William Arthur Satchell was born on 1 February 1861 in London, England. He was the son of Hannah Mordey and her husband, Thomas Satchell, a civil servant who became surveyor general of the Inland Revenue. Thomas Satchell maintained an ample house in Hampstead, and kept up an acquaintance among people of the arts such as Alfred Tennyson and Wilkie Collins. He was a bibliophile, interested in Egyptology, and a contributor to what became the Oxford English dictionary. He wrote and published a little himself, brought out an edition of Izaak Walton's The compleat angler, and edited an angling journal.
William first went to school about 1866 in Highgate. From there he went to St John's College, Hurstpierpoint, near Brighton, and, about 1877, to Heidelberg university. He did not graduate. He returned to London in 1879 to manage a publishing business created by his father, publishing books which were inclined to be arty but of little distinction, and two periodicals, one the angling journal edited by Thomas. The firm, first W. Satchell, Peyton and Company, later W. Satchell and Company, did not profit. Thomas took the business out of William's hands in November 1884.
William had experienced major disappointment as a writer, had no settled occupation and suffered from poor health; by early 1886 he decided to emigrate to New Zealand. By advertising he secured a man to work with him, Elmer J. Brown. They sailed on 21 May 1886 on the Arawa. His brother Tom and a cousin followed in 1887; all were to receive financial support from William.
John Lundon of Rawene influenced Satchell's decision to locate at Waima in Hokianga in November 1886. Satchell arranged with a Maori said to be the sole owner to take over a block of 300 to 400 acres of mainly puriri bush near the few houses and school of Waima. Pending a Crown grant being issued 'rent' was paid. Satchell was in effect proprietor. Land was gradually cleared and fenced, orchards planted and a double-storeyed house built, with outbuildings. Before long Satchell formed a cricket club based at Rawene and at Waima built a hall for the settlers. He was small and shy, with dark features, intense brooding eyes, full lips and a wispy moustache. He had a telling nickname, The Little Duke.
Satchell married Susan Bryers at Rawene on 15 November 1889. William and Susan's first child, Edith, was born in 1890. Ultimately there were five sons and four daughters.
Shortly after Edith's birth Satchell's affairs were obviously collapsing. He had been badly misled over the Waima property. The purported vendor had no title to the land and not only refused any refund or compensation but (Satchell claimed) made it impossible for the venture to continue. Satchell and his associates had parted by 1891. The following year the Satchells were in Auckland where his first son was born. The small family remained in the city into the next year when William sent Susan, pregnant again, back with the children to Hokianga to the care of an aunt. How he supported himself, let alone his dependants, is not known. By May 1893 he was 'head over ears in debt' and desperate for employment. The New Zealand Graphic began publishing a small amount of his work in early 1894, and in 1895 the family came together again.
January 1895 saw the second phase of exploration of the Thames–Coromandel goldfields. There was an accompanying boom on the Auckland Stock Exchange whose brokers kept as tight a grip as they could on the market. An alternative body, the Auckland Free Stock and Mining Exchange, started up. Satchell somehow became a member. From the five years to 1900 he did well enough to afford a large house in Grange Road, Mount Eden. He was also appearing in print here and there and in 1901 he tried a notable venture, a literary weekly. The 15-page Maorilander, virtually all his own work, first appeared on 8 February 1901, and disappeared on 22 March.
Satchell early aimed to be an all-round man of letters: publisher, editor, essayist, journalist, dramatist in verse as well as prose, poet, short-story writer and novelist. He went into print about 1880, he petered out in 1918. He appeared in 1883 as Samuel Cliall White, author of a trivial bit of juvenilia, and a miscellany of verse and prose; Samuel Cliall White and other pseudonyms appeared in later years along with 'WS'. William Satchell's début under his own name was Patriotic and other poems (1900).
Satchell pursued his ambition to be known as a novelist with some success. He published The land of the lost in 1902 and The toll of the bush in 1905. He was presumably engaged with his third novel, The elixir of life, when in 1906 his finances crashed because of unwise (or unlucky) investments in the third Thames boom. The Mount Eden house was sold and the family shifted to Birkenhead, finally settling in 1911 at Northcote in a generous oldish place with five acres of orchard. Satchell combined horticulture with poultry farming, and was now part-time secretary of the Auckland Horticultural Society. He worked on his last and in the long run his most favoured novel, The greenstone door (1914), which came out at the wrong time: it was not the moment to have a compromised Pakeha-Maori character speak out against orthodox patriotism.
By 1917 Satchell had three sons away at the First World War. The household moved again within Birkenhead. He began work as accountant for Robert P. Gibbons's timber company at Kopu outside Thames, and before long his family joined him. Kopu was their home for 11 years. Back in Auckland in 1928 Satchell continued as Gibbons's accountant until 1936. The greenstone door went into print again in 1935, The land of the lost in 1938. The government awarded him a civil list pension in 1939. Susan Satchell died in 1937; William followed her on 21 October 1942. He was survived by his nine children.
He is remembered for three of his four novels, The land of the lost, The toll of the bush and The greenstone door, the first two set in or about Hokianga and the last in Auckland and Waikato. The strength of the two northern books comes from the accuracy of the scene-setting, the kauri gumland of the one and bush of the other, and the fidelity with which Satchell observes the mundane life of the virtuous minor characters. His stereotyped villains are another matter.
The land of the lost patently looks to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, to an environment which retires from the physical into a metaphysical domain, as does The toll of the bush. Nature on the gumlands is unspectacular, but it dominates the works of man: the Great North Road is no more than an unsteady chalk line as it is first seen in the long view of those who are among the lost. Nature, as epitomised in the bush and the gumland, may seem capricious, a force of chance, but in the long run it is mysteriously morally inclined. It has its own processes: the forest rises and falls, the desolate gumland which follows it will be made over into a pastoral paradise.
Basically Darwinist in outlook, Satchell extended his understanding of evolution to take in not only social Darwinism but evolutionary ethics along with a touch of the then-fashionable eugenics. Such notions do not sit altogether easily with the realist parts of his writing, nor does the realist go along comfortably with the romantic or the melodramatic. The toll of the bush is likely to make people serve not only as everyday figures; they may also be required to do duty as romance archetypes. And these archetypes in turn may carry the burden of abstract ideas. Satchell creates in each of his books figures of the Big Man, who embodies authority, the expression of natural law and natural morality. The figure reaches its most interesting development in Purcell of The greenstone door: Big Man, Old Settler and idealised Pakeha-Maori.
Although Maori diggers were in the majority on the gumfields of the north, Maori scarcely signify in The land of the lost, and then little to their credit. A larger significance is assigned to them in The toll of the bush, mainly as comic relief but with a marked change of status when Maori bushcraft is called on to locate the lovers lost in the threatening forest. Even then it has to be said of the principal Maori that he in the end succeeds as a farmer, indeed 'lives like a pakeha'.
The most popular of Satchell's books, The greenstone door, runs roughly from 1835 to 1865, following Cedric Tregarthen's life from early infancy until he is about 30 when, a psychologically Maimed Man figure, he is restored to health by a woman who is a nurse before she is a lover. (She was, however, his childhood sweetheart.) Satchell mixes stereotypes with archetypes and with varying degrees of characterisation in depth. His gallery of Maori men and women, his principal strength here, has a range rarely attempted, but the metaphor of the greenstone door is handled maladroitly.
However flawed, Satchell's last tale had some effect on younger New Zealand writers, notably, Frank Sargeson and his I saw in my dream. His three successful novels represent the most significant achievement in New Zealand fiction before the First World War.