Vale Lydia Wevers

Vale Lydia Wevers

It with great sadness that ASAL mourns the passing of Professor Emerita Lydia Wevers of Victoria University Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Lydia was both admired and loved by so many of us in Australian Literary Studies as a scholar, teacher, colleague, friend and mentor. Lydia was an Honorary Life Member of ASAL and delivered papers at many ASAL conferences, including the 2009 Dorothy Green Memorial Lecture. She also convened the first – and to date only – ASAL conference held offshore at Victoria University in 2012. She wrote three books and edited eight. The two co-edited with Elizabeth Webby, Happy Endings (1987) and Goodbye to Romance (1989), brought together for the first time short fiction by Australian and New Zealand women from 1850 to the 1980s.

Lydia’s extraordinary contribution to New Zealand literary studies included much important and pioneering scholarship. Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women (1988) was one of the earliest anthologies of New Zealand’s women’s verse. Her chapter ‘The Short Story’ in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991, edited by Terry Sturm) was the first academic discussion of the history of New Zealand short stories (the subject of her PhD). Her Country of Writing (2002) examined the ways the vast literature of travel from the nineteenth century identified New Zealand and its literature to the wider world and, conversely, how the reading habits in the colony shaped New Zealand society. 

Lydia also led research at an institutional level. She was the director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University from 2001 to 2017, during which time she consolidated its profile, extended its remit and mentored many young scholars, including many young women and Maori academics. In 2002 she founded the Journal of New Zealand Studies and in 2017 she and Maria Bargh, an expert in Maori politics, released New Zealand Landscape as Culture, an open-access online course on the edX platform featuring mātauranga Māori concepts, which has been described as New Zealand’s first bicultural MOOC. She also served on the body reviewing university publications and examined many theses from Australia as well as New Zealand.

Her contribution and reach extended well beyond the academy. The number of roles she undertook is testament to her profound commitment to New Zealand literary culture. Many of these commissions centred around reading, books and libraries. Like many of her generation, local libraries were the mainstay of her early love of reading. She liked to recount how the local library in Masterton had to make an exception to its lending policy (two books per week per child) to accommodate her reading habits. She was allowed 12 books per week. She read with that voracity all her life, read widely across genres. As she asks: ‘Who wants to live only one boring little single life? Reading allows you to live hundreds of lives’. She also remained committed to libraries. In her professional life she served on the boards of libraries, book councils, arts festivals, museums and many judging panels. She was a regular book reviewer for Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand and The New Zealand Listener. Her contribution was recognised in her appointment as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2006 and again in 2014, when the Royal Society Te Apārangi presented her with the Pou Aronui Award for distinguished service to the humanities. The selection panel described her as a ‘tireless and effective champion of New Zealand’s literature, history, thought and culture’. In 2017 she was a ‘150 women in 150 words’ laureate of the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

From ASAL’s perspective, Lydia’s enormous significance relates to the ways she pioneered Australian-New Zealand scholarly and collegial relationships and expanded the purview of Australian literary studies . Elizabeth Webby met her when she was in living in Sydney in the early 1980s through the writer Bill Manhire and introduced her to ASAL. In her Dorothy Green lecture, ‘The View From Here: Readers and Australian literature’, Lydia joked:

I am a New Zealand reader of Australian literature. That makes me just about a category of one. The reverse category, an Australian reader of New Zealand literature, is also a rare beast, though perhaps there is a breeding pair in existence. (1)

She continues by chronicling her early encounters with Australian writing. The first, not surprisingly, was Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong series but these she read as ‘horse books’ rather than Australian books (8). The next was Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, which seemed to he to be an ‘Australian novel’. However, she ‘encountered Australian literature properly’ when she lived in Sydney in the 1980s and read Australian literature avidly. As she explains, she read it then ‘partly to understand the Australia I was living in, and to get a sense of the differences that prevail between our literary nationalisms’. This motivation stayed with her. Her favourite Australian book was Capricornia, which she taught in a course at Victoria providing many students with their first voyage across the Tasman (9). She enabled that voyage in reverse for many Australians by the presentation of her research over many years at ASAL, her publications, and by holding the ASAL conference in Wellington in 2012. The theme she developed for that conference, The Colony, invited us to re-engage with the polity of the colony, a space before the nation state and the particular circulations of globalised modernity, and a means by which to (re) conceptualise connections between Australian and New Zealand and, by extension their connections with other prior colonies in the region. Her final ASAL paper ‘The Price of Water’, reflective of her increasing concern re environmental degradation, was delivered at the 2017 conference Looking In, Looking Out: China and Australia, convened by a consortium of Melbourne, La Trobe and Deakin universities.

Across much of the time ASAL knew Lydia and her work, she was unwell, often seriously so. Her achievements and determination were driven by her love of the world, her country, her work, her friends and pre-eminently for her family, though these were all interlinked. Lydia was born in Hengelo, the Netherlands, and immigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand as a child. Her English mother, Joyce, was married to a man who died in Mauthausen concentration camp. Joyce later married Bart Wevers and the family moved to Masterton New Zealand in 1953. Lydia maintained strong connections with her extended European family. She was very close to her four brothers and their families and adored her own family: husband Alastair, daughter Lizzie, sons Tom and Seb, daughter-in-law Bryony, grandchildren Max, Tilly and Thea. Many Australian literature colleagues met the family as the beneficiaries of Lydia and Al’s legendary, easy hospitality in Wellington and in the Wairarapa, the place of Lydia’s childhood, where she spent an increasing amount of time over the last decade.

Despite her illness Lydia remained positive and hard working close to the end, and had many plans for future research and publications. So her death was a loss to scholarship as well as a personal one for her family and many friends. She was always a delight to meet thanks to her sense of humour, wide interests and her profound, infectious commitment to the world.  

Elizabeth McMahon and Elizabeth Webby