Love and the Larnachs

Celebrated New Zealand writer Owen Marshall has turned his hand to the historical novel, delving into the romance and rumour of the Larnach family. Shane Gilchrist reports.

Owen Marshall would like to make one point particularly clear: his latest book, The Larnachs, is neither a biography nor a history of the eminent Otago family. It is a novel, "the imaginative re-creation of a situation experienced by real people".

Marshall, a short-story writer whose skills have been compared to Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson, is also a celebrated novelist whose words have sparkled in contemporary settings, from 1995's A Many Coated Man to 2007 effort Drybread.

However, for his latest, he's gone back in time to complete another career first, a historical novel.

Among the more curious visitors to Larnach Castle over the years, Marshall has a long-held fascination with the stories and rumours that flit like sea fog amid its towers.

"I've always felt it is a very evocative place, rich with historical associations. Sometimes it feels like William Larnach's folly; other times it's like a grand dream," Marshall says via telephone from his Timaru home.

Yet Marshall's story is not concerned solely with William Larnach, the Australian-born businessman who came to Dunedin initially to manage the Bank of Otago and soon branched into other ventures, built The Camp (now known as Larnach Castle) on Otago Peninsula, was elected to Parliament in 1875 and became minister of mines.

Instead, the author focuses on the rumoured love affair between Larnach's much younger third wife, Constance de Bathe Brandon, whom he married in 1891, and his son Douglas.

In doing so, Marshall provides a largely sympathetic portrait of Larnach, a man who, in a little over a decade, had to deal with the deaths of three family members: his first wife, Eliza, died in 1880; in 1882 he married her half-sister, Mary Alleyne, who died in 1887; and his oldest daughter, Kate, died of typhoid fever in 1891.

Larnach suffered two huge financial losses and, tormented by bouts of depression and rumours of the affair between Constance and Douglas, shot himself at Parliament on October 12, 1898.

Historical novel it may be, but The Larnachs could also be likened to a Shakespearean tragedy, Marshall admits.

"Everything about William Larnach tends to be on a grand scale. He went from enormous wealth and prestige to the tragic end of shooting himself. It is quite epic. His life is a fantastic story, on a grand scale of success and failure.

Visits to Larnach Castle notwithstanding, it was the late Fleur Snedden's 1997 book, King Of The Castle: a biography of William Larnach, which prompted Marshall to seriously consider a novel on the family.

Snedden, the great-great-granddaughter of William Larnach, had access to family records, including evidence of the relationship between Douglas (son of Larnach and his first wife, Eliza Jane Guise) and Larnach's third wife, Constance.

"That, for me, substantiated the rumoured affair between Conny and Dougie. I thought with that having been substantiated by the family, there's a basis for a really interesting story. It is not William Larnach's story; it is the hidden story."

Aside from Snedden (who also referenced earlier work by Hardwicke Knight in his 1981 work, The Ordeal of William Larnach), Marshall accessed research material by Larnach playwright Michelanne Forster, delved into the letters of Larnach (between 1884-1898) held in the Hocken Library and studied newspaper reports of the time. However, Marshall acknowledges he did not directly consult descendants of the Larnachs and Brandons.

"On one hand, that would have given me a lot more information, but I decided not to do that because of the expectations that perhaps would have been raised by family members.