Monday, 24 January 2000

Ngaio Marsh: Black Beech and Honeydew (1965/1981)

Updated version: 1981
Edition: Fontana, 1985
Review number: 427

In the life of Ngaio Marsh, there are three major themes: her New Zealand background, her love of the theatre, and her writing of detective novels. Her autobiography, first published in the sixties and revised a few years before her death, concentrates on the first two to the virtual exclusion of the third. More is said of the journalism which began her writing career than of the Alleyn series. There are many possible reasons why she might do this, but I suspect that it is mainly that writing is not a spectacularly interesting activity to write about. Once a writer has answered the questions "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Are your characters based on real people?" there isn't much to say. Marsh doesn't really answer the first question, but the answer to the second is definitely yes.The reader is introduced to the Lampreys, close friends of Marsh only marginally less irritating than their fictional versions.

The major interest in the autobiography is the story of Marsh's involvement in the theatre. Her contributions to the development of New Zealand based theatre were important enough for them to be the reason she was awarded the DBE rather than her writing. She was an actress, but was best known for her direction, especially of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was considered too difficult for New Zealand audiences, but British touring companies had some success, and so did Marsh with companies made up principally of students. It always seems that a good production of Shakespeare can be understood and enjoyed by any audience; it is the way that he is taught in schools and the immensity of his reputation that put people off.

In the end, this is not an autobiography which reveals much about its subject; it tells us little that cannot be picked up from the detective stories - the love of theatre and of her country of origin comes across quite strongly in several of them.

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