Sound clip: Ruth France tribute

Hear Monte Holcroft's tribute to Ruth France.


In 1949, just after I became editor of the Listener, I received a poem from someone called Paul Henderson. It was, I think, the first poem I accepted for the Listener. I read it with interest, and hurried it into print in the next issue. I had never heard of Paul Henderson, and I thought I had found a poet of considerable promise. The poem was 'Return Journey'. Eleven years later, Allen Curnow thought it good enough to include in the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. By then, of course, it was fairly widely known that Paul Henderson was Ruth France. I had been publishing poems from Paul Henderson for about two years before Ruth France wrote me a diffident little note of confession. Even then, she asked me to keep the secret, and in 1955, when she sent me a copy of her first book of poems, Unwilling Pilgrim, she enclosed a note, which I still have, repeating the request.

I met Ruth France several times, and enjoyed talking to her about authorship, but I never asked her why she had separated Paul Henderson the poet from Ruth France the writer of fiction, and she made no mention of it herself. She had written poetry under her own name before she adopted a pseudonym. One of her poems, which had won her first prize in a competition, had been criticised by letter-writers in the Listener. Perhaps she had drawn back and felt the need of a protecting anonymity. She had her own kind of strength, but she was a gentle person, with a spirit easily bruised by the sort of reviews that sometimes pass for criticism. Whatever the reasons may have been, Ruth France clung to Paul Henderson as long as she could. I think he helped her to sustain the nervous and spiritual fatigue of composition, especially while at the same time she had to be that other person, the wife and mother.

Writing poetry, I would have thought, was a sufficient exercise of mind for a busy housewife. But Ruth France was also writing fiction. At first it was an occasional short story, and then, in 1958, there appeared a novel, The Race, which was immediately seen to be a new achievement in New Zealand writing. It was a remarkable novel to come from a woman ? a little easier to understand, perhaps, when it became known that Ruth France's husband was a professional builder of yachts ? but still surprising and memorable. And it was a new kind of novel in New Zealand: a first attempt to capture in fiction the feeling that islanders must have for ships and the sea. The Race brought Ruth France the Award for Achievement from the New Zealand Literary Fund and established her at once among the country's outstanding novelists. There was a second novel, Ice Cold River, three years later. It was received with less enthusiasm, as second novels often are. But this was a study in isolation, with a New Zealand setting, and I thought critics were slow to realise that the river itself was one of the characters; indeed, the principal one, and that its Christmas rampage was superbly managed.

Ruth France wrote of the world that spread away from her own house and garden. She was born in Canterbury and for many years lived at Redcliffs, near Sumner. The heart of her work was in her poetry, and its themes began at home: under the trees outside, among the leaves raked in autumn, in all the moods and rewards of the seasons, and, as she looked abroad, in the familiar shape of Shag Rock, the sea running and breaking on the bar, the coastline curving north to Pegasus, and inland, the mountains. This was where she lived and where, with a poet's intensity, she learnt about suffering, finding her own words for the ancient parables of life and death, and the spinning world.

Ruth France was not a small woman, but she had a certain fragility, especially in her finely-boned face. I remember most in her a habit of stillness. She was a person with whom it was possible to talk and then to be silent, without awkwardness. She had a social conscience, and could feel cruelty outside as if it were touching her own life. But in her work, and especially in her poetry, suffering was softened into beauty. I remember her as a serene person, and I know that one who felt as deeply as she did would not win serenity without hard and secret struggles. But it was in her face when she came to Wellington to meet her fellow writers, and it's in her work, most of all I think in her second volume of poems, The Halting Place, published in the same year as her second novel. Since then, there's been nothing, apart from scattered poems, a few stories, and letters. Perhaps in those seven years she was writing a book still to be published. I hope she was. But the work that was finished, the poems and the novels, have given her a secure place in New Zealand writing. It's a place, I believe, among the finest minds of her generation.

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