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Easily the Best
The life of Helen Connon, 1857-1903

Margaret Lovell-Smith

Reviewed by Dorothy

Why write a biography of Helen Connon?

Margaret Lovell-Smith's <em>Easily the Best: The life of Helen Cannon</em>
Margaret Lovell-Smith's Easily the Best: The life of Helen Cannon

* She was one of the first New Zealand women to succeed as an academic. Studying at Canterbury College, Christchurch, later to become the University of Canterbury, she was the first woman in the British Empire to get an honours degree.

* She was the second Lady Principal of Christchurch Girls' High School (CGHS)and under her leadership the school became established as one of the finest academic secondary schools in New Zealand.

* She broke new ground for women in New Zealand as she did not follow the norm by resigning from her position when she married. Indeed she agreed to marry Professor John Macmillan Brown in 1886 on the condition that she be able to continue in her role as principal of the school for two or three years after her marriage.

* She continued in her position at CGHS after her first child was born. Millicent Macmillan Brown was born on 8 January 1888 and Helen Connon returned to her work when the school year began three weeks later.

Margaret Lovell-Smith, in Easily the Best, writes a well-researched factual account of the life of Helen Connon and at the same time gives us a picture of New Zealand life in Helen's lifetime - 1857-1903.

She drew the title from the name of a prize awarded to Helen when she was sixteen years old and a pupil at the Hokitika Academy - facile princeps - signifiying that Helen was "easily the best" pupil in the school. The author takes this phrase to be the theme of Helen's life, and her detailed account of Helen's academic and teaching achievements confirm the appropriateness of the book's title and theme.

Margaret Lovell-Smith's interest in history and skill in presenting it have been shown in a number of publications, including her contributions about Canterbury women written for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and Plain Living High Thinking (1995),which focussed on the involvement of the Lovell-Smith family in the nineteenth-century women's movement in Christchurch.

The depth of her research into the lives and work of Canterbury women in the nineteenth century is evident in the sure touch with which she creates a picture of life in New Zealand, in Dunedin, in Hokitika, and particularly in Christchurch in Helen's lifetime. She shows a fascinating awareness of the social and class interactions of the time, and traces Helen Connon's unusual rise in social status from the daughter of an unsuccessful carpenter to high professional status as the principal of Christchurch Girls' High School and the social position resulting from marriage to John Macmillan Brown who was a founding professor at Canterbury College, and also a man of considerable wealth.

The full notes and extensive biography listing primary and secondary sources used in the research indicate the wide background research on which this biography is based. Using records from Canterbury College and from CGHS, Professor Macmillan Brown's extensive collection of papers, letters and Memoirs, and information taken from a wide range of research papers and books with references to Helen Connon and John Macmillan Brown, Margaret Lovell-Smith not only traces Helen's career as a student, a teacher and for sixteen years the CGHS principal, but also describes the years between her retirement from CGHS in 1894 and her early death in 1903.

The text is made much more interesting by the inclusion of collection of historic photographs of the family, the house, and Christchurch buildings.

This section of the book includes an account of their family life and their extensive travelling, much of it in search of a remedy for the chronic insomnia that plagued them both.

Helen Connon, as Lady Principal of CGHS, delivered no speech at the prizegiving, and few records, other than personal correspondence, shed any light on her own views, but Margaret Lovell-Smith's meticulous research has resulted in a well rounded portrait of this exceptional woman, her family, her marriage and home life, and her dedication to offering her students the highest possible standard of teaching.


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