Unexpected Literary Finds on a New Zealand Birding Expedition

Lifetime literary challenge to self:  Visit as many women authors’ museums as I can find in my travels and take inspiration from them. Buy a book, take a photo, read her work. It’s a project that has led me to an invigorating list of authors I might never have otherwise chosen.

Part of the fun of such a challenge is the occasional surprise that pops up in the hunt.  If a woman author dies famous enough and long-ago enough to have a museum made of her home, most of us have generally heard of her, and might have read some of her writing. It is a pleasure, of course, to learn about her life and read her work more deeply, but it is a pleasure expected. More exciting for me are discoveries UNexpected—such as finding a museum of an author I don’t know and reading her for the first time—or to be traveling and accidentally come across an unknown museum of an author I do know. I was lucky enough to encounter both such gems on our recent trip to New Zealand, a destination we chose more for endemic bird populations and stunning landscapes than for literary treasures.



A blogging friend from New Zealand alerted me to the home of Dame Ngaio Marsh near the city of Christchurch on the South Island. Ngaio Marsh is not unknown to veteran readers of detective novels, but she was brand new to me. Her first name, pronounced Nyo, is of Maori origin and may have been borrowed from the ngaio tree, a toxic shrub endemic to New Zealand, once used by the native Maori people to ward off insects. Marsh’s museum and life turned out to be fascinating. Beyond her writing, she was also a professional artist, an interior designer, and a well-known director of Shakespearean Theater at Canterbury University in Christchurch. Much of her art and many framed photos of her theater productions hang in her home turned museum. She reportedly thought of herself first as a painter, second as an actress/director/producer, and third as writer, by hobby only.

Yet it was her writing, published mostly in the 1930s, that brought her international fame. Her signature crime solver was Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn, who appeared in no less than 32 published mysteries. Her stories were heavily influenced by her lifework in art and theater. Several are set with a cast of stage players, and Inspector Alleyn was married to a painter. Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) was a contemporary of and favorably compared to the very English queens of mystery writing, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham. The title of Dame Commander was bestowed upon her in 1966 by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to popular English literature.

Marsh wrote late into the night sitting on her couch. The next morning her secretary typed the handwritten pages.

Marsh wrote late into the night sitting on her couch. The next morning her secretary typed the handwritten pages.

Since our visit to Marsh’s home, I’ve enjoyed reading Vintage Murder and  Colour Scheme, two of the four books she set in her homeland. Both are richly infused with the legendary landscapes and native Maori culture of New Zealand, a distinct departure from her British contemporaries. Her mysteries also break with the tradition of her time in that her murders don’t always take place at the beginning of the story, and often the reader learns the murderer’s identity early on. The mystery lies as much in how the crime was committed as in whodunnit.

Another day, same trip, during a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the North Island city of Wellington, a double surprise showed up on the bus itinerary. Katherine Mansfield Birthplace! Double because 1) I didn’t know about her museum and 2) I had always assumed she was British, given her association with Virginia Woolf, a favorite author of mine. I hopped off. This was her childhood home, but she had indeed lived most of her short adult life in England.

Tragically, her life ended with tuberculosis at age 34, but what a legacy of stories she left behind. Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) had long lurked somewhere near the bottom of my list of classic authors to read before I die, but she held little interest for me until I came across her museum by chance and learned that she was reputedly the only writer Virginia Woolf was ever jealous of.

Katherine Mansfield's childhood bedroom.

Katherine Mansfield’s childhood bedroom.

Perhaps I imagined she would be too dark or too dull. Quite the opposite. In her character portrayals, I found her to be as skilled as Jane Austen, but funnier. You get the feeling she’s forever poking fun, in a caricature kind of way, at the people she observes, knows, and loves. Her understated humor keeps you saying, haha, I know that person, or this situation, and I can relate with a memory of my own. Part satirical, part tragic, part comedic, always authentic,  her stories have a depth of symbolism, warmth, rhythm, and poignancy that make them deeply satisfying reads. They present particular portraits of universal truths. Katherine Mansfield may become my new favorite author.

Two of her stories about death, I found remarkably absorbing. Combined, they evoke the beauty, the reality, and yes, even the humor of it all.

On the beauty of death, this, from “The Garden Party,” when young Laura gazes on the face of her neighbor in his casket:

He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . .  All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

And this, for the humor in death, from “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” adult sisters reflecting on the moment immediately after their father’s last breath:

. . . as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then . . . went out. 

As a result of our New Zealand expedition, I’ve sampled the work of two new-to-me authors and chalked up two more women author museums for my lifetime literary challenge. I may read more Ngaio Marsh mysteries, and I’ve definitely promoted the rest of Katherine Mansfield’s stories to the top of my bucket list. Oh, the joie de vivre that comes with the serendipitous discovery of a new author to enjoy. And lest we forget the reason for the trip, allow me to report that I added 56 species to my birder’s life list.

Flightless wingless takahe, endemic to New Zealand, thought to be extinct until a pair was found in the wild in 1949, now living only in sanctuaries and heavily protected.

Flightless wingless takahe, endemic to New Zealand, thought to be extinct until a pair was found in the wild in 1949, now living only in sanctuaries and heavily protected.

(Click here to see a 24 second video of the takahe, pictured to the right.)




Now, Dear Reader, it’s your turn at the keyboard: What classic author that you enjoy have you found relatively late in your reading career?


17 thoughts on “Unexpected Literary Finds on a New Zealand Birding Expedition

  1. Deb, what a nice addition to your journey. While I almost always take a relevant book for the place I visit, with the exception of Key West where I took the opportunity to visit and photograph Hemingway’s home (even non-book lovers like my husband enjoyed it), I haven’t worked authors’ homes into my travels. Most often we’re looking for gardens (and New Zealand rewarded us over an over in that category).
    As far as authors discovered well after everyone else had, I’ll say Salinger (Catcher in the Rye). I couldn’t believe I somehow missed this in school. I loved it.
    Where are you off to next?

    • Rona, how right you are about NZ gardens…and landscapes. People are more connected to the land there than we are in our big metro-areas…in a refreshing way. I still haven’t read Catcher in the Rye—a huge gap in my reading repertoire—must remedy that soon. Off to a writing retreat in exotic Minnesota next 🙂 Still need to research what author museums I can find there.

  2. Deb, I read many of Marsh’s books in my 20’s. You’re sending me back to the used book store to find “Vintage Murder,” and “Colour Scheme.” If I read them, I don’t remember them. What fun! Your trip sounds fantastic.

    • Haha, Laura, I’m finding out I’m one of the few people I know who hadn’t read Ngaio Marsh. I guess because I haven’t read a lot of mysteries. A few Agatha Christies along the way but never developed a huge interest. Several reviews i came across said Marsh is the better writer :-). And yes, it was a memorable trip in many many ways.

      • Yes, I think hers were deeper and more insightful.

        My favorite “new” mystery writer is Louise Penny, a Canadian writer who has won about every mystery and other awards you can win multiple times. I discovered her late, but now I pre-order her books in hardback.

        Hope your summer is going well.

  3. Thanks for this information/suggestion, Deb. It’s fun to organize a trip around one passion and get treated to another. This happened to me last February: drove to Nashville so we could watch a friend perform in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” On our way to dinner beforehand, my boyfriend and I found “Parnassus” – the legendary independent bookstore founded by (author) Ann Patchett and (erstwhile book rep) Karen Hayes. Thought I had died and gone to heaven.

    • You’ve just pegged another traveling habit of mine: finding the indie bookstores:-). Jealous that you’ve been to Parnassus. Also on my bucket list.

  4. Amazingly, the author I didn’t discover until later is also my favorite: Jane Austen. I guess I had thought her books would be too ‘girly’ for serious academic me. I had just started P & P when Masterpiece Theatre came on, the first early adaptation of P & P (not the Colin Firth one). After the episode ended, I sat hunched over our small heat radiator in the living room on a very cold night and read straight through till 2 a.m. I read so fast that I was totally in Elizabeth Bennet’s mind–I completely missed all the irony of her blindness, so that when I reached the crucial letter scene, the turning point, I was like her–shocked, shocked that Wickham could be a cad, that Darcy could be the true gentleman. Perhaps this wasn’t the most perceptive reading on my art, but I suspect it reflects what Austen was up to in her manipulation of tone.

    Ever since then, I have been hooked by Austen’s witty bait.

    • What a great reading memory. Love getting that lost in a book—to look up and not know where you are bc you’re so ensconced in the setting of the book

    • And I understand Nowicki has a new book out just this month—dying to read it as soon as I can wrest it from your hands 🙂

  5. What a fabulous post! So many intriguing thoughts and ideas to
    ponder…and I envy all that time in New Zealand. Just the other day
    at the bookstore, we had a customer ask for Ngaio Marsh, and we had none to offer–need to correct that! As to an author, I would
    have to say I rediscovered John Steinbeck by finally reading
    (and loving) “East of Eden” last year–what a beautifully written
    book. I haven’t visited Parnassus yet either–maybe some of us
    need to do a road trip????

  6. Thanks, Susan. Ooooh—idea—readersunbound road trip to Nashville. Who will organize it? You? 🙂 Me? You were the first one to turn me on to Parnassus. I bought my granddaughter a subscription to their ya first editions book club for Christmas. She gets a new signed-by-author first edition in mail every month. So far, I notice, I’m the only one reading them but oh so wonderful. Surely there’s a woman author’s museum in Nashville. Favorite so far: Anna and the Swallow Man

  7. Oooops—I see that was a reply full of random thoughts. Last line meant favorite book from Parnassus book club—-not museum in Nashville!

  8. Deb, with small children at home, we are still entrenched in the amusement parks and fun-related destinations, neither of which include ‘a dead person’s boring old home’. Ha! That was in my son’s voice, not mine, when I asked him about it.

    Someday, I would love to travel through the world of amazing authors that have graces our planet and our libraries, and visit the places where true inspiration took place. In the meantime, write more articles such as this one so I can live through your travels. Great article!

    • Thx for comment, Crystal. So true of busy life with kids. And of myself as a kid and later as a working mother. Not until I aspired to write did I become interested in the lives of other writers—and not until I retired did i have time to pursue the interest!

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