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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.
"It could have become a book by committee or they could have been disappointed - 'I told you Conny did this ... '. I didn't want my imagination to be hobbled by too much information about the real Conny and Dougie because I could never really bring those two characters back."
All of which brings to mind a quote by popular American historical novelist William Martin: "The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale."
Marshall (who, interestingly, holds an honours degree in history) agrees.
"It's a good point, really. Essentially, what I'm interested in here is the relationship. I'm interested in the people. They are fictional people, but are based on a real situation.
"I could have written a story without mentioning the Larnachs and in some ways that would have been easier, but I thought perhaps the reader could then evade the realisation that this was a situation in which real people had found themselves. They could have read it as a melodramatic fiction.
"By keeping that essential basis, historically, it just makes the reader consider that this is a situation that has arisen in someone's life."
At its core, The Larnachs is a love story, one told through Marshall's use of two voices. The first-person thoughts of Constance and Douglas provide a window into a friendship that slowly blooms into attraction then passion.
"I started off at one stage doing it in the third person then thought it was too personal a story," Marshall says.
"I thought perhaps three parts would work, but the problem with that is that it's not really William Larnach's story. There is plenty in the public domain about Larnach and he tends to dominate at any rate; if his voice was there it would probably push out Dougie and Conny.
"That point of view is something you have to consider as a writer. Who is going to tell the story? How is the story going to be told? You have to consider the vocabulary and the milieu they were in. What would they likely be talking about? How would they be expressing themselves? What were the social conventions of the time?"
The thoughts, actions and conversations of Dougie and Conny (who hailed from a prominent Wellington family) also shed insight into the privileged life enjoyed by some in late 19th-century New Zealand, a time when social strata and status were well recognised.
"We don't know when they first began the affair but my reading of it is these sorts of people, in that time, in that situation ... it is going to have to occur through the gradual growth of a powerful friendship. I don't think, at that time, they would have just said, 'oh, you're hunky' or whatever and jumped into bed.
"This is purely the novelist's view, but my reading of it is that Conny had more to lose. A woman's reputation is always a more delicate situation than that of a man. Something like that was quite shocking back then."
Key to the drama is Marshall's assertion that Dougie wrote a letter to his father in which he disclosed his affair with Conny, a message that prompted Larnach, already stressed by financial and political events, to commit suicide.
Though there is no clear evidence such a letter was penned, Marshall refers to Snedden's book.
"She said the affair had become general knowledge, particularly within the family. Although, unfortunately, you wouldn't expect to find an actual document, the circumstantial evidence is very strong. There is very little doubt the rumours were correct.
"William Larnach did receive a letter from the southern post while at Parliament. He was noticed to be very distraught having received it. He then went away and wrote a letter himself and shortly after killed himself.
"We don't know who the letter came from. The supposition is that the letter was from Dougie, but that is one of the lovely mysteries the novelist can exploit - we don't know.
"Dougie had fallen in love with Conny, who was married to his father. He's in a terrible situation in terms of this growing impetuous relationship and this guilty sense he has with his father. It's an awful situation.
"Dougie was the only one in the family who stood up after his father's death and supported Conny having a share in the estate.
"Conny was more or less banished overseas by her older brother [Alfred] to avoid a scandal. Afterwards when she returned to Wellington, Dougie followed and lived just around the corner for a couple of years although, eventually, he married someone else.
"Connie ended up with nothing and Dougie virtually nothing. All that is legitimate, historical stuff. However, I do stress it is a novel. I'm sure there are many - hopefully minor - historical inaccuracies and so on, but that's not my main bent here. It is really to create characters, hopefully in a plausible and credible way and make them interesting."
Marshall, who turns 70 in August ("I'm still in my 60s - I'm hanging on to that grimly"), says his next novel will probably be contemporary rather than historical. It's not that he didn't enjoy digging back in time; he just doesn't like to repeat himself.
Regardless of the topic of his next project, one thing is certain: he'll be taking a wee break.
"I have other things to do. I like to spend time with my grandchildren," says Marshall, whose time will also be occupied by commitments to the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award (he is a judge) and the New Zealand Book Council (he is on its board).
"I think it's nice to allow a bit of a lull when you've completed a book - to have a period of refreshment. I've lived with these characters for so long, I need to let them fade away before I take on something else.
"I think writers - well, certainly I do - like to challenge themselves and not do the same thing all the time. Every book is incomplete. It is never quite what you'd aspired to do.
"The work twists in your hand."
Owen Marshall fact file
Born at Te Kuiti in 1941, Owen Marshall (full name Owen Marshall Jones) found a desire to write early in life. His mother (whose maiden name was Marshall) died when he was 2 1/2 so it was his father, a Methodist minister, who passed on a love of books.
In his 20s, he wrote two novels (unpublished); by his early 30s, he'd decided to concentrate on short stories, with the New Zealand Listener publishing Descent from the Flugelhorn in 1977; and in 1979 he released a self-financed collection, Supper Waltz Wilson and Other New Zealand Stories.
In 1985, he resigned as deputy rector of Waitaki Boys' High School to concentrate on writing and by the end of the decade he'd released four collections.
As well as short-story awards from various institutions, Marshall has received the following: Canterbury University writing fellowship (1981); University of Otago Burns Fellowship in 1992; Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (for services to literature) in 2000; the 2000 Montana Book Award (fiction) for Harlequin Rex; the inaugural $100,000 Creative New Zealand Writer's Fellowship in 2003. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury, which awarded him the honorary degree of doctor of letters in 2002.
Married and with two grown daughters, Marshall has spent much of his life in Timaru.
• Supper Waltz Wilson and Other Stories (1979)
• The Master of Big Jingles and Other Stories (1982)
• The Day Hemingway Died (1984)
• The Divided World: Selected Stories (1989)
• A Many Coated Man (1995)
• Coming Home in the Dark (1995)
• The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Stories (1997)
• Harlequin Rex (1999 - Deutz Medal for Fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2000)
• When Gravity Snaps (2002)
• Occasional - 50 Poems (2004)
• Watch of Gryphons and Other Stories (2005)
• Drybread (2007).
• The book
Owen Marshall's The Larnachs (Vintage, $39.99) is in shops on June 3.