Inside Dame Ngaio Marsh's home

ROSA SHIELS
Last updated 08:40 29/11/2012

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Tucked away at the base of the Port Hills is a cottage that once housed a queen of mystery

Grand dame of mystery

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a sinewy black Jaguar might be seen, gliding up Colombo St towards the Port Hills, then swooping around a tight corner and vanishing into the trees.

There, an obscured driveway led to a green wooden garage. Car parked and garage doors closed, out would step a statuesque, grey-crowned woman, grand and graceful in slacks, open-necked shirt, jerkin and clusters of colourful costume jewellery.

She - Dame Ngaio Marsh, internationally celebrated crime-fiction author, playwright, theatre director, critic, artist and formidable woman of independent means - would mount the steps to Marton Cottage, take a swift glance at her casually terraced garden, then disappear behind closed doors into a world of her own making in words and books, paints and brushes, plays and players, and murder most foul.

Dame Ngaio died 31 years ago in February, but her unimposing cottage remains open to the public as a house museum, with Dame Ngaio's personal effects still in place, almost as if she were living there - as if, in fact, she'd just dropped out for a spot of lunch with a friend.

Marton Cottage is imbued with the character of the imposing châtelaine who owned it, but neither spectral nor chilly, her lingering spirit seems to warm the ageing interior.

As a child growing up there, it must have seemed like a large semi-rural section. She rode her horse there and set off on all sorts of adventures with her friends. She described it in her 1965 autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew:

"There was a lawn in front and an orchard behind. To me they were extensive but I don't suppose they amounted to more than a quarter of an acre ... From the branches of a Wellingtonia I looked south across rooftops and gardens to a plantation of oaks with a river flowing through it where we kept our rowing-boat."

Christchurch-born Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) was the only daughter of BNZ bank clerk Henry Marsh and his beautiful, tall and theatrical wife, Rose. She was educated at St Margaret's College before going on to Canterbury College School of Arts, from which she graduated with first-class honours.

A member of The Group, influential Christchurch artists, with whom she exhibited until the 1930s, her sketches, drawings and fully realised paintings, from the Lusk or Angus school in style, attest to the accuracy of her hand and eye and her ability to frame an image.

"I acquired quite a lot of technical skill," she said later, "and got quite a long way with my painting, but I never felt I was doing what New Zealand was about with my paint."

A high achiever in all her areas of endeavour, Ngaio Marsh might have had a career in decorative arts, but she chose to focus on books and the theatre. From 1920, she toured for two years with the Allan Wilkie Theatre Company. Her entrée to the company - her introduction to the addictive world of theatre - had been a play she had written at art school while still in her teens.

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Later, she taught elocution at the Christchurch School of Drama and Dancing, produced vaudeville shows and fundraising pantomimes, and wrote for magazines.

She sailed to England in 1928 and spent the next five years travelling, partying and socialising with her close friends, members of the Rhodes-Plunket families, as well as working at her writing and opening a Knightsbridge interiors shop with Mrs Tahu Rhodes.

One wet afternoon in 1931, as a technical writing exercise, she decided to try her hand at the detective mystery genre, based on what she'd read by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. This was the start of her Holmesian novel era, from which she never looked back.

Ngaio Marsh remained a person of two countries, travelling back and forth. In Christchurch in 1942 she began working with the Canterbury University College Drama Society, producing and directing more than 20 full-scale Shakespearean productions. She also worked on contemporary plays for the seminal "Drama Soc", both enriching and terrifying a cadre of young actors through the years who, nevertheless, cherished the time they had with her. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the last play she presented with them in 1969, one Sam Neill had a leading role. Later, the university would confer upon her its first honorary doctorate of literature and name its new theatre in her honour. 

While her name is in danger of being forgotten in New Zealand - except maybe among those associated with the stage or captivated by crime fiction of a certain vintage - Dame Ngaio Marsh's international reputation as a mystery writer remains unchallenged, standing alongside that of her contemporary in crime, Agatha Christie.

Indeed, Dame Ngaio's 32 "teckery" novels, featuring the suave, gentlemanly detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, have never been out of print and have been released recently in omnibus editions.

Today, individual visitors as well as groups can visit Marton Cottage by appointment. It is administered by the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust and run by volunteers. If you are lucky on a visit, you might encounter curator Dr Bruce Harding, an endless font of fascinating information about this singular woman, whose public career as writer and director flourished even as the person, albeit reportedly warm and genuine, remained much of a mystery to all but her closest friends.

Inasmuch as a house can talk, this cottage colours in many details about how Dame Ngaio chose to live and work in quiet provincial Christchurch when she was not living the bohemian high life with the upper-class social set in London.

One of the first houses established on what was still a bare country hill in 1906, it was designed in the arts and crafts manner by noted architect Samuel Hurst Seager, a relative of the family, as a collection of small, easily warmed rooms with decorative picture windows and extensive panelling in glowing heart rimu.

Visitors enter by the downstairs study, a 1980s addition to the house designed by Don Donnithorne. This low-ceilinged study is crammed with books and personal paraphernalia, paintings and sketches by Dame Ngaio and of her, and a hefty bust of the Bard.

Upstairs is the dining room, with its arched picture window, shelves for books and decorative porcelain pieces (held firmly in place with museum wax since the earthquakes), with swords and épées, real or theatrical props, hanging on the walls.

The table is set in reds and greens as if it were Christmas time. Although childless, Dame Ngaio was said to have adored children (among them her nephew John Dacres-Mannings, who inherited the house) and spoiled friends, relations and their children every year with boxes of gifts and a celebratory meal.

It was at this table that Dame Ngaio would host luncheons for friends, dignitaries and notable people, Sir Laurence Olivier and his actor wife Vivien Leigh, among them.

The kitchen is a '50s timepiece in a grim shade of Nile green, with well-worn chequered lino, a round-edged Kelvinator refrigerator, Formica-and-chrome table, and an old valve radio that belonged to Dame Ngaio's father. The house's original woodburner is still in place and beside it a large oven that would have been modern for its time. A large screenprint portrait of Dame Ngaio by Christchurch artist Paul Johns hangs on the wall.

The two most fascinating and apparently well lived-in rooms are the salon known as the "Long Room" and the bedroom. A wall between a small bedroom and the adjacent sitting room was knocked out to create the Long Room. Painted in a dusty mid-blue, with soft furnishings in various materials and traditional heavy linen drapes in florals and bird motifs, this room was where friends, visiting overseas art professionals, theatre students and contemporaries were welcomed, and where work was done.

Comfy chairs are grouped around the room for reading, writing and entertaining, and there is a grand piano in the corner for visitors who played.

It was in here that Dame Ngaio wrote her books longhand in large journals, curled up in a chair or sprawled on the floor. Her long-time secretary, Rosemary Greene, would decipher the handwritten novels and type them up on the Imperial typewriter that still sits on the solid old office desk beside the window.

A hefty Hungarian dresser, bought from the Hungarian Embassy in Wellington, is topped with a thick slab of a marble, still cracked from its ocean journey south from the North Island. In pride of place in this room, hung centrally at one end amid the bookshelves is Olivia Spencer Bower's portrait of Dame Ngaio.

In the bedroom, where she spent an increasing amount of time in her 80s as illness settled upon her, the large picture window has a lovely view over the treetops and across the rooftops to the far mountainous horizon that she so enjoyed as a child.

Perfume bottles and powder puffs sit on the dresser, a self-portrait sketch of a young and striking woman looks down from a wall, and a pale housecoat swings from a hanger behind the door, as if recently abandoned by its owner. Just outside the bedroom door is a small neo-Gothic bureau made by Henry Marsh.

For those who have, perhaps, come lately to the story of New Zealand's best-selling crime-fiction author and want to know more, this house was the setting for an imaginative full-length movie in which Dame Ngaio's "Poirot", the urbane Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, comes to life in search of his creator.

In Ngaio Marsh - Crime Queen: The Unsolved Mystery, by New Zealand director-producer Aileen O'Sullivan, Chief Inspector Alleyn (played by Peter Elliott) interviews a cast of real-life characters - intimates, acolytes, biographers - in scenes set in London and Christchurch, the two cities in which Dame Ngaio lived and wrote.

Of particular interest are the scenes set in Marton Cottage, where the filmmaker was given access to personal material, such as Dame Ngaio's sketchbooks, which are otherwise not on show to the public, and which really bring the person and the house alive.

Incidentally, Chief Inspector Alleyn takes his name from an Elizabethan actor who founded the English college Dame Ngaio's father attended. While the intimacies of her personal life were always well hidden from public view, it has been mooted more than once that Alleyn, her favourite character, was modelled on a close married friend.

In her obituary by Jennifer Dunning, Dame Ngaio was reported as saying in 1960: "Alleyn has been in all of them. It would be an affectation to say I'm sick of him. I'm not. I'm completely crazy about him."

After encouragement by Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Ngaio toured her Canterbury University production of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author to Australia at the beginning of 1949 and a year later produced the same play for a short season at the Embassy Theatre in London. In 1962, she wrote the libretto to music by New Zealand composer David Farquhar for the opera A Unicorn For Christmas, and this was performed for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh during their 1963 tour of New Zealand.

Ngaio Marsh was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1951 and received an OBE in 1948. She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1966.

A further honour she received in 1973, which arguably gave her equal pleasure, was the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award, known as the "Edgar", awarded by the Mystery Writers of America for distinguished work in the genre. This body also conferred upon her the title of grand master in 1978, making her a "Dame Daphne du Maurier".

Dame Ngaio Marsh was a good friend of Sir Hugh Acland and family, of Mount Peel, and had tutored their son. On her death in 1982, she was buried at the Acland family churchyard at Mount Peel's Church of the Holy Innocents.

Despite some earthquake damage and repairs required, Marton Cottage is still safe. However, in the light of rising costs, the trust faces an uncertain future. Maybe the house will become the venue for a writer's residency or might we see a Dame Ngaio room re-created inside a museum some time in the future, like the Flutey paua house? The latter would certainly be a shame.

In the meantime, visitors can enjoy the mood of Marton Cottage and absorb the manner in which one of New Zealand's most well-known authors lived. And died.

Curator of the house, Dr Bruce Harding, writes: "Indeed, it was (as she would have wished) in her own comfortable New Zealand home that, in February 1982, Dame Ngaio bade the world goodnight, eight weeks short of her 87th birthday and having just approved the galleys of her final novel, Light Thickens, which magnificently fuses all the core strands of her long and exuberant life: New Zealand-England, Shakespeare, the live theatre and crime fiction. It was a stylish swan song to cap a life of great fulfilment and signal achievement."

Ngaio Marsh House is in Sherwood Lane, signposted off Valley Rd, in Cashmere. Visits by appointment only. Phone 337-9248 to book. Admission: $10pp as part of a small group or $15 for an individual 90-minute guided tour. For further information, go to ngaio-marsh.org.nz.

 

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