Maurice Shadbolt

Writer whose novels explore the history of his native New Zealand
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The Independent Online

Maurice Francis Richard Shadbolt, writer and novelist: born Auckland, New Zealand 4 June 1932; CBE 1989; married 1953 Jill Hemming (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1972 Barbara Magna (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1978 Bridget Armstrong (marriage dissolved), 1994 Elspeth Sandys; died Taumarunui, New Zealand 10 October 2004.

As novelist, journalist and dramatist, Maurice Shadbolt was one of New Zealand's best known writers, an important figure throughout a career that stretched from the late 1950s to the late 1990s.

Working in the genre of realism that prevailed for much of the 20th century, he is perhaps most known today as an historical writer. The group of novels which begins with The Lovelock Version (1980) and includes his New Zealand Wars trilogy remains a landmark. Significantly, their publication coincided with the nation's post-colonial coming-of-age: the revisions in the 1980s and 1990s of its foundational document, the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by Maori and the British Crown in 1840.

In his encounter with the country's past, Shadbolt's ambitions to write grand narrative and his flair for comic metafiction came together, confirming his gift as a supreme teller of stories about historical figures or contemporary figures about whom he could weave legends. He was also an indefatigable mythologiser of his own life and that of his ancestors; energising his narratives is the instinctive location of the self at the centre of an extended drama. Life and art were increasingly interwoven for him.

Maurice Shadbolt was born in Auckland in 1932, and educated at Te Kuiti High School and Auckland University College. He worked on the Taranaki Daily News after leaving university, and for the New Zealand National Film Unit, as a scriptwriter and director of documentary films. An urge to travel took him first to Sydney - a bigger undertaking in those days than it is now; a more extended sojourn overseas came when he was invited to the World Youth Festival in Moscow in 1957. Shadbolt travelled with his wife, Jill Hemming, an Australian journalist, whom he had married in 1953. They went on to China and Bulgaria, settling in London and returning to New Zealand in 1961 for the birth of their first child, Sean.

Shadbolt came to prominence with his first short-story collection, The New Zealanders, published in 1959 in London by Gollancz and praised by writers such as Alan Sillitoe and Muriel Spark. Local critics were more cautious, and argued that he was building on the work of others. This mixed reception recurred all through his career. Although he won almost every major literary prize in New Zealand, some more than once, Shadbolt was always controversial and critics remain divided over whether he is a populist or a serious writer.

His early success led to another short-story collection, Summer Fires and Winter Country (1963), and his first novel, Among the Cinders (1965), a New Zealand Huckleberry Finn about a boy and his grandfather. The issue of how the artist functions in society was the subject of an engaging, enigmatic triptych of novellas, The Presence of Music (1967).

Upon being awarded New Zealand's premier literary award in 1963, the Burns Fellowship, Shadbolt wrote full-time for a year, but the need to support his rapidly growing family (another son, Brendan, was born in 1962, and twins, Tui and Daniel, in 1965) meant that he continued to publish non-fiction, notably The Shell Guide to New Zealand (1968) and the collaborations New Zealand, Gift of the Sea (1963, with the photographer Brian Brake) and Isles of the South Pacific (1971, with the explorer Olaf Ruhen).

Subsequent novels were inspired by contemporary events, which he reconstructed with a moral pattern. This Summer's Dolphin (1969) tells the story of Opo, a friendly dolphin who visited the town of Opononi in 1956. When his friend the Italian writer Renato Amato died suddenly, Shadbolt fictionalised his life story in An Ear of the Dragon (1971), with settings in both Italy and New Zealand. To protest against the French nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific, Shadbolt with others undertook a journey to Mururoa on the boat Tamure: Danger Zone (1975) was the result.

His own preoccupations with a failed marriage and ageing appear in A Touch of Clay (1974), a novel that draws on the counter-culture of the era. The magnum opus of this decade was Strangers and Journeys (1972), a flawed epic about New Zealand in its pioneering days, which successfully draws on national myths already established by other writers for its historic beginnings, but demonstrates what one critic calls "journalistic thinness" in the contemporary sections.

Shadbolt's marriage collapsed in the late 1960s; his subsequent relationships with women were marked by turbulent episodes that resembled the high dramas of his fictions, as friends noticed. In 1972 he married the television presenter Barbara Magna. Their daughter, Bridget, was born in 1971 and they resided in his house in Titirangi, Auckland, purchased upon his return to New Zealand in 1961. Shadbolt lived in it for the rest of his life. From the mid-1970s, however, restless again, he travelled frequently to the UK and United States.

In 1978 he married for the third time, the actress Bridget Armstrong, recently divorced from the New Zealand actor Terence Bayler, and they lived briefly in her house in Wimbledon. But although this was a fruitful period - family history and national dreams are subjects of The Lovelock Version - Shadbolt was compelled to be in New Zealand, and they returned in 1980.

Further work was fuelled by his ambition to promote national myths of identity and introduce new ones: his single play, Once on Chunuk Bair (1982), is about New Zealanders in Gallipoli. Then followed the New Zealand Wars trilogy: Season of the Jew (1987), about the great Maori warrior Te Kooti and his campaigns of the 1860s, Monday's Warriors (1990), exploring Titokowaru's War of 1868-69, and House of Strife (1993), about Hone Heke's rebellion in the Bay of Islands in 1845-46.

In 1994 Shadbolt married for the fourth time, the novelist Elspeth Sandys. Although he now returned to his earliest modes, the short story and novella, he also published three volumes of autobiography, One of Ben's (1993), Dove on the Waters (1996), and From the Edge of the Sky (1999). A review of his own colourful life was a fitting conclusion to a career that celebrated a pre-eminently masculinised concept of New Zealand national identity based on his own responses to colonial history, local mythologies, and ancestral voices.

Janet Wilson