Strangerland: a family at war, by Helena Drysdale

Empire of the sun (and the governess)
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Strangerland is an exercise in family history. Helena Drysdale set out to write the story of a forebear who pursued a career as a colonial governor, but ended up focusing on another branch of the family. Born nearly a decade earlier than Queen Victoria, Isabella Gascoyne, née Campbell, survived her by more than a year. She spent the first, productive part of her adult life in India, the land of her birth, where she gave birth to nine children, seven of whom survived infancy.

Her husband Charles was a cavalry officer in the service of the East India Company who distinguished himself in the First Sikh War of 1845-46, but was so appalled that he yearned for pastures new - and they didn't come newer than New Zealand, whose pastures still had to be hacked out of the hills and plains. According to a book Charles read, this recent addition to the British Empire was just the place for a penniless but enterprising ex-officer.

Isabella, recuperating from the birth of her ninth child, was the last to learn about the proposed career move; her children and their governess, Amelia Sutherland, all knew before she was told. She was tired of travel and, now that Charles's peripatetic military existence was over, had hoped they would settle high up in the Himalayan foothills. But Charles brushed aside her wishes. The family was going to New Zealand, though Isabella was sent home to England on doctor's orders. Another year would pass before the family was reunited.

When Isabella finally reached the north of the South Island of New Zealand, where Charles had acquired land, she found herself unwelcome. Her husband was cold, her elder children indifferent and the governess was in command. If this were a novel, we would have had several hints as to what was probably going on well in advance of Isabella's arrival. But Drysdale scrupulously sticks to the evidence she has unearthed. As a result, even though we do get an inkling of what is afoot, we share something of Isabella's appalled shock at her rejection by her family.

I won't spoil the story by revealing what follows, except to say that there is a downside to Drysdale's factual fastidiousness. We get little sense of what either Charles or, more particularly, Amelia was really like. Even Isabella remains quite opaque. But then everyone is more or less opaque and in this domestic drama, as in life, we must exercise our own imagination.

The New Zealand chapters make up almost two-thirds of Strangerland (Isabella's own word for the country in which she lived out her allotted span) and they comprise her son Fred's story as well as his parents'. After an unpromising start as a prospector for gold, among other things, Fred found his niche in the Armed Constabulary, the homegrown force that took on Maori rebels in what are now known as the Land Wars, thus fulfilling his Indian military ambitions in another context. Not the least of Drysdale's many achievements in this splendid book is to provide a balanced and gripping account of Maori-pakeha (European) relations in the early days of this historically rich but often overlooked country.

Tony Gould's latest book is 'Don't Fence Me In' (Bloomsbury)