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The Colour by Rose Tremain

The Colour by Rose Tremain

If you want to escape the Canadian winter you could spend our winter months in New Zealand – or you could spend some time reading The Colour by Rose Tremain. Rose Tremain has that writer’s gift that brings her characters, and a time and place, to life.

Her novel The Colour, is set in New Zealand in the mid-1800’s. We find ourselves in a foreign land along with Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and his mother, Lilian.

We soon learn that Joseph has left behind, in England, a secret shame that is not revealed until late in the novel. We meet Joseph and Harriet as newlyweds. Harriet had worked as a governess, raising children not her own, and sees her sudden and unexpected marriage to Joseph a way into a life of her own. She hopes that she will find love, and children, and adventure when they emigrate to New Zealand. She is not unhappy to have the company of Joseph’s mother, and the three of them settle upon the acreage that Joseph has purchased, build a very basic shelter and dream of better things to come. They meet Toby and Dorothy Orchard, and their son Edwin, who own a grand home, operate a successful farm - and see this as their own future.

Harriet also, for the first time in her life, sees that her future may also hold adventure. She yearns to explore the countryside and the distant mountains. Joseph, however, seems paralyzed by his past and will not accept that his choices, about where he builds their house and how he cultivates his land, may be unwise. He refuses to accept advice from those who have more knowledge of the land.

There seems to be hope for these people at the beginning of the novel, but it is soon dashed when Joseph discovers a trace of gold – the colour – in a creek bed. Joseph sees this as the answer to all of his problems – he sees himself as a wealthy man, if only he can find more gold.

When he does not find enough gold on his own land, he leaves his wife and mother and heads to newly discovered goldfields alone – with hordes of other men all seeking their own wealth in the New Zealand gold rush. There he finds a world of desperate men, and his obsession to find his own gold leaves him with little grasp of reality and his responsibilities for Harriet and Lilian. The area around the gold rush is rapidly becoming a community of sorts, there are those providing the tools and equipment needed by the men searching for gold, there is a bank purchasing the gold, saloons and a hotel. There is a Chinese man, Pao Yi, who grows and sells vegetables to the miners. There are men who work together, and there are those like Joseph, trusting no one, who work alone.

Without Joseph to farm their land and prepare for winter, Harriet and Lilian do the best they can to survive. Harriet is a strong and independent woman but she has no farming experience. With some advice and assistance from Toby and Dorothy Orchard she does the best she can for her mother-in-law and herself. Eventually, desperate to contact Joseph, Harriet travels to the gold fields. A woman alone in this rough world of men, in such a foreign place.

Harriet, after a treacherous journey, arrives at the gold fields. She finds Joseph, but is not welcomed; he will not trust even his own wife. Harriet, by this time, is not certain that she wants a future with Joseph but sees that the discovery of gold will enable them to have a future – with or without each other. Harriet, who tried so hard to cultivate vegetables in the scrub of her homestead, is entranced when she finds Pao Yi’s garden in the meadows above the gold mines.

There she finds a kind of peace, shelter and salvation, overlooking the madness of the gold rush and the men below. The history of the New Zealand gold rush makes a fascinating setting for a novel. Rose Tremain was intrigued by a museum featuring artifacts from the New Zealand gold rush and compelled to research and write this novel – adding fiction to the facts to bring the time and place alive for the reader.

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