Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908-1984)

Her recognition that each person has a ‘key vocabulary’, a set of words with a special meaning relating to their emotional life, enabled her to develop a reading scheme for children who were otherwise failing at school. Though she despaired of being recognised in New Zealand for her contribution to education, she enjoyed a warm response overseas.

After her husband’s death in 1969, she accepted an invitation to assist in setting up an ‘alternative’ school in Colorado. She also lectured at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. She wrote a number of books about teaching, of which the best known is Teacher (1963).

Ashton-Warner’s teaching and approach to education are closely linked to her contribution to New Zealand literature. The ‘key vocabulary’ not only made the teaching of reading more effective, but also provided insights into the working of children’s minds and released their literary creativity. Her observation that all people, but particularly children, have an inner and an outer vision, is central to both her teaching and her fiction. The inner world ‘behind my eyes’ and the outer of ‘raw reality’ are often at war with each other, but the tension is also creative.

This recognition is one she shares with Janet Frame, who similarly writes about the hidden world ‘two inches behind my eyes’. Sylvia Ashton-Warner had been writing fiction and publishing short stories for many years beforeSpinster burst on to the New Zealand and international literary scene in 1958. Ostensibly the story of a single teacher working in a largely Maori school, Spinster is also an account of Anna Vorontosov’s emotional involvement with her pupils, a fellow teacher, the inspector who praises her reading scheme, and the shadowy lover Eugene.The effort to integrate Anna’s emotional life (the inner world) with her teaching (the world of raw reality) makes this her most popular and successful novel. In 1960 it was made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine, Laurence Harvey and Jack Hawkins, in a studio set that was a Hollywood distortion of New Zealand realities.

In presenting the clash between reality and emotion, Ashton-Warner helped to break the dominance of the realist tradition associated with Frank Sargeson and opened up other ways of interpreting the experience of living in this country. She lamented the poverty of creative vision in New Zealand, and that the experience of many, particularly women, was negated. This also applied to Maori, children and anyone seen as ‘different’ from white males, whose experiences, she thought, had dominated literature since at least the turn of the century.

By: Karen Fite

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