Obituary for Frances Ann Porter (Fyfe), 1925-2022

Frances Ann Porter (Fyfe)

2 May 1925 – 3 April 2022

Frances Porter (Fyfe), BA, MA (Hons), D.Litt, author of the prize winning biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand (1989) and a large number of works on nineteenth-century Aotearoa New Zealand, has died, aged 96.

Frances Porter’s prize winning biography of Jane Maria Atkinson (1824-1914) colonist and correspondent, begins with a joke. Page one opens quoting from a letter written in 1842 with instructions to its recipient (Jane Maria’s brother) to ‘BURN THIS AT ONCE’.

Of course the letter had not been burned but had survived in the extensive manuscript collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. It was here where Frances Porter spent much time, as a leading historian of her generation, producing an enduring body of work on Aotearoa New Zealand’s nineteenth century.

Porter’s biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand, was published in 1989. It won the Non-Fiction Prize and went into multiple editions. Before this work, Porter had produced The Turanga Journals, 1840-1850. Letters and Journals of William and Jane Williams, Missionaries to Poverty Bay (1974). The book’s 659 pages provide an enormously rich canvas of life on the East Coast at a crucial time in the transition from mission to Te Hāhi Mihinare (the Māori Anglican church).

Two volumes on Historic Buildings of New Zealand: North Island (1979), and South Island (1983) followed, along with a A Sense of History (1978). These works brought life to places and buildings in the wake of legislative teeth provided by the 1954 Historic Places Act against continued destruction. The work of Porter and others drew attention to histories that were to be valued here in New Zealand, an unfashionable and indeed in many ways radical notion at the time to a Pakeha society inclined to think their country ‘didn’t have much history’.

After Born to New Zealand, her magnum opus, Porter worked with Charlotte Macdonald to produce ‘My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates’: The Unsettled Lives of Women in Nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends (1996). In 2002 she wrote Away from Home, the history of Victoria House, the poorer cousin to Victoria University’s men-only Weir House. There were many more articles, chapters and entries for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Porter had been a 17-year-old resident at Victoria House in 1943. Although her mother initally opposed her wish to attend university in wartime Wellington, Frances was insistent. Born in Hawera in 1925, the only child of professional parents, Frances Fyfe was intellectually gifted, and found an excitement in ideas, books and the life of the mind that lasted her whole life. She relished her university years, recalling asking one lecturer at the end of term, ‘what shall I read?’

Frances Porter was one of an exuberant and talented group of students who found a love of History studying with Fred Wood and J C Beaglehole at what was then Victoria University College in the 1940s. That group included Mary Boyd, Ruth Ross, June Starke, Ruth Guscott and Nancy Taylor. In her studies she thrived on the chase involved in the discovery of research; she put to excellent effect a training in deep archival immersion: sitting with the historical person or events in their time, comprehending their worldview – however different it might be; and then bringing the tools of explanation, context and story-telling to the History the historian created. She also paid a lot of attention as a student, to ‘how the lecturers put words together’. She came to be an exemplar of that craft.

After a decade or so as wife and mother (she married George Porter, architect and long term Wellington city councillor with whom she had three children, Hilary, David and Gillian) Frances returned to historical research when she turned 40. She did so entirely on her own volition, working independently rather than in a regular job or to contract.

Frances Porter’s authorial voice was her own: confident, careful, creative. Perhaps the independence of her position enabled her to forge that distinctive, direct, voice – one alert to living historical subjects in a full round of humanity. There is an invigorating quality to her writing (as there was in her person); her sentences speak to us directly; she is not astringent, but she doesn’t give us pastel and blur, but bold hues and strong lines. And people alive on the page.

Frances put huge efforts into the work of the Turnbull Library. She was a member of  the Special Committee for the ATL at testing times (in the years before 2003 current statutory regime), and did much work for the Friends of the Turnbull Library.

Frances Porter was recognised for the considerable corpus and outstanding quality of her work, with an Honorary Doctorate from Victoria University in 1993. Her work continues to be used, referenced, cited, read, forming part of the core work on nineteenth-century New Zealand, relied on for quality of its scrutinising and original scholarship, enjoyed and admired for its skilful writing.

In her later years Frances became an active member of the St Andrew’s church in Wellington, supporting the church’s position as an activist presence in the city and in global issues including marriage equality and climate change.

Charlotte Macdonald