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Keeper of the light

Keeper of the Light is an historical novel based on the true story of Mary Jane Hebden, a country gentleman’s daughter, who in 1839 at the age of 22 sails to New Zealand on the emigrant ship Duke of Roxburgh. There she is reunited with her fiancé George Bennett, a seedsman, who left on the Cuba two months earlier. It is a time of change in Britain. A youthful Queen Victoria has just come to the throne, and the combined works of Jane Austen have recently been published under her own name for the first time. The poor are suffering terrible financial hardship from loss of work caused by the Industrial Revolution, and the rising cost of food due to the Corn Laws. The New Zealand Land Company and the British Government have their eyes on the distant prize of New Zealand, and it is a race to see who will get there first. Against this background, a young English woman sets out on a 13,000 mile voyage halfway around the world in order to wed the man she loves. A journey that sees her running away from her home in Yorkshire, and ends with her taking on a man’s job in New Zealand in order to support her family. In Britannia, the fledging colony of the New Zealand Land Company, the ordinary lives of Mary and George – marriage, birth, work and death – are interspersed with extraordinary events like earthquakes, fire and floods. News to and from ‘home’ must travel by ship, and takes three to six months to arrive, if it arrives at all. A unforeseen change in circumstances forces Mary to take on a job as keeper of the temporary lighthouse at Pencarrow, the isolated headland at the entrance to Wellington harbour. She and her family live in a two-room cottage that is ‘neither wind- nor water-proof’ with a smoky lantern in the window that must be tended all night. Access is by boat, and the nearest town an eight-mile walk away along a rocky beach. The cottage is replaced with New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse four years later, and Mrs Bennett becomes Head Keeper, the first – and only – female lighthouse keeper in New Zealand’s history. She must maintain her position in the face of opposition from the Assistant keeper, William Lyall, who complains to the authorities that he can’t manage with only a woman’s help. In all, Mary Jane Bennett held the position of Keeper of the Light at Pencarrow Head for ten years. Her part in New Zealand’s history deserves to be celebrated, and yet like many historical achievements by women, it remains little known, even in the country of her birth and in her adopted home. This novel sets out to tell her story in her own words, in a fictionalised re-telling of actual events.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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