Anderson, Barbara 1926–

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ANDERSON, Barbara 1926–

(Barbara Lilias Anderson, Barbara Lilias Romaine Anderson)


Born April 14, 1926, in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand; married Neil Anderson, 1951; children: two sons. Ethnicity: "English/Pakeha, as in not Maori." Education: University of Otago, Dunedin, B.A., 1946; Victoria University of Wellington, B.A. (art), 1983.


Home—Wellington, New Zealand. Agent—Caroline Dawnay, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, 503-504 Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Rd., London SW10 0XF, England. E-mail[email protected]


Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Wellington, New Zealand, science teacher, 1947; medical laboratory technologist at public hospitals in Napier, New Zealand, 1948-51; science teacher at a girls' high school in Hastings, New Zealand, 1961; Queen Margaret's College, Wellington, science teacher, 1964-67; medical laboratory technologist in Wellington, 1972-78.


Queen Elizabeth Arts Council grants, 1988, 1991; Victoria University fellowship, 1991; Goodman Fielder Wattie Award, 1992, for Portrait of the Artist's Wife.



I Think We Should Go into the Jungle: Short Stories, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1989.

Girls High, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1990.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1992.

All the Nice Girls, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1993.

The House Guest, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1995.

Proud Garments, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1996.

The Peacocks, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1997.

Glorious Things (short stories), Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1999.

Long Hot Summer, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1999.

The Swing Around, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 1999.

Change of Heart, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 2003.

Collected Stories, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 2005.

Author of a play, "Gorillas," produced in Wellington, New Zealand, 1990; radio plays include "Eric," 1983, "Impossible to Tell," 1984, "Hotbed," 1984, "Close Shave," 1988, "The Couch," 1988, and "BackwardsGlance," 1990. Work represented in anthologies, including Vital Writing: New Zealand Stories and Poems, 1989-90, Godwit, 1990; and Speaking with the Sun, Allen & Unwin, 1991. Contributor to periodicals, including Landfall.

Some of Anderson's work has been translated into German.


Barbara Anderson became a published writer somewhat late in life, having worked as a science teacher and medical technologist for many years before earning an arts degree in 1983. She has since produced a steady supply of short stories and novels, as well as plays, that have been met with general critical enthusiasm. Anderson's work has been characterized as a fascinating mix of careful omission, sharp observation, and dark humor. Sylvia Brownrigg wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: "One has the sense that Barbara Anderson, having remained quiet for her first sixty years, has no intention of stopping now, that she is going to explore the world with her tough wisdom, fill it with her rich and comic noise."

Anderson published I Think We Should Go into the Jungle: Short Stories in 1989. In the London Observer, Boyd Tonkin described the stories' common thread as "the slow suffocation of women trapped by duty and routine." Tonkin called Anderson "a mistress of ellipsis" for the way in which she slips meaning into the unsaid and compared her humor to that of Alan Bennett because of her deft use of the cliche. Doreen D'Cruz's analysis of I Think We Should Go into the Jungle in Contemporary Novelists highlighted the author's apparent belief that the reader plays an important part in creating a story. "The discontinuities in Anderson's stories demand the reader's intervention to turn what may be a cryptic utterance into a meaningful statement," remarked D'Cruz. Evidence of this appears in the story "Discontinuous Lives," which describes a meeting between a writer and a reader at a funeral. According to D'Cruz, the story mourns the adult loss of imagination that results in "the uncreative reader."

D'Cruz described Anderson's second book as "a work that falls between a collection of short stories and a novel." Girls High resembles two of the stories in I Think We Should Go into the Jungle: "School Story" and "Fast Post." The use of multiple points of view is taken from the first story and the theme of sex and morality is taken from the second. D'Cruz reflected: "Anderson seems to be suggesting that the banality of the quotidian, which is often within immediate view, is a deceptive front that hides significant depths." Tom Aitken commented on Girls High in the Times Literary Supplement, where he explained that the novel was about "members of staff, most suffering some form of arrested development imposed by disasters long past or present relationships which are dying under the 'cold light of intimacy.'" Aitken felt that style outweighed plotting: "The germs of the stories may be melodramatic … but the writing is so clear and charged that one is engaged and moved and amused."

The author's next novel, Portrait of the Artist's Wife, opens in Anderson's hometown of Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, where three teenagers dream of bigger things. Sarah wants to be a painter, Jack is an aspiring writer, and Charles plans to be a publisher. Told in the third person from Sarah's perspective, the story follows the three into adulthood and later life. When Sarah becomes pregnant and marries Jack, they move to Wellington where they—as well as Charles—pursue their professional dreams with considerable success. Their lives are complicated, however, by the pull of incompatibilities. Sarah struggles to be a painter and a mother; Charles is in love with Sarah; but it is the unfaithful Jack who understands her best.

In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, Gregory Palmer found "resonances of Katherine Mansfield" in Portrait of the Artist's Wife. He remarked that the novel's forty-year span "allows the author to express truth of some weight without being pompous" and that "deliberate anachronism shows that it is not to be read as a historical novel." Palmer observed that the "novel is a step up from both [earlier works]. The appearance of naivety disguises a subtle and sophisticated style." A Publishers Weekly reviewer credited Anderson with "an assured, pared-down wisdom" and "unflagging attention to everyday details." Sarah's depiction across many years was considered convincing, and the novel was characterized as "a seamless, succinct narrative that captures both the simplicity and the complexity of her character's life." In contrast to these two reviews, Julian Symons remarked in the London Review of Books that, while critics had previously spoken of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf in connection with Anderson, this book "makes such praise hard to understand. It is a competent family saga of a familiar kind."

The House Guest is about a New Zealand academic, Robin Dromgoole, who becomes a widower when his younger wife, who is twelve years his junior, dies. He then becomes reacquainted with former childhood friend Emmeline O'Malley, who is an actress. Robin is also doing research on the deceased American writer Alice O'Leary, who proves to be connected to Emmeline's guardian aunt. He thereby uncovers family secrets involving his friend's birth. The narrative also involves encounters with Robin's mother and brother-in-law.

A Publishers Weekly contributor deemed the characters in The House Guest its most engaging aspect. But "a clumsy plot mars this otherwise subtle, witty tale," the reviewer commented. In Library Journal, Barbara Maslekoff noted that Anderson "deserves a wider following." Referring to the many characters introduced within the first half, she said, "sometimes it becomes a bit of a jumble," but she concluded that the "characters, while sometimes annoying, are memorably drawn." Sylvia Brownrigg commended the book in the Times Literary Supplement, although Anderson was found to be "somewhat unsure of her central narrative." Brownrigg enjoyed the book as a "rich, elaborate tale" and praised the author for "a vital imagination which is tolerant and alert to the comedy in people's comforts and aspirations and their often clumsy efforts to comprehend each other."

In Proud Garments the aging couple Henry and Rosa somewhat unwillingly provide a home for the wife's widowed younger sister. However, sister-in-law Bianca wants a place of her own to put her treasured, if battered, antiques. She is not above using a family secret as leverage to get Henry to buy a house for her. The husband and wife are also having difficulties with their son, who is being positioned to take over Henry's textile business. He too is threatening Henry by saying he will reveal that his father had a mistress unless given ownership of the family house.

In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, Penelope Fitzgerald stated: "The story declares itself as the last stages of a face-down between the old and the new, with Bianca, seven years younger than Rosa, uneasily placed between the two." She also summed up the novel as being about love and lying to those you love most. Fitzgerald found that the plot was overdone and rather unbecomingly "soapy," but that "the craftsmanship is admirable. It is a matter of nipping or gliding in and out of different consciousnesses. You see precisely what they see and feel what they feel, but only realize, as the focus shifts, that you haven't quite understood them." She also found: "Barbara Anderson has an idiom of her own, an engaging restlessness and at the same time a toughness based on hard experience."

Anderson returned to the short story form with the collection Glorious Things. Quiet settings, such as small towns and beach resorts, and simple events, such as a couple riding on a bus or an invalid and his daughter on vacation, indirectly reveal tragedy and pain in the characters' lives. Candice Rodd reported in the Times Literary Supplement that Anderson "makes a virtue of uneventfulness" in stories where "life-shaping and life-cramping events … are endured but not much mentioned." Rodd called Anderson a "teasingly discreet chronicler" but explained that "we never doubt the existence of deep emotional hinterlands, nor make the mistake, for all the stories' perkiness and comic grace, of not taking these unshowy lives seriously." The reviewer reflected on Anderson's body of work and concluded: "Given the particularity of her vision, this return to the short form seems inevitable."

Anderson told CA: "I always wanted to write, since childhood, but I didn't begin until I had retired from science teaching and laboratory technology. A particular influence was Professor Bill Manhire, who had set up the creative writing course at Victoria University of Wellington. We were encouraged to find our own voices, have a go, write what we liked; it was a shock for someone in her late fifties whose English education had been drenched in rules.

"Like all writers, I'm a good noticer."



Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Library Journal, September 1, 1997, Barbara Maslekoff, review of The House Guest, p. 214.

London Review of Books, August 6, 1992, Julian Symons, review of Portrait of the Artist's Wife, p. 19.

Observer (London, England), May 23, 1993, Boyd Tonkin, review of I Think We Should Go into the Jungle: Short Stories, p. 71.

Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, review of Portrait of the Artist's Wife, p. 71; September 15, 1997, review of The House Guest, p. 52.

Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 1991, Tom Aitken, review of Girls High, p. 18; June 12, 1992, Gregory Palmer, review of Portrait of the Artist's Wife, p. 21; March 22, 1996, Sylvia Brownrigg, review of The House Guest, p. 23; June 27, 1997, Penelope Fitzgerald, review of Proud Garments, p. 21; June 25, 1999, Candice Rodd, review of Glorious Things, p. 23.

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Anderson, Barbara 1926–

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