Story: Scanlan, Ellen Margaret

Page 1 - Biography

Scanlan, Ellen Margaret

1882–1968

Journalist, novelist

This biography was written by Terry Sturm and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Ellen Margaret Scanlan, New Zealand's most widely read popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s, was born in Picton on 15 January 1882, of Irish Catholic parentage. Her father, Michael Scanlan, came from County Kerry, Ireland, and travelled and worked in Australia as a successful gold prospector, engineer, surveyor and policeman. He settled in New Zealand as a police sergeant and married Ellen Kiely, from a farming family in County Cork. Nelle, as she was known, had an elder sister, Mary, and a brother, Dan (killed in France in the First World War). When she was five the family moved to Blenheim, where she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy. In the late 1890s the family moved again, to Palmerston North, where Nelle worked as a typist for several years before setting up her own secretarial business. At this time she also began to write occasional free-lance newspaper articles and short stories.

Scanlan's interest in writing and journalism may well have been prompted during her early life by the family's close friendship with the poet Thomas Bracken. During the First World War she became a reporter, then sub-editor, on the Manawatu Daily Times, and in 1919 began an adventurous, roving 30-year career as a free-lance journalist in New Zealand and overseas. She initially travelled to the United States, where her first major assignment was the reporting of the first Conference on the Limitation of Armaments in Washington DC, in 1921–22 (she was the only woman reporter present). During two years there she became well known as a peripatetic 'ambassador' for New Zealand, speaking at women's clubs and reporting on social events and personalities in syndicated articles which were also published as a book, Boudoir mirrors of Washington, in 1923.

After 1923 Scanlan was based in England, where for 25 years she continued to report on the lives of the rich and famous, on royal events, and on the personalities and places behind public and political events in England and Europe. She made a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. She also became acquainted with many British writers, including John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells. Scanlan returned every five years or so to New Zealand. In 1927 she covered the royal tour of the duke and duchess of York for the New Zealand Free Lance; in 1933 she returned again, by this time to wide acclaim as a New Zealand novelist, and actively supported the founding of the professional writers' organisations, PEN New Zealand Centre and the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society.

In her autobiography Road to Pencarrow (1963), Scanlan wrote of her career as a novelist: 'I was never young and full of promise. I was once young, but my first novel wasn't published until I was nearly fifty.' She wrote 15 novels altogether over a period of 20 years, the first two ( Primrose Hill and The top step, both set in London) appearing in England in 1931. Following the advice of her publisher, she turned to a New Zealand setting for her third novel, and the result was the first of what was to become a tetralogy of 'Pencarrow' books: Pencarrow (1932), Tides of youth (1933), Winds of heaven (1934), and Kelly Pencarrow (1939). These books established Scanlan as the most popular New Zealand novelist of her generation.

The four novels resembled Galsworthy's The Forsyte saga in being a dynastic chronicle tracing the domestic, romantic and occupational histories of four generations of the Pencarrow family, in Wellington, Wairarapa and Marlborough, from the pioneering era of the 1840s to the late 1930s. They are set against a background of power and prosperity achieved through the rural farming interests and urban business and legal interests of different branches of the family. The focus, relentlessly domestic throughout, is on the cycle of births, marriages and deaths, on family rivalries and reunions, on conflicts between parents and children and individual rebellions – the latter repeated in each generation though taking different forms. The books are skilfully structured and narrated to satisfy readers' expectations of pathos, comedy and romance, and celebrate the gradual consolidation of a pioneering ethos in New Zealand, based on the solid bourgeois ideals of hard work, individual initiative and family loyalty. The conservative ideology of Scanlan's fiction (made explicit in the final volume's attacks on the socialism of the first New Zealand Labour government) explains her immense appeal to many middle-class New Zealand readers in the 1930s.

The Pencarrow novels went through many editions in the 1930s, and were reprinted again in the 1950s, achieving (according to one estimate) sales of 80,000 copies in New Zealand alone. Scanlan wrote nine New Zealand novels altogether, interspersing them with English society novels and, in 1935, a heavily autobiographical travel romance, Ambition's harvest, which she mined extensively for her later autobiography, Road to Pencarrow. Her other New Zealand novels were mostly variants on the formula established in the Pencarrow books, including March moon (1944), a nostalgic recreation of childhood memories in Marlborough, and The rusty road (1948), a family chronicle with a farming setting near Wellington.

When the Second World War started Scanlan was again in New Zealand. Unable to travel, she became a well-known New Zealand radio speaker, with a long-running series of broadcasts (two hundred altogether) entitled 'Shoes and ships and sealing-wax'. She went back to England in 1944, but this was to be her last extended stay overseas. She returned to New Zealand in 1948 and settled in a cottage at Paraparaumu Beach, north of Wellington, where her last novel, The young summer (1952), was set. Scanlan, who never married, lived there until her death at Calvary Hospital in Wellington on 5 October 1968. In 1965 she had been appointed an MBE for services to journalism and authorship.