Our Most Maligned Book?

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Recently I enjoyed a few days work back at the Turnbull Library, helping the arrangement and description team. Most of it was basic list inputting, to help get the numbers up before the end of the financial year. More interesting was the chance to describe a new accession of papers from Ian Donnelly, comprising his journals of a year in England and Europe 1934-1935.

Donnelly (1901-1956) was a newspaper man - literary editor for the short-lived Auckland Sun in the late 1920s, then Christchurch Sun leader writer and, later, editor of the Timaru Herald. He had a live-time interest in literature and his papers include correspondence from many New Zealand writers - Eilleen Duggan, Leo Bensemann, Denis Glover, R. A.K. Mason among them. The book Joyous Pilgrimage: A New Zealander’s Impressions of ‘Home’ was his minor but best-known literary achievement, based on the journals mentioned above, written up over the English winter before he returned to New Zealand and published in England soon after.

Joyous Pilgrimage (1)

Here is the cover of my battered copy of the book. The faces on front cover are of writer J B Priestley and entertainer Gracie Fields. On the back, top to bottom, are writer Aldous Huxley, Labour politician J H Thomas, and Irish independence leader Eamon de Valera.

What is particularly interesting about Joyous Pilgrimage, though, is the infamy heaped on it by modern cultural historians. Few New Zealand non-fiction books have been so maligned. To these critics it symbolises a cringing Anglocentricity in New Zealand literature, before new literary nationalists gave us writing to be proud of. Stuart Murray began the attack in his 1998 Never a Soul at Home: NZ Literary Nationalism and the 1930s. He called Joyous Pilgrimage a “grovelling journey through British culture” and a “virtual mantra of all the stereotypes of colonialism”. A few years later James Belich in Paradise Reforged (2001) portrayed Donnelly’s book as a prime example of the early twentieth-century “neanderthal colonial” writing. Lawrence Jones was similarly unimpressed. His 2003 Picking up the Traces – The Making of a NZ Literary Culture 1932-1945 was particularly scornful of Donnelly’s alleged preference for moribund Georgian poetry, over new voices like Eliot and Auden. Most recently Felicity Barnes, uses Joyous Pilgrimage as a source in her well-reviewed New Zealand’s London: A Colony and its Metropolis and refers to Donnelly’s “banal, worn and repetitive language”.

Well, is it really that bad? I first came across Joyous Pilgrimage when I was doing research for my book on athlete Jack Lovelock. Lovelock’s expatriate experience had some parallels with those of Donnelly and the book was a useful way to begin imagining Lovelock’s world. It was a quick perusal though and so, after encountering the original journals, I decided to give it a proper read. In fact it is quite an attractively written piece of journalese. It has a deliberately light touch, made up more of vignettes rather than extended pieces of writing. That allows a very wide range of encounters and experiences. Writers of all kinds are a main interest, but he also meets entertainers, academics, public servants and politicians. As an unknown colonial he was sometimes not taken very seriously, and is quite open about that. With some mild exasperation he comments at one point that the approach needed to be “like country boys come to town. And trembling to hear brave tales from the lips of miraculous uncles.”

These were interesting times in Europe. Old writing traditions were being challenged, new forms of popular entertainment were emerging, the depression still blighted the lives of many, in Germany Hitler’s fascists had seized power, and there was now an aggressive fascist movement in England. London, meanwhile, was still one of the great cities and economic centres of the world. It was all well worth observing and writing about. I enjoyed Donnelly’s take on it all.

Donnelly shared my interest in sport too. He watched Lovelock win gold at the London Empire Games, and a central section of the book is about a tense test match between England and Australia. No doubt this is one on Murray's prime examples of a colonial stereotype. But it was a significant event, of huge public interest throughout the cricket-playing empire, as Australia gained revenge for its fraught home defeat in the controversial "bodyline" series two years previously.

It is all very dated, of course, and a little cloying at times. The “joyous pilgrimage” title itself grates a little. That was a phrase borrowed from the dedication in Alan Mulgan’s 1927 book Home: A New Zealander’s Adventure. For travellers like Mulgan and Donnelly it was the adventure of a lifetime, unlikely to be repeated, and not one shared by many other New Zealanders. The days of easy air travel were a long way off. Getting there still took many weeks sailing and was far too expensive for most. Donnelly could only afford it with the help of his wealthier brother.

But “Home” for Donnelly was always New Zealand. The book’s subtitle was not the one he wanted. His preference was “A record of months that realised a dream”. When he departed on a miserably wet London day in March he wrote in his journal: “There is no pang in parting to me. London has been a good place for me, but there is not a person there I cared a sentimental curse about leaving. The only regretful thought is that it will take over five weeks to get to New Zealand”.

This blog would not have been possible without a reading of the unpublished biography of Donnelly by his daughter: Ann Elder, “Scapegoat of Fortune: A Biography of Ian Donnelly”, MS-Papers-11431-1 and MS-Papers-11431-2, Manuscripts Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.


  • On 18 Aug 2016 Ann Elder says:
    Thank you, David. That biog of Ian Donnelly would never have been compiled without encouragement from you, as well as Terry Sturm. You cannot imagine how pleased I am to see your blog. The single criticism I have is your not mentioning the letters from John Schroder; they were far the best written to him, and as you may recall from Sturm's comments, a biog. of him is needed - but who would do it? I spent winter evenings at Ak Univ.in 2007 special collections reading the microfish versions of letters to Schroder from types like Robin Hyde. No wonder he was so long replying to her sometimes: he must have been her greatest emotional support.
  • On 12 Apr 2017 Ann Elder nee Donnelly says:
    David: As a result of this blog of yours, Auckland University Library Special Collections has a small exhibition, "The Balloon of the Mind" on Yeats, the Cuala Press and Ian Donnelly opening on 1 May, 2017, to continue six weeks. Jo Birks is curator. The event is a spin-off of an English Deptment paper on Yeats as a modernist poet run by lecturer and poet Michele Leggott.

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