8th June 2019
I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Leicester to the cohort on the Middle Way Mentoring Programme about settler women in New Zealand – their experiences of emigration in the nineteenth century, their response to the new land, and the opportunities/obstacles they faced. This is an area of research I find fascinating and return to it again and again in my fiction – my second collection of short stories, The Settling Earth, and my second novel, Beyond the Bay, fictionalises the experience of settlers in New Zealand and the upheaval of their lives following settlement in a land thousands of miles from all that was familiar.
Emigrating to New Zealand in the nineteenth century was like moving to the moon. Settlers parted from their families and friends, expecting never to be reunited. And yet it has been said that more than five million people left the UK during the reign of Queen Victoria and made their home overseas – the push of poverty, limited options and unemployment, and the pull of exaggerated colonial propaganda lured many across oceans. And women travelled too – as wives, sisters, daughters, and also as single women seeking adventure, a husband, or the chance to forge their own identity in a land (they hoped) would be free of restrictive social customs.
Of course, colonial emigration occurred in waves and life in New Zealand threw up many challenges. It was great to have the opportunity to give examples of letters and diaries written by early settler women to the mentoring cohort, and paint an image of what the life of a female emigrant was like. I find the tales of their experiences intriguing, inspiring, and unfathomable to someone with access to instant communication. The world is a much smaller place than it was back then. I think those who attended the lecture found the talk interesting and gave them plenty of ideas to work into their own stories.