Page 1: Biography
Poet, novelist, journalist
This biography, written by Jacqueline Matthews, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Iris Guiver Wilkinson, better known as Robin Hyde, her chosen name as poet and writer, was born on 19 January 1906 in Cape Town, South Africa. She was the second daughter of Edith Ellinor (Nelly) Butler, an Australian nurse who on her way ‘Home’ had met and married George Edward Wilkinson, an Englishman working on the installation of a post and telegraph system in South Africa. When Iris was a month old the family sailed third-class in the Ruapehu for New Zealand.
Settling in Wellington, the Wilkinsons rented a series of dingy houses in Newtown, Melrose and Berhampore where two more daughters were born. The household was violently divided in its opinions, Iris’s mother enthusiastic for God and empire, bluebells and manners, her father immersed in books denouncing capitalism, imperialism and religion. The story of her early life is told in her autobiographical novel The godwits fly, and in a haunting sequence of poems in Houses by the sea, published after her death. She was a pupil at South Wellington School and Berhampore School, where she was dux in 1918. After her family’s move to the suburb of Northland she attended Wellington Girls’ College, where she made a lifelong friend, Gwen Hawthorn (later Mitcalfe). Although Iris wrote dismissively of her education there as stodgy and cold, she received encouragement for her writing. Many of her poems and stories appeared in the school magazine between 1919 and 1922.
At 17 the ‘Schoolgirl Poetess’ joined the staff of the Dominion, also working on the children’s page of the New Zealand Farmers’ Advocate. She had a love affair with one of her father’s protégés, Harry Sweetman, which was fictionalised in The godwits fly. They planned to go to Europe together, but at 18 she spent some months in hospital after a knee operation. She came out on crutches, lame for life, dependent on opiates for pain relief, to find that Harry had gone without her. She learned much later of his death shortly after his arrival in England.
Returning to work at the Dominion she wrote ‘Peeps at Parliament’ under the pen-name ‘Novitia’ during the election year of 1925. Although flippant (as at that time her age, sex and the editor dictated), the column touched on some serious social concerns. She met politicians William Downie Stewart, Daniel Sullivan and John A. Lee, who became lasting friends. A brief love affair while she was receiving treatment for her knee in Rotorua left her pregnant. In April 1926 she resigned from the Dominion and sailed for Sydney. Five bleak months there ended with the birth and death of a son. She gave him the name Robin Hyde, then borrowed it back from him, to use for her serious writing. On her return to New Zealand she had a nervous breakdown, and in 1927 spent some months in Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs.
Writing again, she had some poems published in newspapers. John Schroder, from the Christchurch Sun ’s literary pages, began a correspondence with her that lasted till her death. He became her literary adviser and friend. Back in Wellington she found only occasional work as a jobbing journalist. She joined New Zealand Truth in September 1928, then, after being sacked, with Schroder’s help she was appointed to assist Esther Glen with the women’s page of the Christchurch Sun. She was employed by the Wanganui Chronicle by March 1929. At each post she inserted controversial interviews or subversive comment into the society or shopping columns.
Her first collection of poetry, The desolate star, was published in 1929. Few copies sold. In Wanganui she became pregnant after a brief fling with a married journalist who suggested she pay half the cost of an abortion. ‘Well, I thought, you can’t say we haven’t got sex equality all right’. Hyde refused the abortion and took six months’ sick leave claiming ‘a dicky heart’. She lived near French Pass and later at Picton under an assumed name; her son, Derek Challis, was born in October 1930. Rumours lost her the Wanganui job and she returned penniless to Wellington, her son smuggled in a dress-basket onto the ferry, his existence still concealed from her family. She installed him in a nursing home and he was later fostered by a family in Auckland.
Hyde was saved from penury by the offer of a job as lady editor of the New Zealand Observer, a popular Auckland weekly edited by Gordon McLean. Under various pen-names she filled the pages. In the deepening economic slump her articles on vagrant women and soup kitchens contrasted with the fashion and balls she reported in the society pages. She was present at the Queen Street riots in 1932. Angry that unemployed women received no benefit or relief work, although all working women were taxed, Hyde presented a petition on their behalf to the mayor of Auckland. Also during that time she met Douglas Stark, ex-borstal boy, war hero and reprobate, and subsequently a relief worker, who was the model for Starkie, protagonist of her documentary novels Passport to hell and Nor the years condemn.
But the pressures were too great: deadlines, Derek’s needs, sordid boarding-houses, the temptations of morphine. In mid 1933 she tried to drown herself. Picked up by the police, she languished in a basement ward of Auckland Hospital for six weeks, then entered the Grey Lodge at Auckland Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient.
In this refuge, encouraged by her doctors, Henry Buchanan and Gilbert Tothill, she resumed writing. After a year she was writing a robust account of New Zealand newspapers and journalists, and beginning research in the Auckland Public Library for a historical novel on Baron de Thierry. Later she went to Wellington or to the Hocken Library in Dunedin ‘on leave’, always returning to the security of Grey Lodge. She associated with A. R. D. Fairburn, Rosalie and Gloria Rawlinson, D’Arcy Cresswell, Mary Smee (later Dobbie), Eve Langley, Dorothea and John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson and Jane Mander, sometimes dining with them in the Golden Dragon in Grey’s Avenue.
In the four years she spent at Grey Lodge, between 1933 and 1937, she completed Journalese (1934); three novels, Check to your king (1936), Passport to hell (1936) and Wednesday’s children (1937); and two collections of poetry, The conquerors (1935) and Persephone in winter (1937). She was also freelancing for the Observer and already working on drafts of The godwits fly (1938) and Nor the years condemn (1938).
In her fiction and poetry Hyde had turned to Maori and Pakeha history and stories to find a distinctive New Zealand voice. The result was quite different from the style of contemporary male writers, especially in the attempt she made to articulate the experience of Maori and women. At its best Hyde’s writing achieved a compelling vividness and insight. While she regarded herself as a poet first, during her lifetime she made more impact as a novelist.
Hyde ran away from Grey Lodge early in 1937 after Dr Tothill transferred to Tokanui Mental Hospital. For a year she lived on ‘bread and butter, tea and the tin opener’ in various baches in the Waitakeres, Whangaroa and Milford. The manuscript that became A home in this world, published in 1984 by her son, was written at this time. So were her passionate articles in the Observer and her letters to John A. Lee on the planned expulsion of Maori from their land at Orakei (Bastion Point), in which she observed similarities between the ravages of colonialism and war. She began studying Maori, and became more assertively feminist and socialist, writing for Tomorrow and Woman To-day.
Against all advice Hyde resolved to travel to England to seek experience and recognition and to meet her publishers. She wrote, ‘New Zealand papers, and I want to live in New Zealand, don’t either take or pay much. I haven’t a penny, and I have Derry.’ In January 1938 she sailed for Sydney, where she boarded the Changte. However, a brief stop-over in Hong Kong disclosed another world: China. Undeterred by Japanese bombing, she visited Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), met Chinese generals and the writers Agnes Smedley and Edgar Snow. Fellow New Zealanders Rewi Alley and James Bertram helped her and she was able to obtain a pass for the front signed by Chiang Kai-shek. Some of her finest poems, the travel book Dragon rampant, and many articles emerged from her extraordinary journey into the war zone. After Hsuchow was bombed and captured, she limped 50 miles along the railway track towards Tsingtao and safety. Assaulted by Japanese soldiers, she sustained a painful eye injury, which was treated by a Japanese doctor.
While hospitalised in Hong Kong with a skin infection and digestive complaint, she still managed to interview Soong Ch’ing-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen). She eventually reached England by ship in mid September 1938. Ill and penniless, she nevertheless became involved in the China Campaign Committee, the Left Book Club and the Suffragette Fellowship. From a rented caravan in Kent, she wrote of China and of ‘the world we know, love, and are probably about to destroy’.
Hyde moved in and out of hospital, suffering from depression, dysentery and anaemia, and was assisted by friends including Charles Brasch, James Bertram, D’Arcy Cresswell and Dr Buchanan. She finished Dragon rampant but there were financial and emotional setbacks: few New Zealand reviews of Persephone in winter appeared, those of Godwits were ‘spitballs’, and plans for dramatising Wednesday’s children stalled. As war in Europe seemed imminent John A. Lee secured government assistance to bring her back to New Zealand. On 23 August 1939 Bill Jordan, high commissioner for New Zealand in the United Kingdom, arrived at her Kensington attic room to confirm travel arrangements. He found she had taken her life earlier in the day: the coroner’s verdict was suicide by Benzedrine poisoning. She was buried in Kensington cemetery, Gunnersbury.
The volume, range and originality of Robin Hyde’s writing has only recently been recognised. In 10 years she produced 10 books of poetry and prose as well as countless published and unpublished articles and letters. She offered a piercing personal vision of an inner life, yet also conveyed a strong sense of place and an understanding of the historical forces that shaped her world. For Hyde, New Zealand’s future lay in the Pacific, not crouching ‘in the shadow of the old world’. She wrote feelingly of those victims of greed and war living on society’s margins. As one who had suffered personal loss, illness and poverty she identified with the dispossessed, and in a hostile world longed for community and reintegration. The sense of a personal quest through writing informed her work. Robin Hyde consciously lived her life as a ‘user of words’, a ‘maker of words’, and above all, a ‘fighter with words’.