Margaret Mahy: In Memorium

Margaret Mahy died and I wanted to write about how great she was and is.

But I couldn’t.

I’ve done it before – here, look, here is a perfectly comprehensible article about her status as a New Zealander writing New Zealand.

But I can’t do it now, not yet. Over the last couple of days, as tributes to her genius and character have been made, I’ve been increasingly aware of how big she was, how much she did. I can’t write about her work at this moment; maybe in a handful of moments, maybe in a year.

But I can write about me. This post is about me, and the three times I met Margaret Mahy.


There was a conference on young adult literature taking place in Christchurch. I wasn’t officially an attendee, but I was doing my honors year of my English BA, and one of the papers I took that year was on young adult lit. The course convener, Anna Smith, thought that I should pursue fiction writing and snuck me into the keynote speeches.

I met Kate De Goldi, and told her how much I liked her work (she hadn’t yet written The 10pm Question, the most excellent book featuring anxiety disorder that I have ever feasted gladly upon) and mentioned that I was thinking of taking her YA Creative Writing course in Wellington the next year. I wanted to be an author, I thought, possibly.

“You should,” she told me, and I promised to think about it more, but I was distracted because there, THERE was Margaret Mahy, and I had brought a copy of The Changeover with me. Stammering, fumbling, overwhelmed, I asked her to sign it. She did, and she smiled at me.


I had moved directly from Fuchu to Melbourne, with not a day’s grace between, so that I could both finish out my contract in Japan and take up my scholarship offer from the University of Melbourne. It was Christmas before I could get home, to find the stories of friends and wrap myself up in family.

I had written a book that hadn’t yet been titled Guardian of the Dead and it had acquired an agent. Every time I remembered this, my fingers tingled, my whole body going warm and electric. I remembered it on the night my friend Jeff and I went to see the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in a Christchurch theatre, and settled in to watch the festivities.

At the interval, when the two women to the right of us left to stretch their legs, Jeff turned to me. “I’m sitting beside Margaret Mahy,” he said.

“We have to swap,” I said immediately, grabbing his arm. “Swap, swap seats with me, Jeff, I have to-”

Jeff, who knew and knows me well, was already moving. When she came back, I awkwardly said hello, and how did she like the play, and I admired her so so much and by the way I had written a book that had an agent (!!!) and I had used some ideas inspired by The Changeover in the manuscript. I think I had enough manners to say hello also to her daughter, Bridget.

She talked about Shakespeare and Christchurch and the interesting difficulties posed by writing one’s own real places, and I managed a few phrases I don’t remember, but later Jeff told me I hadn’t looked as stupid and overwhelmed as I felt. It is to the great credit of the actors that I was able to watch the second half with anything that resembled attention.


My first novel had been published; my first novel had lovely reviews, my first novel had been nominated for awards. I had been invited to the Auckland Writers Festival to speak to schools and to tell a true story in front of a huge audience, besides people who actually made their living telling stories. Immediately after the Festival were the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. My first novel was a finalist.

So was Margaret Mahy’s umpteenth picture book, The Moon and Farmer McPhee.

“Oh, she’s here,” said Abba, the excellent Allen and Unwin publicist. “Would you like to say hi?”

“Yes, please,” I said. This was a thing writers did. I was a writer, saying hello to another writer. This time I would be calm and composed, this time I would say something close to witty, this time, though I could by no means speak to my idol as an equal, I would at least manage to do it in a manner approaching professionalism.

Trailing Abba, trailed by my parents, who had flown up to be with me on this special night (and also to lay eyes on the daughter they hadn’t seen in nearly two years), I wriggled through the crowd of… colleagues? My colleagues? Oh lord, was that Tessa Duder?.

“Hi, Margaret, this is Karen Healey. She just wanted to come and say hello.”

She turned around and looked me in the eye. “Karen Healey!” she exclaimed. “But you’re a wonderful writer!”

My knees nearly gave way. My tongue grew three sizes, sloppy and enormous behind my teeth, which froze into a rictus grin. “Thank you,” I sputtered. “Thank you, thank you so much, I just love- I mean I- your books-“. I escaped back to our table. My mother stared at me and I stared back. My dad, less cognizant of the crucial event of my life, decide it was time to get a glass of wine.

“Margaret Mahy has read my book and she thinks I’m a wonderful writer,” I said.

“You don’t even care if you win now, do you?” she asked.

“No. This is the best thing, right now.”

And so it remains.

Margaret Mahy died. All her stories have been written, but they have not come to an end. Every time a reader enters or re-enters one of her startling, sumptuous worlds, a new story is created, between that reader and her work, the output of her brilliant mind and astonishing imagination.

I met her three times (a magic number, a Mahy number), but she has always been omnipresent to me. Her words, her stories, the idea of her are woven into the entirety of my reading and writing life; which is to say the entirety of my conscious life. The first book she had published, years before I was born, was the first book I can remember reading. The Lion In The Meadow is a book about the power of story, about the fantastic in the ordinary, about the way lions and dragons can enter one’s life if you just open a matchbox.

I am so grateful that she lived and worked, and that I met her, those precious three times.

The Custom of the Country

In one of my Most Favourite Books Ever, Tam Lin, author Pamela Dean describes an English course that the protagonist, Janet, is taking, thus:

English class had by slow degrees attained the sixteenth century, marched with wary smiles through Volpone, gazed with horror and guilty laughter upon The Duchess of Malfi, and run aground on the enormous rock of King Lear. There was love poetry behind and before them, but Lear blocked their path like a broken statue in a narrow pass of the mountains.

Evans had cheerfully explained to them that Lear was for mature tastes and they were reading it for his pleasure, not for theirs.

Now, personally, Lear doesn’t bother me. I read it when I was the same age Janet is in this section, but to me it seemed perfectly comprehensible and tragically funny when it’s not being just tragic. It’s a story about inflexible people who won’t compromise, and the people who have to deal with such inflexibility finally throwing up their hands and saying “FINE, you’ve driven me to it, to the moors with you!”* There’s beauty and terror and nobility in the struggle, but it’s mostly a bitter family fight written across kingdoms and I read/watch it wincing at the parts that echo my own family’s struggles and breathlessly relieved at the parts that get really vicious, because there’s no echo of my family in those.

This is a long preamble to say that Wuthering Heights is my broken statue in a narrow pass of the mountains.

My tastes are just not mature enough, you guys! I hate this book.

But I have to finish this awful masterpiece because I promised you I would read all the Brontes, Internets, and read them I shall. It’s just that I tend to read a few pages and then realise I could be reading a book I do not hate!

And then I flick to another of the books Project Gutenberg, may they be blessed forever, made available for frees, because if I am not reading Wuthering Heights, at least I can virtuously read another old book, right? So on eyeteeth‘s recommendation, I read The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton, and WOW.

It’s like, okay, you remember Gossip Girl? The books, not the show, although I adore the show also. Okay, now you know how in Gossip Girl Serena is a kind of beautiful monster who wafts around breaking hearts and doing whatever the hell she wants to do and no one stops her because she’s so amazing and beautiful and she just gets whatever she wants, and sometimes people talk about her behind her back and she doesn’t get into the parties she wants to, but she just kinda bucks up and another hot guy totally falls in love with her and her social stock rises once more?

So that, only Serena is called Undine, and it’s the New York of the early 20th century, and instead of making out with dudes she has to marry them, or at least get engaged to them, and also she is ambitious. Because where Serena was born into high society, Undine desperately wants to rise into it. And she does, through scion of an Old But Not That Rich Society Family, Ralph Marvell, who, in a scene guaranteed to make me lose any sympathy I might have had for him, literally envisions Undine as a woman chained to a rock that he is going to rescue from the soulless monster of Bad Society with his heroic proposal.

Ralph, come on. Who do you think is the soulless monster here? HER NAME IS UNDINE.

There’s this moment, where she meets his family, and talking about a divorced friend of hers. And they are appalled! Divorce! My goodness! A divorced woman could never show her face in society!

She’s puzzled, and then she teases Ralph and says that as long as she gets what she wants she sure won’t divorce him.

And he asks what she wants, and she replies, “EVERYTHING.”

And his family laugh, oh what a funny joke!

She wasn’t joking, and she wasn’t lying. Undine Spragg wants everything, always, right now. So she spends Ralph into ruin and divorces him to grab a better catch, only he won’t be caught, so she goes back to Europe and catches a Comte.

But Catholics can’t marry divorcees! She needs to get an annulment of her marriage to Ralph, and that costs a lot of money. So she basically says, hey, you know how I have custody of our son Paul, but I’ve left him with you for years and never actually exercised that right? Well, I want him now. OR. You could give me enough money to get my annulment and I’ll sign custody over to you!

Ralph goes for help to a (clearly crooked) business acquaintance, who was! OMG so Gossip Girly! Actually married to Undine way back in the day!

Ralph learns this the same day he loses all the money he’d invested, and it’s actually kind of difficult to see which makes the most devastating impact on his already shaken psyche – that he’s lost all this money, and therefore his son, or that his wife WAS NOT A VIRGIN WHEN THEY GOT MARRIED. She was never a fair damsel he was saving! She lied to him!

Except she never said she was a damsel, Ralph. She told you she wanted everything, and you didn’t listen. HER NAME IS UNDINE.

Anyway, Undine fascinates me, because she is a total sociopath, but at the same time she’s not malicious about it. She just wants everyone to admire her and give her everything she believes is her due. As long as they do that, it can be all happy fun times! If they don’t, it’s because they are being willfully cruel to her, but she doesn’t want to punish them when that happens; she just wants them to recognise their wrongs and redress them, usually by giving her more money. Every now and then she has these vague notions of conscience or altruism, but they are always smothered by massive waves of self-regard.

She is a beautiful monster, and I find her so interesting.

But I feel sad for Paul.

* Damn straight I sympathize with Goneril, right up until she goes murderous. Lear and his followers are breaking shit and yelling when she’s trying to get some sleep! Doesn’t he ever think about who has to clear up the mess? No, he does not! It’s Goneril, that’s who! When you give someone half of your kingdom and then keep trying to act like you should still be in charge that is problematic behaviour.

It’s exactly like the time my mother bought these beautiful three hundred dollar boots but the heel aggravated her Achilles tendon problems so she gave them to me and every time we saw each other after that she’d be like, are you taking care of my boots? Are you cleaning them properly? What do you MEAN a button fell off? MUM YOU GAVE THEM TO ME, THEY ARE NOW MY BOOTS. AND SOMETIMES BUTTONS JUST FALL OFF OKAY.

Exactly like that, but with murder.

Daniel Deronda: A Weird Review

So I was reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Internets, as one does, and being simultaneously totally delighted with Eliot’s decision to make her romantic couple Jewish!!!! And her spiritual hero Jewish!!!! and the happy ending Zionist!!! and really frustrated with what the narrative eventually does with Gwendolen*.

Because the book makes it super clear that Gwen had absolutely no good choices, that anything she did was going to result in severe penalties to her person, and that is very unsatisfying to me!

Quick recap for those who haven’t read it:

Gwendolen: I kind of hate people.
The World: That’s a shame, because you’re a beautiful woman and you’ll therefore have to get married.
Gwendolen: Ugh, why? All I want to do is ride horses and do archery and flirt with guys and occasionally be nice to my mother. I sincerely don’t like people! Forcing me to be in close contact with one person forever is likely to go poorly. Also I just discovered that the one guy I thought I might have got along with okay in a marriage way actually has a mistress he’s had four kids with and never married despite his promises to do so. He’s clearly a bad dude!

The World: Well NOW you have to get married because your family has lost all its money.
Gwendolen: Holy crap. No, I can’t! Illegitimate kids! Bad dude!
The World: Well, you could be a governess.
Gwendolen: Nnnnnngh governessing is terrible work pretty much akin to indentured labour. I mean, I don’t read a lot, so I’ve never read the Brontes or Austen or anything but my sisters have a governess and she’s a pretty miserable person, so… ew, god no.

But wait! There is hope!

Gwendolen: Hey, I’ve got an idea! I could go on the stage!
Herr Klesmer: You are not talented enough. And this is the Victorian era, so as a woman of gentle birth you have absolutely no training or useful education for being anything other than a wife. Or a governess.
Gwendolen: FML, seriously. Okay. I will marry Grandcourt, but only because he’s going to look after my mother and I erroneously believe that even if I don’t love him I might be okay. And I might be able to do something for these poor illegitimate kids.

Grandcourt: Yo, emotional abuse times!
Gwendolen: Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

Anyway, he torments her, they go yachting on the Mediterranean, he falls in to the water and she hesitates like a second before tossing a rope in after him and he drowns, whereupon she instantly enters a nervous breakdown, because was it her fault?

Gwennie, no! Only your fault if you’d pushed him, honey. And I wish you had.

Throughout the entire marriage she desperately needs help, but the only person who can offer any is Daniel Deronda. Who does help! But whereas today he’d be able to go “Holy crap, dump this asshole!” in Victorian times he had to be all “Internal perseverance! Suffering in beautiful, beautiful silence and taking what comfort you can from the noble fact of sufferance!”

And her eventual happy ending is that with her (relatively) small settlement from the will she nobly prepares to nobly look after her mother and sisters. And Daniel tells her to do this! That a life of service to others is clearly what she needs and she will learn to find it happy and good.


While, yes, Grandcourt being dead is certainly a happy ending and I’m not going to begrudge the delightful Mirah the equally adorable Daniel (and god, Gwen/Dan would have been a terrible couple), Gwendolen’s happy ending ought to be that she is financially secure and doesn’t have to marry anyone EVER AGAIN and recognizes that fact! That she can do archery and horse riding as much as she damn well pleases and doesn’t have to be a governess and basically gets to be a rad single lady slash widow.

So this is my head canon: About thirty minutes after the end of the book, Gwendolen realizes that her mother will die and her sisters will probably leave and get married and she needs to start preparing now for being a rad single lady slash widow. So she gets on her horse and heads to the archery range and pictures her awful dead husband’s face on the target, THE REAL END.

Also, I want the book about Daniel’s mother being amazing and self-centered and refusing every “womanly” feeling for the sake of her art, at which she triumphs magnificently. C’mon, George Eliot, rise from your grave and do this for me.

It’s only fair.

*I apologize for the punctuation in this sentence slash paragraph, but I’m not sorry enough to edit it.