Jane Austen in New Zealand

Frances Duncan

Notes from a talk given in Wellington, Saturday, 24 March 2018

When Jane Austen died in 1817, more than 200 years ago, there were only an estimated 200 European settlers in New Zealand. Settlers lives were very different from the people in England, or the people in Austen’s novels; the land was covered in forest, the people were living in huts or tents and society was primitive. We were barely a country. It’s highly unlikely that any of the population; settlers, whalers or native Maori were reading Austen novels.

It wasn’t until after the 1840’s that settlers attempted to replicate a mini England; a desire that remained strong for over a hundred years. Up until the 1950’s we referred to England as the motherland. Even now it’s a right of passage to have an Overseas Experience, a year travelling, based in the UK – though this may have something to do with visa laws.

Even though we’re on the other side of the world and a young country you’d be surprised about some of our links to Jane Austen, however tenuous they may be.

I’m Frances Duncan, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of New Zealand. I offered to give a talk in London about our society, I thought hearing about a newly formed society might be of interest, it was and they asked me to expand my topic to include how NZ sees Jane Austen which I have attempted to do here. I did not do this alone; thanks go to Marianne and Sian for helping form this talk and to Heather for helping with the images.

In 1826, just 9 years after Jane Austen died, Edward Gibbon Wakefield abducted 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner from her Liverpool boarding school. Edward told the school that her mother was sick, he told Ellen that her father’s business had collapsed but marrying him would set things right. She agreed to go to Gretna Green. After they were married Edward took Ellen to France, saying they’d meet her father there.

Ellen’s father sent her Uncle after them. He found them in a hotel and after presumably forcing Wakefield to write a statement that she was still a virgin and convincing the French authorities to let him remove Ellen, he took her home.

Two years later, in 1828, Ellen Turner married Thomas Legh a wealthy neighbour who lived at Lyme Hall which was later to become the home of Mr Darcy in BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

darcySadly, Ellen died in 1831 at the age of 19, she died in childbirth. She had a sad short life but she did live at what became Pemberley.

What of her former husband?

In 1839, ten years after getting out of jail for Ellen’s abduction, Edward Gibbon Wakefield became the director of the New Zealand Company. The company was in a rush to sell land before New Zealand became a British Colony which meant only the crown could sell land. He sold land he’d never seen and did not own. His first settlement at Petone was abandoned due to flooding and his later settlement at Wellington caused problems because he parceled the land without knowing about the many hills and valleys.

In 1840 The Treaty of Waitangi was signed, with this document New Zealand officially became a colony of Britain, we remain part of the commonwealth today.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield didn’t visit NZ till 1853 where he somehow managed to get into politics. He’s one of several well known, underhanded figures in the early days of New Zealand, even though we weren’t a convict colony like Australia there were plenty. He was a bit of a Wickham and worthy of an Austen novel.

Edward was the member of Parliament for Hutt, which is where I live, something I didn’t know till I researched this talk. It’s a city close to our capital of Wellington, and makes up part of the Wellington region. The Wellington region has a population of close to 514,000 which pales in comparison to London’s population of 10 million, more than twice the population of all of New Zealand.

If you’ve visited New Zealand, you’ll notice the difference.

Our meetings have 15-50 people, mostly between 20-30.

The Jane Austen Society of New Zealand is based in Wellington because that’s where I am. We hold meetings each year in Auckland too, our biggest city, and have members from the South Island that time their visits to attend.

How we started:

In 2014 I separated from my husband and had a lot of time on my hands. Years before I had been disappointed that the Jane Austen Society of Australia didn’t do anything in NZ even though they had a couple of NZ members. I contacted them now about running meetings and got an enthusiastic response. It was a couple of years before we came out from under their umbrella to become the NZ society.

Our first couple of meetings were at a historic hotel, it was a beautiful venue but expensive. We found a home in an inner city church, St Andrews on The Terrace, which is central and cost effective. Money is always a consideration as we don’t have subscriptions, we’re not incorporated and technically have no members apart from a mailing list. We charge for our meetings to cover costs. I spoke with the incorporated societies office who told me the only real advantage of being incorporated, apart from collecting membership dues, was that all bills would go to the society rather than me personally. But as I would feel obliged to pay them anyway it didn’t seem like much of an advantage to me especially weighed against the necessity for a constitution, a committee and a tax return every year.

Marketing was based on how I’d find out about it – bookstores, libraries and I contacted the English departments of all the universities and schools in Wellington. Later, when we became the NZ society we listed events on public event sites, created our own website and began using a mailing service – Mailchimp – this greatly reduced the amount of work for me, I was previously emailing everyone from my Gmail account. We don’t do social media despite being a younger demographic because I’d have to run it and I don’t want to.

I had a lot of people offer to help early on but not follow through. My mother, one of my closest friends, helped set up and participated for about the first year but because she doesn’t know Austen she got easily lost when we talked about characters from different books. We don’t have a committee but we do have a great inner circle, who offer to help without my asking. Anyone can suggest topics or organise meetings, especially out of the main centres but no one has taken me up on this yet.

Our society is like a group of friends getting together with a common interest. We talk a lot; discussion is as important as the speakers we have, if not more so. Each society has its own personality; the Americans like to play dress up and hold balls, we like to have heavily involved discussions with a lot of laughs. Because I’m the sort of person who’d sit in the back row I try to include everyone and ask people to look after new members.

We aren’t a mature group; we haven’t been around for long. Our members range from people in their 20’s through to their 70’s. New members are often surprised at this, they expect me to be older. We’re mostly women but there are men at every meeting, two come with their wives but we have several men who come alone. We’ve never asked about ethnicity so I couldn’t say, there are some members with accents and some without. I’m Maori and I assume several other members are too. Wellington itself is about 70% European.

Our members are varied, although being Wellington you can assume a lot of us work for government. One member I’ve been told was referred to as the Prince of Darkness at his work, but you wouldn’t know it from our meetings. There was a regency ball last year  (not run by us) that gives you an idea of the breadth of people who are interested: design students, dancers, Austen enthusiasts, LARPers. They’re all coming for different reasons. We have members who come to every meeting, no matter what the topic and others who only come to those that interest them.

Not all our speakers are academics. We encourage our members to share their knowledge and experiences. Some of our most popular talks are First Impressions. If I ever hear a member or visitor mention they haven’t read one of the novels I corner them and bully them until they agree to both read the book and then give a talk about it. For most of the society the first time they read these novels was many decades (and many rereadings) ago, it’s a treat to hear what another person thought of a novel on first reading.

We hold 5-6 meetings a year and round each year off with a high tea for Christmas/end of year/Jane Austen’s birthday. For our first year each meeting focused on a different novel. Stage productions of Austen novels have been popular topics; we’ve had a playwright visit from Australia, the cast from a Wellington production of Pride and Prejudice talk about their experiences and stage a few scenes, several talks in Auckland from directors of Lady Susan, another Pride and Prejudice and a Persuasion.

We’ve attended productions together including Promise and Promiscuity a one woman musical by Penny Ashton and Jane Austen, she’s toured NZ and a the world with this show, including the Jane Austen festival at Bath. Her show includes original music and 33 direct quotes from Austen’s books and letters, there is now an accompanying book and she makes very amusing fridge magnets that she sells at her shows. Penny happens to be related to Tom Lefroy.

We’ve had one speaker arrive in costume, made by one of her students, and play us pieces on the piano from Jane Austen’s own collection. The most interesting part was her explaining that an octave was added around the 1840’s; you could see the difference when she played the older pieces to when she played the theme piece for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. There are also smaller gatherings; dinners, book or play readings, once a continuing education class at the local university.

first edsOur most well attended meeting was to view the first editions held at the National Library in the Alexander Turnbull Collection, the room was packed and I had people emailing me begging to come. We viewed first editions of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey and The Mysteries of Udolpho (which Northanger Abbey is based on) as well as a first edition of Jane Austen’s letters There are several reasons this was so popular; it was free, people don’t realise they can see these items any time they like and a lot of library staff attended because they love seeing their collections too. Having something solid to hold on to, that connects us so directly to Jane Austen is so important. We can’t visit where she lived easily.


We have seven universities in New Zealand, two don’t teach literature. Of the five remaining four teach Jane Austen. I was honestly appalled to find that one didn’t, they did say however that books on one paper rotate and Austen is in that mix.

She is taught at both under grad and post grad level. Two universities teach her in papers about adaptations. She is taught under such grand titled papers as Great Books: Seduction & Betrayal, popular literature, Literary Landmarks: Words that Changed the World and, literary revolutions as well as comedy and narrative persuasion. Persuasion is even mentioned in a Philosophy paper on morals.

High schools don’t have set texts, they can choose what will engage their students. Most schools teach Katherine Mansfield, NZ’s answer to a revered historical writer, she’s very sanitised, and not much enjoyed by students. I studied Jane Austen at high school but I understand from English teachers she’s a more likely pick for girls schools. Nevertheless, most people know who Jane Austen is though more from the movies than the novels.

The huge worldwide resurgence of Austen popularity stemming from the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice hit New Zealand. It was my introduction to Jane Austen.

I’ve published two novella’s, short novels. My first, Alison’s the Sensible One is loosely based on Sense and Sensibility. Some of the scenes for this novel I pulled whole from Austen and just updated it.

As an example there’s a scene from Emma when she’s talking about drawing. My piece is a lot shorter.  Jane Austen writes these amazing sentences that run for almost a whole paragraph and I find work so much better read aloud. So I cut big bits out and added to it, to make it something new. You can see which bits have been removed or added her.


My second book is Beautiful Abomination. It was short listed for best novella in the Sir Julius Vogel awards recently. You have to look a lot harder to find Austen in this book, but she’s there. This is what I love writing; a little bit of Austen in your everyday life, because she’s so much a part of mine.

I’m going to round out this talk with another, more solid, Austen connection to New Zealand.

In 1852 Jane Austen’s great nephews Arthur Charles and Richard C. Knight came to New Zealand and purchased land in Canterbury which they named Steventon. It is better known for another female author Lady Barker who lived there in the 1860s; Steventon Homestead was built during her time and is a listed historic place.

Richard Knight died in 1866 leaving two sons behind. Arthur Knight stayed in the Canterbury region and fathered 21 children, he lived till 1905.

One of the descendants of the Austen boys is Austen Deans, a well known New Zealand painter, the Deans family were also early settlers, they’re named in records about Austen Deans but his Austen relative isn’t. Legend has it that he changed his name from Alistair because of the family connection to the Austens. His granddaughter is a writer, a song writer called Julia Deans. The first concert I ever went to was her band Fur Patrol. Their most popular song was Lydia, with a story reminiscent of Marianne watching Willoughby out with his new wife.

Don’t you want me
Don’t you need me
Don’t you love me
Don’t you love me anymore


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