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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand

Eight: 'Not easily put on paper': Robin Hyde's The godwits fly

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Eight: 'Not easily put on paper': Robin Hyde's The godwits fly

In an article on New Zealand writers, Robin Hyde wrote: 'New Zealand is not a country of flat colours and facts. It is, in everything, subtle and complicated and the knowing of it is a craft as well as an art. It is not easily put on paper'.1 The observation is as relevant to Hyde's own work as it is to the writers who were the subject of her article.

In the sense that she was a prolific writer, Hyde's work appeared to be 'easily put on paper' compared to that of many of her contemporaries. She produced ten books in the ten years from 1929 until her death in 1939, including six novels published within four years. She was also a prolific journalist and freelance writer, an aspect of her work which was relatively neglected by her critics until the appearance of Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews's collection Disputed ground in 1991.2 She also had an early reputation as a poet (beginning with the much-quoted epithet 'schoolgirl poetess') and her earlier poems were much anthologised in the 1930s.

A strong financial imperative underlay much of this output. Hyde started on her career as a professional writer at the age of seventeen. She never lost the conviction that a writer's contribution to society was worthy of tangible recognition, and she worked hard and with considerable ingenuity to try to make a living from her writing.

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But Hyde's prolific output was achieved at a high cost in terms of the toll it took on her energy and the strain it placed on her personal life. In this more profound sense her writing did not come easily. Her letters and notebooks frequently show her concern about how to find her own medium of expression. To Johannes Andersen, for example, she is apologetic about her facility with words:

I don't altogether approve of myself, either — how can one approve of a writer who claims a love of verse foremost, but also writes novels and short stories and a journalistic hotchpotch? The novels and short stories mightn't be bad if I could write them as I wanted to — But the journalistic stuff, unless for an occasional thing written with a special purpose, I hate — and fear.3

That private self-doubt and struggle was seldom revealed outside her closest circle of friends, and even then was more often than not concealed by irony or indirection. The letters, notebooks and drafts of her work also provide evidence of how strongly Hyde held to her own views of what constituted good writing, even though these views seemed to align her with a literary position which was under attack as unfashionable and lacking in intellectual rigour.

This essay explores some aspects of what Hyde's manuscripts and papers tell us about her creative process. It looks at how the canon fits together and, finally, it suggests some of the factors which have influenced the critical estimation of her work.

The readership of Hyde's work has undergone a transformation over the last decade or so. Prior to that, many of her works were out of print and her critical reputation was low. She was regarded as a minor poet who was just breaking free of a stifling English Georgianism in her last work. As a novelist she was regarded as flawed and without clear direction; a writer who worked instinctively and who confused fiction and autobiography. At best her fiction was characterised as an impressionistic report on late colonial life and suburban depression. For post-war New Zealanders she had seemed rather too hung up on the 'colonial England hunger' for which she had had the fortune — or misfortune — to give us the cliche of the yearning quest of the godwit. Her life was short and tragic. She was regarded anec-dotally by many who recorded their impressions of her as capable page 120 of being reckless, suicidal and irritating; a writer of great potential not fully realised.

Allen Curnow's description of Hyde in the critically significant Penguin book of New Zealand verse of 1960 encapsulated many of these elements:

Her way to print was through the byways of daily and weekly journalism, where there was enough taste to perceive her talent, and enough booksy vulgarity almost to destroy it... By incessant writing, incessant change, she fought to free her vision from its literary swathings — and in verse her worst enemy was the passionate crush on poetry with which she began. Her writing was near hysteria, more often than not, and she was incurably exhibitionistic.4

If Curnow's assessment appears rather crushing, then it is worth recalling that Hyde had earlier described the young Curnow privately as 'quite a promising boy', but dismissed his preoccupation with literary theory as a '. . . solemn preposterous little code of who may do what, when and why. It's like learning to speak by deliberately teaching one's self first to stutter.'5

Hyde did not fit the prescription by which Curnow and others were attempting to identify, or to create, an emerging New Zealand literature. She wrote too much. Her novels were expansive and florid when the taste was for small, highly crafted stories about tragic and lonely people whose response to a bleak universe was to 'crouch down and hold on tight'. She was a woman writer, when that was synonymous with being an amateur. She had let her 'passionate crush' on poetry lead her down the 'byways' of her craft. She was not wholeheartedly a New Zealander (she had published in England), but pined for the colonial's Home in Empire or yearned for a sentimentalised internationalism even as the world collapsed into the Second World War.

This view of Hyde virtually created her as the antithesis of the New Zealand writer, but it has become increasingly unsustainable as the literary history has been renovated and as her texts have been reprinted and reread. The opportunity to explore her manuscripts and papers and to place her works in the context of other texts that were previously unknown has also helped to identify other dimensions of her craft.

My own interest in Hyde's work began with seeking out some of these manuscripts and papers, and trying to piece together how page 121 she wrote The godwits fly. I found that a large amount of draft material still existed. It was then — and still is, despite the efforts Gloria Rawlinson and others have made to organise it — in a complex state. It comprised hundreds of poems and many incomplete drafts of texts in many genres. Bits and pieces of the same drafts appeared in different collections and under different forms of classification. There were complete drafts of works I hadn't heard of: novels, two autobiographies, about 80 short stories, numerous plays and some strange hybrids — a 'verse chronicle', prophetic verses — as well as notebooks, journals and letters.

The effort to focus on the creative process for one particular novel, The godwits fly , proved to be impractical. Hyde, I began to discover, tended to write and rewrite whole drafts of novels and other large works with little detailed revision or reworking. It was often hard to tell drafts of one text from another, and the same incidents and images frequently recurred. This 'recycling' of material did not betray a limitation in her vision or experience, however. Instead it exhibited a characteristically 'complex inter-textuality'6 as Hyde explored some key themes and found innovative ways to refine how she expressed them. Far from confirming that she wrote intuitively and impulsively, these traces of her creative practice suggested a tenacious struggle to achieve certain deliberate effects. They also revealed a person with a strong theoretical interest in her craft and one who was widely read. In particular they revealed her interest in imagism and in symbolic ways of writing; in the genres of biography and autobiography; and in ways of exploring subjectivity.

Here was evidence of the deceptive simplicity of her writing; that it was indeed 'not easily put on paper'. It was a realisation which was, I think, first made by Hyde's friend and mentor of her early work, John Schroder, and expressed in an obituary article: 'One of the things I have learned from reading and rereading [her] poems ... is that Robin Hyde was a much more deliberate writer than I had thought. I had not known how carefully she would revise and recast, test and change . . .'.7 Many examples can be found of the kind of detailed craftsmanship Schroder mentions in the drafting of The godwits fly. One of the major challenges which she faced in reworking the novel through several drafts was to clarify its symbolic structure.

In the first version8 of The godwits fly the early chapters focus on Eliza Hannay's mother, Augusta, who is described as the 'first of page 122 the godwits'. Augusta's preoccupation with an unfulfilled journey to an idealised England sets a pattern which prefigures Eliza's dreams of a similar journey later in the novel. Eliza's father, John, is a shadowy presence in this draft and has been killed off by the end of chapter two. This beginning to the novel is abandoned in the next draft and the focus on Eliza as the central character is strengthened. There is a corresponding shift away from an interpretation of the godwit motif as a literal journey to the seat of Empire; a journey which could satisfy the 'colonial England hunger'. It is not Augusta but Timothy Cardew who now makes that passage and this therefore serves to strengthen his characterisation. His is a doomed journey, which begins with his aimless wandering and unfulfilled encounters with those whom he meets. Transferring the literal journey to Timothy more clearly defines Eliza's more symbolic 'journey' of self-discovery which is at the heart of the novel.

As Hyde reworked the novel through successive drafts, more and more of the minor characters (school friends, workmates) and the incidents in which they figure disappear. The result is a strongly realised set of characters (as shown in Figure 1) arrayed around Eliza in such a way as to set up symmetrical tensions and patterns of conflict and resolution which define the compass-points by which to measure Eliza's progress on her 'journey'.

Family and the wider social groupings, older and younger generations, private and public lives: all reverberate with and reflect aspects of Eliza's journey. Augusta's point of the compass is the domestic, and its elements of motherhood, security and conformity find their doomed extreme in Carly. Simone's point of the compass is art, its elements of experimentation, style and temperament cast in strongest relief by her marriage to Toby which threatens to engulf her. Together these women reflect Eliza's exploration of the personal and introspective.

John Hannay's point of the compass is the political. Its elements of social organisation (the brotherhood of man) and communication are sentimentalised in Tom McGrath, the union boss, and comically parodied in the oafish Olaf. Timothy's point of the compass is the physical and sensual. Its elements of action, of experience and of sexuality are reflected in the various worlds he encounters: Birkett, Damaris Gayte, Shelagh and others. Together the men reflect Eliza's exploration of the social and sensual.

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Figure 1: Patterns of tension in The godwits fly

Figure 1: Patterns of tension in The godwits fly

Stylistically, too, the novel was developing as it went through successive drafts. Long, authorially intrusive passages describing the economic malaise and spiritual poverty of New Zealand are removed. The impressionistic imagism of the separate chapters which mark the phases of Eliza's development are strengthened instead, into what Sargeson was later to call — describing his own stylistic direction — 'symbolic realism'.9

Interestingly, though, many of the passages cut from these drafts were not abandoned. Instead they reappear — in modified forms — elsewhere in Hyde's work. For example, the time-frame of The godwits fly was drastically shortened by the removal of several chapters describing Eliza as an established and successful journalist whose travels around New Zealand provide the opportunity for much analysis and commentary on its economic and social life. There are recognisable aspects of this more mature Eliza in the characterisation of Bede Collins and in the events of the later novel Nor the years condemn.

This brings us back to the earlier observation about the 'complex intertextuality' of Hyde's work which I would now like to explore in greater detail. The redrafting of The godwits fly page 124
Figure 2: The godwits fly in the context of Hyde's writing

Figure 2: The godwits fly in the context of Hyde's writing

extended over several years, as the diagram in Figure 2 shows. In itself this lengthy gestation makes The godwits fly stand out from most of Hyde's other long works, which were written over relatively short time-frames, often in an intense burst of activity. This was most spectacularly the case with Passport to hell which was page 125 completed from interviews with Stark and others, together with information contained in a crudely written account of Stark's exploits by Dawes Bently, over a period of a few months in 1935.10 From the chronological map of Hyde's work in Figure 2 it can be seen that the origins of The godwits fly probably stretch back to a reference by Hyde to the first prose writing she attempted, a novel called 'The windy house' begun in 1929. Nothing but the title of this novel remains. But that itself is suggestive of The godwits fly — in its use of the house (in her later work, 'home') as a motif for family and personal identity, and in the 'windy city' association with Wellington (the setting for The godwits fly) and with turbulent events. Correspondences of theme and style also align The godwits fly to an autobiographical text (MS 412),11 as yet unpublished, which Hyde wrote close to the time of her breakdown in late 1933.

The novel itself is first referred to in a journal which dates from early 1935 and the first version took shape in two periods of writing during 1935. Hyde was dissatisfied with the result and put it aside for further reflection. She returned to it in 1936, redrafting some key passages in the relative tranquillity of W. Downie Stewart's home in Dunedin, then working back over the whole novel and reshaping it into its final form through 1936 and into early 1937. Like her other novels it then went to her literary agent in London and was published by Hurst and Blackett in 1938.

The main stages of writing The godwits fly can be seen as releasing two significant bursts of creativity, the first of which was in 1935. In the middle of the first version, Hyde paused to write 'Bronze outlaw' (published as Passport to hell). Comments in her letters to Schroder and others make it clear that there were thematic and stylistic concerns common to both embryonic novels. It appears that, as she was able to develop or resolve issues in one text, the lessons learnt could be transferred to the other, enabling progress to be made there, too.

Hyde also wrote another — still unpublished — novel called 'The unbelievers' at this time. If Passport to hell drew her towards realism, 'The unbelievers' plunged into fantasy, allowing Hyde to explore some of the complex relationship issues which the first version of The godwits fly had begun to confront. 'The unbelievers' gave rise to another 'fantasy' novel, Wednesday's children , which was completed in early 1936 and submitted for eventual publication in page 126 1937. Writing 'The unbelievers' enabled her to give free rein to a fantasy or wish-fulfilment element that she had sought to portray in The godwits fly. When she returned to The godwits fly the new draft could take a different stylistic direction.

Check to your king , originally written in late 1934 and submitted for a literary competition in America (in which it was commended but eventually unplaced), was also being rewritten at about this time. Again, the revisions more strongly stamp the historical narrative of Thierry's progress with Hyde's preoccupations with identity and relationships. In the original version of Check to your king Hyde had confronted the issue of how to write biography. In particular, the problem of authorial distance was addressed by an unabashed element of empathy with the subject, an approach which has been treated with suspicion and disdain by more orthodox biographers. For instance, J. D. Raeside, in his 1977 Sovereign chief: A biography of Baron de Thierry , makes absolutely no reference to Hyde's work, except to comment in passing in an Appendix that her account was 'romantically embellished, and of no value'.12 What Hyde was attempting as a biographer has not been understood on its own terms. However, she appears to have felt that the rewritten version benefited from her experience of writing the biography of Stark in Passport to hell , which she described in a letter to Schroder as 'harder, barer, more confident'13 than her other work of the time.

Hyde's interest in New Zealand's colonial history, which had begun with the discovery of Thierry in the Grey Collection (Auckland Public Library), prompted her to begin another novel called 'These poor old hands', of which nothing now survives, so far as I am aware, but which was about life in Auckland in the 1840s. Though she appears to have abandoned this project, it is interesting that when she travelled to Dunedin in mid-1936 to stay with W Downie Stewart, she explored the New Zealand archives in the Hocken Library collection, with the express aim of repeating the formula she had found in writing Check to your king. She did in fact negotiate with the trustees of the collection for use of Edward Markham's journal 'New Zealand or recollections of it'.14 When permission was not given, Hyde wrote the poem 'Arangi ma', based on an incident from the journal, which she posted defiantly to the Hocken Library Committee, before directing her energy and free time back to redrafting The godwits fly.

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After The godwits fly was completed, Hyde wrote the beautiful and moving autobiographical text A home in this world. 15 In this she revisits some of the material first presented in the 1933-4 autobiography MS 412, but the strength and confidence of the later text mark the extent to which her writing had developed as she worked through the fictionalised autobiographical elements of The godwits fly.

The complex intertextuality of her work was therefore a means of progressing certain stylistic and thematic concerns in different texts and genres simultaneously. This characteristic of her work means, as I have begun to suggest, that patterns, motifs, incidents and even characters shift and recur from one text to another.

The second great burst of creativity which followed the completion of The godwits fly in 1936-7 provides ample evidence of this recycling technique that enabled Hyde to uncover deeper levels of experience and to intensify her treatment of key themes.

At about the same time that she wrote A home in this world she also completed The book of Nadath , a prophetic prose-poem. To pick up on only one strand of this text, Hyde returns to the godwit image from The godwits fly and finds a powerful symbol for continuity and unity in the bird's journey — not to England this time, but to Siberia, as the bird does in fact migrate from New Zealand.

Another central motif in her work, the 'home' and issues of identity which accrete to it, recurs in the poem sequence 'Houses by the sea', on which Hyde was also working at this time, and which is regarded as amongst her finest poetry. At this time, in 1937 also, another unpublished work called 'De Thierry's progress' was written. This 'verse chronicle' reworked source material from Check to your king , but in it the focus shifts from the baron himself to his family, and in particular to his daughter Isabel, whose characterisation draws heavily on Eliza from The godwits fly.

The other major published work from this period is Nor the years condemn. In this novel, too, incidents and themes recur from the other works. The book is a sequel to Passport to hell in that it focuses on Stark and places him as an observer and inhabitant of post-war New Zealand. But Stark's experience is framed and interpreted by other characters. Bede Collins is recognisably the older Eliza Hannay who first appeared in the first version of The godwits fly and whose attitude to experience draws strongly on the page 128 narrative voice of A home in this world. Stark himself is paralleled in Nor the years condemn with the character Macnamara who is in a sense his 'ideal self. In her restrained and careful stylistic treatment of this characterisation Hyde again demonstrates how far she has developed as a writer. Hyde had first used such a doppel-ganger character in 'The unbelievers', but the relatively shallow characterisation there makes the device less essential to the structure and meaning than it is in Nor the years condemn.

Issues of personality and gender have been examined frequendy enough in the past to explain the relatively poor or negative response her work has received. A factor which has been overlooked more often is the timing of publication of her work. Most of her major work, especially in prose, was published late in the 1930s, when Hyde herself was out of New Zealand and away from the notice of some key commentators. The views of several influential critics were evidently formed on the basis of her early work and did not change. For instance, Charles Brasch, though he describes in his memoir Indirections his association with Hyde in the last few months of her life, didn't really know her prose at all after Journalese and Passport to hell. His assessment of her talent is therefore condescending and dismissive:

. . . her early verse in its jaunty facility, thick with the cliches of a literariness she was never able to strip away completely, was a form of journalism . . . [she was] slowly schooling herself to write more honestly and directly out of experience [but] . . . journalism that neglects its own virtues in trying to be literary usually succeeds only in being bad journalism.16

Hyde was also unlucky that her most mature work appeared when the more pressing political imperative of world war was on the horizon. Nor the years condemn was in fact one of the early casualties of the war, as stocks of the novel were destroyed when the warehouse they were in was bombed. Houses by the sea , a collection of her most mature poetry, was invisible to critical assessment until it was finally published by The Caxton Press in 1952, thirteen years after her death.

Though Hyde was published in Europe and died there, her sympathies lay elsewhere. If any country other than New Zealand captured her heart it was China. But Dragon rampant , the book about her experience in China, was simply neglected by an page 129 English audience — and a New Zealand readership too — whose attention was directed at European war.

These historical factors in the critical reception of her work can be — and have been — corrected to some extent by a longer perspective. Today more of Hyde's work is in print than ever before; the autobiographical A home in this world appeared in 1984 and Disputed ground , a collection of her journalism, in 1991. To these new dimensions of her work have been added reprints of all of the published prose except Journalese. More than ever before the materials are at hand with which to set about a reassessment of her work.

The prescriptiveness of the literary-critical debate has also shifted somewhat. For Brasch's generation some genres were high art and some simply were not — and 'bad journalism' was all journalism. In the emerging high culture of New Zealand literature there was little regard for biography and autobiography, which were the ground on which Hyde built her art. More recently there has been less concern for formal purity and a greater readiness to engage with Hyde's hybrid forms — verse chronicle, prophetic prose poem, fictionalised autobiography — or at least a greater willingness to accept that she might have been deliberately hybridising, rather than simply being inept.

Hyde is now being carefully and intensely read and her work is being interpreted from a number of perspectives. Most importantly, her work itself is being reprinted and is widely available to readers. Much work remains to be done by careful and thorough editors, and Don Smith's edition of Passport to hell has pointed the way to new standards in this regard. But even more than good editors, writers need attentive readers.

No good writing is ever 'easily put on paper', but it is not altogether easily got off the paper either. It seems to me that the bargain Hyde struck with us as her readers was a fair one. She was prepared, as she wrote in one of her journals, to ' . . . write blotched attempts at poetry from a starved and strange body . . . [and to] practice poetic five-finger exercises hours a day until the fingers of (her) soul ache[d]'.17In return what she asked was 'an effort towards understanding' from readers. This painstaking task she once called '. . . a sort of psychological reconstruction, like building up the moa from its eye-tooth'.18

Since the moa, like all other birds, didn't actually have eye-teeth, that seems a suitably memorable and bizarre image to end page 130 on. If Hyde meant to suggest by it that such ideal readers might be as rare as hen's teeth, then I would prefer to think that she was mistaken.

1 Robin Hyde, 'New Zealand writers at home', quoted in Gloria Rawlinson, 'Cloud of witness, IV: Robin Hyde', Wooden horse , 1 no.4 (1950), 28.

2 Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews, Disputed ground: Robin Hyde, journalist (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1991).

3 Robin Hyde, letter to J. C. Andersen, 13 November 1938 (J. C. Andersen Papers, MS-148, folder 29, Alexander Turnbull Library, NLNZ).

4 Allen Curnow, The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960), Introduction, Section 12.

5 Robin Hyde, letter to J. C. Andersen, 17 March 1936 (J. C. Andersen Papers, MS-148, folder 29, Alexander Turnbull Library, NLNZ). The 'code' Hyde refers to was probably Curnow's Poetry and language (Christchurch: Caxton Club Press, 1935).

6 Boddy and Matthews, 'The journalism of Robin Hyde', in Disputed ground , p. 139.

7 J. H. E. Schroder, 'Robin Hyde: Struggle and dream', Press, 14 October 1939, 16.

8 References to the various drafts of The godwits fly follow the classification described in my unpublished PhD thesis, 'Robin Hyde: A writer at work', Massey University, 1985. See also Patrick Sandbrook, 'A descriptive inventory of some manuscripts and drafts of the work of Robin Hyde', Journal of 'New Zealand literature , 4 (1986), 21-47.

9 'Conversation with Frank Sargeson: An interview with Michael Beveridge' in Frank Sargeson, Conversation in a train and other critical writing, ed. by Kevin Cunningham (Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press,

10 The origins of the novel are described in the introduction to Robin Hyde, Passport to hell , ed. and introd. by D. I. B. Smith, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986).

11 Autobiography MS 412 (Iris Wilkinson Papers, NZMSS 412, Auckland Central City Library).

12 J. D. Raeside, Sovereign chief: A biography of Baron de Thieriy (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1977), p.335.

13 Robin Hyde, letter to J. H. E. Schroder, 26 April 1935 (J. H. E. Schroder Papers, MS Papers 280, folder 6, letter 80, Alexander Turnbull Library, NLNZ).

14 The journal was later published as a scholarly edition: Edward Markham, New Zealand or recollections of it, ed. and introd. by E. H. McCormick, Alexander Turnbull Library monographs (Wellington: Government Print, 1963).

15 15. Robin Hyde, A home in this world , introd. by Derek Challis (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1984).

16 Charles Brasch, Indirections: A memoir 1909-1947 (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.338.

17 Quoted by Gloria Rawlinson in introduction, Houses by the sea and the later poems of Robin Hyde, ed. and introd. by Gloria Rawlinson (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1952), p.18.

18 Robin Hyde, letter to J. H. E. Schroder, 14 February 1935 (J. H. E. Schroder Papers, MS Papers 280, folder 6, letter 77, Alexander Turnbull Library, NLNZ).