new zealand electronic poetry centre



My Ursula Bethell

Janet Charman


Originally published in Women's Studies Journal 14.2 (Spring 1998): 91-108.


James K Baxter and Katherine Mansfield are national icons. Their names are widely recognised in this country even by people who are unfamiliar with their work. Hardly any of us recognise the name Ursula Bethell. Yet she is a writer whose sophisticated construction of ‘New Zealand’ identity equals that of Baxter and Mansfield’s. This essay is an attempt to suggest some of the reasons why mainstream recognition of Bethell’s importance to New Zealand literature has been slow in coming. I believe Bethell’s cultural obscurity is due to critical ambivalence regarding her lesbian identity; an ambivalence which has translated into partial appraisals of her poetry.

I first encountered Bethell’s writing in an edition of her Collected Poems edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and published by Victoria University Press in 1985. The cover blurb of this book notes that until the appearance of this collection, ‘[Bethell’s] poetry [had] been unavailable for many years.’ O’Sullivan’s introduction characterised Bethell as an Anglican devotional poet whose mature work is unconsciously influenced by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (xvi). This estimation rather crushed my impulse to claim Bethell as an early feminist role model. Nevertheless I found the simplicity and elegance of the ‘garden’ poems a revelation and was intrigued by the relationship between the women who figure in them. I put the book aside.

Prowling in the library last year I chanced across Monte Holcroft's monograph on Bethell’s life and work. When I read it I found myself taken aback by the facts he records about a visit to her home. I was disappointed. This was not the place I imagined after reading the garden poems. Not in the least.

Holcroft says Bethell lived in Christchurch in Westenra Terrace, ‘a short street near the tram terminus and an easy walk from the parish church’ (12). Her house was a bungalow she'd had built on a section in a ‘somewhat exclusive suburb,’ a few miles from the square (11).

I looked again at the poems in From a Garden in the Antipodes. It was at first hard to see why I should have felt so cheated. After all, the narrator of the poems includes references to the local surroundings, there is a garage, a neighbour's dog, the postman's whistle. Yet for me, the cumulative effect of the work had overwhelmed these details. I realised that I thought of Bethell’s home, some fifty two years after her death, as the ruin depicted in her poem ‘Time’:

Till at last the loiterer by the gate will wonder
At the old, old cottage, the old wooden cottage,
And say, ‘One might build here, the view is glorious;
This must have been a pretty garden once. (8)

On my next trip south I was planning to walk the sheep paths of the Port Hills and track down the site from an ordinance map. It was to be a literary wilderness pilgrimage. Now I read that all the sites which had been contrasted so disingenuously with ‘the neatest apartment in Knightsbridge’ (‘Controversy’ 12) -- the rock wall, ‘reserved for lizards’ (‘Admonition’ 20), the parched green peas (‘Incident’ 13), the drying green, the herbaceous border, the heath corner, ‘the rose engarissoned footpath’ (‘Glory’ 19), the apple tree -- were in fact closer to the ‘shrubs, suburbs, damp villas, desert isles and detective stories’ (‘Catalogue’ 3) which Bethell disparaged and in whose precincts I, and most New Zealanders, still live. Bethell's poetry had evoked for me ‘a deep glade of Eden a booth of green boughs’ (‘Controversy’ 12), but her writing life was spent in a purpose-built bungalow.

Holcroft says she called her house Rise Cottage because she ‘valued accuracy’ and she was ironically contrasting her bungalow with the stately home her family was linked to in England (12). But this masks the fashionable nature of her place. ‘Cashmere Bungalows’ were a modern architectural import (Holcroft 13). Whatever they thought of her home overseas, calling her brand new bungalow a ‘cottage’ blurred its high status here. This renaming also blurred Bethell’s personal status. Did it help her gain the friendship of people of ‘all sorts and classes and countries’ for which she was known? (CP xii).

Bethell was raised in New Zealand. She was both a product of our cultural myths and a contributor to them. As much as anything it’s her ‘can do’ egalitarian self esteem that makes her work attractive to us. Of her Antipodes poems H.C.D. Somerset said in his Landfall memorial to Bethell that from the first ‘They were understood. They were felt’ (Somerset 279). Her collection is most often read as having literary qualities that are as refreshingly unassuming as the cottage and garden in which she locates them. They’re usually referred to as the ‘garden’ poems (CP xiv). Not only because Antipodes is a bit of a mouthful but because readers consider themselves to be on ‘first name’ terms with Bethell’s material.

This impression of ‘naturalness’ is epitomised in the often-quoted remark of D’Arcy Cresswell that ‘New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered, in fact, till Ursula Bethell, "very earnestly digging." raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before’ (Somerset 283). However appealing it is, I think this natural view of Bethell’s writing has prevented a critical consideration of some key issues in her work. I, for one, was rather taken in by it.

Actually Cresswell’s views of Bethell are much more complex than is suggested by this decontextualised quote. Several paragraphs on in his anxious essay he signals his awareness of paradoxes in Bethell’s life and writing (and perhaps in his own) in this description of Effie Pollen:

I don’t believe I ever saw her. I think she was short and dark, a bit grey. I’m not sure. Women are hard to see, they disappear so into their clothes. Perhaps it’s as well. (Somerset 283)

Today however, in the light of changed times and styles, there is no good reason why Ursula Bethell and her writing should remain hard to see.

Bethell’s Antipodes garden exists independently of economics. In it there is no raising of crops or selling of produce. Vegetables have their place but the gardener would ‘rather buy them in a shop’ (‘Perspective’ 19). Plantings are made for reasons of aesthetics or nostalgia. However nostalgia is always the subject of ambivalent critique. For example homesickness for ‘loved and lost London’ is deflated with a shudder in the last line of the poem ‘Mail,’ where the final image is the ‘ceaseless distant scream of captive seals’ (10). Bethell could have lived anywhere. She chose to live here. Regent’s Park is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to get locked in it.

Significantly, the geography of the Antipodes garden defies any attempt at a literal mapping. Where we reach the boundaries of the section Bethell's poems don’t climb down into suburbia, they leap off the mountainside into the Pacific ocean. Calling a truce in her battle against garden pests, the narrator says:

Let me sit down upon this bench,
and lift my eyes beyond the confines of this strife!
How peaceful sleeps the great Pacific to the eastward;
Mile upon mile unbroken rests the open plain (‘Glory’ 19)

Even the great Pacific can be comfortably settled into the Antipodes garden. This is a place where the characters’ needs are abundantly met. An idyllic site where the material and the spiritual are on common ground.

‘Primavera’ is the most ‘homesick’ for England poem Bethell includes in her collection. A lament that here in New Zealand ‘Coomb, coppice, spinney, aye, and primrose-wood, / Not understood, dale and meadow, not understood’ (‘Primavera’ 6). However this sense of loss is complex and qualified.

The narrator looks towards her spiritual destiny for consolation. She suggests that comfort comes from accepting the transience of earthly life and having faith that primroses aplenty ‘adorn the groves where immortal choirs sing’ (‘Primavera’ 7).

In making this assertion Bethell’s poem does not renounce the ‘primrose path’ (Hamlet I.iii.47; Macbeth II.iii.22). Her primroses overrule the tradition that a Christian must relinquish pleasure and punish the flesh. ‘You should not be here, primroses, yet must I have you here,’ she says (‘Primavera’ 6).

The poem shifts languages in its fifth stanza to intensify the sense of a foreigner’s pining for home. ‘In patria, primroses, in patria - do you hear?’ The shift to italics signals another voice. But it also voices a subtext. ‘La patrie -- la patrie c’est le pays du désir’ (‘Primavera’ 6). Using the French ‘désir’ lets me read the phrase into English as literally ‘my home is the land of desire.’ Only after this reading do I translate the phrase to mean ‘my home -- land of my longing.’

Bethell thus marries the principle of eros, present in her sensual catalogue of English trees and weather (‘your tender fragrance so fresh in the mist, in the rain,’ ‘Primavera’ 7) to an endnote focused on a route to divine agape. In the process the Antipodes garden functions not as a second-rate destination, but rather as a staging post on the way to the hereafter.

A staging post from which the writing celebrates leisure and pleasure for their own sake as inalienable human rites. Here play is not a diversion from learning but rather in the sense that today’s early childhood educators use the word, this is ‘play’ as a profoundly serious form of honest labour. It’s in the fantastic unqualified uselessness of the poems, then, that some of their continuing appeal must lie.

The Antipodes garden exists for the pleasure it gives to the couple who tend it. Their relationship with the land mirrors their relationship with each other. This is the poem ‘Discipline’:

I said; I will go into the garden and consider roses;
I will observe the deployment of their petals,
And compare one variety with another.
But I was made to sit down and scrape potatoes.

The morning’s rosebuds passed by unattended,
While I sat bound to monotonous kitchen industry.
Howbeit the heart of my consort was exhilarated,
And for virtuous renunciation I recieved praise.

The taste of the potatoes was satisfactory
With a sprig of fresh mint, dairy butter, and very young green peas. (9)

There is no breadwinner. There are no dependents. The sole reason for the partnership is the pleasure the couple have in each other’s company. There is no place for the exchange of money for services. Yet her younger contemporary Monte Holcroft considered this last to be the original basis of Ursula Bethell’s relationship with her ‘companion’ Effie Pollen.

Effie was Ursula’s ‘companion. A word used often in the poems; and although Ursula intended it to mean ‘friend,’ it may have had a narrower meaning at the beginning of their relationship. In those days an unmarried woman with a small private income would sometimes live with another woman (usually a widow) to keep her company, and perform light duties, in return for accommodation. It was a genteel arrangement, giving mutual security. (Holcroft 13)

Holcroft’s remarks are carefully judged. He tries so hard not to write condescendingly of Bethell, her work, or her relationship. Nevertheless this passage is representative of his monograph in highlighting in a variety of ways the anxiety and hostility his culture directs towards women whose relationships fall outside the patriarchal norms. He goes on to quote from an anguished letter Bethell sent him when Effie Pollen died: ‘a complete shattering of my life; from her I have had love, tenderness, and understanding for thirty years, and close and happy companionship (in spite of inevitable superficial differences) in this house for ten years. I shall not want another home on this planet.’ He immediately feels obliged to mediate these revelations. Here’s how he continues:

A few weeks later she wrote to me again. I doubt if she thought for a moment that her relationship with Effie might be misunderstood; and I am certain she would not have cared if it had been: she was secure in herself and had a large toleration of frailty. But I thought two statements in her letter were significant. Her feelings for Miss Pollen, she wrote, had been ‘prevaillingly maternal.’ And she added: ‘They are mistaken who think that such relationships are only known when physically based.’(Holcroft 13)

It’s a passage marked by ambivalence. Holcroft seems caught between a desire to honour the integrity of Bethell and Pollen’s relationship while reconstructing that relationship for readers who might view his revelations with prejudice and bigotry.

The Edenic world of the Antipodes poems exists, then, in a fictional realm. Bethell never went public with her relationship any more than she ‘paraded’ her actual garden (Holcroft 15). That's because either must seem an anti-climax after the visionary rendering we find in her writing.

The Antipodes poems question not only the dominant economic and sexual imperatives of their times but also many political orthodoxies. This challenge is encoded in the seemingly deferential otherness of their title. From a Garden in the Antipodes denotes an Australasian location as opposed to a European one, antipodes in its sense of being geographically foot to foot. This is colony versus empire. Yet on entering what reader and narrator agree is ‘opposite’ space, we find Bethell’s poems don’t admit their ‘otherness.’

‘Won’t you greet a friend from home half a world away?’ was how the publisher put it in 1929 in an English advertisement for the collection (CP x). There is no admission here of cultural, or for that matter sexual, cringe. The Lack. What lack?

‘I have a thirty foot hose,’ the narrator remarks in ‘Elect’ (18). Tellingly, by the end of the poem even this seemingly indispensable irrigation system is irrelevant because the pilgrim rose is surviving quite well up by the front gate all on its own.

This refusal of otherness is not a reading that recommends itself to patriarchy any more than it appealed to the heart of empire. From a Garden in the Antipodes languished in the marketplace and in 1934 Bethell repurchased her unsold books to save them from remaindering (Holcroft 53, n19).

The original pseudonymously authored edition is long of print. And reading the collected work of Ursula Bethell obscures the narrative effect of the non-gender-captured name Evelyn Hayes under which the Antipodes poems were originally published. This name denoted the author of the poems as either male or female. It gave Bethell the opportunity to inhabit a subversive range of textual positions from within a first-person narrative.

Blurring the architectural provenance of her home had helped her to make social contacts beyond those prescribed by class boundaries. Blurring their precise personal status permitted Bethell to achieve and maintain the unorthodox friendship she had with Effie Pollen, the woman who shared her life at Rise Cottage throughout her productive writing years. Blurring her identity as an author permitted her to inscribe the relationship with Pollen as a marriage in her Antipodes poems. And because that makes the relationship the love that dare not speak its name, Bethell is obliged to publish her poems pseudonymously.

In 1895, the year Bethell turned twenty one, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years with hard labour for homosexual practices (Oxford Companion 887). Understandably, even thirty four years later in New Zealand, Bethell sidesteps any hint of ‘daring’ as she details the ordinary intimacy of spouse with same-sex spouse.

Helen Simpson, who wrote the introductory note to the first Collected Poems, has this to say about their authorship:

For private and personal reasons which seemed to her sufficient, Miss Bethell insisted on the use of a pseudonym . . . and Evelyn she felt provided a further cloak in the ambiguity of its gender . . . Long before her death Miss Bethell had given up her desire to pseudonymity. (CP 1950 11)

Yet a first-person narrator is not ‘gender ambiguous’ to the reader. Readers come to any work with assumptions about women and men. As a narrative proceeds readers test their assumptions against the text. Where ambiguity exists, as in the form in which the Antipodes poems were originally published, readers determine, and if necessary redetermine, the narrator’s gender. They base their decisions on what the narrator says and does and on their beliefs about masculinity and femininity. They can’t help themselves because they live in a world where gender constructs identity. Until they decide which gender a person performs, they can’t think what that person means.

In New Zealand where there was an early revelation of Evelyn Hayes as a woman writer, paradoxically this knowledge has not prevented a long silence on the sexual politics which underpin Bethell’s writing. Anne Else’s 1985 Landfall article about the treatment of women poets in Landfall is the only critical instance I have found which notes Bethell’s identity as lesbian. Presumably one reason for this reticence is a desire to protect Bethell’s reputation from any perceived slur of sexual deviance. Another has been a critical inability to find a bridge between her devout Christianity and her invidious position in a faith which suppresses homosexuality. Yet for whatever reasons, to analyse these poems without an awareness of, in particular, their first-person narrator’s sensitivity to gender determination, is to miss many of Bethell’s subtleties.

Bethell blurs role boundaries starting with the 'foreword' poem in the Antipodes collection. The narrator tells us that the volume is addressed to a friend who lives in a far off country. ‘I have told you, Ruth, in plain words / The pleasures of my occupation.’ The poem invokes ‘the rhythms of the stout spade / The lawnmower and the constant hoe.’ A manly, a husbandly opening. But these unforgiving agricultural labours are contrasted with a wish to produce something sweeter. And in words that are decidedly wifely: ‘I would that it had been given me / To be the maker of a small melody / Fit to be chanted by one of Eve's daughters / Throwing her first seed into a rough furrow’ (‘Foreword’ 1). If it’s disconcerting it’s a taste of what’s to come.

The poems are recounted by someone who refers to that self as a ‘gardener,’ a ‘Horticulturalist,’ and conducts this narration alongside someone referred to as the first person’s ‘companion,’ ‘coadjutor,’ ‘consort,’ ‘a housewife.’

So why, if the reader very understandably concludes that the narrator is a man, is the book addressed to another woman? Is this old friend Ruth an old flame of the narrator’s? What does the narrator's current ‘consort’ think of this dedication?

The narrator and that companion seem to be an unusually compatible couple. There is possessiveness, but not jealousy. They have separate spheres but no rigid role boundaries. In ‘Grace,’ the narrator introduces the nurturing companion with the words ‘I have a little raven,’ then goes on, with an image of loquacious virility, to describe the narrating self as ‘a hungry old sinner’ (‘Grace’ 3). The masculine persona is reinforced seven poems later in ‘Sinensis’ which starts tangentially: ‘A friend said: "You must be dull sometimes / Away up there on that hill."’ And the reply is insistently masculinised by ‘the Horticulturalist’ in these terms:

When he is not labouring in physical toil,
Or attempting to alleviate ever recurring hunger and thirst
He is working out a succession of vegetables, ...
Or, after an unfortunate disappointment
Seeking the consolations of Philosophy.
He has never accomplished when the sun goes down
More than a small portion of what he had intended to do’ (‘Sinensis’ 7)

If the pronouns aren't enough, the appetites, the physical work, the high culture theorising, are all stereotypically masculine. And the narrator’s masculinity is never directly contradicted anywhere else.

Yet isn’t there a suggestion of the feminine in ‘Glory,’ where the gardener, resting on a bench to watch the sunset, writes of the soul, as ‘she.’ Perhaps the spiritual element is being feminised here, in the same way that inspiration for a man is feminised in the muse? Perhaps not. In the poem’s second to last stanza:

Then was revealed in a dim turquoise interstice,
A very young, remote, and slender, but outshining,
But all predominant moon. (‘Glory’ 19)

Suggestively, at this point in the text a trio of characteristics is present that Bridie Lonie identifies as the three painting ‘habits’ in the art of Frances Hodgkins.

These then are the three habits: a use of symbols associated with femininity, connections between the colour blue and the female body, and a central dissolution of space.’ (Lonie 83)

Can we identify these habits elsewhere in Bethell’s poems? If on account of their presence here the reader thinks that this narrator must be a woman after all, suddenly disruptive, Bethell incorporates two ‘buts’ in these lines. They break into the rhythm of the poem just at the point when the sunset storm they’re part of, appears to be all but over.

In the final stanza of the poem the narrator rejects ‘petulant questions’ that presume what the admission of femininity might imply, with the words: ‘In such an hour the soul finds an appeasement / Not justified by reasons of common sense’ (‘Glory’ 19). If the narrator is acknowledging here that she is a woman, what sense, common or otherwise, are we invited to make now of the narrator’s relationship with the ‘little raven’?

Can girls do anything? In the Antipodes garden it seems so. Elsewhere, in New Zealand literary circles for example, there have always been certain limits.

Vincent O’Sullivan notes that ‘in a small community there was no secret as to who the author [of these volumes] was’ (CP xii). So readers who could think what is meant by the masculinity (then femininity) of the narrator Evelyn Hayes, could also consider the unthinkable ‘other’ construction that might be put on the life and work of Ursula Bethell, the well-to-do Anglican spinster. No one openly challenged her.

As her correspondence makes clear, at the point of publication Bethell was amenable to editors and friends suggesting titles or correcting grammatical ‘errors’ in her poems. This tolerance of interference becomes explicable if one considers that these comments about layout and punctuation, restricted as they were to minor critical assertions, offered to Bethell an implicit affirmation of the legitimacy of her larger creative project. Equally, had Bethell imposed her will on the final details of her books’ production this would have made uncomfortably permeable the barrier she kept between the narration of her poems and herself as their author. A barrier which she was obliged to maintain in order to be able to write as she liked.

In allowing her poems into public view at all, the risk of identification as a lesbian was always a possibility. Every critic who writes about Ursula Bethell has had to negotiate the currents in her work that take us from the thinkable to the unthinkable, from the spoken to the unspoken. How we address these matters reveals as much about us as it does about her.


Bethell’s companion, Effie Henrietta Dorothea Pollen, died suddenly in 1934. Time and Place, Bethell’s second collection, appeared two years later. In it the writer of Time and Place is identified only as ‘the Author of ‘Poems From a Garden in the Antipodes.’ The dedication is to ‘the dear memory of E.H.D.P. without whom these had not been written. Particular, but still, necessarily, entirely gender obscure.

Bethell was devastated by Effie Pollen’s death yet the expression of her grief had to be carefully judged. This need for calculation could explain the sense of guilt which Bethell expresses in some of her letters written at this time.

The links between the women had been pervasive in Bethell’s writing and the work in Time and Place is no exception. In Bethell’s dedication it becomes noticeable that the first two of Effie Pollen’s four initials mimic the shortened form of Evelyn Hayes ‘that Bethell adopted for poems that appeared in the Christchurch Press. There she was published as ‘E.H.’ (CP xiii).

This second collection is about half the size of the Antipodes work. There are vistas and storms, drives, crops and seasons, travellers and forests. The poems reveal a landscape with a more distant horizon than the first book.

Bethell critics think most of the sixteen poems were written before Pollen’s death (CP xiv). This makes Bethell’s tight editing of the Antipodes collection even more remarkable. Yet Time and Place is not simply a compilation of work that didn’t fit into Antipodes. It has a formal shape of its own. The book is arranged in four sections. In each a season of the year is personified as a woman. For example ‘Spring Storm’ has Primavera not just on a primrose path to heaven, now she roves the ‘wide lowlands over.’ In the second to last stanza of the poem:

She arose; with a hand twist wrung out her tresses,
Her long yellow tresses; flung naked her young limbs,
Her willowy, white limbs, merrily running
And tripping light;
Her burnished hair, tossing, dressed and undressed her. (‘Spring Storm’ 28)

The image is a sensual one. Eros embodied in the landscape. It is as if the central figures from Botticelli's paintings of The Birth of Venus and Spring, were alternated in a dance across the plain. Dressed and undressed. Tressed and untressed.    


In the next season, ‘November,’ ‘young summer green wreathed earth prepares / Her year long increment, and fills her wealthy stores’ (31).

In ‘Autumn Afternoon,’ ‘It seemed as if Autumn, red-cloaked for her journey / Autumn, kind Autumn, had paused for a while’ (38)

Last come the four winter poems. It’s this section that addresses the impact on the writer’s life of Effie Pollen’s completely unexpected death.

In ‘Warning of Winter,’ Eros is literally banished. She appears in Bethell's handwriting in the manuscript copy of the poem at the Macmillan Brown Library, where the title is recorded as ‘Eros Agape,’ and in this way in two lines in the body of the text:

Go with Eros to darkness
Descends his flowered pathway,

By the time this poem reaches typescript however, the snow has come down on it. The title ‘Eros Agape’ has turned into ‘Warning of Winter’ and the ambiguous ‘Go with Eros to darkness,’ has become the unequivocal ‘Alas, alas to darkness / Descends his flowered pathway,’ The original version of the poem refers to Psyche’s descent from the hilltop into the depths of the wood where she finds the palace of Cupid (Eros). He becomes her hidden lover. The descent in the revised version is into the underworld where Psyche (the soul) goes in an attempt to placate the gods after they have intervened to separate the couple (Grant 357).

The next poem in the collection, ‘Weathered Rocks,’ at first seems unremittingly bleak. In it, the origin point of poetry -- a volcano -- is exhausted. The narrator stands desolate in an arid landscape among ‘twisted brambles from invisible crevasses’ (40).

The first line of the next stanza reads ‘Rock, thorn, cryptogram, each has significance,’ The word ‘cryptogram’ is a puzzle. Up till now the narrator has been detailing the landscape where boulders are ‘encrusted with lichens and only ‘lissom tussock’ grows. Where does a ‘cryptogram’ fit in on the volcanic plateau? Webster says it is ‘A piece of writing in secret characters. Something written in cypher.’ One reading is that it’s the ‘Tattoo’d and stained, silvered, denigrated’ marking on the boulders. However just above my dictionary’s definition of ‘cryptogram’ I notice an almost identical word:, krip~ to. gam", n. [Fr. cryptogame = N.L. cryptogamus, cryptogamous, < Gr. Kryptos -, hidden and gamos - marriage.] Bot. any of the Cryptogamia, an old primary division of plants comprising those without stamens and pistils, and therefore without flowers and seeds, as the ferns, mosses and thallophytes; a plant without a true seed.’

When Bethell revised ‘Warning of Winter,’ possibly after Effie Pollen’s death, did she also make changes to ‘Weathered Rocks’? Cryptogam would aptly complete her catalogue of the environment. And its derivation gives it an additional dimension particularly relevant to the hidden aspect of Bethell’s relationship with Effie Pollen. I called the Macmillan Brown Library. They don’t have a manuscript of ‘Weathered Rocks,’ only a typescript. It shows the published word ‘cryptogram.’

Whatever a manuscript copy of the poem might tell us about its composition, in ‘Weathered Rocks’ Bethell is clearly alerting the reader to the transforming subtleties of poetic language. The opening lines of ‘Weathered Rocks’ read: ‘Poetry is a music made of images / Worded one in the similitude of another’ (39).

And whether or not Bethell wrote ‘Weathered Rocks’ before Effie Pollen’s death, here her winter placement allows it to function both as a lament for Effie Pollen’s passing and a piece of advocacy for those whose creativity is threatened by a life lived on the margins.

Ursula Bethel wasn't prepared to be 'out' in her day -- hence the cryptogram. But in this poem I think she looks forward to a time when the issue of her hidden relationship could be raised legitimately. A time when the background of her poems would be properly recognised as part of the whole context of her writing.

The intensity of the grief Bethell suffered at Effie Pollen’s death may have meant she needed to put maximum authorial distance between herself and the material she published which referred to it. Anonymity meant she could avoid explaining or, even more important, explaining away, any transgressive elements in her poems.

Every year for six years, on the anniversary of Effie Pollen’s death, Bethell composed a memorial poem. These poems were not published till after Bethell’s own death.

They are eloquent testimony to both her sense of loss and the love she had experienced. The poems are carefully worded and formally constructed. They balance Bethell’s painful struggle for Christian acceptance against her desire to rekindle past happiness. ‘You left me, darling, desolate -- might it not be to find, / to accomplish in my solitude some unfinished work, / To glean some stormy harvest that remains?’ (‘November 1939’ 82) But renewed feelings of grief cut through Bethell’s considered attempts at acceptance. The last memorial poem, ‘Spring 1940,’ ends with the line ‘I cannot bear the pain’ (83).

In her letters to people with whom she discusses her memorial poems for Effie Pollen, Bethell suggests that it's important she keep this work private (CP 106, n79). Bethell knows that a woman is forbidden to mourn for another woman as if they had been spouses. Yet she is able to protect herself from the humiliation of denying the profound significance of the loss of her relationship with Pollen by reframing her circumspection in religious terms. Thus her muted response becomes, not an act of denial of Pollen, rather it’s a denial of the power of death. Bethell is able to see herself as both a true lover and a true knight of Christ.


In the collection she published after Time and Place she still believes it necessary to hide her identity. This, her third and final book is titled Day and Night: Poems 1924-1934. It identifies the writer as ‘the author of Time and Place.’ Anonymity is certainly intended to protect Bethell’s privacy but it also means she can publish on questions of religion and philosophy without facing misogynist accusations that she is getting above her station.

According to L.G. Whitehead, Ursula Bethell supported the ordination of women:

It was her sense of mission that made her so strong an advocate of the idea of women priests. She felt that the male sex had enjoyed their entrenched position in this matter and ought to be deprived of an assumed monopoly as soon as possible. (Somerset 295)

Holcroft refers to the work here which meditates on mortality and sacrifice, as Bethell’s ‘night pieces’ (35). I think that we also see her in her Knight of Christ persona. This is writing in quest of the Holy Grail. I don't think it eluded her. Rather, she remained -- as Malory's Lancelot did -- in and of the world with the one she loved, for as long as that was to be physically possible.

Like her two previous collections, Day and Night was composed of work written during Effie Pollen’s lifetime. It was published by Caxton in 1939, six years before Bethell died 15h January 1945 (CP xii).

Was Bethell right to assume a lack of respect for her work and attacks on her dignity? Hostility towards her is apparent in at least some of the writing which emerged after her death. For example there are ambivalent references to Bethell’s domestic arrangements in Toss Woollaston’s autobiography of 1980, Sage Tea. He makes a point of letting us know twice in the space of six pages that the women at Rise Cottage had separate bedrooms (216, 220). And in several vividly told incidents he ridicules Bethell’s attempts to both acknowledge yet circumvent social convention. Once he knocked very early at her front door on a Saturday morning and ‘cramming her hat on’ she pretended to be going out so as not to have to entertain an uninvited caller. In another incident she can’t bring herself to point out to him a favourable review of her collection in the morning paper. When she thinks he must have found the piece for himself, Woollaston says she asks him, ‘with a strange sort of brightness, what I thought of it’ (217).

Woollaston records these events to establish Bethell’s peculiarity, which he links to her problematic identity as a woman who doesn’t fit his idea of the approved gender role boundaries.

I had been working alone for perhaps twenty minutes when the back door opened and Miss Bethell appeared clad in a linen jacket and something like riding breeches, with a hatchet in her hand to help me with the work. (223)

We don’t, of course, need to hear what Woollaston wore to chop up a tree. A man is his work, not what he wears for it. Bethell is a wealthy, formidably intelligent, independent writer. Although Woollaston is grateful for financial patronage, these slippages in his text reveal that as a man he finds his professional beholdeness to ‘Miss’ Bethell inappropriate.

Today Bethell is entitled to recognition as a lesbian. She constructed a satisfactory path through the homophobia of her own time. I think we can dispense with condescending examples of writing about Bethell in ours.

The Antipodes garden is a pleasure ground inhabited by two women. If it’s on the far side of Eden it’s no less a paradise for that. Lancelot escaped with Guinevere to his castle Joyous Gard when their relationship was made public by their enemies (D. S. Brewer 103). In ‘Spring on the Plain,’ one of the poems in Bethell's last collection, Joyous Guard also makes an appearance. It’s a phrase which encapsulates for me the liberties Bethell took in her writing. There is nothing defensive about the way she uses it

And: Life, life, resurgent life! sings the exalted skylark,
As on the battlements of spring he mounts his joyous guard. (45)’



This essay evolved from a staff seminar presented at the invitation of the English Department of the University of Auckland during my 1997 tenure as Literary Fellow. Thanks to Jon Battista, Diane Brown, Murray Edmond, Chris Price and Peter Simpson for encouragement on that occasion. Thanks also to Barney Brewster for his gift of an original edition of the Antipodes poems and to Bronwyn Mathews for assistance with a library search at the Macmillan Brown Library. A version of this article was judged a commended entry in the 1997 Landfall essay competition.

Works Consulted

Primary Sources

Hayes, Evelyn [pseud]. From a Garden in the Antipodes. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. 1929.

[‘By the Author of "From a Garden in the Antipodes"’]. Time and Place: Poems. Christchurch: Caxton, 1936.

[‘By the Author of "‘Time and Place"’]. Day and Night: Poems 1924-1934. Christchurch: Caxton, 1939.

Bethell, Mary Ursula. Collected Poems. Ed. Helen Simpson. Christchurch: Caxton, 1950.

---. Collected Poems. Ed. Vincent O’Sullivan. Wellington: Victoria UP. 1985; 2nd ed. 1997. (CP) All quotation of poems in this essay is sourced by title from the 1985 edition unless otherwise noted.

‘Eros Agape.’ Ms poem 38. Ursula Bethell Papers. Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury.


Secondary Sources

Adcock, Fleur. Review of Collected Poems of Ursula Bethell. The Listener (24 May 1985): 54-55.

Brewer, D.S. Malory: The Morte Darthur. London: Edward Arnold, 1975.

Brewer, Rosemary. ‘A Pilgrim in the Library: The Private Letters and Public Poetry of Mary Ursula Bethell.’ M.A. Thesis. University of Auckland, 1995.

---. ‘Mary Ursula Bethell: Her Women Friends.’ Printout 11 (Winter 1996). 68-70.

Busignani, Alberto. Botticelli: The Life and Work of the Artist. London: Thames & Hudson, 1965. [need this? the images are so well known, and we could insert graphic files of them]

Else, Anne. ‘"Not More Than Man Nor Less". The Treatment of Women Poets in Landfall, 1947-1961.’ Landfall 156 (December 1985 ): 94-120. See also ensuing correspondence in Landfall 158.

Erwin, Robert. ‘Ursula Bethell and Evelyn Hayes: A Misattribution?’ Landfall 122 (June 1977): 156-62.

Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. Mentor, NY: New American Library, [CHECK, place and date?]

Holcroft. M.H. Mary Ursula Bethell. New Zealand Writers and Their Work. Wellington: Oxford UP, 1975.

Lonie, Bridie. ‘Shifting Signifiers: Fluidity and the Female Body in the Work of Frances Hodgkins.’ Art New Zealand 78 (Autumn 1996): 83-86.

Somerset, H.C.D., and D’Arcy Cresswell, M.H. Holcroft, John Summers, L.G. Whitehead. ‘Ursula Bethell; Some Personal Memories.’ Landfall 8 (December 1948): 275-96.

Oxford Companion to English Literature. Sir Paul Harvey: 4th ed. Ed..Dorothy Eagle. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language:and Compendium of Usable Knowledge. New York: Library Guild, 1972.

Woollaston. Toss. Sage Tea: An Autobiography. Auckland: Collins, 1980.


©Janet Charman

Last updated 31 May, 2002