Minnie Dean is the only woman to have been hung in New Zealand (Invercargill, 1895). Her story wasted no time entering our country’s mythology and to this day she remains a cautionary figure used by some parents to foster compliant behaviour in their children. Earlier this year, Mākaro Press published my verse biography: The Trials of Minnie Dean.
I first became acquainted with her circumstances a hundred years after her death, when asked to review Lynley Hood’s 1994 biography Minnie Dean: her life & crimes for the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect. At that time, I was a Child and Family Psychiatrist, accepted as a specialist in this area. From Hood’s research I was satisfied that, at least in part, Minnie Dean became a scapegoat of Victorian morality. She cared for unwanted young children, raising some to adulthood. It was inevitable that there would be deaths, since the infant mortality rate at the time was extremely high (up to 90% in institutional care). I drew a parallel with contemporary fostercare and the undervaluing of the role of fosterparents.
I retired from psychiatric practice about ten years ago, because I wanted to write – fiction, plays, poetry. At first I steered clear of psychological themes, as I found it impossible to prevent my writing morphing into a poorly written clinical paper. In writing The Trials of Minnie Dean I have, for the first time, brought my professional knowledge and research experience together with my creative writing skills, and it feels a happy marriage.
I am interested in longer works of poetry and poem sequences. Having written a play that is a verse family memoir (Geography of Loss) and a biographical play about Frances Hodgkins (Poverty and Muse), I decided I wanted to write a verse biography. Minnie Dean seemed a suitable subject, since she is well known, controversial, embedded in an interesting social context, some issues (eg poverty, housing and the care of children) still being relevant to the present day. She is also unusual for a working class woman of her time, in that there is considerable information available about her, some in her own words/hand, so I could get a sense of her voice and thoughts. This poem is her initial statement:
Not wanting a strong authorial voice, I chose to make this a work of multiple voices, so that many characters (including some inanimate objects) could express their varying points of view and contribute to the building tension of the story. In the ‘virtual’ court scene, I have challenged from a 21st century perspective some of the evidence upon which Dean was convicted, drawing on my past experience as an expert witness. I have made good use of researched documents and found material, some of which I think is very visually appealing.
In writing poetry, I have become interested not only in the choice of language, but also the appearance of the words on the page – Word as Art. This is apparent in The Trials of Minnie Dean, where many pages are laid out to emphasise these visual effects.
I also wanted a means of distinguishing between what I consider to be ‘the poems’ and other factual material, contextual asides, marginalia, and have used font changes, positioning on the page, orientation of the text to make the distinction. In places I have also used placement of words to indicate movement or disruption of thought or emotion.
Dr Karen Zelas is a Christchurch poet, novelist, playwright and editor. Read more about Karen and her work here.
The Trials of Minnie Dean by Karen Zelas is published by Mākaro Press, 2017.