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Otago settings add weight to work of popular author


When, in 1974, the publisher Mills and Boon printed a tribute to one of its writers, Essie Summers, it asked: Has any other author made the rest of the world more conscious of New Zealand?
It was a valid question, and most would be hard-pressed to deny the truth of it, for Essie Summers' books have been and continue to be read by millions. And although superior readers might sniff that they were mostly "only" light romance novels, the settings she used were frequently those of her native land, an incomparable benefit in publicising New Zealand which, as a correspondent to her once wrote, had previously been "just a squiggle on a map". Many parts of Otago, and Dunedin itself, featured in her novels, for she loved the area and was meticulous in making sure the details of her books were accurate.
Essie Summers, who died last week in a Napier rest home, aged 86, was born Ethel Snelson Summers in Christchurch in 1912, the daughter of immigrant parents who had arrived in their adopted country with precisely 11 between them. Both parents were storytellers and readers and perhaps here lay the germ of Essie's later success. Reading Anne of Green Gables in her first year in Standard 1 was also an event she later recalled as being crucial to her development, and she began writing her own stories from about that time. She attended Christchurch Technical College where she took a practical home science course, intending to learn dressmaking, but had to leave after two years at the age of 15 as the impact of the Depression and her mother's illness began to take effect. Summers then worked as a shop-assistant in Christchurch until her late-20s when she married Bill Flett, whom she had first met at the technical school. From the age of 18 she began sending poems and short stories away to book publishers, magazines and newspapers, writing, as she said, "compulsively". All were rejected until the happy day when one of her poems called "Gipsy Heart", was accepted by the Australian Woman's Mirror . As far as Essie and her family were concerned, she was a professional writer from that day on and her father began working out how he could get her a typewriter, finally buying an ancient machine whose ink had to be dried in front of the fire. Bill Flett was a minister and when they married just after the outbreak of the war, he found himself called to Wigram Air Force Station to organise the canteen service, before being appointed to a church in Ashburton. A parish in Wanganui followed and, immediately after the war, a transfer to Wakari Parish in Dunedin, where Summers began writing her first novel, Sweet Are The Ways . It was rejected, but 18 years later, in rewritten form, it became her 16th published novel and her favourite. Another shift followed - to Weston in North Otago - and as Summers recalled, that move unlocked her creativity again after several child-rearing years. Because of the demands of her young family and church life, she found the only way she could write consistently was to get up at 5am three mornings a week to fully employ those quiet early hours. It was, as she said and all writers know, "hard, hard work". More poems followed, and a regular column in the Timaru Herald, before Bill Flett accepted a call to Rakaia Parish in Canterbury. Summers, prodded by her ever-supportive husband, had sent off another novel to Mills and Boon which was rejected - but with sufficient encouragement to cause her to tackle the onerous job of re-writing. It was finally accepted as New Zealand Inheritance - her first published novel - and she was asked by Alan Boon, the firm's principal, to write another, which became Bachelors Galore. She was on her way, and on the move again, this time settling with more permanency in her beloved Dunedin, in a villa in Belleknowes. Everything and everybody was grist to her creative mill; even the land agent who sold them the house reappeared disguised as a romantic hero in a later book - and so did a prime minister, Keith Holyoake (in Heir to Windrush Hill ). Year after year this hard-working Dunedin housewife produced her carefully crafted 55,000-word novels, 56 of them; some 19 million copies printed eventually in 25 languages and sold in 105 countries. Summers enjoyed a substantial correspondence with her readers and had a fan club. Many were moved both by her sentimental tales and her unique powers of describing the New Zealand settings of her books. Another of her great strengths was characterisation, for, as she herself explained: "My own characters are always very vivid to me. I can see their every feature as I write about them, even things that will never need to be mentioned in the course of the novel." She never forgot Anne of Green Gables , and kept near her heart the dream of visiting Prince Edward Island in Canada and the place that inspired L.M. Montgomery to write the story. As a former book editor of this newspaper observed: "One can too easily underestimate the contribution that writers like Essie Summers have made to our `cultural identity'. She had taken many Otago and New Zealand localities which have never previously had any whiff of literature attached to them, and by legitimising them on the pages of her romantic novels, has made them more readily available to the writers of a wider literature." Her last novel for Mills and Boon was High Country Governess , published in 1987, but she went on to write four more for Severn Publishers, including Design for Life, published last year. In a world overloaded with explicit fiction, her stories are entirely free of coarse language and sexual description, engaging the imagination of her legions of readers with tenderness, and the anguish and ecstacy of simple love.
Essie Summers was predeceased by her husband, and is survived by her children, Bill and Elizabeth.

Saturday, 5-September 1998

Taken from 'The Otago Daily News'