Dame Ngaio Marsh
"This is Illyria, lady"
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in Fendalton, Christchurch on April 23, 1895, only 45 years after the Canterbury province was founded. Her mother's father, Edward Seagar, was a friend of Samuel Butler. Her parents met while rehearsing in a play together, so the theatre was in her blood. Her mother, Rose Seager, played the female lead in a professional production of the Scottish play, to good reviews.
While she was still a child, the family moved to the house in Cashmere (about 700 m from the home of Mary Ursula Bethell) where she lived for the rest of her life. Her talents lay in three directions; painting, the theatre and crime fiction.
She was a member of The Group, Christchurch painters who worked and exhibited together, including Toss Woollaston. Her paintings of the Canterbury landscape are reminiscent of those of Rita Angus (Cook).
She produced 28 plays for the Canterbury University Drama Society, mainly Shakespeare. In 1945 she took the company on a tour of New Zealand, and in 1949 of Australia, to rave reviews. She writes about these tours vividly in her autobiography.
Your chronicler saw two of her productions:
Julius Caesar in 1964 on an apron stage in the Christchurch Civic Theatre, in which the large cast posed in somewhat stilted tableaux, and battles were simulated with waving fluorescent banners under black light.
Twelfth Night, the first production in the new Ngaio Marsh Theatre in the Canterbury University Student Union in 1967, a splendidly integrated production in which she fully captured the play's mixed levity and melancholy. Unfortunately the eponymous theatre was poorly designed, with seats in straight lines and no flies or wings for scenery not actually on stage. (She is said to have wept when she first saw it.) Perhaps for that reason, the backdrop was black.
She wrote plays for radio and television, a musical, and seven stage plays. One, The Wyvern and the Unicorn, a children's story set in colonial New Zealand, was turned into an opera, A Unicorn for Christmas, with a royal command performance in 1963, but few if any of the others have had a second production.
That side of her work is almost unknown overseas, where she is famous as a writer of crime fiction. Her 33 novels include A Man Lay Dead, Overture to Death, Death at the Dolphin (Killer Dolphin in the US), Death at the Bar, Singing in the Shrouds (Murder Sails at Midnight in the US) and Light Thickens. They are marked more by strong characterisations than plots. Her detective, Roderick Alleyn, looks, in a sketch she included in one manuscript, "handsome but surprisingly feminine" according to her biographer. In 1977 the Mystery Writers of America gave her their highest honour, naming her a Grand Master (she joked about not being a Grand Mistress). She was created a Dame in 1966.
In 1965 she presented the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award for literature to Frank Sargeson - "a writer of great distinction" - singling out Janet Frame and James Courage as among the few who approached KM's achievement.
She despised the New Zealand accent (and was rather ashamed of her crime fiction) and returned to England as often as she could. In the same way, she tried to give herself an aristocratic English pedigree on a rather dubious basis.
Her first visit to England, in 1928, lasted five years. She frequented London clubs and at one,
"almost always alone, at a table just inside the door, sat a strange figure: an old, old man with a flower in his coat who looked as if he had been dehydrated like a specimen leaf and then rouged a little. No one ever accompanied him or paused at his table. He looked straight before him and at intervals raised his glass in a frog's hand and touched his lips with it.
"One night we asked the restaurateur who he was.
"'A poet,' said Signor Vecchi, 'and once, long ago I understand, a celebrated personage. It is Lord Alfred Douglas.'"
- Black Beech and Honeydew
On a trip to Monte Carlo, she saw
"Ladies ... of a kind that was entirely new to me. The croupiers referred to the most dominant of them as "cette monsieur-dame". She seemed to be having quite a pleasant time of it, running her finger round inside her collar and settling her tie. She wore a sort of habit and was perhaps by Isherwood out of Huxley. The disconcerting thing about many of the habituées was their tendency to seem as if they had been written by somebody not quite on the top of his form."
- Black Beech and Honeydew
Her autobiography gives nothing away. An intensely private person, she publicly denied being lesbian, but doubts remain. (Stevan Eldred-Grigg suggests the very fact that she "over-invented herself" is indicative. His novel Blue Blood explores the idea that she was lesbian.) She was widely supposed to be one on the stereotypical bases of her deep voice and her habit of wearing trousers. A lifelong friend, Sylvia Fox, lived in a bungalow just above her house, and many of her travels were with one woman friend or another - but then, that was the only safe and respectable way for an unattached woman to travel. Her biographer says that in 1953 she fell deeply in love with a married man, Vladimir (Val) Muling, but it is also possible he was gay (he was charged with soliciting in a local park but acquitted).
She formed a maternal relationship with the sons, Roy and John, of her cousin Stella Mannings, and left her estate to them when she died on February 18, 1982.
Largely based on "Ngaio Marsh: A Life", 1991, by Margaret Lewis, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, ISBN 0 9008912 06 4, and her autobiography, "Black Beech and Honeydew", 1981, Auckland, Collins, ISBN 0 00 216367 5.
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In Maori, ng is pronounced as in "song" and o as in "awe", but Ngaio and all her contemporaries always pronounced her name "nigh-oh". It was not uncommon for Pakeha children to be given Maori names in the 19th century (as it is again today). The ngaio, Myoporum laetum, is a small, fast-growing tree with a small white flower, used for shelter on the coast.