Yvonne du Fresne was a fiction writer whose work, often set in the Danish-French Huguenot community, finely examined non-British European cultures in New Zealand. She was a music teacher and scriptwriter, and three of du Fresne’s radio plays were broadcast on National Radio. Her first collection of short fiction won the PEN Best First Book Award and subsequent books won several literary prizes. While on a 1999 Writers Residency at Aarhus University Jutland, Denmark, du Fresne established future residencies there for New Zealand writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Du Fresne, Yvonne (1929 –2011) was a fiction writer whose works, set in the Danish-French Huguenot community, are among the finest literary examinations of non-British European cultures in New Zealand.
Born in Takaka, du Fresne moved to the North Island at age three and was brought up in the Danish-French Huguenot settlement of the Manawatu. Her writing shows a strong affinity with the regions landscape.
Du Fresne trained as a teacher in Christchurch, qualifying in classroom music and voice teaching, and specialised in teaching music. As a teacher, she worked in primary schools, at Wellington Teachers' College, and at the Correspondence School, for which she was also a drama scriptwriter. Three radio plays have been broadcast on National Radio, ‘The Spring’, ‘The Ship’, ‘A Little Talk About Our Winter District’.
Her collection of short fiction, Farvel and other stories (1980) won the PEN Best First Book Award and was read over the radio as ‘Astrid of the Limberlost’. At this time du Fresne travelled to writers conferences at Aarhus and Kiel Universities on a travel award from the Danish Ministry of Culture.
This debut was followed by a novel, The Book of Ester (1982), and a collection of linked stories The Growing of Astrid Westergaard (1985). Astrid Westergaard features the same Danish New Zealand protagonist as Farvel and was also adapted for radio.
Both collections, writes Nina Nola in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature ‘attempt to establish a connection between the non-British European migrants and Maori.’ The Womens Press published a selection of the stories as The Bear from the North (1989) with the subtitle ‘Tales of a New Zealand Childhood’.
The Book of Ester also has a Hugenot protagonist, whom critics described as a grown up Astrid Westergaard. After the death of her Danish husband, Ester traces the course her forbears took to arrive in New Zealand, and finds consolation in the arms of a fellow Dane.
Frederique (1987) is deeply engaged with European history and the mythical world of Danish folklore. While visiting Denmark in 1980, du Fresne discovered an entry in her family records about a young woman - the Frederique of the title - who was wounded during the assassination of her parents by French Catholic agents in 1723. This story was the seed for the novel, set in 19th century New Zealand.
In Motherland (1996), Astrid Westergaard, returns to Denmark and has a reunion with her Danish relatives. ‘As romance flourishes,’ writes Janet Wilson in NZ Listener, ‘du Fresne brings into suggestive parallel the deeper exploration of Astrid's psyche that love urges with the rediscovery of her roots in Jutland.’
‘Interweaving Astrid's story with an underlying enquiry about nationality, and brilliantly controlling the surface elements of mystery and romance, she has written more than a moving and believable story.’
Over her publishing career Yvonne du Fresne received a number of literary awards and scholarships in New Zealand and Denmark. After winning the best first book award for Farvel, she was twice runner-up in the New Zealand Book Awards for The Growing of Astrid Westergaard and The Book of Ester.
While on a Writers Residence at Aarhus University Jutland, Denmark in 1999, du Fresne established future writers residencies for New Zealand writers at that university.
In reviewing Motherland in New Zealand Books, Heather Murray could as easily be describing du Fresne's oeuvre when she writes: ‘[Y]es, it is a story of coming to terms with one's heritage but du Fresne avoids the pitfalls of the well done-over topic. She writes so beautifully and puts such a new edge on it all, that the reader finds everything to enjoy.’
Yvonne du Fresne passed away in Wellington on 13 March 2011, aged 81.
WRITERS IN SCHOOLS INFORMATION
Yvonne Du Fresne took part in our Writers in Schools programme. Please continue down the page to see answers that she gave to a list of questions provided by school students:
KAPAI: Kids Authors Pictures and Information
Where do you live?
In a little white house on a hill looking out over the northern Cook Strait in a place called Makara Beach, which is a tiny beach settlement 11k’s from Karori, in Wellington.
It has a small river and cliffs and rock pools and sheep farms. I also have a ‘rough collie’ (a Lassie dog) called Olivia. Olivia enjoys living here very much, especially when sheep look at her through our fence. She looks back and doesn’t make a sound, neither do the sheep. By and by the sheep get bored with looking without a sound at Olivia and go away. Olivia is very proud to be in a book I wrote where she’s called Lalla, especially when she’s sometimes recognised on our beach where we go for walks.
What books do you like to read?
I read novels and short stories and history books and poetry and book about people and children’s books and travel books. I read and read and read. Although I can’t stop myself reading labels and notice boards or any print at all, I’m very careful about reading only books that are good, that last. These are the kind of books that make me sharpen up my writing and my imagination; as a friend once said, ‘These are the books that make you want to write’.
Do you have a favourite author?
I have new favourite authors every week, I think.
When I was younger I loved writers like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen and Jane Austen and Colette and lots more; books that you’ll read one day.
When I was very young indeed I first heard stories told to me by my family who came from Denmark. These stories were very strong and sounded quite simple, but weren’t simple at all. They were about magic people like ‘house goblins’ who looked after our houses and farms and ‘tree spirits’ who were beautiful fairies and ugly trolls who could entice you into following them into deep forests, and also about ordinary people like us who worked on farms and in forests and, long ago sailed in big ships called ‘Viking-ships’.
Most of the books we had at school and in bookshops were set in Britain. We didn’t come from there but enjoyed reading about that country and its people and seeing people from there all around me.
I loved books like Milly-Molly-Mandy and dozens more but only rather like an admiring visitor. The stories I didn’t tell people about were those I read and heard at home.
It was very fortunate for me, as a future writer, to have those Danish and Scandinavian stories that were about magic people and creatures and ordinary people like us, because the two kinds of people got mixed up together. For example, my cousin Oscar Clausen at one moment would be working on his farm in the Manawatu while I watched him and the next moment, if the light changed, snip-snap, he looked just like Golden Thor, the God of Farmers and also the flinger of thunderbolts. So that made cousin Oscar very interesting indeed.
Often my families read to me from a big book that had come with them all the way to New Zealand. It was written by a man called Hans Andersen and his stories sounded very like the rhythm and sound of the stories told me that were about the places and people where we lived in Denmark. Those rhythms and sounds stayed with me forever and helped me find my ‘voice’.
I had a little difficulty finding my voice. As most of the Pākehā settlers in NZ originally came from Great Britain, they liked reading stories from that background and not from foreign countries, so those of us who came from foreign countries had enormous pressure put onto us to assimilate and write stories that came from British material, too. But you can’t go on writing about people and happenings that aren’t really yours. Māori writers had this problem, too, even though NZ was their original country. Nobody wanted our stories. But gradually editors became very interested in our backgrounds and customs and started to publish them. It’s very important for writers to ‘find their voice’ from their own backgrounds, for then you have important things to tell from your own view of NZ and this gives your work great enjoyment and energy to do. Soon you’ll be able to tell the different voices of writers and find out your favourite ones and collect their books.
Do you have any pets?
Olivia – a rough collie. They are called rough collies because they have big, very fluffy coats and a big ruff around their necks.
What is your favourite colour?
Do you have a favourite food?
My lunch time tomato, pate, gherkin, and lettuce sandwiches.
Do you have a favourite movie?
A long-ago film of Hamlet by William Shakespeare starring Laurence Olivier.
Do you have a favourite game?
A long-ago game called Marbles, played inside and outside in a fish shape scratched in good smooth ground, and Hopscotch played with a thin, flat stone.
Where do you like to take your holidays?
Now that I’ve retired from teaching, life seems one long holiday, apart form writing. My main holidays these days are long trips to Denmark where I have lots of friends and family. Being there is a bit like going to live in a Hans Andersen story. From the plane it looks like a magic country, sometimes yellow with sunshine, sometimes white with falling snow. You see lots of villages with thatched-roof houses and a windmill for each village and it all looks like a country from a dream.
What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
For some mad reason I climbed out of the second storey windows of the prefects’ room at my secondary school with a frightened friend and crawled up to the top of the roof just to see what the view was like. We did it at lunchtime in full view of about 1000 pupils. I was head girl so that made it much more wicked. We came down when the headmistress threatened at the top of her voice to call the fire brigade. It was the second to last day of school so I think that had something to do with it!
How do you think up your ideas?
The ideas come from the strangest places. Sometimes I remember something that happened a long time ago, perhaps a picnic by our river when we were camping there. I’ll remember the sound of the sea not far away and smell the salt air and the yellow lupin flowers and the smooth dampness of the sand.
For some reason this all makes me very excited, when at other times I remember them and do not feel excited at all. Then the memories grow; I hear sounds of wind in the trees and cicadas hissing in the gorse and the hiss of the water flooding against the banks as the tide races up the river. I hear the sounds of people talking and it all suddenly makes a pattern, which seems very important to write down so people will remember those things in their lives, too. Sometimes ideas come from things people say, or music or photographs or films or TV or newspapers. You never can tell what strange things will give you ideas.
What is the best thing about being an author?
At last seeing your book taking shape after months and months of thinking and writing and planning and worrying and cutting out bits that you really like but aren’t really suitable for the book. And the greatest thing is to finish it and read it and know that you’ve done it; you’ve got down on paper some of the urgent vision that you wanted to give the reader. Then you really do feel like the lord of creation. Even if it only lasts a short time it’s one of the most powerful feelings in the world.
How did you get started as a writer?
I think writers get started from the moment they’re born. I was very startled when I was about five to be told by an aunt to stop standing on people’s shoes and gazing unwinkingly up at them. I made it much worse by trying to copy their voices and the way they said things, and moved. It was many years before I realised I had already started collecting material for writing!
As I’ve said before, my Danish and French families were always telling stories and imitating people. I tried to do this, too and very quickly tried to ‘write them down’. My families were very entertained by this but it was my Grandfather du Fresne who took it seriously and asked me to send him a story every fortnight. He kept the stories in a nice little box and my Grandmother told me that he turned bright pink with pleasure when I sent him a new story and then laughed his head off.
But it was my Father who was the greatest influence on me. He was the most skilled storyteller I’ve ever heard; he had the gift of storytelling from Jutland, in Denmark, where storytellers grow on every bush. Danes treasure people who ‘grow from the great art of Danish storytelling’ and will listen for hours, then take their turn. (Winters in Denmark are long, dark and cold and Danish living rooms always contain sofas and chairs around a coffee table where people eat and drink and talk. Meals can last for hours and children are encouraged to join in and work hard to make their stories as sharp and disciplined as the adults’. There were always gales of laughter or sudden chills and an enormous amount of gleeful imitation.) My Father was very proud of my attempts at story telling or writing but he was always restlessly watching for signs that I was overwriting. The result was that gradually I cut out all the dross and tried to echo the brief, powerful structure of the Jutland stories and songs and poems, with bursts of colour only when they were really needed. I found this enormously exciting to do but only really achieved it in my last book Motherland. I’m writing the sequel now and I find that the style is coming through automatically but with a stronger ‘pounce’, because I’m older now, I think.
What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
Make sure you treasure those of your friends who are writers or who are interested in writing and books. Lots of enjoyable discussion is wonderful and you need that.
Keep writing every day, even if it’s only a small quantity, to keep your hand in. By this, your writing strengthens and is ready for you when you embark on major work.
Find out which time of the day is best for you to work. This depends on whether you’re a ‘lark’ or an ‘owl’: larks are morning people and owls are night people. I suppose the best way to explain this is by personal example. I taught for forty years and unfortunately I really enjoyed it! This meant that I used a great deal of creative energy all day, which didn’t leave much puff for writing. Luckily I’m a lark so I got up at 5 am each day which gave me about 2 hours writing, often less, and after school I typed it up. But the teaching jobs I had grew more and more demanding; I was a music and dance specialist in primary schools, work which demanded much travelling to distant schools, radio and TV programmes, besides basic daily work, then later head of junior primary schools and a great deal of marking in Correspondence School, besides school radio broadcasts, and fatigue started to take its toll after I retired. That’s the reason I haven’t written many books.
Reading about other writers and how they managed to write is a great comfort and incentive. There’re no solutions laid down, just a matter of working things out and trying not to despair when events or circumstances make writing impossible for a time. When I was really desperate for time I used to ‘write in my head’ and whip it into my notebook or at home, when I finally reached there! But I know how enraptured I was when I won my first Scholarship of letters and had a whole year off. It was my first time away from school since I was six years old. I whipped off a book of short stories and a great deal of a novel during that year.
Is it hard to make a living as a writer in New Zealand?
It’s very difficult to make a living from writing in NZ – not unless you write rows of bestsellers. Writing full time has its anxieties; you don’t see many people, worries and depression from writing and financial difficulties can be a problem. I needed people to spark me off and I miss the staff at Correspondence School who were a very lively lot, and there were hundreds of them! I’ve often thought that if you could find a job that will keep you, without actually starving, and leave over energy for writing and seeing people would be ideal. Writers with families have a rather hard time when children are young and demanding. Understanding partners can be a great help here and snatching time when children are sleeping or at kindergarten, but many preschools need to have you there, too.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was both a child and teenager during the war, so that meant we didn’t have much equipment for school or writing. Paper and pencils were in very short supply and so were books. We had to use books from our parents’ and grandparents’ collections, if they had any, and in the countryside where I lived there were no children’s libraries. It was a great moment when, during the war, the Country Library Service started sending hampers of books to NZ schools; the first time many children were able to read new books, or books at all. We always seemed to be tired as we had long journeys to school daily on buses that had to pick up many more children on longer routes as petrol and tyres were in short supply. We had a shortage of teachers, too, as so many of them were away overseas, at the war.
I was not only working very hard at school but trying to write and do voice training for solo singing. I had been born with a ‘big voice’ and my families, who were very musical, were determined to get me to Denmark for voice-training after the war but we couldn’t get a visa, only one for England, but as I had a ‘Danish’ voice, that wasn’t much good. So I decided to use my music and singing training for work in schools, and I did!
I was working my head off, as we all seemed to do in those times. Luckily for me, musicians and writers see the world in ways that are rather like a child’s first view of the world and I had that as a teenager; everything was very sharp, very colourful. I had some wonderful teachers, in addition to a very warm, encouraging family and they encouraged my writing and music, which is very important indeed. And I think I laughed too much and talked too much for some people who believed in the thirties and forties that young people must be seen but not heard.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Obituary from NZ Review of Books Pukapuka Aotearoa
Updated February 2022.