WILKINSON, Iris Guiver [Robin Hyde]
Poetess and novelist.
A new biography of Hyde, Robin appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robin Hyde's family background suggests something of the adventurous line her own life was to take: her father, George Wilkinson, born in India, was a youthful volunteer in the Boer War; later in South Africa he met and married an Australian nurse. Robin Hyde was born in Cape Town on 19 January 1906; in the same year her parents came to Wellington where she grew up with her three sisters while her father served in another war. At Wellington Girls' College she very early developed a passionate interest in poetry and won many literary prizes; at the age of 17 she commenced her literary career in the newspaper office of the Dominion.
Almost at once a serious illness struck at the pretty, intense young girl: rheumatic fever caused a permanent lameness, and left her a prey to the insomnia and mental disturbance that were to recur at intervals until her death. Most courageously she persisted in her effort to build an independent career in journalism, working as a parliamentary reporter in Wellington, then in general reporting on the Christchurch Sun, the Wanganui Chronicle, and finally the Auckland Observer until 1933. During this period she wrote her first book of verse The Desolate Star (1929) and her first collection of prose impressions Journalese (1934), both of which were published in New Zealand.
These were depression years: the strain of earning a living under tough competitive conditions, complicated by the demands of her own emotional temperament, a touch of defiant Bohemianism, and the prevailing currents of social and private revolt, led to a serious nervous collapse. Robin Hyde rallied from this, and the last five years of her life saw an astonishing output both of prose and of verse. Two volumes of poems The Conquerors (1935) and Persephone in Winter (1937) were published in England, as were all her later books. Her first real public success came with Passport to Hell (1936), a remarkable tour de force in which the authentic experiences of a New Zealand soldier in the First World War are imaginatively retold with enormous brio as the adventures of “Starkie”. A sequel to this book, Nor the Years Condemn (1938) follows Starkie into the bitter years of l'entre deux guerres leading to the rise of the first Labour Government. Both these documentary novels contain vivid compassionate reporting of a decisive era in New Zealand history; as literature of social protest they owe something to the manner of John A. Lee.
Check to Your King (1936) is a lively reconstruction of a picturesque interlude in early New Zealand history, the adventures of Charles, Baron de Thierry – it is a gay and sparkling book, and its success encouraged Robin Hyde to embark on purely imaginative fiction. Wednesday's Children (1937) is a somewhat disconcerting novel in its blend of feminism and fantasy, but the central character and situation – a woman of warm sympathies living on an island in Auckland harbour with a brood of dream children by an exotic series of lovers – has obvious relation to a pivotal experience in the author's life, the birth of her own child in defiance of social convention. Her last novel The Godwits Fly (1938) begins as a straightforward family chronicle based on her early life in Wellington; its earlier chapters contain some brilliantly evocative atmospheric writing.
Robin Hyde saw New Zealanders as godwits who “must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long”. Early in 1938 she gathered up the scanty savings she had made from her writing and left for England, intending to travel across Siberia. On the way to Hong Kong she fell in love with China and was sidetracked, as a devoted but ill-paid correspondent, into the middle of China's war. Overrun by the Japanese armies after the battle of Hsüchow she was arrested as a spy, roughly handled by Japanese troops, and eventually succeeded in making her way out through Tsingtao. Wretchedly ill, she reached England in the month of Münich: here she wrote in six weeks Dragon Rampant (1939), her account of travels in wartime China, and worked on her last poems. In and out of hospital, struggling with a stage version of Wednesday's Children, and still hoping to return to China, she could not sustain the mounting pressure of public and personal crises and on 23 August 1939 she took her own life. She was buried in Kensington New Cemetery, Gunnersbury.
Robin Hyde was a romantic rebel who attempted to live her own myth in unromantic times. Against greater odds than those that had faced Katherine Mansfield before her, she made her revolt, asserted her independence as woman and as writer, and struggled to escape from the “colonial dilemma”. Much of her work is marred by romantic extravagance, but she was learning all the time to control the faults of her earlier writing, to gain precision and perspective. When the last of her poems were printed in the posthumous volume Houses by the Sea (1952), edited with a memoir by her friend Gloria Rawlinson, the book made an immediate appeal to a younger generation of writers. The New Zealand poems with their glimpses of houses and people, their strong sense of place and feeling for daily living, did much to help fill in the hitherto empty landscape; while the war poems from China added a new dimension both to Robin Hyde's own work, and to New Zealand poetry as a whole.
by James Munro Bertram, M.A.(N.Z., OXON.), Associate Professor of English, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Landfall, Vol. 7, Sep 1953
- New Zealand Libraries, Vol. 10.