Check to Your King
In New Zealand the Second World War has cut us off dramatically from the preoccupations of the nineteen-thirties, and in the postwar release of new talent, most voices of that era have been forgotten. The poets may still be heard, kept in print in anthologies, but the novelists have fared badly. Publishers' stocks were bombed, paper was rationed, and after 1945 there seemed to be too many fresh interests to be catered for. In this sense, Robin Hyde's work was a war casualty. She is named with respect in the literary histories, but her work is not widely known today.
Under the stimulus, however, of renewed public interest, some of the “lost generation” are being restored to circulation. None of them deserves it better than Robin Hyde, both in herself, and because her achievement represents a major phase in the development of our national literature.
Iris Wilkinson (she adopted Robin Hyde as her pen-name) was born in 1906, and spent her girlhood in Wellington, wearing out in her schooldays the same wooden Girls' College steps on which Katherine Mansfield had gone her way twenty years before. At 17, she joined the staff of a local newspaper, and began a life in which serious literary endeavour and journalism rubbed unhappily together. Ill-health and economic necessity brought on a rapid maturity. Her first book published was a volume of verse in 1929, her second in 1934, a series of sketches entitled Journalese. Between the two persons which these reveal, the poetic explorer of human experience, and the colourful reporter, there continued to be a strife which she was unable to resolve.
Her five novels were the product of the brief years 1935–8. In January of 1938, with three books of verse and four of prose in print, and with two more accepted for publication, she left New Zealand to try her fortune in England. It seemed that she had as good a chance of success overseas as those other expatriates of ours who had “made the long migration”, the “human godwits” of whom she wrote with such understanding in The Godwits Fly. On her way, she was diverted to China, then the scene of bitter popular resistance to Japanese invasion. China in those days was page vi a symbol of the people's struggle for bread, justice, freedom, with which Robin Hyde had spiritually identified herself. It was typical enough that she should take sides (“something of a crusader” commented harassed British officialdom) and it was only after experiences that would have destroyed anyone less tough that she reached England, across Siberia and Europe. Her record of the journey, Dragon Rampant, appeared in 1939, just before her death.
Robin Hyde's novels, in spite of their episodic variety, are linked by recurrent themes. They are vibrant with social anger, the democratic undertone of the Thirties; they reflect her deepening realisation of the implications of being a New Zealander, and they are concerned with a search for the truth hidden “beneath the surface lies”. In her own words, "Shakespeare kept saying, ‘to thine own self be true’ … I began to wonder, which self? True to which self … I was always in bad trouble with the truth. Not so much knowing what it is, as knowing which it is. My truths had second selves, split personalities, double faces… .”
Which self? True to which self? This was Robin Hyde's personal problem, as it was that of her generation of writers. The colonial dilemma — Katherine Mansfield being another tragic instance of it — is to find oneself divided between two worlds. “The writers of my land and generation,” Robin Hyde wrote in 1938, "… grew up in a false, unreal atmosphere; loving every inch of the terrain, feeling it grow into minds and bones, but knowing little of its story or cultural past… the New Zealander was no longer an Englishman, he did not quite know what he was, he was terribly lonely, self-conscious.” In this situation, colonial writers had no viable tradition, no sense of belonging. Their work had the defects of provincialism, second-hand standards, uneasiness, over-emphasis.
Robin Hyde, before her death, had discovered her true New Zealand self. This is clear from her later poems in the posthumous collection Houses by the Sea, 1952. But she did not live to stabilise it in fiction. Her novels are rebellious, strident, exploratory, rather than assured. Their poetic perception, however, and their imaginative courage, their sense of pity, the richness of their social observation, all give them a strength which overrides their technical weaknesses.
In addition, there was her search for truth. New Zealand, she felt, “was awake, and aware of its need to be a country … the integration of a country from the looseness of the soil”. Such integration, however, was not a matter of “sitting about singing to tuis and babbling to bellbirds”, but of penetrating with understanding the “world of man, woman, and child” as it really was page vii in these islands. The misfit, the eccentric, the impractical visionary and the victim of injustice, these haunt her imagination. When such men and women came into conflict with our little conventional society she strove to discover, not what, but which was the truth. Was Starkie a criminal desperado, or a hero? Was the Baron de Thierry a rogue, a lunatic, or a man of vision? Here were the “double faces” of truth, contexts in which Pilate's question “What is Truth?” is unanswerable. It depends how you look at it, Robin Hyde believed, and she drew her pictures so that you were compelled to look with greater understanding.
Her first novel, Passport to Hell, is a reconstruction of the life of James Douglas Stark, born in New Zealand in 1898 to a father who was a Delaware Indian, and a mother of Spanish blood. Starkie became a schoolboy rebel, a fugitive, in and out of gaol, hunted down, until at 17 he won to freedom by enlisting with the NZEF. Egypt, Gallipoli followed, and France, the Somme, military hospitals, the dreaded Le Havre military prison. “They called him a black man. Was it because of this he found the civilised world his enemy?” Robin Hyde does not assert so. Maybe, she suggests, “Everything — life even— was field punishment … do you know your charge? Charged with being Starkie, sir; and God knows what else.” We are offered no answers in this astonishing book, but are forced instead to re-examine the orthodox assumptions.
Passport to Hell is not a work of fiction. “I have related the incidents,” she wrote, “and the circumstances under which they happened as he told them to me…. Starkie took nothing home from his war but his tattooed captaincy stars, a record of nine courts-martial, and a total of thirty-five years' penal servitude in military sentences, all cancelled for gallantry in action.” The sequel, Nor The Years Condemn, 1938, which covers the post-war “boom and bust” period, is a study of Starkie the returned soldier.
Check to Your King, which followed Passport to Hell in 1936, is likewise not a straight work of fiction. It was when she was delving into the “enormous, unpublished, unpublishable” correspondence of Charles de Thierry, “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand”, that Robin Hyde began to feel herself really at home in her own country, to repair that lack of knowledge of “its story and cultural past” which so fatally split apart for our writers up to that time their inheritance and their experience. Check to Your King is a scintillating performance. Perhaps most striking at first are its strange fluctuations of tone, which spring quite as much from the unresolved conflict in Robin Hyde between the twin page viii selves of historian and poet, as from any artistic necessity in the subject matter. Yet how better could this incredible story be presented?
Charles Philip Hippolytus de Thierry, son of a French émigré of Revolutionary days, bought himself in 1822 a little private kingdom in New Zealand, some 40,000 acres near Hokianga in the North Island, for the price of thirty-six axes. At least, that is what missionary Kendall, to whom £1,000 capital was apparently entrusted, paid over to the Maori chiefs concerned. Fourteen years later, after the forming and bursting of many other impossible bubbles, Charles de Thierry, already “King of Nukahiva”, arrived in New Zealand. With him he brought a shipload of Sydney sharks, his wife the Baroness, his sons, his Princess Isabel, his flag, and his ideals of royal behaviour. He was determined to be a Good King. Here, once more, is the double face of truth, for history writes down de Thierry as an eccentric with delusions of grandeur, a marginal bad joke to the March of Progress. Yet the man evoked in Robin Hyde's reconstruction is a very human being, fallible, vain, courageous, pathetic, honourable and silly. His Utopia came to nothing, but he was not alone in his century in dreaming finely of it, nor in trying to set it up upon some distant savage shore.
Check to Your King, then, is based on historical research, but it is more than a reconstruction; it is an attitude, an interpretation, a point of view. This is why Robin Hyde begins her story breathlessly, with a crackling self-consciousness which puts the huge craziness of the de Thierrys before us in a light both mocking and loving. We are at once associated with the author in her personal approach, so that our tribal defences against marked nonconformity are set aside, and we take a sympathetic stand within the experience, while retaining the independence of an observer. The effect of the kaleidoscopic changes in technique is to give us a lively portrait of the hero and his world. Once she has landed her cargo of Utopians in New Zealand, Robin Hyde handles her story more straightforwardly and brings it, in spite of some guide-book stuffing, to a moving climax.
Check to Your King embodies what was for its author a deeplyfelt theme, for Charles de Thierry is, like Starkie and the Wednesday of her next book, an outsider, “charging bullheaded at the brick wall of materialism.” For all its impractical absurdity, de Thierry's kingdom represents something fundamental to the human heart. “There are things within your gift which don't belong to other principalities; people will see that for themselves.”
What these things might be Robin Hyde tried to show further in page ix her first straight novel, Wednesday's Children. Opinions vary as to her success in this. It was not well received at the time, but the climate today is more welcoming to fantasy than it was in 1937. In my view this story is an effective poetic expression of her sense of lonely integrity, “the only thing worth fighting for”, and of her longing for a free community of human beings “not eaten up by the locusts of other people's dependence on them.” It is a fairy tale of a woman who, giving her windfall fortune away to a children's home, lives in a whare on an island in Auckland Harbour with a gaggle of imaginary but most individual children, sired by lovers of sundry nations, until a suitor from real life shatters the dream. But which is reality? Which is truth? “I was always in bad trouble with the truth.” We can only grieve, once more, that in Robin Hyde's generation there was in New Zealand no literary tradition which might have helped her better to shape her personal myth.
Nevertheless, she was becoming more and more surely a New Zealander. The Auckland of Wednesday's Children, of the opening scenes of Passport to Hell, is solid enough, but is surpassed by the imaginative accuracy of the Wellington which is the setting of her last novel, The Godwits Fly, 1938. Here is her finest evocation of “the world of man, woman, and child” as it was between the wars in this country. Nothing can be better than the first half of this book, with its crystalline impressions of the childhood days of the heroine. Of the harbour, the houses, the hills, the middleclass suburban life, the marital uneasiness, the eroding respectability, Robin Hyde writes brilliantly. Eliza Hannay stands with Starkie and de Thierry as a memorable character creation. Here, far more than in Nor The Years Condemn, is the authentic New Zealand of the 1920's, and that “scent of the people” which she consistently sought in all her work to find and fix. Unfortunately, the adult portion of the book is less effective, distorted possibly by its intimate relation to her own life.
It is in this matter of artistic detachment that the “long migration” of exile might have taught Robin Hyde so much, and brought her, had she lived, the fulfilment of her great promise. The flaws in her work are due in part to her own neurosis, and in part to the literary handicaps of her generation. Her strength lies in that democratic compassion which marked the best of our writers in the Thirties, and in that deepening sense of her self as a New Zealand self, not “aggressively insular”, but with a sense of belonging, an unselfconscious acceptance of these islands as home, for “home is where one starts from”. Only when this is so normal page x as to be unremarkable can writers be released from the colonial dilemma to explore their proper subject matter, life. That she herself had played her part in making this possible, she knew when she wrote from China in August 1938:
“Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation, and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be ‘for ever England’. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.”