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This book, about real people, was intended to be about quite different ones. In her postscript, Helena Drysdale, the travel writer, says that her initial purpose had been to write a biography of her great-great-grandfather Sir George Bowen, who was a serial governor of colonies — Queensland, New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius, Hong Kong.
Through all these governorships he kept elaborate scrapbooks, and by far the largest concerned New Zealand. In this one Drysdale’s eye was caught by a cutting about the Maori murder of Bamber Gascoigne, his wife and their children, in 1869. ‘This unusual name happened to be that of my cousin, the celebrated writer and quizmaster.’
She then found that three relatives of the murdered Gascoignes had written unpublished memoirs, sent from New Zealand to Bamber Gascoigne after their owners had seen him on television in the 1970s, and Bamber passed them on to her. ‘Disloyally’, Drysdale abandoned Sir George and went in search of the Gascoignes, which led her to Isabella Campbell who married a relative of Bamber’s, Charles Gascoigne of the East India Company’s Fifth Bengal Light Cavalry, in India in 1835.
One of the three memoirs was by Isabella Gascoigne herself, describing 20 years of married life in India, which Drysdale uses to evoke, without inventing, that almost unimaginable life of barrack boredom, elegant balls, servants, silver-laced uniforms, plumed helmets, and jolting journeys in palanquins borne on the shoulders of bearers. Both Charles and Isabella were ‘on the fringes of aristocracy’, but as younger children of younger children almost penniless. India, in those days, was one of the few ways out, a place to earn a living without losing caste. Charles, at last, is caught up in a real and horrific battle, against the Sikh army in the Punjab, in which he greatly distinguished himself. ‘Something in him was killed’; he forbade his warlike son Fred ever to become a soldier.
Many European wives faded in the Indian climate, but not Isabella, who bore six children whom she adored. Unexpectedly she suddenly became listless, and spent a short while convalescing in the home of her doctor. When she returned to her own house she found her husband in a strange state of excitement, shared by the governess, auburn-haired Miss Sutherland. He had been reading Hursthouse’s New Zealand — a come-quickly-while-land-is-cheap sort of book — and Charles had decided that they should all go there, to the other side of the world.
Isabella loved India, and in her memoir, written when she was 78, she barely mentions New Zealand and condemns Hursthouse’s New Zealand as ‘one of the most deceiving and mischievous books ever published of this colony’. She found it ‘a new world, in a very painful sense, and there we were buried alive for 20 years’. Their small capital was invested in sheep, the rest in land. ‘We finally lost both, and all our savings in India vanished too.’ That is how her memoir tantalisingly ends. ‘She mentioned Bamber’s murder, but about New Zealand itself, nothing.’ One can sense the author’s nostrils dilating: she will find out what happened, and, a brilliant researcher, she does.
Isabella is too ill to follow her husband and family to New Zealand at once; instead she returns to England to recuperate, before making that enormous journey — 14,000 miles, 132 days. After a separation of 16 months, in 1854 she is unceremoniously dumped on the shores of this unknown country, unmet by her husband, and dismayed at the primitive nature of the settlements she sees around her. (The first settlers had only arrived 20 years before; there were still only 2,000 when the New Zealand Company sent its first shipment of pioneers in 1840.) When she reaches the rented house, by river (there are still no roads), Charles and the family are waiting, but the children cling to their governess, and Charles is distant. Why? Some impropriety between gentlemanly Charles and ‘that person’? It is not even hinted.
Scrolling listlessly through microfilms of the McLean papers, Drysdale suddenly has the luck awarded only to good researchers. She finds letter after letter from Isabella, pouring out her heart from the South Island to Sir Donald McLean, a distant Scottish kinsman, New Zealand’s Minister of Native Affairs, in Auckland. How she thought he could help her is hard to know, but from these letters the picture becomes clear: Isabella had to resign herself to a subordinate position in the isolated house.
News (a year old) came from India of the Mutiny and the loss of Charles’s comrades — those who had survived the Sikh war — his friends and hers. Then, in New Zealand, came the Maori wars (these days delicately renamed the New Zealand land wars) with attendant massacres and mutilations, including the deaths of the Bamber Gascoignes. Fred, at last a soldier, played a brilliant anti-rebel part.
Meanwhile, their chilly little settlement was ‘saved’ — including Charles and Isabella — by a fundamentalist Christian new arrival who based his austerities, and theirs, on a literal interpretation of St Paul. At the same time, rebel, land-deprived Maoris were turning to the Old Testament, ‘a tooth for a tooth’ — thus the avenging murders.
Charles dies, so does Miss Sutherland. In 1877 their graves and bones and the house and the meagre soggy settlement are all swept away by a vast flood. Isabella lingers on in her hated New Zealand until 1903.
Why did everyone turn against her, after 20 presumably happy years of marriage, even the children and the distant neighbours? The mystery, like life itself, seen through the eyes of the participants and those of the tactful Helena Drysdale, does not detract but adds to the sense of reality found in this wonderful book.