By Lynley Hargreaves 09/07/2015

New Zealand author Robin Hyde was one of our most significant writers of poetry, fiction and journalism. She spent years in a mental hospital, smuggled her baby across Cook Strait in a hat box, but also wrote an acclaimed travel story in China during the Japanese invasion, and news of her death was covered on the front page of the New York Times.

Massey University’s Dr Mary Edmond Paul – who was part of a prestigious Marsden Fund research project looking into the author’s life – tells us why, after long being overlooked, recognition for Robin Hyde is coming again and again.

Robin Hyde’s name was actually Iris Guliver Wilkinson. Why did she change her name?

Her pseudonym has a fascinating explanation. She had written, poems and journalism, under her real name, Iris Wilkinson, until 1926 when she gave birth to a son who was stillborn or died at birth, we don’t know exactly, in Sydney. She was only twenty-years-old and unmarried; she had left her position as (lady) parliamentary reporter in Wellington to hide her pregnancy.

Dr Mary Paul with her book on Robin Hyde.
Dr Mary Paul with her book on Robin Hyde.

Though the baby had no legal identity she gave him the name Christopher Robin Hyde. We only learnt as her life was more researched in the early 2000s for the biography (The Book of Iris) that Hyde was in fact the baby’s father’s real surname and that she saw using the name publicly as something for this man, whom she had had a brief affair with, ‘to remember or outface’. More so as from around this time she began taking ‘Robin Hyde’ as her own writing name—her ‘nom de guerre’ as she called it. She also dated her commitment to writing— particularly to poetry—as arising at this time, out of the intensity of her own experience of grief and displacement.

Every writer has a defining history but often women writers’ lives are more emphasised, so I don’t want to fall into that trap. But it is fair to say that Hyde’s experience of loss and feeling of difference were things she wrestled with personally, and in her attempt to live with the emotional repercussions she developed both an extraordinary empathy and social analysis that is expressed in her writing. This doesn’t mean that she was not also humorous and ironical.

Following the death of her baby, Iris sailed back to Auckland with her mother and took a train to Rotorua to see the father of her child Frederick de Mulford Hyde (and older man who had been a fighter pilot in the First World War) who unbeknownst to her had just married. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect on the young woman. There is much more to tell of this chapter of events but luckily for Hyde she was eventually sent to Hanmer Springs Hospital, near Christchurch, which had begun as a respite hospital for returned soldiers and had just opened a women’s ward.

Here she had the humane attention of Dr Chisholm who instead of typing her as degenerate or insane understood that her breakdown was precipitated by her ‘history’. Here, also, she began writing poems again and eventually made her way back into journalism. But life took another turn when she was in Wanganui working on the Chronicle. Something also only understood in the process of researching for the biography is that she felt haunted by the idea of Robin and desperately wanted another child. This time the father of her child, a fellow journalist, was already married so once again the pregnancy had to be concealed. She wrote this account, one that we have known for longer, in an autobiographical fragment A Home in this World (1984), including an account of smuggling her baby, Derek Arden Challis, back on the ferry from Picton to Wellington in a hatbox. This is the same Derek Challis who worked on completing his mother’s biography as part of our Marsden project.

She packed a lot into a short life. Why was she overlooked in her lifetime?

Well, for a woman, packing a lot into a short life was not very acceptable at this time. Writers were often admired as monastic and inspired figures not for their full lives, and certainly not if they were women. However she was certainly not overlooked in her lifetime – but most of the events of her life were not common knowledge. She was very famous nationally as a journalist and as a witty, knowledgeable commentator.

Then after 1934 she started to publish internationally and was well reviewed for her poetry and fiction. When she died in London in August 1939 news of her death was carried on the front page of the New York Times (I found the page in the New York Public Library) and Dragon Rampant, her story of travelling in China during the Japanese invasion, had been book of the month for the London Times in July of the same year). But, as I said, she died just before the Second World War and by the time the war had ended it was a different world and writing and nationalism were moving on. This is a summary of course; she was also attacked in reviews and letters by some of her New Zealand contemporaries ostensibly for being too emotional, mannered and utopian in her writing, but maybe just for being a smart woman writer.

Her legacy includes having to stand up for herself as a career woman who was also an unmarried mother; her position in Auckland on the Observer was only possible because she was able to foster her son Derek out secretly. A similar stress of secrecy was involved when she continued her writing from a voluntary ward of Auckland Mental Hospital at Avondale from 1933-1937. But to understand more of that you need to read her autobiographical writings. There is much less stigma these days on being an unmarried mother and it is more possible to earn one’s living as a writer but she is certainly an extraordinarily inspiring example for young women today – people keep discovering her and she exceeds expectations, particularly because of her self-awareness.

What does Robin Hyde deserve to be best known for?

I find it hard to choose. I have often discussed this with Michele Leggott, the poet and scholar who edited and reissued her poems as Young Knowledge. Hyde did so much fine writing. A Home in this World and the collection of her previously unpublished autobiographical writing that I edited, Your Unselfish Kindness, contain such a fine mixture of wit, compassion, and imagery amounting to an extraordinary personal and social barometer, they are hard to go past. They also introduce ideas of mindfulness so topical now. On the other hand, her novels are also incredibly useful to us. They tell as about New Zealand hardness, hardness in raising children and harsh ideas about discipline and masculinity that have gone into making so many family and nation stories and were being reconsidered in the 1930s by her and other writers such as James K Baxter and Frank Sargeson.

Do you have a favourite piece of work by Robin Hyde?

This is difficult but I quote from the text I have worked on most recently, the last paragraphs of Passport to Hell:

There was a lot of cheering when the ship docked at Auckland, but what the men wanted for the most part, even the ones who were dying, was beer. The hospitals were full up. From Wellington some of them were sent down to the Dunedin hospital, and just five, an overflow, went back to the queer, desolate loneliness of old Trentham camp, its long burrows of trenches and little canteens still showing, but alive no longer with crowding men and shouted laughter.

Where was Tent Eight in that empty row where the moonlight scarcely showed how the ground had been scarred by tent-pegs, broken up into trenches, drill compounds, and little barbed-wire enclosures for the prisoners, so short a time ago? It seemed impossible to Starkie, looking down from the hospital window, that nobody was going to come along with a fixed bayonet and march him off behind the barbed wire of the clink. Dirty job, a guard’s. He’d been a guard just once himself at Trentham, and the day was hot, so when the poor beggars began to complain, ‘Ah, have a heart, Starkie! Can’t we just go over to the barber’s and get a smoke, under guard?’ he had done his best for them. Marched them all down to Wellington, and of course they’d come back soused, which meant field punishment for Starkie. (‘Come on, Starkie, be a good sport.’) But he didn’t worry a lot about that. Everything … life even … is field punishment, except for those rare moments when you’re in love with a nice girl, or having fun with the boys, and no shellfire to interrupt you.

You get back into peace, and the little chaps, the civvies—grown suddenly important—stick out their chests and their pocket-books, and hustle you worse than the Huns ever did. You have your mates, girl or boy. In time they forget you, or die, or are changed before your eyes, so that going to them isn’t going home any more. But apart from your mates, the world just speaks to you in a series of orders: ‘Present arms!’ it shouts. ‘You black bastard, your rifle’s muddy and I don’t like the look of you, anyhow! Right about face! Mark time! Hats off in the orderly-room! Halt! Do you know your charge?’

‘Charged with being Starkie, sir; and God knows what else.’

Are you still doing work related to Robin Hyde?

This year with Patrick Sandbrook I have helped to serialise Passport to Hell, Hyde’s First World War novel, and the first of two tracing the life of soldier James Starkie. I am also planning to do more to draw attention to her accounts of, and views on, war. She was also a war correspondent in the Sino Japanese conflict.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.