Story: Andrews, Isabella Smith

Page 1 - Biography

Andrews, Isabella Smith

1905–1990

Writer

This biography was written by Beatrice Ashton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Isabella Smith Young, known as Isobel, was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on 2 November 1905, the daughter of Jeanie Scott and her husband, James Young, a mercantile clerk. The family came to New Zealand when she was five or six, settling for a time in Bulls. After moving to Wellington she went to Maranui and Brooklyn schools, then Wellington Girls’ College. On 19 December 1932, at St James Church, Adelaide Road, she married Ernest Stanhope Andrews, a public servant. Stanhope became the founding director of the National Film Unit in 1941.

Over several decades Isobel Andrews maintained a diverse output of poems, plays, short stories and film scripts. At 17 she wrote a sketch for the St James Bible class and in 1938 won a radio competition with her play Endeavour. For such a writer the times could not have been more propitious. Although professional theatre was moribund during the depression, small rural and suburban drama clubs flourished under the aegis of the New Zealand Branch of the British Drama League, whose annual festivals drew competitors from all over New Zealand. There was a tendency for these one-act play competitions to become a theatrical battlefield, but standards were high and original plays had a category of their own. Playwright Bruce Mason was to observe that ‘the British Drama League Festivals have been the principal, often the only arena where a playwright can see his text in action’.

This arena suited no writer better than Andrews. Founder of the Strathmore Players, she was in effect its resident playwright. Her straightforward plays (some 60 by her own account) usually featured domestic scenes and were tailored to the resources of small all-women dramatic societies. The willing horse , the first of her four plays to win the Drama League’s original play award, was published in 1943 by the Progressive Publishing Society and reprinted in 1962 by Paul’s Book Arcade. It remains her best-known work. In 1947 Wellington’s Thespians staged a week-long season of her plays, including The goldfish. Its publication by Harrap in The best one-act plays of 1948–49 led to numerous productions abroad. Her plays for radio were aired by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the BBC.

Andrews was a founding member of the New Zealand Women Writers’ and Artists’ Society, which met for the first time on 11 July 1932. In the society’s early years she entered the literary competitions it sponsored with zest and considerable success. Her involvement with the organisation, later called the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society, lasted many years.

In 1951 Isobel moved with her family to Whangarei, leaving a position of some importance in the capital for life in a provincial town. Turning her changed environment to good account, Isobel joined the Whangarei Repertory Society, eventually becoming its president, and contributed short stories and radio reviews to the New Zealand Listener. She was an early member of the Northland Women Writers’ Group and was joint editor of its publication, Northland: A Regional Magazine, from its first issue in 1958 until she resigned in 1960.

After 10 years in Whangarei Andrews was a leading influence in literary and theatrical circles, a standing that did not go unnoticed elsewhere. In 1959 she was a principal speaker at a writers’ conference in Wellington organised by the New Zealand Centre of PEN, and the following year she was co-opted to the national executive of the New Zealand Drama Council. The Andrewses moved in 1961 to Auckland, where Isobel continued to write, mostly for radio. In 1967 she was awarded the New Zealand Literary Fund’s £1,000 scholarship in letters.

A visitor to the Andrews home when the children were young remembers Isobel as an attractive woman, full of energy, with lots of interests who clearly enjoyed domestic life. Yet it must have been difficult to balance the demands of a family alongside her writing. M. H. Holcroft, editor of the Listener for 18 years, recalled in his autobiography: ‘she was a wife and mother, and there were long silences when one could only suppose that life was being lived too intensely to be written about’. Holcroft counted her among some 15 writers of good reputation who were regular Listener contributors and said ‘she could turn in a story of exceptional quality’.

In her long career as a writer, Isobel Andrews would see some of her early work eclipsed by changing times and the vagaries of literary fashion. Not one to push the boundaries of convention, her place in mid twentieth century New Zealand theatre is nevertheless secure. Isobel Andrews died in Auckland on 19 June 1990, survived by her husband and two sons.