Today I am honoured to be hosting a guest post by the author Rebecca Burns, to celebrate the first anniversary of the release of her book, Beyond the Bay.
First, here is the book!
Blurb: “The night before Esther’s ship was due to dock, her sister dreamed of her.”
Auckland at the turn of the century. A city on the cusp of change. Isobel, a settler of ten years, waits for her sister to cross the ocean to join her. Separated by distance, disappointments and secrets, the women reunite in a land where the rules of home do not apply. Women push for the vote and the land offers opportunity and a future for those brave enough to take it. But some secrets run too deep, some changes too shocking to embrace. Against this backdrop of uncertainty and promise, Isobel and Esther have to determine what – and who – means most.
In this novel, Rebecca Burns returns to the colonial New Zealand explored in her short story collection, The Settling Earth. Beyond the Bay is a novel of hope, redemption, and the unbreakable bond of family.
Now I will hand you over to Rebecca, to tell us a bit about the book and the background of the history it explores.
Beyond the Bay was published on 19th September 2018, the 125th anniversary of women in New Zealand finally winning the vote. The novel – my sixth book – is set against the back-drop of this struggle for female emancipation and follows the lives of two sisters and the engagement with the cause. It’s an area of New Zealand history I find fascinating, having studied it as part of my work towards a doctorate.
New Zealand women won the vote in 1893, many years before the UK (where I live). The suffrage movement in London and around the UK eventually led to female emancipation in 1918, so the question remains – what was it about New Zealand and their suffrage movement that led to women achieving the vote years before their counterparts? In tracing the experiences of women’s lives in New Zealand in Beyond the Bay, I attempt to answer this question.
Isobel and Esther, sisters and central characters in Beyond the Bay, emigrated to New Zealand separately, ten years apart, and their experience is representative of the experiences of many female emigrants. Settling in Auckland first, Isobel found that life in the colony was difficult and challenging, with employment not easy to come by and the yearning for home never far away:
Sometimes, when she read and reread letters from home – from cousins or friends who still remembered her – she felt like she was back in England. She was walking through the village, the smell of the hedgerows bright and spicy in her nose, the soft fall of the river nearby. And yet, when she lifted her eyes from the paper, she was back in New Zealand. She was back among the shout and crackle of young Auckland, blinking against the glare of rough settler life.
Emigrating to NZ in the mid 19th C was like travelling to the moon. It was 11,000 miles from England and, in the early years of emigration, took journey of over 3 months on an emigrant ship. Families expected to be separated forever, would say goodbye to friends and relatives, thinking they would never be reunited. And yet, it has been said that during Queen Victoria’s reign over five million British subjects left Britain to settle overseas. In the novel Beyond the Bay, Isobel and Esther joined them.
Like many, Isobel emigrated to escape poverty and to accompany her husband. Other, real-life emigrants, like Esther, travelled to New Zealand with a sense of adventure and because England offered them nothing. Options were limited for middle class women in UK. You either found a husband, threw yourself on the mercy of relatives, took on certain, respectable work – like being a governess or seamstress – or starved.
And yet settler women were vitally important to the colonising mission. In the early years of settlement, New Zealand must have felt overwhelming. Miles of bush and farmland separated settlers living in the backblocks from their nearest neighbour. Women had to overcome extraordinary obstacles to create homes and raise families in the bush. Not only were they faced with the physical challenges of clearing the land or building their homes, but they also suffered under the psychological burden caused by separation from loved ones back in Britain. Male settlers had to endure similar hardships, although it would be true to say that men had the freedom to move around in the search for work, whereas their wives were expected to stay at home, sometimes in isolation, to look after the children. The isolating demands made on settler women in New Zealand cannot be understated. They had to build homes, plant and harvest crops, tend to animals, raise children and, if their husbands or fathers were miners working on the gold or gumfields, do it alone.
The hardship of life in pioneer New Zealand necessitated that women were prepared to adopt a variety of roles and duties outside their experience and be ready, for example, to plough a field or build a home with the men. Perhaps the most significant effect of these requirements was that it led to a degree of ambivalence regarding women’s position in society. In New Zealand, the emigration process and reality of pioneer life meant that settler women played essential roles in the creation and ordering of non-Maori, settler society. Women began to agitate for better political representation and, ultimately, the vote. Beyond the Bay shows the effect of this movement on settler women living in Auckland:
“There’s a change coming,” Rachel was saying. She cleared her throat, her body seeming to make space for what she was about to say. “Look what’s happening in the Legislative – they reckon it will go through this time, don’t they, giving us little women the vote? I signed the petition. You didn’t need to persuade me when you brought one of your temperance friends round with the papers. What are they saying at your meetings?”
Rachel slapped her thigh, animated. “The temperance lot are more determined about the vote than they are about drink, that’s what I say. What a thing it would be, to finally have it! Women – us! Voting!”
The real-life stories of women like Isobel and Esther, held in the New Zealand archive, are inspiring and, in the fictional representation of their experiences, Beyond the Bay engages with the past in a way that I hope the reader finds as fascinating as I do.
Thank you so much, Rebecca, for this sneak peek into the world behind the pages. The book sounds inspirational and I am so excited to be able to also bring you all a review soon!
Beyond the Bay is available on Amazon right now! Happy 1st Bookiversary to it, and to you Rebecca!