“As far away from England as any man could be”: The Luminaries as sensation sequel?

By Kirby-Jane Hallum

Kirby-Jane Hallum teaches English Literature at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her research interests lie in the long 19th century in Britain and New Zealand, with particular focus on women’s and popular literature. Kirby-Jane’s monograph, Aestheticism and the Marriage Market in Victorian Popular Fiction: The Art of Female Beauty, is forthcoming from Pickering & Chatto in 2015, and she is currently embarking on a new project regarding Britain’s influence on colonial New Woman writing. Follow Kirby-Jane @kjhallum.  

Cover to Eeanor Catton Man Booker Prize novel 'The Luminaries'

New Zealand’s Victorian past provides a sensational setting for Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker-Prize winning novel, The Luminaries. New Zealand’s social history dates back to the thirteenth century with the arrival of Polynesian migrants but the European discovery of the small island country was not until 1642 by the Dutch Explorer, Abel Tasman. The British settlement of New Zealand is much more recent with Captain Cook’s mapping of the coastline in 1769 opening the doors to immigration from the British Isles throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As James Belich notes, between 1831 and 1881, “the European population of New Zealand increased by 50,000 per cent – from fewer than a thousand people to half a million.”[1] The nation’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by William Hobson on behalf of the British Crown and about 540 Māori chiefs in 1840, solidified British sovereignty there.

The island nation, affectionately referred to as ‘better Britain’ by settlers witnessed a notable population influx in the 1860s once gold was struck in Otago and later on the West Coast of the South Island where Catton’s novel is set. Middle-class English expectations meet the reality of colonial New Zealand in The Luminaries in the character of Walter Moody. Scottish by birth, Moody has travelled to Hokitika to seek his fortune on the West Coast goldfields. Before he turns his hand to gold prospecting he finds himself embroiled in a local murder mystery that involves not only a gold mine, but a brothel, a hotel, a bank and a Chinese opium den.

“Queasy and disturbed”[2] by his long sea journey Moody stumbles upon twelve men congregated in the smoking room of a local hotel. The various nationalities of these characters – Māori, British, Irish, Jewish, Scandinavian and Chinese – reflect the cosmopolitan landscape that inhabited New Zealand at that time. We are all no doubt familiar with the prevalence of emigration to the colonies in Victorian fiction and Catton’s neo-Victorian novel appears to pick up the narrative of those emigrants who disappear into the colonies. Though you wouldn’t call The Luminaries a utopian novel, it certainly embraces the premise that “In New Zealand every man has left his former life behind and every man is equal in his way” (47).

Prior to the establishment of the railway from 1863 onwards the main mode of transport for circumnavigating New Zealand was by ship. The beach was a significant site for New Zealand settlers, a permeable space where the land meets water that pervades scholarship on the historical anthropology of the British colonies in the Pacific. Jane Campion’s film, “The Piano” (1993), attracted the world’s attention to New Zealand’s unforgiving 19th-century landscape. The film garnered attention in particular for its moody depiction of the New Zealand coastline as Alfio Leotta writes: “the beach is the story’s most significant location because it is a liminal place, which connects the past and the future, the familiar and the unknown, arrival and departure.”[3]

Similarly The Luminaries is set to put both tourist and academic attention back on the New Zealand beach. Consider Moody’s first impressions of the rugged Hokitika coastline:

Moody’s first glimpse of the township was of a shifting smear that advanced and retreated as the mist blew back and forth. There was only a narrow corridor of flat land between the coastline and the sudden alps, battered by the endless surf that turned to smoke on the sand; it seemed still flatter and more contained by virtue of the cloud that sheared the mountains low on their flanks and formed a gray ceiling over the huddled roofs of the town (19).

Without giving away too many of the novel’s mysteries I can safely tell you that the narrative hinges on a number of moments to do with the sea, especially regarding ships as means of transportation. Catton’s expertly woven murder plot makes use of the various comings and goings of passenger ships to Hokitika.  Not only that but readers should also pay attention to sunken ships, lost luggage and mysterious passengers, all quintessential ingredients for a Victorian sensation novel.

If Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had got together and co-written a novel, it might have looked something like The Luminaries. Catton balances Dickensian attention to detail in her precise cataloguing of the physical appearance and inner life of her characters with page-turning sensations in the style of The Woman in White. In her acknowledgments Catton herself admits that she has played fast and loose with historic details but there is no doubt that in writing back to the sensation fiction genre, her novel mirrors the popular genre’s penchant for scandalous subject matter including crime, adultery, illegitimacy, seduction, mistaken identity and murder. Indeed as Lydia Wevers speculates: “Perhaps if Eleanor Catton’s astrological murder mystery, The Luminaries…had been available in 1893 instead of 2013, it might have joined the bestseller lists with Lady Audley’s Secret”. Catton’s narrative of heightened emotion presents the colonial space as a thrilling unknown. Certainly there were not many 19th-century sensation novels set in the colonies. Even if, as I have previously pointed out, Catton is filling in the plot detail for fictional emigrants who inhabited Victorian novels, then, perhaps, too she is giving new life to popular genre by using the colonial environment to put an interesting pressure on the Victorian literary world.

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[1] James Belich, Making People: A History of the New Zealanders: From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 278.

[2] Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013) p. 4.

[3] Alfio Leotta “Framing the Beach: A Tourist Reading of the Piano,” Studies in Australasian Cinema 3.3 (2009): 229-238 (p. 236)


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