Resistance in the Garden:
Presentation Text for the Australian Garden History Society Symposium 2015
The garden in colonial Canterbury was an ambiguous space. Rarely fully enclosed, the site of the garden was both public and private and it functioned as common arena in which women struggled to assert their individuality both within their marriages and their local communities. As a supposedly domesticated landscape it fell within the purview of ‘women’s work’, however some women used the freedom of the garden space to widen the parameters of what was considered suitable for their gender.
This paper analyses the extent to which the women of colonial Canterbury used the garden as a site of resistance to, or negotiation with contemporary ideals of femininity, particularly as it pertained to class, or socially acceptable behaviour. Examining the garden experiences of four very different women in colonial Canterbury, Jane Deans, Eunice Upton, Mary Rolleston and Eliza Ching George provides a fascinating overview of the multiplicity of social and cultural meanings that gardens held for colonial women. The complexity of their responses to their gardens provides a very different perspective on colonial society’s adherence to traditional gender ideals.
Jane Deans (1823-1911) was one of the earliest settlers of what was to become the city of Christchurch. A staunch Scots Presbyterian, she married a farmer who was labelled ‘gentlemanlike’ rather than achieving the actual status of a gentleman. After his early death she ran their farm and estate alone, and her gardens became a place that reflected her cultural, religious and class resistance to the prevailing Anglican elite who dominated the city at that time. Jane was no stranger to controversy, as she and her husband had already aroused resentment in the local community by protecting a large stand of native bush on their property that was coveted by the timber-hungry English settlers. However, by utilising her new status as a grieving widow (that most powerful of Victorian female stereotypes) Jane was able to deflect criticism. She performed actions that could be seen as provocative or unsuitable for a woman, under the guise of following her husband’s dying wishes to protect and improve their estate for their only son.
Jane’s resistance went further than just the radical idea of actually preserving a precious remnant of indigenous forest. She also used the design of the gardens and plantations on her estate to symbolise her pride in her Scottish heritage and her contempt for the English Church. The plantation of trees alongside her carriage drive was intended to be “my memorial as a Scotswoman”. Her inspiration was a tartan cloth, and she used interwoven trees with different coloured foliage to create a criss-crossed check effect. Yet another plantation was created in the form of the Union Jack flag, however the trees that she deliberately chose to dominate the pattern were Scots firs, and her memoirs indicate she was most concerned with creating an accurate rendition of the St Andrew’s Cross included in that flag. She later created a large garden in the shape of a tree which represented the history of the Canterbury settlement. Within this tree shape the flora chosen to represent the roots of the colony was once again the Scots pine, to represent “those who were here before 1850”, such as herself and her husband. The Canterbury Association who planned the settlement of Christchurch had “envisaged its settlement as a transplanted model English community.”
Jane’s garden was a direct challenge to this cliched reading of the origins of the colony. Nor was it a hidden challenge. On the contrary, Jane’s garden tributes to the Scottish Presbyterian presence in Anglican Christchurch were famous for being the largest stretches of private garden visible for those entering the settlement by the northern train. Her garden was not something that the Anglican elite of Christchurch could ignore and she used her garden to critique their cultural control of the province.
Eunice Upton was in many ways the opposite of Jane Deans. Whilst Jane used her garden to promote her identity and display her cultural roots, Eunice used the site of the garden to disguise her background and create a new persona for herself based on Victorian ideals of middle-class femininity. Eunice was married in 1870 to Everard Upton, the Canterbury based scion of a distinguished English gentry family. However, Eunice was the daughter of a lodging house manager and had been the ‘help’ at her parents’ accommodation house.
The class implications of her background were obviously an issue from the beginning as her husband felt it necessary to lie to his parents in Britain about her antecedents. Eunice, he claimed, was a farmer’s daughter whom “nobody could tell from a real lady”. Eunice, it is true, had learnt the rudiments of genteel behaviour at boarding school, but her entire life with her husband was based on hiding her true background from local society, as well as his family in Britain.
The psychological strain that this put upon Eunice was incalculable, and to avoid the minefield of genteel etiquette that could expose the subterfuge at any point, she seized upon the garden as a neutral topic of conversation in her letters to her in-laws. The garden became one of the few aspects of her life that she could write about honestly, and thus gain a sense of control over the process of maintaining contact with her husband’s family. By focussing on garden matters and tips, stories of the progress of favoured plants and the difficulties of gardening in New Zealand’s changeable climate, Eunice was able to portray herself as knowledgeable, educated and capable even when she must, at times, have felt the exact opposite. Eunice’s letters to her in-laws are at their most relaxed when mentioning her garden. In January 1874, she wrote “we have nothing in our garden this year- I thought we were going to have a great many strawberries and gooseberries but the north west winds have spoilt them all- because we have no trees about the place to shelter them”. Her relaxed conversation about her garden contrasts with her obvious awkwardness when discussing her background as in this letter from 1872. “You asked me in your letter to tell you more about myself, but I am sorry to say I have very little to say. My Father is a Farmer and should be well-off, but owing to misfortune he did not get on very well.”p78.
Eunice’s strategy of using her garden to claim a status that was not her own was successful. The extended group of Upton in- laws back in Britain, were suitably impressed by their new family member. As one family friend wrote “I am extremely obliged to you for giving me the opportunity of seeing the fresh and original letter of your relative. Her account of … the garden troubles ... are fit for any book, and give us a vivid idea of the conditions in that distant land.”p104.
The garden remained the usual theme of communication with her in-laws through the births of her children and beyond, although the stress of the pretence eventually became too much and due to various factors her marriage finally collapsed in 1893. The garden as a neutral space of interest had helped, if only temporarily, Eunice deal with the marital and class tensions imposed upon her by her husband and society, and the psychological and emotional conflict that was the almost inevitable result. Eunice was able to use the cultural identification of women with the garden to negotiate a position of greater power for herself and to gain some measure of control over her life.
Another Canterbury woman who used the site of the garden in a similar way was Mary Rolleston, who was the wife of Canterbury’s Superintendent William Rolleston. Her marriage also had its moments of strife. William was an enthusiastic gardener and spent a substantial part of his income on plants for his garden, or gifts and donations to other people. Mary had a negative attitude towards their garden, resenting the amount of money that he spent on it when at the same time he refused to allow her money enough for one new dress. Her concerns were not as trivial as they appear. William was one of the colony’s most prominent politicians and his wife had a certain social standing to keep up. Her failure to do so could reflect badly on her socially but also on him politically, and his political career was their main source of income. Mary felt that she had tried to be reasonable by settling on “black velvet” as the choice for a dress because being long-wearing, it would be “cheapest in the end”.
William stubbornly refused to pay for the dress, so Mary decided to use the garden as a way of defying William’s orders. She would, she decided, buy a new dress herself because she had “made fifteen pounds by [selling] the fruit” from their fruit trees. There was obviously a sense of psychological satisfaction and poetic justice in the way in which she wrote of this new resolution. By using the contested site of the garden as a space for challenging her husband’s edicts, Mary was able to wrestle back some sense of control over monetary issues within the relationship, and to express her resentment at William’s gardening obsessions. Unfortunately, although she writes with such glee about using the fruit money to buy a dress, there is no indication in her diaries and letters to show whether she went through with her resolution. Perhaps the idea alone was enough to give her back a semblance of power that enabled her to accept the situation.
Certainly Mary was adept at using the traditional Victorian middle-class identification of women with flowers, nature and the garden to achieve small, yet presumably psychologically significant for her, victories over her husband’s will. The Rollestons had been at a house party held by another prominent Canterbury family, the Dennistouns. William wished to leave early because he found the company tedious and demanded that Mary accompany him. Mary used the feminine accomplishment of flower arranging, and her own expertise at it to negotiate a longer stay in spite of William’s demands. In this she was supported by Mrs Dennistoun who made it clear to William, and the other men in the house, that Mary’s presence was essential if the flowers for this important social occasion were to get done at all. Mary achieved her wish and “stayed on to arrange the flowers (bowls of clematis, geraniums and ferns”. As with Jane Deans and Eunice Upton, Mary Rolleston found that the stereotypes of women in the garden could function as a source of feminine power.
However these stereotypes were very much a middle-class construct and some women by their behaviour and actions were forced to operate outside the boundaries of genteel society. For most women gardens were private spaces to which the public could only access occasionally. For women who created gardens as business enterprises however, the public would, of necessity be able to enter the garden space. Privacy then became a vexed issue and the idea of the garden as a space for asserting identity became problematic. How invasive were the public allowed to be? For reasons of private dislike and antagonism, did a woman have the right to bar a member of the public from gardens that were an open business? What if the situation was exacerbated by possible bigotry and racial tension?
The myriad ways in which women used garden spaces in colonial Canterbury, highlight the complexity of the garden as a cultural site. The same stereotypes of genteel behaviour that could condemn someone like Eliza Ching George, were used by other women as a source of power. The ambiguous nature of gardens in colonial society enabled them to function as sites of resistance to, or negotiation with contemporary ideals of gender. These acts of resistance could be as seemingly trivial as getting to stay behind to enjoy a party, or as serious as lashing out against possible racism and threats to someone’s livelihood. All these acts have one thing in common however - they all suggest that the garden deserves greater attention in the field of the social and gender history of colonial New Zealand than it has hitherto received.
If you are interested in further work I have done in connection with the Australian Garden History Society feel free to look up my articles in their journals; Annette Bainbridge, 'Transplanted Australians: Eucalypts in the Land of the Long White Cloud' AGH Vol. 26, No.3 Jan 2015 and 'Married Life in a New Zealand garden' AGH Vol.28, No.3 Jan 2017.