MANDER, Mary Jane
A new biography of Mander, Mary Jane appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Mary Jane Mander, who wrote as Jane Mander, was the eldest daughter of the Hon. Francis Mander, a pioneer sawmiller of the kauri forests and politician for 27 years, 20 as member of Parliament for Marsden and seven as a Legislative Councillor. Jane was born on 9 April 1877 at Ramarama, south of Auckland. Her childhood, a period of constant change, was a commentary on conditions which were overcome only by determination and initiative in an age before grants from the State so generously eased the path of advancement. She never spent more than two or three years in any one of the more isolated forest regions where her father established his sawmill, but Mrs Mander, a wise, deeply religious woman gifted with a sense of humour, schooled her daughter and encouraged her gift for storytelling which found an outlet in entertaining the younger members of the family. At the age of eight Jane trudged 5 miles to school at Kaiwaka from a sawmill home at Pukekaroro, on an arm of the Kaipara Harbour. Seven years later, against some family opposition, she decided to become a pupil teacher, principally because the family purse was insufficient to meet her expenses at Auckland University College.
Jane's teaching career began at Port Albert, where she helped with the family tasks before walking to school, and again when she returned home. Here, too, she joined a debating society, taking part in discussions with all the radical enthusiasm of her young, inquiring mind. Later she taught at the Devonport, Newton West, and Otahuhu Schools, returning with her family to Whangarei in 1900 where she began work on her first and best novel, The Story of a New Zealand River. When her father bought the two Whangarei newspapers in 1902 she abandoned teaching for journalism. From Whangarei she moved to Dargaville for three years to work on the North Auckland Times, also re-writing her novel, and making copious notes for two others as she encountered characters and incidents on which to build. The desire for further study was encouraged by W. R. Holman, Labour Premier of New South Wales, whom she met in 1909, and in 1912, at the age of 35, Jane Mander sailed for the United States to take a course at Columbia University, New York. She went via London, taking a completed draft of her novel which, on arrival, she submitted to John Lane. Though impressed, he refused publication unless certain passages were re-written, as he considered them too frank for the public of that day; but this revision could not be done in the time available in London.
By 1913 Jane Mander was making history at Columbia where she gained top marks in journalism, history, and philosophy, and continued to do so each year. In order to supplement her father's small allowance she drained her strength by taking on outside work – addressing meetings in the campaign for women's franchise, lecturing, doing research work at Sing Sing Prison for prison reformers, coaching junior students, writing magazine articles, managing a hostel for workers and teachers during vacation periods, and, when opportunity offered, rewriting parts of The Story of a New Zealand River, and working on drafts of two other novels. Late in the First World War she was employed for a time by the American Red Cross, managing a warehouse with characteristic energy and zeal. Money thus earned enabled her to recover her strength, for she was often ill. After irritating delays, because of the war, The Story of a New Zealand River was published in New York early in 1920 and in London a few months later. Critics, without exception, gave her novel a warm welcome, describing it as a vivid, human, and realistic tale, words which they applied to almost all her novels.
In 1922 she sailed for London to see the publication of her second novel, The Passionate Puritan. Her third, The Strange Attraction, appeared in 1923; Allan Adair followed in 1925; The Beseiging City in 1926; and Pins and Pinnacles in 1928. But Jane Mander could not live on her royalties in the days before mass publicity and film contracts. Only 2,000 copies of The Story of a New Zealand River were sold in England and a like number in the United States. She read manuscripts for publishers and, from 1927 to 1930, worked for the Harrison Press in Paris under Glenway Westcott and Munroe Wheeler, two brilliant young Americans. She was under contract to John Lane to write another novel and her reminiscences when she returned to New Zealand in October 1932 to keep house for her father. She wrote little after her return, mostly articles and literary reviews. Failing health finally forced her back to Whangarei to be near members of her family, and there she died on 20 December 1949.
Jane Mander was a woman of strong character and vigorous mind, and those qualities are expressed in the more unconventional characters in her novels. Her enthusiasm for new political climates, whether good or bad, was never quite abandoned though much modified by time and circumstance. Her novels, though not great, are landmarks in the New Zealand literary landscape, for her characters are normal human beings concerned with their destiny at a time of great social change, and she made the New Zealand landscape acceptable to the world without being trite and obvious. Although the novels have no place for eccentrics or decadents, there is often a disregard for convention which so shocked the conservative mother of the day that daughters were forbidden to read them. She was a little too enthusiastic about new social and political movements without assessing their impact on the future, a fault she attributed to an undigested diet of Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche. Most of her novels end on a note of hope and renewed endeavour in a wider field, and this was characteristic of the woman herself.
by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.
(There is a general impression that The Story of a New Zealand River is associated with the northern Wairoa. A later novel certainly is, but the “New Zealand River” is the Otamatea. The logging operations at Pukekaroro and the descriptions of the Otamatea River make the novel a historical document of considerable interest. Ed.
- Centennial of Kaiwaka 1859–1959, Kaiwaka Centennial Association (1959)
- New Zealand Listener, p. 12, 5 May 1961
- New Zealand Literature – A Survey, McCormick, E. H. (1959).