It’s not often that an author gets to write a biography of someone who can only be described as a total and utter bastard. And rarer still to find a compelling raft of redeeming features in a such a character.
This book means a lot to me in many ways. Not least because it has to be the longest-brewing book I’ve ever written. I signed the contract with Penguin in 2003, only to discover – unbeknownst either to me or to them – that another biography of McLean was being written.
There wasn’t room in the market for two books on the guy, and so Penguin agreed to shelve mine while this other biography sold through. I found it very much a ‘classical’ academic biography, asking the sorts of questions that academics need to ask to earn status with other academics, all framed by traditional themes relating to Donald McLean’s place in New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century settler history as a major public servant and land buyer.
By 2011 I figured enough time had passed to tackle my own book. But I didn’t want to re-tread the ground that the last biographer and the Waitangi Tribunal had been raking over, exploring his competence, motives and actions as a public servant. A further biography wasn’t the right place to to add anything to those debates, even though by eschewing them I risked being targeted by ‘straw man’ worth denials pivoting on the assertion that these arguments were the sole arbiter of the quality of any book on McLean.
It was also important to find an organising principle – a theme. Despite the conceit that books should be ‘definitive’ (an assertion usually deployed by authors to validate their own self-worth, or by others to fuel straw-man worth denials in academia) the practical reality is that even the longest tome can only ever look at aspects of a subject.
I had just over 75,000 words available, which meant finding a very tight-knit theme and focussing just on that. I was aware of yet another manuscript out there, covering off McLean’s political life. So what else was there?
The obvious destination for any biographer is character. What sort of person is the subject – in all their depth as a human individual, irrespective of their place in history or their narrative deeds? And when it comes to McLean the answer, it seemed, was ‘nobody cared’. McLean’s character had always been simply taken as an as-read backdrop to the political and land-buying deeds that have usually formed the backbone of studies of his life. Nobody had looked much beyond the self-evident facts that he schemed, he was ambitious, he drank heavily, he beat people, and on the back of it played a huge role in New Zealand’s colonial history.
I thought it was worth having a crack at seeing what lay beneath all that. Some of the story was clear from his diary. And then I found McLean’s love letters.
McLean’s brief marriage to Susan Strang ended abruptly in 1852 when she died giving birth to their first and only son, Douglas. She has only ever been a footnote in his ‘traditional’ history – a paragraph only in the 1940 biography penned by James Cowan, and a single, short and asynchronous chapter in Ray Fargher’s.
But for my purposes, those letters were important because – along with his diary they revealed a very different figure from the mean-spirited, alcoholic, vindictive, egotistical bastard more usually known to history.
Suddenly, McLean leaped into deeper perspective, and in ways that hadn’t been considered before.
Man of Secrets: The Private Life of Donald McLean is being released in print – available in all good bookstores and for purchase online – and also as an ebook. Details soon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015