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Photo by Julian Smith

Seasons of Summers

Julian Smith —

The upcoming Reed Gallery exhibition Seasons of Summers: New Zealand’s Queen of Romance celebrates New Zealand’s prolific and internationally read author, Essie Summers.

Ethel Snelson Flett, better known by her maiden name of Essie Summers, was the author of 56 romance novels which were translated into 25 languages and sold 19 million copies worldwide. A distinctive feature of her novels was her vivid description of geographically specific scenery - notably from locations in Otago but also from elsewhere, particularly in the South Island - which inspired the visits of many tourists.

Born in Christchurch in 1912, Essie Summers married William Flett, a minister, became a mother, and was active in parish work. She came to Dunedin after World War II when her husband was called to serve at Wakari, and it was here that she made her first attempts to write a novel, rather than the poetry and short stories she had already produced. After shifts to Weston and Rakaia, she settled with more permanency in a villa at Preston Crescent, Belleknowes, Dunedin, where she wrote the majority of her romance novels.

Set in North Otago, New Zealand Inheritance was her first published novel, released in 1957. Her second novel, Bachelors Galore, has a mid-Canterbury setting. Written during her time at Rakaia, she had shifted to Belleknowes before it was published in 1958. Her romance novels were always entirely devoid of coarse language and never went beyond the bedroom door.

The Smoke and the Fire (1964), Sweet are the Ways (1965), and His Serene Miss Smith (1966) are among her novels with a Dunedin setting. Summers described Dunedin as “the one place beloved over all” in her 1974 autobiography. She and her husband retired to Hawkes Bay and she died in Taradale in 1998.

The Reed Gallery exhibition showcases all 56 novels, together with fascinating archival items on loan to the Library from descendants of Essie Summers. These items have not been exhibited before and include photographs, correspondence, typescripts, prizewinning poetry, and collected verse. The display includes two original paintings by the author’s husband depicting alpine and Central Otago scenery, which featured significantly in a number of Summers’ novels.

The exhibition is timed to coincide with the Dunedin Public Libraries Association's events on 8th May 2021, including the unveiling of a new plaque commemorating Essie Summers on the Dunedin Writers Walk at 11am, followed by a talk on her life in Dunedin and her writing career at City Library.

Seasons of Summers: New Zealand's Queen of Romance
7 May - 29 August 2021, Reed Gallery