new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell


Secrets of Felicity: Letters of Ursula Bethell

selected and introduced by Peter Whiteford


One of the most frequently repeated comments about Ursula Bethell’s poetry is that of D’Arcy Cresswell, who remarked, in his Landfall tribute, that “New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered … until Ursula Bethell, ‘very earnestly digging’, raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before.” It is, of course, at best a partial truth, but it does convey something of her importance as one of the first wholly accomplished and distinctive voices in New Zealand poetry, and it rightly places her at the beginning of modern New Zealand poetry.

Although she published comparatively little poetry, throughout her life Ursula Bethell was a prolific letter writer, one who played, through that correspondence, a rich variety of roles: dutiful daughter, loving sister, loyal friend, emerging poet, patron of young artists, counsellor and spiritual director to name just the more obvious. Vibrant with Words (Victoria University Press, 2005) publishes an extensive collection of letters that span almost all of her life, beginning with a quiet domestic note from a seven year old to her mother, and ending with an even briefer one, dictated when she is too ill to write, just after her 70 th birthday. The much smaller selection made available here is intended to give some glimpses into Bethell’s life, mostly from the time when she settled at Rise Cottage in 1924 until her death in 1945.

This selection bears the title Secrets of Felicity. The phrase comes from a Christmas carol Bethell wrote around 1933, in which the poet implores the rainbird, the riro-riro, to sing the good news of Christ’s Nativity, and in doing so to proclaim ‘secrets of felicity.’(One thinks, in this context, of Eileen Duggan’s ‘After the Annunciation’ which has a similar motif of the Christmas message being shrouded in secrecy.)

However, the title has an additional resonance – even a felicitous resonance – beyond the appropriateness of the carol. One of Bethell’s regular correspondents in the late 1930s and 1940s was a young man, John Summers (later a poet, memoirist, and well-known Christchurch bookseller). Summers felt constrained by having to address her as Miss Bethell; the stiff formality, he believed, prevented any intimacy in their relationship. He recognized that addressing her by her first name was too familiar, and quickly abandoned any honorofic suggestive of a surrogate aunthood, which Bethell firmly declined. Instead, he called her Felicity, and through much of their extensive correspondence he addressed himself to ‘Dear Felicity’, and she signed herself ‘Your F.’

Summers cannot have known how appropriate the name was. Bethell’s next letter sent notes and a booklet on the lives of the early Christian saints, Perpetua and Felicity, but the real significance of the name lay not in its evocation of two third century martyrs, but first in the association felicity has with one of her favourite writers, Thomas Traherne, and secondly in the connection it made with one of her oldest and closest friends, Arthur Mayhew (the godfather of From a Garden in the Antipodes), whose daughter bore the same name. Bethell must have taken a special delight in signing herself Felicity; and Secrets of Felicity seemed therefore a curiously apt title for this selection. It re-inforces, at the same time, the essential privacy of this compelling woman, a privacy that is noted in Vincent O’Sullivan’s introductions to her Collected Poems (1985 and 1997) and more fully in the introduction to Vibrant with Words.

Although no full length biography of Ursula Bethell has yet been written, brief biographical accounts can be found in a variety of places – in Holcroft’s monograph in the New Zealand Writers and Their Work series; in the introductions to Vincent O’Sullivan’s editions of her Collected Poems (1985 and 1997); in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature and in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography ( use the find function). The introduction to Vibrant with Words also provides some biographical detail, and much more has been woven into the notes. That volume also provides more extended commentary on the letters, and on Bethell’s relationships with some of her correspondents. In addition, a bibliography of her work is also available online. Rather than reproduce those biographies here, the following chronological outline of her life may be useful.

1874 Mary Ursula Bethell born in Horsell, Surrey, 6 October (St. Faith’s Day).
1876 Arrived in New Zealand with parents, Richard Bethell and Isabella (née Lillie). Birth of second child, Marmaduke.
1877 Richard Bethell purchased Pahau Pastures, near Culverden in North Canterbury.
1879 Birth of third child, Rhoda.
1881 Family moved to Rangiora.
1885 April 30, Richard Bethell died of pneumonia
1887 Family shifted to Christchurch
1887-88 Attended Christchurch Girls’ High School.
1889-91 Attended Oxford Girls’ High School, England. Boarded with Mayhew family, becoming lifelong friend with Ruth (later Lady Head) and Arthur.
1891-92 Attended finishing school in Nyon, Switzerland.
1892 Returned to New Zealand. Spent three years teaching Sunday school and performing social work.
1894 Involved in Boys’ Gordon Hall. Friendship with Sir John and Lady Rose Hall dates from this time.
1896 Returned to England (via Switzerland and Italy), touring with brother (Marmaduke) and friend. Visited paternal uncle’s estate, Rise Park, in Yorkshire.
1897-98 Studied music and painting in Germany and Switzerland. Rhoda Bethell also in Switzerland at this time.
1898 Undertook social work in London with Lady Margaret Hall Settlement.
1899 Joined Anglican community, Women Workers for God (the Grey Ladies); met and later worked with Mary Lucy Walker of the Dundee Social Union
1901 Holidayed in Switzerland over summer. Suffered serious attack of pneumonia. Left Grey Ladies at end of year.
1902 Left England. Spent several months in Santa Cruz, California, recuperating from pneumonia.
1903 Arrived back in New Zealand, living mostly in Christchurch.
1904 Returned to England via USA. Further involvement in social work. Travelled widely. Anticipated marriage called off. Met Effie Pollen, who lived with Bethell, her mother and sister in Hampstead.
1907 Death of Sir John Hall.
1908 Effie Pollen returned to New Zealand (Wellington).
1909 Bethell returned to New Zealand.
1910 Purchased house at 47 Webb St., Christchurch. Involved in parish work.
1913 Returned to England, via Java and India.
1914 In Switzerland at outbreak of war; returned to England. Worked in London at variety of occupations – Cub mistress, night waitress, information officer.
1919 Returned to New Zealand after Armistice.
1924 August, bought Rise Cottage (10 Westenra Terrace) in Cashmere Hills, where she lived with Effie Pollen. Began writing poetry.
1926 Made last visit to England (6 months) with Effie Pollen. Hospitalized in Sydney on way home for operation to nose, eyes and cheeks.
1927 Began submitting poems to Australian journal, The Home, using pseudonym Evelyn Hayes. Death of Isabella Bethell.
1929 From a Garden in the Antipodes published in London. ‘By Evelyn Hayes.’ Correspondence with Frank Sidgwick dates from this time.
1931 Began extensive correspondence with J H E Schroder, literary editor of The Press, who had reviewed From a Garden. Met Toss Woollaston, who gardened for her at Rise Cottage.
1932 Met and began corresponding with D’Arcy Cresswell (none of her letters have survived).
1933 Began correspondence with Monte Holcroft. Friendship with Archdeacon Whitehead dates from this time.
1934 August: Cresswell proposed that Robert Lowry publish a booklet of her verse; September: outline of Time & Place arrived at with Cresswell’s advice. Effie Pollen died 8 November after brief illness. Sold Rise Cottage and moved into house in Webb St., known as St. Faith’s House of Sacred Learning. (Had earlier gifted the house to the Anglican church as a centre for training deaconesses.)
1936 Time & Place published in Christchurch. ‘By the author of From a Garden.’ Extensive correspondence with Rodney Kennedy dates from about this time.
1938 Visited Wellington, met Eric McCormick. Correspondence with Charles Brasch begins. Involved in organising painting scholarship for Woollaston, funded largely by Brasch. Submitted unpublished poems to McCormick for comment in preparation for Day & Night.
1939 January: correspondence with John Summers begins. February: visited Woollastons at Mapua. June: hospitalized in Wellington, suffering from influenza and dilated heart. Revised selection for Day & Night; October: Day & Night: Poems 1924-1934 published in Christchurch. ‘By the author of Time and Place.
1940 McCormick invited her to comment on the manuscript of his centennial survey, Letters and Art in New Zealand.
1941 Met Kathleen Taylor (later Davies). Extended winter holiday at Kaikoura. Brasch offered her an annual allowance, which she declined.
1942 Read and commented on Holcroft’s manuscript of The Waiting Hills.
1943 Kathleen Taylor residing at St. Faith’s House. Met Allen Curnow. November: St. Faith’s House of Sacred Learning closed. December: Kathleen Taylor married Merlin Davies.
1944 Ill health recurrent complaint in letters. Hospitalized in January and again in April. May 7 diagnosed with inoperable cancer. May 8 moved to private rest home. Agreed to publication of Collected Poems (which did not appear until 1950). Continued working on ‘River Ashley’ sequence.
1945 Died 15 January; buried with parents at Rangiora Church of England Cemetery.


Last updated 16 November, 2017