Ursula Bethell Collection
“The significance of Mary Ursula Bethell in the development of New Zealand poetry, and New Zealand letters more broadly, cannot be overestimated.”
Bethell was a pivotal figure in the Christchurch arts community, and among her friends were many of the major artistic and literary figures of the day. Her correspondents include Charles Brasch, D’Arcy Cresswell, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, and Monte Holcroft.
“The significance of Mary Ursula Bethell in the development of New Zealand poetry, and New Zealand letters more broadly, cannot be overestimated. Her poetry, which she only began to write in any serious way when she finally settled in New Zealand at the age of fifty, reflected a keen awareness of contemporary trends in modernist literature, nourished on wide reading in English and French work. Her interests extended beyond poetry: she was a painter of no little ability, an integral part of the local art community, and a correspondent par excellence. Indeed, the writing of letters became her ‘work’, and she wrote frequently to a wide range of correspondents, about poetry and literature, about the arts more broadly, and about theology and spirituality.” Professor Peter Whiteford.
The collection spans the years 1890 to 1945, a period of rapid transformation in New Zealand’s cultural history. Bethell was writing during the decades when two world wars, and economic and social change brought about a developing sense of national identity in New Zealand. Her writing reflects and amplifies this, yet does not fall back on nationalistic tropes. Her poems show how the environment and conditions of New Zealand impeded the complete imitation of English poetry, and led to the adaptation of a locally distinct style.