Robust, brilliant, rather difficult, Heather Roberts

Disputed Ground, Robin Hyde, Journalist
Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews (eds),
Victoria University Press, $34.95

A book of selected journalism seems an unlikely place to make a serious assessment of a writer. Journalism is regarded as ephemeral, lost in musty stack rooms, seldom referred to past the day of publication except by the dedicated scholar. This edition of Hyde’s journalism disproves a number of myths. Not least of these is the place of journalism in any consideration of the history of the written word in a particular culture. Some would hesitate to bring journalism within the study of literature, but in the hands of a writer like Hyde that is exactly where it belongs.

Hyde went into journalism first as a job. As both the editors of this selection make clear, journalism for Hyde became an integral part of her writing life, not simply something she did for a living. She remained writing for newspapers because they paid more than slim volumes of poetry or even novels. But the impression given by this collection, and by Journalese, is that journalism gave Hyde an intellectual reward that the writing of what is regarded as more serious literature could not. Journalism required tight deadlines, the ability to produce pithy turns of phrase quickly, to write to someone else’s requirements. All of this Hyde railed against from time to time, but there is a sense also in which the reader realises that Hyde enjoyed the pressure that journalism put upon her, and the discipline that it imposed upon her writing.

She was part of a social and political world which did not always appreciate her as young, female and talented. From this world she obviously got a vast amount of excitement and enjoyment. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in her articles about politics, and particularly those written as a parliamentary reporter. The tone is of one who is part of a drama which is, to use her own words, ‘fun’. Though she was not able to participate in that political and social world as much as she might have wanted, she took every opportunity to write about contemporary issues. Those issues have a depressingly familiar ring to them. Her articles on Maori land, as Jacqueline Matthews points out, were being used as late as 1985 as evidence of the wrong that had been done to Maori. ‘When Charity begins at home’, published in the Observer in May 1931, could be reprinted now without anyone noticing the dateline: the young worker laid off after a few months, the young women turning to prostitution to earn a living, the almost passive nature of the unemployed waiting for relief.

Hyde’s affinity was for those Boddy characterises as ‘the disadvantaged and the neglected’. This is most obvious in her understanding of the difficulties that women faced in all aspects of their lives. Robin Hyde could identify with women in all spheres, from those at home like her own mother, frustrated in her ambitions both for herself and her children, to the women at work who sit on the edge of the world they are trying to inhabit. Some of her best journalism appears in the articles which are collected here under the heading ‘A crick in the neck’, referring to the habit women writers have of seeing the world and writing about it at an unusual angle. All the topics a feminist in the late twentieth century might want addressed appear here: the strait-jacket of appearance, the need for women to widen their choice of occupation, women writers and the difficulties they face, women of a certain age in the depression without a job nor a man to support them, the plight of the unmarried mother, and a blast at women who have not fulfilled the potential which seemed to be promised in being the first women in the world to win suffrage.

While the centre of this book has to be Robin Hyde’s journalism, it is closely rivalled by the two excellent introductions which precede the selection. Gill Boddy’s biographical and critical introduction is the fullest examination of both Hyde’s life and her writing that there has been. The writer emerges as a robust, brilliant, if rather difficult woman. Those photos which have haunted all accounts of Hyde are belied here by Boddy’s text which show a woman whose emotional life was tortured, but who moved beyond that for much of the time to produce a variety of literature unparalleled in New Zealand letters. It will never be possible again to look at Hyde as a writer of potential because Boddy has established her as a writer of substance. My only hope is that Boddy or another biographer now takes the opportunity this long essay provides to write a full critical biography of Hyde.

Jacqueline Matthews has a somewhat harder task in assessing the journalism, but her analysis is of the same high standard as Gill Boddy’s introduction. Matthews looks at what Hyde had to say about the art of journalism and then examines each of the themes in relation to Hyde’s other writings into which the journalism falls. This is particularly valuable because it makes explicit the links which existed for Hyde when writing in the various genres.

Neither editor is uncritical of their subject. Gill Boddy for example points out what a difficult person Hyde could be to work with at times, and how long-suffering some of her friends and colleagues were. Jacqueline Matthews acknowledges that while Hyde had sympathy for Maori, she was not past using them as an exotic item in her writing.

Robin Hyde and the editors have been well served by the publisher of this attractive volume. In particular there is a generous use of the photographs of Hyde, of her literary contemporaries, of advertising and photos that would have appeared alongside her articles, and of places she lived in and knew.

This is not an easy book to review; one rarely reads journalism as a continuous sequence of articles. Rather this collection needs to be dipped into, each piece savoured for the reflections it contains of a certain period, and for the light that it throws on the same and similar issues today.


Heather Roberts is a Wellington writer and critic.


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