Lighted Windows: Critical Essays on Robin Hyde
Mary Edmond-Paul (ed)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
Robin Hyde’s 1938 essay “The Singers of Loneliness”, published out of Shanghai in the T’ien Hsia Monthly, gives an account of the New Zealand literary scene with a critical eye and lyrical voice. She begins her account on the steps of Wuhan University, and ends with something approaching a motto for her literary contemporaries: “Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be ‘for ever England’. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.” There’s something emblematically Hydean about the essay; she declares the strength of a New Zealand literature and adopts it as her own while standing outside of it, in this case, quite literally. It’s a narrative as much as it is criticism.
Critics tell us stories, just as the authors they examine do. The critical narrative of Robin Hyde tells us that for years after her appallingly early death, it might just have been possible that her work would have fallen into obscurity, a footnote to New Zealand writing, a curiosity and little more. Unlike Mansfield before her, and Frame after, Hyde never became sufficiently established in England to develop an international audience, and she simply didn’t seem to belong with the Sargesons and Curnows and Glovers who were credited with the creation of a new national literature. With the development of a local feminist criticism in the 1980s, it became possible to rescue Hyde – returning her writing into print, developing a substantial body of scholarship to accompany it, and creating an interest that ensures she is actually read, out in the world. As editor Mary Edmond-Paul emphasises in her introduction to this new collection of scholarship and criticism, Hyde has now been successfully recovered, and her place in the canon of New Zealand literature now seems assured. In a sense, the first part of the critical narrative of Hyde has been told, and it is the work of collections like Lighted Windows: Critical Essays on Robin Hyde to continue it. If Hyde is, in a way, a story, what happens next?
Lighted Windows brings together a satisfying number of alternative answers to the question; some seem like genuinely exciting new prospects, while others are a little more familiar. The collection moves from writing on Hyde’s writing, to writing about Hyde herself. It covers her fiction and poetry, her journalism and life writing, includes a consideration of Michele Leggott’s anthologisation of the poetry, a biographical piece, and closes with a visit to her grave. All of the essays are recent and newly published here. The book includes a chronology and a useful bibliography, although it’s missing an index, a frustrating omission in a book that many, especially students, will dip into rather than read cover to cover. While some of the chapters are written in the language of academia, others are of more general appeal. One of the real strengths of the collection is that, by arranging all of these things together, a sense of the rich variety of Hyde’s output and the complexity of Hyde herself emerges, although I wonder whether Edmond-Paul could have more sharply contrasted the differences between contributor’s views in her introduction.
Another strength of Lighted Windows is the effort from several contributors to understand Hyde as more than a New Zealand writer, placing her in a transnational context, as a New Zealander engaged imaginatively and actually with other places, cultures and literatures. Wednesday’s Children receives three chapters, the best of which is Renata Casertano’s, carefully locating the novel in the serio-comic mode of Swift, Sterne, Cervantes, and later, Angela Carter. Casertano’s reading embraces the literary internationalism which so appealed to Hyde herself, and which informs the wistful society on Wednesday’s island. The other readings of the novel are sensible, but don’t seem as exciting to me, for the simple reason that by framing Wednesday’s Children as women’s writing and as a meditation on postcolonial New Zealand society, they don’t seem to offer much that is new to our understanding of Hyde.
Passport to Hell is treated in Alex Calder’s excellent article. Calder teases out Hyde’s treatment of her subject, soldier Douglas Stark, or Starkie, who was court martialled nine times yet also celebrated for conspicuous gallantry in action, exploring what the book might tell us about trauma, violence and masculinity. It’s exemplary of the kind of writing Hyde’s work needs, wearing its theorisation of her work effortlessly, compelling the reader to seek out the original, and showing us something we might have missed in her work. Calder’s article reminds us that while Hyde is so often understood as a ‘women’s writer’ – whatever that means nowadays – she engaged just as seriously with what it means to be an Antipodean man.
Alison Jeffreys writes on Hyde’s short stories, which remain uncollected, and in many cases, unpublished. Only the serious Hyde scholar will be in a position to access the stories themselves. If important parts of Hyde’s oeuvre remain generally unavailable, then writing about these texts will necessarily be limited in what it can achieve. Jeffreys balances the need to give the unacquainted reader a sense of what the stories are like with developing her own reading of them, but ultimately we are still missing the stories themselves, which sound fascinating. Hyde’s stories apparently feature existential duels in deserts, apocalyptic fictions, mermaids, appearances by Elizabeth I, and feverish, gothicky fragments. Somebody ought to publish a good selection of them, and soon.
The discovery of new papers relating to Hyde’s voluntary admission to the Auckland Mental Hospital is discussed by Alison Hunt. The papers allow Hunt to gently note the occasional exaggerations in Hyde’s own account. Yet as well as the obvious difficulty of Hyde’s situation, what emerges from the article is a sense of her complexity, and the complexity of the self-representations – and self-distortions – throughout her writing. Interestingly, Hunt also shows that while it may have been uncommon, it was possible to have experiences that were positive, at least in a limited way, within the mental health system of the 1930s.
Jolisa Gracewood’s Interviews with a Ghost is the final chapter, and it’s one of the most satisfying contributions to the collection. Like much of Hyde’s own writing, it’s a mixed form, partly a reminiscence of visiting Hyde’s grave in London, partly a reading of Dragon Rampant, and, in small part, a reconsideration of Hyde criticism. Gracewood asks why it should be that “Dragon Rampant … of all Hyde’s writing, seems … the least amenable to either of the major paradigms – feminism and nationalism – that have propelled her literary resurrection?” It’s an astute observation. Ezra Pound described literature as news that stays news. I’ve always been a little sceptical of the aphorism, but it does highlight one of the things that criticism needs to achieve. Critical writing ought to reinvigorate literature, returning us to it, helping us to maintain its newness. If feminist and literary nationalist readings have resuscitated Hyde, then we need to go beyond these to nurture an ongoing interest in her. While many of the contributions here offer us a new image of Hyde, just as many rely on these older readings. Hyde deserves writing about her that is as adventurous as she was. Lighted Windows achieves this often, but not always.
Timothy G Jones is a Wellington reviewer.