The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde
Derek Challis and Gloria Rawlinson
Auckland University Press, $69.95,
Often the genesis of a biography is as interesting as the work itself. Robin Hyde died in 1939 in London at the age of 33. Some of her papers were in a chest in the Kensington flat she had been living in, and were collected by the New Zealand High Commission. The outbreak of war meant that these were not returned to Auckland until 1945. Hyde’s mother had died in 1944, so her sister gave the collection to W R Edge, a lawyer and friend of Hyde’s, who in turn gave them to Gloria Rawlinson and her mother Rosalie. Hyde’s son Derek Challis became her literary executor in 1951.
There was also other material, including hundreds of letters written to friends and colleagues throughout her working life. A 1934 volume, Journalese, collected some of her journalism, and an account of her time in China, Dragon Rampant, appeared shortly before her death. This, however, represented only a fraction of her output in magazines and newspapers as various as the Dominion, the Sydney Bulletin, the New Zealand Railways Magazine, and the Farm Advocate. In an astonishing burst of creativity, she produced five novels between 1936 and 1938, much of this material being written while she was living in the Grey Lodge, an outpost of Auckland hospital’s psychiatric unit. Of her poetry, three volumes were published between 1929 and 1937. But her mature poetry (if someone dead at 33 can be said to have mature work) remained unpublished – in the packing case dispatched back to her family, in her papers in Auckland.
The impetus to write Hyde’s biography seems to have begun early. Derek Challis wrote to Rawlinson in 1947 asking her to write an account – as much for himself as for publication – of her friend, and discussions followed “about the form a biography of Iris might take”. Gloria Rawlinson applied to the State Literary Fund for a grant in 1965, and both she and Challis apportioned it between them, she doing the writing, he the research. By 1971 a complete draft was finished – 1043 pages. And then it was put aside. Why? In his introduction to The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde, Challis suggests a number of possibilities: Rawlinson’s domestic situation (caring for elderly parents); her working habits (struggling with a mass of material with only a primitive typewriter); pressure from Hyde’s family; and intrinsic difficulties with the way she had cast her account.
Some of these explanations are more persuasive than others. It is difficult to see why Rawlinson’s domestic life should allow her to write 1043 pages, but not to complete the final revisions. Longman Paul and Auckland University Press apparently offered assistance which was refused – or at least not taken up. Pressure from Hyde’s family seems a more likely obstacle. Hyde’s biography would necessarily involve an account of extramarital relationships, two illegitimate births, drug dependence, recurring psychological illness, and suicide. Nowadays these events might be seen as evidence of her courage and nonconformity; in 1971, New Zealand was still a conservative and private culture, and Hyde’s sisters, then in their 60s, were products of that set of values – Hazel, the older sister, had a nervous breakdown, which the family attributed to the biography project, and Edna, Challis reports, phoned Rawlinson repeatedly, threatening to “seriously harm herself on Gloria’s doorstep” if she persisted. No wonder Rawlinson backed down.
But what of Challis’ charge (also in his introduction) that Rawlinson’s work involved a fundamental misrepresentation of Hyde? This I find more difficult to assess, though it is obviously something that he feels strongly about. His claim begins rather disjointedly: “As well as being overly sentimental and hypercritical the draft manuscript exaggerated the importance of the part played by the Rawlinsons in Iris’s life.” Challis claims that Rawlinson inflated the degree of her friendship with Hyde, and of their contact towards the end of her life, even to extent of dividing up Hyde’s letters to increase their number, passing off journal articles as personal letters, and interpolating phrases of affection and endearment into letters from Hyde to the family. This is an extraordinary charge, and important, but not, I would think, one that relates to Rawlinson’s decision to suddenly stop writing, or revising – unless there was some sort of quarrel with Challis.
When Rawlinson died in 1995, she bequeathed the draft to Challis, which seems to dispose of the idea of a serious rift. So the question is: how much of the 778 pages of The Book of Iris, as presently constituted, is Rawlinson’s 1971 work and to what extent has Challis revised and rewritten? He describes the process:
Where Gloria’s text is an adequate and fair representation of the facts and of the events that determined the course of Iris’s life, I have used it in an almost completely unmodified form, but as far as possible I have tried to minimise supposition, speculation, misinformation and subjectivity.
There are a number of questions begged in this sentence (not least the meaning of “adequate” and “fair”, and the difference between “facts” and “events”); and one might well feel that part of the job of a biographer is supposition and speculation. I hope Rawlinson’s manuscript is somewhere safe. It will provide material for a fascinating PhD thesis one day.
However authored, 778 pages of the life of a woman who died at 33 seems an exhaustive undertaking. Is such a length justified? Anthony Alpers’ biography of Katherine Mansfield, dead at 34, is a mere 465. And while Rawlinson and Challis lack the erudition and the cultural sweep of Alpers, theirs is a first biography, based on a huge amount of unpublished material unavailable outside archives, and they have decided to include relatively undigested chunks of Hyde’s writing – letters, articles, drafts of poems, diary fragments. Because of this, much of the time The Book of Iris reads like an archive, shuffled and organised by those in control of it, who have enthusiasm and devotion to their subject but, perhaps because of these emotions, have little discrimination in terms of what is of real interest and significance. Subsequent biographers will be more selective and develop positions on Hyde’s life and her work, which will go further than the unquestioning admiration of this biography. (Do we really need such close attention paid to the poems she published in the Wellington Girls College magazine? Why publish in full a long poem which Hyde herself (correctly) notes as a “damn bad poem”? And so on.)
The decision to leave Hyde’s voice relatively unedited and uninterrogated means that we are given little direction as to how to read this life, and little indication of what kind of person she was. The essay by Gill Boddy, which appears in the 1991 collection of Hyde’s journalism Disputed Ground, is more revealing. (For some reason, Challis does not include this in the “Published Works of Robin Hyde” at the end of the volume.) The Book of Iris is too quick to let Hyde speak for herself, to take her on her own estimation, reluctant to see the posturing and the experimentations in self-representation in her letters and autobiographical writing (especially those written for her doctors), too unsophisticated on the relationship between her fiction and her life, especially in the case of The Godwits Fly, which is treated as an uncontaminated autobiographical source. There are too many empty testimonials from friends and acquaintances writing in hindsight, with the crippling effect of respect and sentiment.
The authors have a habit of arguing with their own evidence. There is, for instance, their protestation of Hyde’s sexual continence, when it is quite clear – and in no way, surely, now a thing of shame – that she had a number of lovers. Or, there is their account of Charles Brasch describing self-inflicted cuts on Hyde’s arms, which they then promptly, and strangely, contradict in a footnote with the claim that “there is no evidence of Iris deliberately injuring herself.” There are too many questions, unanswered or unasked, swamped in this mass of material. What, for example, was the nature of Hyde’s psychiatric illness that kept her in the Grey Lodge, for four years? Rawlinson and Challis both seem to follow the romantic stereotype of madness as the natural state of writers, and to credit the death of her first child Christopher Robin Hyde as a cause. Surely it is possible to be a little more medically precise. How common was her consumption of and dependency on the phenobarbiturates veronal and luminal in New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s, when such drugs were easily available? How far can we read the fractured, dream-like style of such works as The Book of Nadath as a product of that habit?
And yet, occasionally, there is a voice, an incident, an account of an event, which gives a glimpse of a fascinating and not altogether likeable figure. One such is Frank Sargeson’s description of being invited to dinner at Hyde’s bach at Castor Bay (this, though she was seriously miffed by Cling to Your Cheque, his satirical nickname for her novel Check to Your King). Sargeson arrived to find no preparations had been made and that Hyde was walking up and down, reading her poems aloud and swinging a string of sausages. He gently disengaged the sausages and set about cooking the dinner himself. Another image of Sargeson’s – of Hyde walking around the city, toting a large hatbox (“as though she carried a drum”) and stopping to talk to an extraordinary range of “odd people on the streets” – is surprisingly affectionate. He recalled: “I never saw her when she was greatly disturbed”, but “[s]he told me her stories about getting up in the night and smashing a few windows.”
What was the nature of Hyde’s relationship with the nationalist writers of the 1930s? She found Glover’s satire on women poets amusing – and she is respectfully treated in it. She worked with Fairburn and shared his Social Credit beliefs. And she seems to have had a correspondence with Curnow, which he found too intense and ended. Brasch similarly says, “she turned to me for more reassurance than I could give.” (As a friend, she was certainly high-maintenance.)
Yet, for all the recent attempts to position her in an amended inclusive nationalist canon, samplings of her critical writing in The Book of Iris suggest she was, if anything, on the conservative side of the argument about modern and modernist writing. Indeed, we should be careful not to work on the implicit assumption that Hyde’s writing is good only if it is modern. Hyde’s poetry is, in fact, very like the poetry of Jessie Mackay, whom she knew in Christchurch and whose work she defended from the attack of the modernists. (Though they died within a year of each other, Mackay was 74 and her first book of verse had appeared in 1889.) Both women write in terms that are mystical, experimental, associative, not quite coherent, using the imagery of mythology in general and especially that of the Maori. These were not new modes of expression in New Zealand. Curnow saw Hyde as a pre-Raphaelite, a Rossetti figure – was he wrong? If he meant the label as an insult, why should we take it as such? Can we see her as a very late Victorian, the last gasp of Maoriland, rather than arguing for her inclusion into the boy’s club of modernist writers?
These are questions that The Book of Iris does not and, by virtue of its form, cannot raise. After wading through its 778 pages, one is left with the sense of an opportunity wasted. Rawlinson and Challis have, in one way and another, controlled much of the Hyde archive since her death, and it is unlikely that any publisher will be eager to put out another Hyde biography for some time. Both Rawlinson and Challis have stories to tell which are theirs as much as Hyde’s, and a memoir of their relationships with her– each in different ways important – would have been both valuable and focused. We already have a collection of Hyde’s journalism (Disputed Ground), an edition of her letters (in an unpublished Auckland University PhD thesis), and an impending collection of her poetry. In terms of biography, what was needed was not just access to all relevant material, but, more importantly, a clearly articulated sense of who Robin Hyde was, where she was, and why it mattered.
Jane Stafford is currently working with Mark Williams on a study of late 19th-century colonial New Zealand literature.