“Though this book is fiction, and the characters, not portraits, it is based on fact. That a man who had emigrated to the New World should after a lapse of years write home for a bride, and then get the wrong one because he had confused her name with that of her sister, may seem to the reader highly improbable; yet it happened. And in real life also the man held his tongue about his mistake and made a good job of his marriage.”
Preface to Green Dolphin Country
The book is based on the life experiences of Elizbeth’s Great Uncle William, who left the island to join the British Navy, went on shore leave at an eastern port, missed his ship after “getting into a scrape” and found a ship bound for Australia. His story is William’s in most particulars.
Elizabeth herself said she “made it New Zealand because my ignorance of Australia was, even more, total than my ignorance of New Zealand.”
(Joy of the Snow)
It took her a long time to write, a project that she took up and laid aside during the early days of the Second World War. Elizabeth and her Mother were living at that time in Marldon, a small village on the flight path to Plymouth, and endured many nights of sleepless listening as the German planes roared overhead on their way to bomb Plymouth. As the planes returned there was always the worry that they would jettison their bombs over their village.
Her Mother and Elizabeth shared a bed while this was taking place, determined to be together should the worse occur. Her Mother’s jewelry box and Elizabeth’s manuscript of Green Dolphin Country was with them.
“Perhaps, like the Egyptians of old, we subconsciously thought that what was close to our bodies in death would accompany our spirits as they entered a new life”
(Joy of the Snow)
Green Dolphin Country is arguably one of the most famous adult novels that Elizabeth wrote. It’s a blockbuster of a book and was made into a film in the 1940’s. It caused Elizabeth all sorts of problems as people wanted to visit her and the tax man became interested in her earnings for the first time.
Elizabeth always researched her work meticulously and for this epic, she found a work by F.E. Maning entitled “ Old New Zealand.” It was a chronicle of the author’s experiences in the New Zealand of the late 1800s and his relationship with the Maoris. With the benefit of the internet, I was able to find out that the character of Tai Harura is based on that of Maning himself. They both made their money from timber, both took part in the wars between the indigenous people and the settlers and both had a love-hate relationship with the Maoris. Maning was over six foot tall, had great physical presence and strength as well as a good sense of humor.He was known as a “Pakeha Maori”, the term given to white settlers who became immersed in the Maori culture, a “white Maori.”
Into the book’s opening chapters, she pours all her love for the island that was the home of her Mother’s family. It is lyrical in its descriptions describing minute details and broad vistas as only Elizabeth can. It was the last time she used Gurnsey as the setting for a novel, and she paints a vivid picture of the isolation and beauty of the place and time into which her Mother was born.
Elizabeth’s books always contain quotes which I like to imagine are the starting point for the moral content of her story, and Green Dolphin Country begins with one by Evelyn Underhill.
“Three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth can fully satisfy. The first is the craving which makes him a pilgrim and a wanderer. It is the longing to go out from his normal world in search of a lost home, a “better country”; an Eldorado, a Sarras, a Heavenly Syon.”
New Zealand is all these things. Even today with our ease of world travel, it is still the other side of the world, Middle Earth where Lord Of The Rings holds sway. How much more exotic and unimaginably far away it would have been in the 1940s.
Elizabeth, always a homebody, would shortly be making her own way in the world, and unknown to herself was at this time forging the tools to do so.
It was the springboard that gave her the recognition and financial space to become a professional writer. At first, it all seemed unlikely, as she was told that the book was too long, and with the war on there was just not enough paper to justify printing it. But thanks to an American Publisher, it was sent in as a candidate for a Metro Goldwyn Mayer film prize and won. The film sadly does not live up to the book but is a better rendition of the story than the film version of The little White Horse.
As Elizabeth, so often does she uses the local legends to give depth to her characters, such as the footprints of the Abbess in the “bay of fairies.” She uses her family home as the home of the Le Patourels, in Le Paradis, “built high up in the rock citadel of St-Pierre.”
The book deals with the themes of class, the upper-class Patourels and the “trade” Ozannes. The material wealth that one has and the noble calling of the doctor. Yet another doctor who has chosen his work over the love of his life, this time in the person of Dr. Ozanne. The same device which was used in “Bird in the Tree.” Are these echoes of a love that Elizabeth once knew? Was there an unsuitable boy who went away to study to become a Doctor, who promised to return but didn’t?
The book charts the growth of the inner as well as the outer life, the person who stays at home and the one who goes as far from the cradle of her birth as is possible. Yet who changes the most and where and when it takes place is unexpected.
“ They were alike only in their mutual realisation that whatever one expects to feel in this life one will probably feel the opposite.”
(Green Dolphin Country p481)
Moving from one set of small islands to another, both isolated from the changing modern world that was rapidly developing, it is a tale of adventure, both of the natural world and the inner world of the spirit.