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Letters to Grace by Jean Garner and Kate Foster review

The emotions and stresses of being a colonial wife, mother and sister are revealed in these letters.

I don’t usually enjoy collections of letters, but Letters to Grace: Writing Home from Colonial New Zealand is completely absorbing and engaging. Family trees, maps and excellent editing make it even more of a pleasure to read.
At the end of the 1840s, Tom Hall married Sarah, his brother George married Agnes Emma, and all four sailed from Yorkshire to Canterbury in the 1850s to join Tom and George’s youngest brother, John. Eight years later, John married Agnes Emma’s sister Rose, and in 1879 he became Premier of New Zealand.

Agnes Emma and Rose were close friends of Grace Hall, their husbands’ sister. They all wrote regularly to each other, especially after Agnes Mildred, the only child of Agnes Emma and George, was sent back to school in England. But as historian Jean Garner points out in her useful introduction, women’s letters were not seen as valuable or important and were rarely preserved. These ones, all written to Grace in England, survived y chance. In 2008, Grace’s great-grandson found them and sent them to his distant New Zealand cousin Kate Foster.

These personal, private letters give sharp insights into the daily lives of middle-class women in varying circumstances, depending on how well their husbands coped with New Zealand (George was hopeless). Best of all, they reveal the emotions and stresses of being a colonial wife, mother and sister, with the deaths of young children a sad recurring theme.

In 1868, 17-year-old Agnes Mildred returns to New Zealand. With much less Christian resignation, she writes frankly to her beloved aunt about her struggle to cope with her new circumstances: “I wish [other relatives] had been separated from their parents for eight years, and then come to them under the same circumstances that I did, and had to leave such dearly loved ones as you are. Then perhaps they might understand.”

LETTERS TO GRACE: WRITING HOME FROM COLONIAL NEW ZEALAND, edited by Jean Garner and Kate Foster (CUP, $40)

Anne Else is a Wellington writer and editor.