Writing Lines: highlights from Emily’s 1860s letters

There is nothing like copy editing and proof reading to focus the mind and eyes on textual detail. But the same close attention also tunes the ear to tones and inflections of the voice coming off the page. After our latest stint with Emily’s writing, it was the work of a moment to go cherry-picking among her manuscripts and identify passages where the writer’s voice, young and assertive, confident and shrewd in its judgements, brings Emily Harris right up close to her next audience. We present here some highlights from our new feature Writing Lines: Emily Harris Letters and Diary Excerpts 1860-1863, hoping that new readers will be as enchanted by Emily’s prose as we are.

Letters, Scraps of Diary &c beginning about six months after the first Maori War commenced in Taranaki

The troops are to return tomorrow covered with laurels from having achieved the glorious feat of attacking and destroying an empty pa. They were fired upon by Natives in ambush, one of the 40th soldiers was killed and five wounded. The fire was warmly returned and the Maories [Māori] dispersed. So tomorrow General Pratt returns in order to celebrate this important victory and to allow his men some repose after their long campaign. I must scribble a few lines in anticipation.

     Come cast all gloomy cares away
Wear nought but smiles this festive day
Let garlands gay adorn the street
And loud acclaim the soldiers greet
             Quick beat the drums,
Behold the conquering hero comes
Another such a victory won
Another such achievement done
And we may to our homes return
And empty pas for pastime burn.

Letter to mother Sarah Harris in Nelson, 5 December 1860

My dear Mamma

I have just returned from spending the evening at the Standishes with papa who has been paying a farewell visit, he expects the Airedale in tomorrow. I hope not, I should like to have him one day longer. I think I shall be very desolate when he has gone, the last link of the family chain so roughly severed, but do not think I am giving way or repining. I am more likely to take the other extreme and effect a gaiety I do not feel or drown care in dissipation, for Mrs Des Voeux has been very gay lately and as I am like the active verb to be and to do, I am too necessary an appendage to be left out.

He said she was more like an angel than a human being and had borne her sufferings without a murmur, showing how afflictions brought out people’s real character, proving many to be possessed of far better qualities than they were ever supposed to have. He thought it must have had that effect upon Mrs Des Voeux, her unfortunate disease only tending to make her more & more amiable. Such is the result of a lively manner upon strangers for of course I did not undeceive him.

Letter to Miss Hill in Liskeard, England, 8 December 1860

It was a lovely day and only those who have been shut up for months in a town almost in a state of siege can imagine how delightful it was to breathe again the pure air of the country. All seemed so still & peaceful so fresh and green that our armed party did not appear in harmony with the scene.

Notes (I add a few notes from memory.), undated

I did not see Glenavon again for many years and then it was a perfect ruin so that I look back with interest to every incident connected with that visit.

Picking a flower here and there making a few remarks and lamenting the weeds that had grown so high, we came to one small open space, in the middle of which grew a pink hawthorn in full bloom. I had often seen the tree but not the flower, my exclamations of surprise and delight and efforts to reach the blossom made my companion smile, he got some of the flowers for me, we stayed a few minutes it was a lovely spot, beautiful ferns and native shrubs growing all round. You should have brought a pencil and paper and written some lines here, he said. Strange to have said that to me, I believe I was at that time the only girl in all Taranaki who ever wrote a line.

I did write some verses in the evening but never showed them to him.

Letter to mother Sarah Harris in Nelson, 4 February 1861

I should like to hear of the safe arrival of the box I sent before I venture to send anything again. In the box is a letter and some verses of mine which I should like to have returned as I have not even time to copy or even to write out correctly.

The first fortnight after Mr Richardson’s death I did nothing but go from one shop to another buying mourning, and from one dressmaker to another. I was sent backwards and forwards like a shuttlecock between a pair of battledores.

Letter fragment (I left. Mr Brewer took charge of my three important baskets), undated

When I went down to the cabin again the vessel was fairly on her way. The dreadful noise and motion of the screw soon made me feel very angry disgusted and ill. I went to bed to prevent myself from being sick. In bed it was not much better, the vessel seemed to be an immense churn & I a lump of butter continually thumped about in it while the waves splashed like gallons of buttermilk.

Letter to sister Frances Harris in Nelson, 29 March 1863

Tell Mary I like her essay on Charity, I have not written mine yet.

I have sent the verses you asked for. Mr D.V. said they were very good so I was not likely to lose them.

I meant to have written a very proper affectionate letter to Kate but alas! though the spirit was willing the brain would only suggest vile rhymes, so if Kate is indignant I will write very properly next time.

Diary of Emily Cumming Harris. Poem: ‘Come cast all gloomy cares away.’ Box 2, Folder 5. Puke Ariki ARC2002-190.

Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis

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