Helen Lilian Shaw was born in Timaru on 20 February 1913, the only child of Jessie Helen Gow and her solicitor husband, Walter Shaw, a shadowy, romantic figure whom Helen never knew. In September 1913 he was imprisoned for embezzlement and fraud, and three years later, on 21 September 1916, he was killed in action in France. Jessie did not remarry, bringing up her daughter in her parents’ Timaru house.
Jessie’s father, James Gow, a noted school inspector with an MA from Edinburgh, filled the guiding role of father as well as beloved grandfather in Helen’s life. Even before she entered Waimataitai School he had opened up for her ‘another world of extra dimension’ by teaching her to read. A solitary child in a house full of adults, Helen roamed the shelves of her grandfather’s library. From an early age she was drawn towards fantasy, preferring books of legend and romance to such exemplars of Victorian practicality as The Swiss family Robinson. Her first taste of literary success came at the age of 12 when she overheard her teacher praise a fairy story she had written. By the time she left Timaru Girls’ High School she was already set on the path of literature, a self-confessed ‘romantic with a powerful belief in the romantic ideal’.
However, James Gow, the dedicated educationalist, ordained that Helen follow in his footsteps. Obediently, in 1932 she entered Canterbury College and teacher training. The death of ‘that stern gentle old man’ in June that year was at once traumatic and liberating. She lost the dominant figure in her life and learned for the first time of her father’s crime and imprisonment. She was free now to follow her own inclinations, and after completing her BA in 1936 she abandoned teaching. Earning a little from hairdressing and painting buttons, she was drawn into the literary and artistic ferment of pre-war Christchurch. By 1937 her children’s stories were being published in the Press Junior, a supplement to the Press. Stimulating her aspirations as a writer were the conversations of a group of talented painters, musicians, writers and European refugees. Almost as influential was the example of Virginia Woolf and A room of one’s own.
Tall, with long dark hair, large brown eyes and a sweet, dreamy expression, Helen Shaw was beautiful. She dressed simply but distinctively throughout her life in long, usually blue skirts and high-necked Victorian blouses. When she met Frank Simon Hofmann, a handsome Jewish refugee from Prague nearly four years her junior, it was love at first sight. Frank, a talented photographer, cultivated and musically gifted, was visiting Christchurch. They were married in the Auckland Registrar’s Office on 24 December 1941 and settled in Auckland, where Frank achieved renown for his photography and where they entertained a wide circle of intellectuals, musicians and writers.
As Frank’s wife, ‘Hella’ Hofmann gave generously of her time, holding after-concert parties and bringing up their two sons. As a writer, Helen Shaw relished contact with other artists, but had somehow to snatch the time for her own literary endeavours. Never driving a car, drawing her curtains by day against the distractions of the outside world, she worked late into the night at the idiosyncratic stories and meditative poems for which she became known.
Helen’s first adult story, ‘The two fathers’, appeared in 1943. The source she instinctively tapped into was her childhood in the dark old Timaru house amid the ‘repressive Victorians by whom [she] was nurtured and haunted, and whom [she] loved’. Her first collection, The orange-tree, appeared in 1957. Typifying Helen Shaw’s fictional world is ‘The blind’, a story in which an old, late Victorian house, shrouded in gothic gloom, is almost a character in its own right. Inhabiting the house is a cast of ageing family members who live comfortlessly with a decrepit parent. In many of her stories there are mysterious hints of a ‘dead and dreadful past’, of unresolved psychic pain. A second collection of stories, The gipsies, and other stories (1978), returns to that world, often probing the confused feelings of a dreamy young woman towards the relatives who have brought her up.
As a writer, Helen Shaw is remembered for her slightly surreal, whimsical depiction of a world far removed from the insistent social realism of Frank Sargeson. Yet it was she who in 1955 put together the first collection of essays on his work, The puritan and the waif. Later she took up the cause of D’Arcy Cresswell, in 1971 editing his letters for publication, and in 1983 Dear Lady Ginger, letters between him and Lady Ottoline Morrell. She herself corresponded with a wide network of people, including Indian writers and mystics. In 1979 she was guest editor of an anthology of New Zealand and world poetry published in India by Ocarina International.
A more private aspect of Shaw was her deep interest in mysticism, in the mysterious questing of the human spirit. Drawn to the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the anthroposophical movement and the great religious mystics and poets, she expressed her own spirituality in prayers, meditations and poetry. Towards the end of her life, when she felt that ‘Even among friends I feel a stranger. I am forgetting how to speak their language and alas so few of them speak mine’, poetry became ever more important. Her visionary, lyric poems still convey her sense of the individual soul adrift in an unfathomable universe.
After Helen Shaw’s death on 13 June 1985, in Auckland, Frank Hofmann devoted himself to publishing her poetry. He died four years later, in 1989. Helen’s I listen, a selection of poetic meditations, appeared in 1995.