakthrough that is the key vocabulary, but it also creates a dangerous predisposition towards mental illness.

Anna plays more parts than many people, and perhaps more intensely, but to some degree we are all of us only whom we feel we are at any given instant--the unloved and ignored misfit, the dazzling star at the centre of attention--and we reorganise the features of our lives to fit these conceptions of ourselves accordingly, moment by moment. Viewed in this light, Anna is not an unreliable narrator so much as an utterly truthful one, and thus even her claims to having no top layer to her mind seem justified. Certainly, it is the truth of this extraordinary fluidity to human identity that Ashton-Warner, with her own rather artificial personality, grasps in Spinster and that she exploits. Dennis McEldowney may have complained, apropos of grounding, that there is 'an uncertain boundary between fantasy and reality' in Ashton-Warner's books, but in Spinster this dichotomy is simply never allowed to exist.(37) Instead, fantasy and reality are both contained within the continuous construction of Anna's ever-changing identity. In Spinster there is no single essence to personality that can be reached through stream of consciousness: there is only performance and its endless variety. While at each moment Anna, like all of us, is determining who she is, there is a running commentary in her head that includes fantasy and her own peculiar slant on whatever objective reality may be, and it is only the thin boundary line between coping and not coping that matters. Undoubtedly, Anna wanders back and forth over this line, and she tells us what is happening as she does so. Spinster thus aims for us to understand the many contradictions and frailties of Anna's personality, and Ashton-Warner's triumphant rendering of her character makes the novel a mess--and also a remarkable achievement.


1. Ashton-Warner, Sylvia. Spinster. Secker and Warburg, London, 1958. Later Virago, London, 1980. Page references in square brackets after quotations throughout this essay are to the Secker and Warburg edition.

2. Hood, Lynley. Sylvia!: the Biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Penguin, Auckland, 1990: 158.

3. Teacher. Secker and Warburg, London, 1963. I Passed This Way. Knopf, New York, 1979.

4. Sargeson, Frank. 'To Janet Frame, London. 25 May 1959.' In Letters of Frank Sargeson (ed. Shieff, Sarah). Vintage, Auckland, 2012: 275.

5. Curnow, Allen. 'Coal Flat Revisited' in Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984 (ed. Simpson, Peter). Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1987: 268. Originally published as 'Coal Flat: The Major Scale, the Fine Excess' in Comment, vol.5, no.1 (Oct. 1963): 39-42.

6. Holcroft, M.H.. Islands of Innocence: The Childhood Theme in New Zealand Fiction. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1964: 61.

7. McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Landfall 91, vol. 23, no. 3 (Sept. 1969): 230-45. The quotation appears on page 235. McEldowney's article in Landfall was then itself attacked by the journal's former editor, Charles Brasch, in a letter in the next issue, since Brasch felt that Spinster did not merit further consideration in a serious literary magazine beyond the review that it had already received. [Brasch, Charles. Correspondence in Landfall vol. 23, no. 4 (Dec. 1969): 407-9. The original review was: Munro, D.H.. Landfall, 47, vol. 12, no. 3 (Sept. 1958): 280.]

8. Stead, C.K.. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Living on the Grand' in Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2002: 94.

9. Stead. C.K.. 'Introduction.' Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op. cit.: 4-5.

10. Dobson, Emily. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner, 1908-1984' in Kotare http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Whi071Kota-t1-g1-t12.html

11. Naipaul, V.S. 'Steinbeck in Monterey.' The Writer and the World. Vintage Books, New York, 2002: 334.

12. Trilling, Lionel. 'Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen'. Beyond Culture. Secker and Warburg, London, 1966: 31-55.

13. McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 231. In 1961 Professor Joan Stevens felt compelled to observe with some exasperation that Spinster 'is not a novel "about how to educate Maori children" (as one teacher-reviewer asserted'. [Stevens, Joan. The New Zealand Novel: 1860-1960. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1961: 105 (Stevens's italics).]

14. McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 238. As his example McEldowney in fact cites not this passage from the novel but a similar one just before it, an exchange between Anna and Paul in which Anna shouts: 'I am the Vorontosov! My father's home was on the steppes of Kazakhstan. He broke in that wilderness. By God I'll break your wilderness!'[150]. In the same vein McEldowney also complains that Anna's 'precipitate abandonment of the classroom and flight to Europe and Eugene' is not adequately prepared for [Op. cit.: 237].

15. Curnow, Allen. 'Coal Flat Revisited.' Op. cit.: 268.

16. Anna announces that rain falls 'on the iron of Selah'[65], and she does not respond when the Headmaster suggests the 'removal of those cabbage trees'[18] other than by wishing to keep the trees intact. She also notes that: 'I am shopping in town, being Friday'[35]. McEldowney also notes that Ashton-Warner's characters have absorbed local habits and idioms. McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 235-6.

17. Technically Kazakhstan first appears early in the novel when Anna thinks for a brief instant of escape on 'that boat steaming out through Wellington Heads'[8-9]. Similarly, Anna thinks of herself in the third person for an instant early in the novel when she declares to herself, over the girl pupils' basketball (netball) practice: 'the Vorontosov does not like defeat'[29]. But these are minor ripples and instances of foreshadowing in Anna's stream of consciousness.

18. Lynley Hood notes that Ashton-Warner's interest in Russia may have led to her protagonist's surname. [Hood, Lynley. Sylvia!: the Biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Op. cit.: 130.] Kazakhstan at the time Ashton-Warner wrote was technically an independent nation in central Asia but in reality was a far-flung part of the Russian Soviet Union. The name Anna may possibly also derive from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Eugene from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. On the other hand, although Anna often refers to Paul Vercoe as a non-New Zealander, Vercoe is in fact quite a common New Zealand name.

19. This expression may derive from the penultimate chapter of Anna Karenina: 'During the whole of that day, in the extremely different conversations in which he took part, only as it were with the top layer of his mind, in spite of the disappointment of not finding the change he expected in himself, Levin had been all the while joyfully conscious of the fulness of his heart'. [Tolstoy, Leo (trans. Garnett, Constance). Anna Karenina. Part 8, chapter 18. P.F. Collier, New York, 1917. (The later Rosemary Edmonds translation [1954] also uses the expression 'the top layer of his mind'.)]

20. Lawrence Jones notices this peculiar effect in his survey of the New Zealand novel for The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, referring to Ashton-Warner's 'first-person present tense point of view: not a retrospective storytelling, but more like a diary or a running interior monologue'. [Jones, Lawrence. 'The Novel', in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1998: 177.]

21. Perhaps the nearest the children's writings come to offering a glimpse outside of Anna's point of view (although Anna herself has presumably selected the passage we read) comes when a poorly punctuated piece of work by Twinnie hints at Anna's developing relationship with Paul Vercoe.

'I saw,' writes Twinnie,

'the fantail in.

The tree It was singing.

Mr Vercoe was telling.

Miss Vorontosov.

About the fantail.

He was looking at.

Miss Vorontosov.'[64]

However, this does not really offer us anything new about Anna, and in general the children's writing tends to reinforce, rather than challenge or extend, Anna's point of view.

22. Dennis McEldowney, however, feels sufficiently confident to locate the novel in the Hawkes Bay (see note 31). McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 235.

23. When Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2013, critics rightly praised Catton's ingenuity at patterning her novel in ever smaller sections based on the proportions of the golden ratio. It is worth noting that Spinster anticipates this to a limited extent. Spinster's first four sections, 'Spring' to 'Winter', are each very approximately half the length of the preceding section, with a second 'Spring Again' section added as a coda.

24. Curiously, it is this timeframe, rather than following Anna through a school year, which Ashton-Warner chooses for her narrative. Spinster opens in the spring and finishes in the following spring, although the New Zealand school year runs from February to December, i.e. from autumn to early summer.

25. A typical case is Stevens's mention of the children as a 'choric echo'. [Stevens, Joan. The New Zealand Novel: 1860-1960. Op. cit.: 105.]

26. This passage in Spinster refers to how, from 1949, the Education Department did in fact begin running a special one-year teacher-training course at the Auckland Teachers' College to deal with the shortage of primary school teachers brought on by the post-war baby boom.

27. Lolita was published in 1955 in Paris and in 1958 in New York, and due to censorship copies of the novel did not appear in New Zealand until they were smuggled in at the end of the decade, so it is unlikely that Nabokov's book could have had any direct impact (beyond its notoriety) on Ashton-Warner's writing of Spinster.

28. Rauhuia (Nanny) is the only source of information provided concerning the miscarriage of Whareparita's babies. He explains vaguely: 'Whareparita she was walking pas' the churchyard after dark those ghost they frighten her; those ghost. An' she trip over'[156]. Once again Anna's lack of knowledge, and her unwillingness to investigate further, constricts our knowledge as readers.

29. Dennis McEldowney also notes that there is a nice irony in 'Anna, accepting smugly that [Paul] has killed himself because she threw him off'. [McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 237.] C.K. Stead makes a similar point that it is the 'illegal love affair and its imminent consequences and not, as Anna imagines, [Paul's] relationship with her, that seems to lead to his suicide'. [Stead, C.K.. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Living on the Grand' in Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op. cit.: 100.]

30. C.K. Stead, in some notes added in Kin of Place to his essay on Ashton-Warner, singles out the black humour in Paul's death and burial for special praise and observes that this is an aspect of the range of emotions in Ashton-Warner's writing that is often overlooked. [Stead, C.K.. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: Living on the Grand' in Kin of Place: Essays on Twenty New Zealand Writers. Op. cit.: 105-6.]

31. Whakamaharatanga is a real place just north of Napier, which may be why Dennis McEldowney feels able to locate the story in the vicinity of the Hawkes Bay (see note 22). [McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 235.]

32. Examples are Parent Number One's 'Oi dunno'[165] and Percy Girlgrace's 'Ai requaire'[226].

33. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. I.3, line 85.

34. Dennis McEldowney similarly comments that the key vocabulary 'comes as much from the teacher's insight into herself as from the children'. [McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 236.]

35. There is some remarkable, but perhaps unintended, irony in this, since Paul Vercoe was a boarder at Patchy's house and shot himself there, so that of all the children Patchy might most legitimately be afraid of ghosts rather than alligators.

36. Dennis McEldowney is unconvinced of any such need, however, and notes that: 'It is surprising that the prospect of becoming officially recognised as a first-class teacher should have meant so much to Anna.' [McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 237.]

37. McEldowney, Dennis. 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner: A Problem of Grounding.' Op. cit.: 234.

Copyright Ian Richards, 2014

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