Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima (Massey University Press, 2020), 95pp, $45
The ghost of Robin Hyde shifts in the shadows of our history: poet, novelist, journalist; invalid, mother, drug addict; lady editor at the Wanganui Chronicle, war correspondent during the early months of the Sino-Japanese War in China. A dreamer, she wrote of herself, ‘and a lover’. Hyde, the pen name of Iris Guiver Wilkinson, stands tall in the New Zealand literary canon, but Wilkinson herself, Cape Town-born and immigrating to New Zealand when she was a baby, appears only dimly in the male-led literary world of the 1930s—a ‘trying thing’, wrote the acerbic Frank Sargeson, a ‘silly bitch’.1
Wilkinson hid for most of her writing life behind the pseudonym, what she called her ‘nom de guerre’, adopted in 1926; in Shining Land, she becomes both closer and tantalisingly out of reach, her short life glimpsed through the haunting images of photographer Haru Sameshima and the reflective, lyrical text of Paula Morris. ‘None of us knows what we’re looking for exactly,’ writes Morris. ‘We are hoping to sense the past below the mown and the overgrown. The ghost we seek is Robin Hyde.’
Shining Land—the title is taken from Hyde’s poem ‘Meeting in Sarras’, referring to the mystical island of Arthurian legend—is the second in the Kōrero series of writer–artist collaborations (‘picture books for grown-ups’, we are told) published by Massey University Press. Comparisons, at this point in the series at least, are inevitable. Designed by Gary Stewart, both books are spare, elegant, beautiful to hold. But where the first publication, High Wire by Lloyd Jones and Euan Macleod, saw writer and artist in a slow, close, two-way conversation across place (Macleod lives in Australia) and medium, this book is a more of a tag-team road trip chasing the fading footsteps of their subject.
It begins in 2020, just before lockdown. Morris and her husband leave Auckland, where Morris was born and where Hyde once lived. They travel to ‘sulphurous, steamy Rotorua’, to the Bath House where Hyde sought relief for the infected knee that would plague her life, to the Prince’s Gate Hotel where she stayed (‘probably’, notes Morris) and where she embarked on an affair (‘quick, careless’, writes Hyde) with Frederick de Mulford Hyde that left her pregnant with her first child, Christopher Robin Hyde. Stillborn, a name still rooted in loss. From here, Morris scoots down to Whanganui and presses her nose against the window of the old Wanganui Chronicle building where Hyde worked briefly until another affair led to another pregnancy and the birth of her second son, Derek. Then on again, to the rustic verandah of the Old Gum Store in Whangaroa Harbour, close to where Hyde spent three weeks in what she described as a ‘stilt-legged Maori cabin’ in remote Saies, working on the final draft of The Godwits Fly.
Sameshima picks up the chase, shaping his own story through a series of evocative, unpeopled photographs: the view from Hyde’s childhood home in Northland, Wellington; the medicine bottles and patient uniforms at Porirua Mental Hospital; the gentle dilapidation of the former Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs; the bush-darkened hills of Whangaroa Harbour. It is a visual record of loneliness, pain, illness, addiction, viewed through a filter of early morning mist, dim lighting, rain-streaked windows.
Back in Auckland, Sameshima and Morris explore what Hyde called the Grey Lodge, a villa attached to the Auckland Mental Hospital, now the Unitec campus, where Hyde stayed intermittently for nearly four years. Morris runs her hand down the timber banister that Hyde once held (residents were expected to clean the handrail); Sameshima lingers in the empty attic where Hyde was allowed to write.
Then off she flies, to war in China, to an attic room in London, to an open gas valve, too many pills and a farewell note signed: Iris Wilkinson/Robin Hyde. She was 33.
‘Everything is smaller in the past,’ Morris writes. ‘Hyde bursts from it, vivid and roaring, all the time wanting too much, too wild inside.’ And yet, the pensive text and moody images in Shining Land do not roar. They whisper, they suggest. They give only fleeting attention to historical context and literary critique; they are atmospheric, poetic and personal.
Morris aligns Wilkinson’s story with her own. Like Hyde, she and Japanese-born Sameshima ‘are wanderers, outsiders’. Born in South Africa, Hyde spent just thirty years in the country that now claims her. Born in Auckland, Morris spent thirty years away from the country of her birth. Just as war stalks Hyde’s life—her father fought in the Boer War, her uncle was killed in Gallipoli, she experienced first-hand the brutality of war in China (the endnotes are well worth reading)—Morris’ grandfather fought at the Somme and Ypres, returning home at twenty-four with ‘a shot-up right arm and wrecked lungs’. Hyde frequented the homes and restaurants of Greys Avenue in Auckland; Morris’s home, in a former shirt factory, is now the only building on that street that Wilkinson would recognise. Hyde could be difficult, writes Morris: ‘She had to keep a lot of secrets.’ Morris describes herself as a difficult woman: ‘I am secretive.’
But, like the Greek goddess of the rainbow that shares her name, Morris’s Iris remains elusive, ephemeral, limping one step ahead of her own short story, writing under different names, working in different towns, clutching at the seclusion and treatments offered by different boarding homes and institutions. ‘We call her Hyde,’ writes Morris, ‘because we’ve met her through her work. We’re camp followers, storm chasers. We don’t know “Iris” at all.’
Difficult, erratic, dismissed by her lovers, disparaged by her peers, Hyde nevertheless shines through this book as a woman and a writer of remarkable courage and enduring relevance. ‘When I pass the Grey Lodge,’ writes Morris, ‘I peer up at the attic windows for a glimpse of Hyde, sitting at her typewriter—working, working. Perhaps one day I’ll see her. In that window, she told us, a face will dwell forever, my own face looking out.’
- Sarah Shieff (ed.), Letters of Frank Sargeson (Auckland: Vintage, 2012), pp. 14, 20, quoted by Paula Morris in Shining Land.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist, writer and editor in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.