FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Hyde, Robin (1906–39), who at first published under her actual name as Iris (Guiver) Wilkinson (and later various other pseudonyms), was one of New Zealand’s most significant writers in poetry, fiction and journalism.
Born in Cape Town, she was brought to Wellington as a baby. Her early years when the family lived on the edge of poverty, her parents’ quarrels, their conflicting social attitudes, her schooling and early career as a journalist and aspiring poet are depicted in the autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly (1938). Her father’s ardent socialism was a lasting influence.
Although she wrote dismissively of her secondary schooling at Wellington GC, she was introduced there to the work of poets who profoundly influenced her. Over twenty of her poems and short stories were published in the school magazine and she was second in a Royal Colonial Institute Essay competition for ‘The Lives of Drake and Raleigh as Empire Builders’.
Gaining a Senior National Scholarship, Hyde briefly studied at Victoria University College, then took up a position as ‘Aunt Mary’ on the children’s page of the Farmers’ Advocate. Joining the Dominion, she began her ‘Peeps at Parliament’ under the name of ‘Novitia’, in mid-1925. Reflecting the newspaper’s view of what women wanted to read, the style was only slightly modified from ‘Aunt Mary’. Nevertheless she succeeded in broadening the range of subjects.
She had been hospitalised for a knee operation in 1924; lameness and pain haunted her for the rest of her life, later entering her fiction and journalism. Likewise her discovery that the young man with whom she had fallen in love, Harry Sweetman, had left for England, and the news of his death soon after, became part of Eliza Hannay’s story in The Godwits Fly.
Pregnant after a brief love affair, she resigned from the Dominion in April 1926. A bleak period in Sydney culminated in the death of her newborn son, Robin. The emotional and psychological turmoil led to hospitalisation at Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs. Recovering, she began to write again, now adopting the pen-name Robin Hyde. By September 1927 her poetry had been published in the Christchurch Sun, Auckland Star and New Zealand Times. Engaged by the Mirror to write a regular ‘Breezes from the Capital’ column, she intended to return to full-time journalism.
At Hanmer she had begun a correspondence with John Schroder of the Sun. Their correspondence (now in the Alexander Turnbull Library) illustrates his role as Hyde’s mentor, and her gradual growth to independence.
A period with the Publicity Bureau followed, while she continued to write for the Mirror and Sun, buying a typewriter from her prize-winning South African story ‘One Soldier’. Editorial expectations continued to be a frustration—the Mirror desired a purely social column, while the Otago Witness and Christchurch Press required, she believed, ‘a mat and a mere apiece’ to satisfy the demand for New Zealand content in short stories.
She met C.A. Marris, who published her work in New Zealand Best Poems. When Denis Glover lampooned Marris, Schroder, Alan Mulgan and women writers in ‘The Arraignment of Paris’, he exempted Hyde as ‘one who’s fairly good’ from his denunciation of Gloria Rawlinson, Eve Langley and Eileen Duggan. Privately, he was later to dismiss her as one of ‘our lady writers. A bunch of bores in stuffy drawers.’
After a period of unemployment punctuated with freelance journalism Hyde began writing ‘women’s stuff’ for Truth in September 1928. A complex private life and the relentless pressure of journalism left little time for poetry. In December, dismissed without notice, she moved to Christchurch where she shared ‘Penelope’s Column’ in the Sun with Esther Glen. She spent time with Schroder, and met the controversial Jean Devanny and Jessie Mackay, the respected poet who later commented, ‘Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde may between them lay the foundation of a New Zealand literature.’
Moving as Lady Editor to the Wanganui Chronicle, she further challenged the boundaries of women’s journalism. Her first volume of poetry, The Desolate Star and Other Poems (1929), was dedicated to Schroder and positively reviewed by Jessie Mackay and Alan Mulgan.
Halfway through 1930 Hyde suddenly moved back to the South Island and in October gave birth to her son. Unemployed again, forced to hide his existence from her family and influential figures such as Schroder, she spent a despairing few months in Wellington before moving to Auckland as Lady Editor on the New Zealand Observer.
Though described by Allen Curnow as ‘a shabby little weekly’, the Observer’s stance as ‘Smart but not vulgar, fearless but not offensive, independent but not neutral’ enabled Hyde to produce an extraordinary range of contributions. Cynical, provocative or arch, the style and perspective varied as she tackled political and social issues, book and film reviews. Frequently she wrote of the poor and marginalised, their injustices and loss of dignity. Yet often she was forced to suppress this anger, to write instead of balls, cocktail parties and fashion. She still worked on the poetry that was her first love. By mid-1933 the demands of work, combined with financial and emotional stress, led to a suicide attempt. She was hospitalised and charged in court.
She admitted herself to the Grey Lodge, in Auckland Mental Hospital. After some empty months she resumed writing, and flourished in the new freedom from the demands of daily journalism. Journalese (1934), a quickly written commentary on life and literature, was praised by the popular novelist Vicki Baum but largely ignored. In Hyde’s view ‘much of the really unfair criticism is based on sexual grounds’. By the beginning of 1935 she had finished the first version of her historical novel Check to Your King (1936), which returned to the theme of her most powerful Observer articles, the role of colonisation in creating the contemporary plight of Maori. Her ‘Lonely Street’ was the winning story in Art in New Zealand in March 1935. She continued to write for the Mirror and Observer, developing her articles on ‘"Starkie", Outlaw of the NZEF’, into the remarkable war novel Passport to Hell (1936). Much of Hyde’s prodigious output early in 1935 remains unpublished but included a draft of The Godwits Fly. By September 1935 she was also working on Wednesday’s Children (1937), an extraordinary ‘dream novel’ which defiantly rewrites women’s experience.
During her Auckland years Hyde got to know journalists and writers such as Gloria Rawlinson, a young poet whose Princes Street apartment became a popular meeting place, Ron Holloway, Eve Langley, contributors to Auckland University’s Phoenix, Dorothea and John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, Jane Mander, D’Arcy Cresswell and the young Warwick Lawrence. Her introduction to Lawrence’s Vulcan Lane and Other Verses stated her preference for ‘small, simple and restrained’ poems rather than Ezra Pound’s ‘miles of paper and rivers of ink’. Her second collection, The Conquerors and Other Poems (1935) was the first by a New Zealander to be included in Macmillans’ Contemporary Poets series. It included some of her most haunting poems such as ‘Babel Tower’ and one of her own favourites, ‘Nirvana’.
She returned to Grey Lodge in January 1936. In its own way it provided protection from her vulnerability, financially, physically and professionally. Later in 1936 she travelled to Dunedin hoping to write a historical novel based on the Hocken Library papers of Edward Markham, a nineteenth-century Englishman who had lived with the Maori of the Hokianga. When the library trustees withdrew permission she abandoned the project, although her research provided the basis for her hauntingly beautiful poem Arangi-Ma.
She completed the final draft of The Godwits Fly at Whangaroa Harbour and early in 1937 wrote A Home in This World (1984), a painfully honest account of the previous ten years. By September she finished another ‘Starkie’ book, the novel Nor the Years Condemn, a powerful commentary on New Zealand between the wars, distinguished, like her travel articles for the New Zealand Railways Magazine and her best poetry, by a remarkable sense of place. Unlike some contemporaries, Hyde recognised that ‘One cannot make a poem or a story, "New Zealand" by sticking a spray of kowhai in the corner like the brand on the side of frozen mutton.’
Around this time she worked on the horrifying fragment A Night of Hell, later published by her son as the epilogue to A Home in This World. With Persephone in Winter: Poems (1937), Hyde’s poetry moved away from the English and European influence, especially the Georgians and Romantics, that had restricted her earlier work: ‘it’s just dawned on me that I am a New Zealander, and surely, surely, the legends of the mountains, rivers, and people we see should mean more to us than the legends of any other country’.
Nevertheless, she accepted a Coronation medal and decided to visit England. New Zealanders were, after all, ‘English and not English’; her mother had raised her on images of ‘Home’, bluebells and robins in the snow. On 18 January 1938 Hyde sailed on the SS Changte, recording the voyage in articles for Woman To-day and in poems. Arriving in Hong Kong she made the momentous decision to travel to China, then at war with Japan.
In Shanghai she met Rewi Alley, already committed to his lifelong work for the Chinese people, and in Hong Kong James Bertram, who was to have a significant part in the remainder of her life. She travelled to the war front, the first woman journalist to do so, witnessing the barbaric realities which she had only imagined in Passport to Hell. Her carefully documented articles for Woman To-day, the Mirror and Radio Record became the basis for Dragon Rampant (1939).
Family and friends were alarmed when she disappeared for a month, but despite a vicious assault by Japanese soldiers she succeeded in reaching Tsingtao and then Hong Kong. She finally arrived in England in September, ill and penniless. There she became involved with the China Campaign Committee, the Left Book Club and the Suffragette Fellowship. She was now convinced that New Zealand’s future lay in the Pacific, not with England and Europe.
Living in a caravan in Kent, then in London boarding houses, she continued to work on poetry and Dragon Rampant, with support from Bertram. The Godwits Fly was published in November and there were negotiations for a dramatisation of Wednesday’s Children. Hospitalised twice, she convalesced at Charles Brasch’s home outside London. Neither the sales nor reviews of The Godwits Fly were as good as she had hoped, but Dragon Rampant received positive reviews. She continued to write the poems which were posthumously published as Houses by the Sea (1952). She was ill, financially desperate, anxious to return home, and troubled by the increasing prospect of war. Her old friend John A. Lee negotiated for government assistance to bring her home but on 23 August Hyde took her own life by benzedrin poisoning. Schroder’s obituary spoke of her ‘perpetual struggle against odds’, Terry McLean wrote of her as ‘a fighter of rare courage. Her writing was the best of present-day New Zealanders. Her sympathies were always with the under-dog.’ Her reputation was enhanced by Houses by the Sea, with its vivid poems of New Zealand and China, but her originality in prose and poetry is only slowly being recognised. A Home in This World, a Selected Poems (ed. Lydia Wevers, 1984), recent reprints of her prose works and Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde Journalist (ed. Boddy and Matthews, 1991) have all contributed. Successfully crossing genres, she was a hard-working journalist who published ten books of prose and poetry in ten years. Given such output and diversity, it is not surprising that the writing is uneven. The consistent themes are compassion for those on society’s margins, a passionate desire to find ‘community’ in a hostile world, a search for balance in her own emotions, and assertion of the full equality of women.
Her expression of these ideas became tauter, more precise and more immediate. The context of an external world is always clear, but her poetry, especially, reveals a contradictory and movingly perplexed inner life, for which her unpublished poems and journals provide further intimate record.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).