Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World
When I was first introduced to the Brancepeth library, as a collection of dirty books with faded covers in beautiful glass cases on the ground floor of the university library, I thought it would become the subject of an elegant essay about past reading habits, a little excursion into the back waters of a Victorian library. Then I opened the books, and immediately and vividly became aware that I was looking at their readers …
In Reading on the Farm, Lydia Wevers uses the library on Brancepeth Station in the Wairarapa, its staff and users as the ground for an extended reflection on the meaning of books, reading and intellectual life in colonial New Zealand. Drawing on station records, the archive produced by the library, and the books themselves, she offers a compelling interpretation of the social world of books and the cultural significance of reading. The books themselves come to life, in close examination of their borrowing histories, physical condition and marginalia. Human characters include the Beetham family who own Brancepeth, farm workers, Wairarapa Māori, swaggers who seek shelter during the long depression, and most vivid of all the clerk and librarian John Vaughan Miller. This learned and petulant man, with his letters to the newspapers and indiscreet private correspondence, epitomises the class cleavages, social anxieties and uncertainties that were at the heart of both Brancepeth and popular Victorian fiction.
‘Reading on the Farm addresses issues that should engage scholars of literature, print culture and the history of the book, historians interested in material culture, status and class, as well as cultural historians more generally. It is a compelling piece of scholarship that deserves to reach a very wide audience.’
—Tony Ballantyne, Otago University
Lydia Wevers was born in the Netherlands and came to New Zealand at the age of three. A leading literary historian and critic, her books include Country of Writing: Travel Writing About New Zealand 1809–1900 (2002), and On Reading (2004). She was Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington DC, in 2010, and the Director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington from 2001 until 2017.