Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Rosemarie Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Susan Lapham was born on 21 August 1836, at Lisdillon, Great Swan Port, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), Australia. She was the youngest daughter of Susan Butler and her husband, Samuel Lapham, a farmer, and later deputy sheriff of Portland, Victoria. On 9 February 1854, at Portland, she married John Nugent Wood. They had two sons, and probably three daughters who did not survive infancy.
Of her childhood Susan Wood later wrote: 'Born and reared in a most remote district, where the means of education were almost unattainable, I pored over old books, and dreamed my own dreams about the outer world'. Despite her lack of formal education, she was to become well known in southern New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s as a writer of verse, feature articles and short stories.
One of Susan Wood's poems alludes to an event which occurred within the first year of her marriage, possibly the loss of a pastoral property interest, which destroyed the young couple's prospects, although no details are known. Nugent Wood subsequently took up a position on the staff at the Bendigo goldfield, in Victoria. Their first daughter was baptised at Emerald Hill in 1857. In mid 1861 the couple moved to Otago, New Zealand, where Nugent Wood was appointed to the newly opened Gabriels Gully goldfield. Several of Susan Wood's brothers appear to have later followed her to New Zealand, including her younger brother, Henry Lapham, who was also known as a writer and newspaper contributor.
Over the next decade Nugent Wood held various official positions on the Otago goldfields. The family is known to have lived briefly at Gabriels Gully, Queenstown, Nokomai and Naseby, and then for some 10 years at Switzers (Waikaia), Southland. In January 1871 Nugent Wood was appointed resident magistrate for Southland. At the end of the 1870s the family moved to Riverton.
The harsh conditions on the goldfields were not easy for a married woman raising a family. Winters were extreme, housing inadequate, supplies unreliable and expensive, social conditions rough and amenities non-existent. The couple's first son, John, was born in 1863 in a tent, at Kingston, at the foot of Lake Wakatipu, at 4.30 in the morning, after a wagon journey to the lake. The family were then rowed up the lake to Queenstown in an open boat. Their second son, Robert, was born at Nokomai in 1865 but baptised at Pentridge, Victoria, the following year, indicating a trip back to Australia at that time.
Susan Wood was a regular contributor to the Otago Witness, the Saturday Advertiser and the Australian Journal. She published three collections: Woman's work in Australia (Melbourne, 1862) and Bush flowers (London, 1867) under the pseudonym 'A daughter of the soil'; and as Mrs Nugent Wood, Waiting for the mail (Melbourne, 1875), including work by Henry Lapham. Much of her writing reflects her personal circumstances and emotional state. She found life in New Zealand difficult and was painfully homesick. Memories of 'happy Australia's delicious summer days' provided a bitter contrast to the 'bleak, dreary winter of Otago, amidst cold, poverty, and desolation.'
The tragedy of her daughters' deaths is recorded, as in the poem 'My Birdie's birthday' which appears to refer to her first child, Mary Susan, who died in Melbourne at the age of six months. There are references to financial problems, to illness, possibly foreshadowing her own premature death from tuberculosis, and to an unnamed event in the late 1850s: 'a shadow deep and chill, / More cruel than the grave…that great load of sorrow, wrong, and shame / Which treacherous hands had heaped upon my heart.' Her marriage came under strain, but survived as a source of strength and mutual support. A major theme of her poems is the spiritual meaning which reconciles the writer to the painful events of her life, but a lighter tone is also evident at times in her description of family life. Her articles and short stories reveal her belief in the virtues of simple pleasures, hard work, and the importance of religion and family.
Susan Wood's style favours the mannered sentimentality of the Victorian age, and her verse is constrained within strict limits of metre and rhyme. There is real warmth, however, deriving from the close link between the subject matter and the writer's own experience. Her work provides insight into the life, aspirations and social attitudes of one pioneer woman and into the popular literary tastes of the time. Susan Wood died at Riverton on 30 November 1880, at the age of 44.