Your Unselfish Kindness: Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Mary Edmond-Paul, (Otago University Press, 2012) 327 pp., $40.
The Lodge, a big wooden house on the edge of Mt Albert, Auckland is a landmark I’ve passed hundreds of times; my sister lives nearby. It was once part of the mental hospital that, growing up, I knew as Carrington. For years I had a vague notion of the building’s one-time role as a place of rest and recovery, but I didn’t realise how important a place it was to the life and work of Robin Hyde. In the mid 1930s, the Lodge was to prove a sanctuary where Hyde was given the time and physical space to read and to write – including two substantial pieces, a 1934 autobiography, and a 1935 journal, published in their entirety for the first time here in Your Unselfish Kindness.
Hyde — born Iris Wilkinson in 1906 — arrived at the Lodge in the winter of 1933, after the second major breakdown in her life had culminated in a suicide attempt in the Waitemata Harbour. She’d been plucked from the sea and arrested, incarcerated in a bleak cell in Auckland Hospital that usually housed binge-drinkers. Hyde was a voluntary patient at the Lodge, her first visit lasting only a month before expulsion to the main hospital after getting caught trying to smuggle in morphine.
But by the end of 1933 Hyde was back there, under the benevolent care of psychiatrists Dr Henry Buchanan and — most crucially — Dr Gilbert Tothill, and lived at the Lodge off and on for almost four years. Her final departure was early in 1937, after Tothill had moved on and Hyde had lost her main confidante and protector. During her time at the Lodge, Hyde managed to secure a room of her own — first a bedroom, later an attic study where the clatter of her typewriter wouldn’t disturb anyone.
There she wrote two collections of poetry (‘blessed, healing poetry’), a memoir, stories, journals, letters and autobiographical fragments, freelance journalism, three novels. She also completed most of the work on her most famous novel The Godwits Fly. (This latter ‘is utter tripe or faintly promising,’ she declares in 1935.) It was at the Lodge, perhaps, that Iris Wilkinson truly became Robin Hyde.
Much of Hyde’s adult life was spent shuffling from squalid boarding houses to spartan baches, living off ‘bread and butter, tea and the tin-opener,’ following small-time journalism jobs around the country, anxious about supporting her small son. So although she was a self-proclaimed ‘hedgehog … curled up, prickly and nervous’ who often complained about life at the Lodge – bossy matron, troubled and noisy housemates, medication she disliked, the fact that she couldn’t see the moon from her verandah-sheltered bedroom — Hyde found a place of refuge there, emotionally, physically and creatively. She even had her own slice of garden to tend, part of Tothill’s therapy and a source of much happiness. The 1934 autobiography, printed here, is vivid if elliptical, written for Tothill as a supplement to their conversations. ‘I wonder if you see, or if you believe me?’ she writes, plaintively. ‘It seems so urgent to write this.’
Hyde’s autobiographies, intersecting at many points with her fiction (including the story ‘The Cage with the Open Door’, printed here), keep returning to her physical and emotional legacies, to what is lost: her first love, Harry Sweetman, who sailed off to England with high hopes but died of pneumonia there in 1926; her first son, Christopher Robin Hyde, who died at birth in Sydney later that same year; or her own health, compromised after a tubercular infection in a knee that left her crippled and drug-addicted. Part of the lost child’s name became her own nom-de-plume. ‘You’ll wonder how I could, in writing poems and in the talk of my friends, let myself be called “Robin,”’ she writes in the 1934 autobiography, speaking directly, as ever, to Tothill. ‘Don’t you see, it was because he was so utterly denied and forgotten, buried so deep – for my safety! I wanted that lost name to have its significance, after all.’
The fathers of her two sons are ghosts haunting the pages here, glib cameos rather than great loves. Baby Robin’s father, Frederick de Mulford Hyde, supplied money when she was hiding away in Sydney and then married — in haste — someone else; Harry Lawson Smith, father of her second son, Derek Challis, was already married. The best he could manage was an offer to pay half the cost of an abortion. Hyde seemed to drift in and out of these two affairs but she strode into single motherhood, conscious — if not ashamed — of bearing the tarnish of two out-of-wedlock pregnancies. ‘Am I mad, or merely unclean?’ she wonders, recalling first confessing her ‘crimes’ at the Lodge.
Physical pain and awareness of her physical decline barb her recollections. ‘It’s over ten years that my body has been a burden to me,’ Hyde complains in 1935, describing herself as ‘crippled, quite suddenly, and, hanging between two crutches, so heavy — How I’d love to be invisible, inaudible, intangible ….’
That longing for invisibility could well have extended to other aspects of her life. When she was pregnant with Robin in Sydney, Hyde’s landlady was ‘suspicious and watchful’ and ‘made no bones whatever about “knowing what she knew.”’ When Hyde was pregnant with Derek in the Marlborough Sounds, her landlady wanted ‘a visible, audible, tangible husband’ and called Hyde ‘a wicked woman.’
Office gossip during that supposedly secret pregnancy lost Hyde her job on the Wanganui Chronicle. As an infant, Derek was a secret, to be hidden away and cared for by other people. Even Hyde’s attempt at suicide in the harbour was observed, intercepted, punished, and life at various mental institutions — including the Lodge — involved some level of confinement and control. No wonder she grew to relish small freedoms like lying in the grass, or catching a tram into town; no wonder she longed for escape – in her work, in a war, in death. The New Zealand that emerges between the lines of Hyde’s autobiographical work is sometimes a place of tolerance and opportunity. At other times it seems depressingly tight-lipped and provincial, too small and too ready to judge.
When she left the Lodge, the final act of Hyde’s short life began: war correspondent in China, author and social campaigner in London. But the demons that drove her to the Lodge in the first place – depression, physical pain, addiction, the impulse to suicide – followed Hyde across the world. She didn’t survive another suicide attempt, this one in London, in 1939, when she was 33.
She left behind the books, unpublished manuscripts, and – in New Zealand – her son, Derek Challis, who was not quite nine-years-old. Your Unselfish Kindness, edited by Hyde scholar Mary Edmond-Paul, is dedicated to Challis, co-author of the 2002 sort-of biography The Book of Iris. Edmond-Paul’s introduction here investigates asylums and psychiatry, and discusses Hyde’s complex relationship with Tothill. It’s useful and interesting, though plagued by some unwieldy sentences. (Allen Curnow, Edmond-Paul writes, ‘editorialised on her poetry to the effect that it improved as she came to know her country.’)
There’s darkness here, of course, but also great spirit, and whimsy. Much of the work included is unstructured and tentative; Hyde, as the footnotes remind us, gets things wrong. She wanders and evades and avoids. ‘I intended a spruce record of life here,’ Hyde sighs, ‘ – but the thread keeps catching on the thorn of a minute …’ Lucky for us. The disorder, digressions and intimacy of the narrative take us into the Lodge, and into Hyde’s last years in New Zealand, with all their obstacles, all their possibilities.
PAULA MORRIS (Ngati Wai) is a fiction writer from Auckland. Her most recent novel, Rangatira, won the fiction categories of the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards and the Nga Kupu Ora Maori Book Awards. She is fiction writer-in-residence at the University of Sheffield.
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