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
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
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