Sandys, Elspeth

Sandys, Elspeth


Primary publisher
Upstart Press; Playmarket
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In Brief

Elspeth Sandys predominantly writes historical fiction, and has long experience as a stage and radio playwright, an author of adaptations for the BBC, and an actor inform the craft of her dialogue. She has published short stories as well as long fiction and she won a UK award for her novel River Lines. She has received many awards and fellowships in recognition of her work, and in 2006 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

Image credit: Helen Mitchell


Sandys, Elspeth (1940– ), is known in New Zealand as a writer of mainly historical fiction. Her long previous experience in Britain as stage and radio playwright, author of adaptations and series for the BBC, and as an actor in New Zealand and UK, is evident in the crafted dialogue of her fiction.

Born in Timaru, she spent her childhood in Dunedin, adopted into the Alley family (Sandys is a pseudonym), with Rewi Alley a visitor, and so was exposed early to literature. Her early working life was mainly as an actor, divided between the NZ Broadcasting Service and London. She then lived in England 1969–89, becoming a full-time writer and editor. Her first three novels were published there: Catch a Falling Star (1978), based on the life of the poet John Donne; The Broken Tree (1981), published in the USA as The Burning Dawn; and Love and War (1982), republished in New Zealand in 1992.

Her first novel with a New Zealand setting, Finding Out (1991), she has called ‘a daydream from the Cotswolds about my Otago childhood in the 1950s’. Strongly evocative of the Otago Peninsula, and of the era of near-traumatised returned servicemen and repressive communities, it deals with the sexual awakening of two schoolgirls and the community’s thwarting and exclusion of an idealistic young male teacher. Exclusion is also central to Best Friends (1993), a collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly in contemporary London, a city shown as callously disregarding towards the book’s disoriented expatriate New Zealanders. Sandys has spoken of her own ‘geographic schizophrenia’.

River Lines (1995), probably her most substantial achievement, shortlisted for a UK award, interweaves the histories of two contrasting Canterbury families in a dynastic plot rich in strong action and emotion. The hard-won bond of settlers with the land is particularly well established. Well-reviewed, it was called ‘an instant modern classic’ by Quote Unquote. Riding to Jerusalem (1996) deals somewhat polemically with the repression of early unionism in the nineteenth-century Cotswolds, the victimised ‘white slaves of England’ eventually freed to emigrate to New Zealand. Sandys was the 1992 Sargeson Fellow and 1995 Burns Fellow.

Comments on Companion Entry
Sandys was not adopted into the Alley family: her mother was an Alley. Her first novel with a New Zealand setting was The Broken Tree, not Finding Out. (Information from author.)


Sandys published Enemy Territory in 1998, the same year she held the Waikato University Literary Fellowship. Her novel A Passing Guest (Flamingo) was published in 2002.

Sandys won a place in the 2004 Island of Residencies programme, run by the Tasmanian Writers' Centre.

The same year, her collection Standing in Line won the Elena Garro Prize, awarded by the Women's Committee of PEN International for an unpublished collection of short stories. Sandys' collection was published in Mexico in 2006.

Elspeth Sandys' play Century's Turn (formerly known as Masquerade) was chosen for the London International Playwriting Festival in 2005. It was short-listed for the Columbus State University prize in 2006.

In 2006, Elspeth Sandys was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

Her memoir, What Lies Beneath, was published by Otago University Press in 2014.

Sandys was awarded the 2016 Autumn Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre.

Sandys’ upcoming novel Obsession was published by Upstart Press in March 2017.

Media links and clips

Updated March 2017.