Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a fiction writer, autobiographer and social historian, primarily of class and his local region, Canterbury. His books include a history of the South Island’s landed gentry, who gained their wealth through gold and wool, and a history of New Zealand’s working people. His oft-reprinted trilogy, of which Oracles and Miracles was the first, has been treated as oral history, and adapted for radio and stage. The tension between history, autobiography and fiction is most explicit in Eldred-Grigg’s memoir, My History, I Think.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Eldred-Grigg, Stevan (1952 –), is a social historian, fiction writer and autobiographer. His father came from a wealthy Canterbury sheep-farming family; his mother from a poor working-class family in south Christchurch. He was born in the Grey Valley but raised in prosperous suburban Christchurch. He attended Shirley BHS, Canterbury University (MA in history, 1975) and the Australian National University (PhD in history, 1978). Since then he has been a full-time writer based in Christchurch.
Eldred-Grigg is above all, a historian of class and of a province: the social mores of Canterbury are an abiding preoccupation. He first became known as a historian with A Southern Gentry: New Zealanders Who Inherited the Earth (1980; reissued 1989), tracing the rise and fall of a powerful landed elite in the South Island, accumulating wealth through gold and wool, and the consequent rise of the class on whose work they had depended. A New History of Canterbury (1982) continued this rather revisionist approach by focusing not on the politics of the province but on its changing social structure and shifts in social attitudes. This last aspect was developed further in a comprehensive general study, Pleasures of the Flesh: Sex and Drugs in Colonial New Zealand 1840–1915 (1984). Two further works on the history of class culture, coming boldly up to the 1990s, are New Zealand Working People 1890–1990, published by Dunmore in 1990 as part of the Trade Union History Project, and the contrasting The Rich: A New Zealand History (1996). As a historian, Eldred-Grigg has refined a consistent approach: categorisation first by period and then by topic, within which patterns or trends are established with the support of statistics and lavish anecdotal examples. It is popular history, impressionistic and emphasising human foible.
Eldred-Grigg’s fiction has similar concerns. The family trilogy that began with Oracles and Miracles (1987; often reprinted) traces the lives of sisters Fag and Ginnie, born and raised in south Christchurch in the 1930s and ’40s, and their efforts to escape their impoverished background. Fag marries the ineffectual son of a wealthy Canterbury sheep farmer, and the second book, The Shining City (1991), tells the story of their son Roddie and his close cousin Christopher, growing up in affluent suburban Christchurch and then at Canterbury University in the swinging ’60s and ’70s. The third, Mum (1995), portrays Ginnie through the eyes of two of her children, the self-deceiving Jimmy and the appalled Viv. The same technique of dual alternating first-person narratives is used in each book, and the language of each character is remarkably appropriate to his or her personality, time and place. The trilogy is strongly rooted in Eldred-Grigg’s own family and personal experience. Oracles and Miracles, the most powerful and admired book, has been treated as oral history, and adapted for radio and stage, though this highly wrought documentary quality, while increasing the authenticity, makes for a lack of emotional perspective which comes for some readers to vitiate the trilogy as fiction. The same quality is found in the early novella, Of Ivory Accents (New York, 1977), and the occasional short stories from the same period.
Eldred-Grigg’s three other novels can also be regarded as shaped local/social history. The Siren Celia (1989) takes its characters, themes and historical and other detail from George Chamier’s novel A South-Sea Siren (1895) and Sarah Courage’s memoir Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life (c.1896), to portray double standards among the high society of colonial South Canterbury. Gardens of Fire (1993) freeze-frames the social structure of Christchurch in November 1947 by showing the complex caste system of Ballantyne’s department store on the day of its great fire. Blue Blood (1997) takes one of Canterbury’s most famous daughters, Ngaio Marsh, in 1929, at the outset of her career and places her in a sordid pastiche detective story that exaggeratedly resembles her own later fictions.
The tension between history, oral history, autobiography and fiction in Eldred-Grigg’s work is most explicit in his memoir, My History, I Think (1994). Here, in an intricate game that clearly fascinates the writer, he sets out to give shape and purpose to his own life, his work as a historian and his writing of fiction by counterpointing more or less revealing glimpses of each.
WRITERS IN SCHOOLS INFORMATION
Eldred-Grigg is available to talk to students of any age. He is prepared to discuss his novels and history books, and his experiences in New Zealand and China. He is able to run workshops. He is prepared to travel out of town for Writers in Schools visits
In 1988, Stevan Eldred-Grigg was awarded second place for Oracles and Miracles at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards.
Kaput! (2001) is a novel available either as a paperback or as an electronic book. The novel chronicles the lives of ‘Aryan’ German women during the Third Reich.
Oracles and Miracles has recently been launched by Shanghai Yi-Wen Publishing House as the first novel by any living New Zealand writer translated into Chinese and published in China. 'His fine, subtle study of girls and women in the novel makes them not only come to life but walk off the page.' (Professor Chen Yongxiang, Beijing University of Education). 'Stevan writes with beautiful simplicity. His narrative is down to earth, yet often funny and witty.' (Xiang Wei [reviewer] in Xinmin Evening News [Shanghai])
Another title by Eldred-Grigg is Shanghai Boy (Random House, 2006).
In 2006, Eldred-Grigg received a Copyright Licensing Ltd Writer's Award, to write a history of the New Zealand gold rushes.
Published in 2008 by Random House New Zealand, Diggers, Hatters & Whores: The Story of the New Zealand Gold Rushes tells the story of worldwide rushes in the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries.The work also looks at all the rushes, large and small, that took place in the colony: Coromandel, Golden Bay, Otago, Marlborough, the West Coast and Thames. It is designed by Katy Yiakmis of Random House New Zealand.
Diggers, Hatters & Whores was the 2009 recipient of the PANZ Book Design Award for Best in Non-Illustrated.
The Great Wrong War, published by Random House New Zealand in 2010, is a history of New Zealand society during the First World War. The book asks why the country went to war, whether it could or should have pulled out after the first slaughter, and what may have been the true costs. Readers have been polarised by the book. Nicholas Reid reviewed The Great Wrong War in the Sunday Star Times, commenting, ‘Eldred-Grigg would have us believe that Germany bore virtually no responsibility for the war at all.’ A review on the BookieMonster blog offered a different perspective, ‘The Great Wrong War has brought up a lot of questions for me about the present – the growing nationalist fervour around Anzac Day, the pervasive myth that we were fighting a "just" war in WW1, the ideas of "sacrifice" and the encroachment upon civil and individual rights in the name of political expediency in a crisis. Packed with illustrations, it’s also a beautiful object of a book.’
People, People, People: A Brief History of New Zealand was published in 2011 by David Bateman. A very short social history of New Zealand, this book covers many themes and is richly illustrated. The themes of the book include discovery, settlement, war, work, money, power, sex, love and play.
Bangs, a novel published by Penguin Books New Zealand in 2013, takes the reader back into the big blowsy family at the centre of Oracles and Miracles and its companion novels Mum and The Shining City. Stephanie Johnson reviewed the book in the NZ Herald, writing, 'Bangs is confessional, true, sad, lit with gallows humour and could only have been written in New Zealand. We say we are weary of tales about abused children and the cost to our society, but still New Zealand writers approach the subject again and again, and still our statistics are some of the worst in the world. Precisely because of that brutally honest, unrelenting voice Bangs may be as widely read as its 1987 ancestor.'
The Shining City and Mum have been newly edited and published as e-books. The two novels are the second and third of four portraying the history of a Canterbury family that began with Oracles and Miracles and continued most recently with Bangs. The Shining City is a coming-of-age novel about two boys in sixties and seventies suburbia; one reviewer called it ‘sordid’ and ‘the most unpleasant book’ he had read ‘for a very long time,’ while another reviewer thought it ‘one of the most marvellous pieces’ of writing. Mum looks at a brother and sister growing up in a state house during the same period; one reviewer complained about sexual abuse being brought into the story, while another reviewer wrote: ‘The marvels of Eldred-Grigg’s third novel underline the wisdom of the earlier ones.’ The books can be sampled or bought in multiple e-book formats readable on virtually any e-book device and other distribution outlets.
White Ghosts, Yellow Peril China and New Zealand 1790–1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng was published by Otago University Press in 2014.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- There is a bibliography about this author in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Stevan Eldred-Grigg is available for writer visits as part of the Book Council's Writers In Schools programme
- Visit Stevan Eldred-Grigg's website
- The Siren Celia
- The Shining City
- Blue Blood
- My History, I Think
Updated January 2017.