The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
De Thierry. 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 It was when she was delving into the "enormous, unpublished, unpublishable" correspondence of Charles de Thierry, "Sovereign Chief of New Zealand", that Robin Hyde began to feel herself really at home in her own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" of which she spoke in the article already quoted. Check to Your King is a scintillating performance. Perhaps most striking at first are its awkward fluctuations of tone. These spring from the unresolved conflict in Robin Hyde between the twin selves of historian and poet, the serious artist and the over-colourful reporter. Yet how better could this incredible story be presented?
Charles Philip Hippolytus de Thierry, son of a French emigre 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, is said to have paid over to the Maori chiefs concerned. Fourteen page 57 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. As in Passport, Robin Hyde is searching for "the truth 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 ..."
Was Starkie a criminal desperado, or a hero? Truth has a "double face". Was Baron de Thierry a rogue, a lunatic, or a man of fine ideas and fine ideals?
History writes him down as an eccentric with delusions of grandeur, a marginal bad joke in 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 upon some distant savage shore.
Check to Your King, then, is based on historical research, but it is more than a reconstruction, it is a personal attitude, an interpretation, a point of view. This is why Robin Hyde begins her story so breathlessly, with a zestful selfconsciousness 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 guidebook stuffing, to a moving climax. Check to Your King embodies what was for its author a deeply felt 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."