Raw surfaces of a mind, Elizabeth Smither

Your Unselfish Kindness: Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings
Mary Edmond-Paul (ed)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877578212


It’s natural in a densely-packed book to look at the photographs first. Robin Hyde was intensely interested in houses and rooms and their atmospheres. The Lodge, attached to Auckland Mental Hospital in Avondale, reminds me of a gynaecologist’s surgery I visited in the 1960s. The same green roof and white walls, an entrance that hints at authority and mystery. And directly above, a little three-windowed attic room, a sanctuary, in which, over a period of five years, she moved from writing as an account and a therapy to a confident and happier flowering of her talents.

But Hyde was such a writer that nothing touched by her fails to show a sign. She was a lover of lying on the ground under a bush, looking at the moon; she could fill, with her passionate love of flowers and her blazing way of describing them, the vacancies in her unconventional but never-less-than-striving life. She could lie down with a lost lamb when she was in an advanced state of pregnancy and be aware of the comforting they shared. She could also write “columns that are admired, feared, hated, read”, her editor at the Observer said.

Her understanding of the punishing, shaming tendencies of society, especially to those, like her family, who lacked the means to protect themselves, is as close as her skin. She is surrounded by lives in which there is little successful love or even an approximation of it – “I have formed only one New Year’s resolution … It was that each day I should speak to a stranger” – but to her loved and kindly doctor, Gilbert M Tothill (who rather liked it that his initials stood for Greenwich Mean Time), she can write authoritatively, as a fellow-researcher and colleague: “if people are deprived of love they must be provided with a substitute if they are to keep the balance known as sanity”.

I doubt that Hyde preferred potpourri to fresh blooms, but there is something about her character and her writing that sets the reader whirling and grateful for the experience. She rarely found herself pretty – except when she wore “a brown hat with an orange feather” or when Gloria Rawlinson’s mother, Rosalie, outfitted her at Milne and Choyce’s sale. “Being a man,” she wrote to G M T, “you will never know the fascination of buying pretty clothes. Yet listen!” It is a note that could have come direct from Shelley. She had a strong dramatic sense that showed itself in resistance: “I desire to be my own possession – to be given to a beggar if I like, but never for weakness.”

The night she slipped off the Queen Street wharf is interrupted by a horrible grip on her wrists and then she was in the system: “Radiant heat – and morphine, no, brandy first, morphine next.” The cell, a bunch of irises (from the Rawlinsons) and “If you think things, don’t say them just now, dear” (from the Police Matron). And so much to conceal, even from the kindly Dr Buchanan. A list of misfortunes that would quench a lesser spirit: “I still didn’t quite believe my bad news; I never do, until it has filled my veins with poison.”

Twice an unmarried mother, when once would have been catastrophic; a botched knee treatment causing a permanent limp; grief for the son who died stillborn and was buried in Sydney; the necessity to earn money, to protect herself in a society where the best that the underprivileged can hope for is an occasional act of charity. And two kinds of understanding, complementing one another and sometimes at war: “Yet because you fish a fly out of a milk-jug, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to hear every detail of its infernal history”, set against “they don’t understand that the raw surfaces of a mind hurt more than any pregnancy”.

Hyde was fished out and eventually had her attic room, which at times she regarded as beautiful. “It is wide and light-coloured, with a flowery wallpaper on which sometimes the painted flowers seem to keep up the driest little fragile whispering. There is a white mantel over the fireplace, which never harbours a fire.” The room’s lightness and airiness are visible in the present-day photograph. A prodigious amount of work would be accomplished here, despite distractions, bouts of weeping, encounters with other residents that swing between pity (but never sentimentality) and dislike: “I must succeed as a writer because I have no other plausible reason for remaining alive.”

The picture that emerges of New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s is not unlike the milk contaminated by the fly: sour and spotty. Yet in the medical field, particularly the treatment of mental illness, advances were being made. Hyde could write in praise of cocoa or “withdrawal from home, bed-rest and feeding up” (for neurasthenic patients). She did encounter a matron “who thought she should be cleaning the floor rather than writing” and a series of little pink night nurses, one of whom dared to break the rules and visit her wearing mufti.

Spite, gossip, moral superiority were as rife at the Lodge as anywhere else but at least patients were not returned to their tormentors. At first Dr Tothill was resisted: “The unexpected thing was that, sick and three-quarters mad as I was, I couldn’t bear him to learn the truth about me.” Yet she wrote for him and her images must have lit the pages in her journals as they do for a modern reader. Once, being home-nursed and guarded by a Highland night nurse who fell asleep, she escaped into the street “until I walked crash into a lamp-post, and saw its swimming light – tiger eyes” and was joined by a little black guardian dog. The double vision and the tigerish light, the little dog barking to attract attention, must have delighted G M T because the image comes at the moment of disaster.

That Hyde springs so vividly from these handwritten pages and fragments is due to the images and observations that came to her even in extremity, but in Your Unselfish Kindness they come to us more clearly through the meticulous and sympathetic editorial skills of Mary Edmond-Paul.

A more than usual skill surrounds them with the information the reader needs: chronology, general introduction and specific introductions to each text and fragment, select bibliography and index and footnotes on almost every page. The story of Hyde’s life is complex, interwoven as it is with attitudes that are now unfamiliar, but which have played a major part in the shaping of New Zealand. Some of these attitudes continue in our contemporary acts of kindness – the reimbursing of tourists for broken-into campervans or the provision of bridal dresses for ones destroyed in a fire – but our underlying attitudes remain stubbornly resistant and not much more liberal. Looking into ourselves is not greatly liked.

Your Unselfish Kindness might look a little subdued on first glance and the type is smallish but it complements the text. The reader goes through the door to the Lodge, and upstairs Hyde is writing to the doctor she has been unable to shock: “I doubt that many of them [fellow patients] had peace, as whatever the petty tempests outside, I have had from your unselfish kindness.” Later, near the end of her stay, when she writes her will, he will receive not just “my lame-duck autobiography” but a third share in The Godwits Fly, which he had read as she wrote it, and her short stories and later poems.

The lasting impression I have of this splendid book, and even greater than its scholarship and the gathering together of complex and challenging material, is the elegant and restrained way it allows the writer to emerge from her background. It has a quality of being perfectly balanced. It is easy to imagine Dr Tothill standing by the door of her room, a chapter of The Godwits Fly in his hand. She was bound to expose herself to him in the way a writer cannot avoid – “And these pages aren’t at all what the lady meant. I intended a spruce record of life here – but the thread keeps catching on a thorn of a minute” – and know he would understand.


Elizabeth Smither is a New Plymouth poet and writer. 


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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