Monday, June 18, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“YOUR UNSELFISH KINDNESS –Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings” Edited by Mary Edmond-Paul (Otago University Press, $NZ40)

            I have to begin this review with an admission of my profound ignorance.

            Of course “Robin Hyde” (Iris Wilkinson, 1906-39) is somebody about whom I have read in all the standard surveys and histories of New Zealand literature. She was the  precociously-gifted South African-born New Zealand journalist, poet, novelist and non-fiction writer who burned brightly and produced much in the 1930s, before her suicide in London in 1939, at the age of 33.

            I knew that she (along with other women writers) was often dismissed or ridiculed by the rising male writers of the time (Glover, Fairburn, Sargeson etc.) who were aggressive in producing a nationalist, male-oriented version of New Zealand literature. In the last thirty years of so, Robin Hyde has been brought back into public consciousness, partly by the publication of a very big biography of her (The Book of Iris) jointly written by her son Derek Challis and by her friend the late Gloria Rawlinson; and partly by the publication of her journalism and of her collected poems, edited by Michele Leggott under the title Young Knowledge. Many of her hitherto unpublished pieces have seen the light of day thanks to academe, the feminist part of which sees her as torn between (and perhaps destroyed by) her desire for a career in writing on the one hand, and the strict social expectations of her day on the other.

            I also have to note that, over the years, I was told some more personal things about Robin Hyde by my old friend and neighbour the craft printer Ronald Holloway (1909-2003), who knew her when he was a young man in his twenties.

            But you can see that nearly all of what I know about Robin Hyde, I know only at second hand. I have never plunged in and read much of what Hyde wrote, and you cannot say you know a writer until you have read that writer. Years ago I read Check to Your King, Hyde’s amusing (and historically fairly unreliable) account of Baron de Thierry in early New Zealand. More recently I read Passport to Hell, the first of her two “factual novels” about the semi-criminal Great War veteran “Starkie”, and a little of her journalism. But that’s all. I am in no position to pass judgment on Hyde’s work or to make informed comment on the quality of her published writing.

            So am I the right person to read and comment on Your Unselfish Kindness?

            You judge.

            Edited, introduced and scrupulously footnoted by Mary Edmond-Paul of Massey University, Albany, Your Unselfish Kindness consists of very personal writing Robin Hyde did between 1934 and 1936 – a 1934 “Autobiography”,  a 1935 “Journal”, various fragments from journals, an autobiographical story called The Cage With the Open Door and an untitled essay on mental health.

            The autobiography and the journal take up most of the volume.

            Mary Edmond-Paul prefaces each piece of writing with detailed remarks on the given document’s provenance, and in some cases she comments on the way some surviving documents have pieces missing. (For example, when the “Journal” was in their keeping, Gloria Rawlinson and her mother appear to have removed and destroyed some pages which probably made negative references to Mrs Rawlinson’s own mental health.)

            Everything here was written when Hyde was a voluntary inmate of The Lodge, a residential facility attached to Auckland’s mental hospital in Avondale. She entered The Lodge in 1933, at the age of 27, after a suicide attempt. By that time, she had already suffered more than one nervous breakdown. She had developed a drug habit (mainly morphine) partly as a result of botched treatment on a damaged leg when she was a teenager (which left her slightly lame). She had also had two sons, by different fathers, out of wedlock. One of her sons, either stillborn or dying soon after birth, she called Robin. The other was Derek Challis, who was fostered out. Social judgments on extra-nuptial birth were far harsher then, and there was little sympathy for the solo mother. In the autobiography, I think I detect Robin Hyde simultaneously defying and craving for the type of respectability that settled domesticity would have conferred.

            Lest all this make Robin Hyde sound too much like a hapless victim, it’s also necessary to note that she was already beginning to make her way as a writer. She had worked as a journalist on a number of newspapers, was a very competent and witty parliamentary reporter, wrote perceptively on social issues, and had published at least one volume of poetry. In many ways she was a hard-nosed and clear-eyed person.

            Mary Edmond-Paul’s 44-page introduction makes it clear that the psychiatric treatment Hyde received at The Lodge was very advanced and enlightened for its age. Dr Gilbert Tothill encouraged her to write about herself as a form of therapy, and in doing so he seems to have helped put her back on the path of creativity. Some of her major published works were also written when she was at The Lodge.

            Edmond-Paul spends some time discussing the history of psychiatric treatment. She acknowledges the feminist view that some mental disorders of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be seen as a form of “rebellion” against women’s constricted social roles and limited opportunities. But she very sensibly cautions that such a schematization of mental illness can mask the particularities of each individual case. Robin Hyde was a woman under much social pressure, but she was also an individual.

            Edmond-Paul does broach the topic of “transference” – that attachment (amounting to love) which a psychiatric patient can develop for a psychiatrist. Robin Hyde seems to have felt strongly about Dr Tothill, to whom her unpublished “diagnostic and explanatory” autobiography was addressed and whom she thanked for “your unselfish kindness”. She also had warm feelings for another doctor, Kathleen Todd.

            So, after all these necessary preliminaries, what sort of writing is Your Unselfish Kindness?

            The 1935 journal is concerned with Hyde’s immediate circumstances and how she related to doctors and other residents at The Lodge. It is far less association-driven and stream-of-consciousness than the 1934 autobiography is, and says a lot about the small community of journalists and writers in Auckland in the 1930s. On a purely personal note, I had the pleasure of discovering in the journal Robin Hyde’s passing comments on young Ronald Holloway’s love life; and later the pleasure of reading her poem contrasting Holloway with the grumpier printer Bob Lowry, at the time when Ron gave her a hand-made book in which she kept diary fragments.

            In this journal, Hyde speaks of the difficulty of making a living as a writer. One dodgy deal proposed by a publisher (over the publication of Passport to Hell) leads her to reflect:

            If this world is sane, I am unquestionably mad – and vice versa – I have many symptoms of mental derangement. I lose things, and they aren’t really lost – hunt in my bag again and again for papers, tickets etc….. Sudden gaps appear in my memory. Also, am subject to extraordinary fits of hate, in which I tremble, usually weep, and wish to do murder with a good deal of blood – these are occasioned by ladies in the bathroom, too much noise from the radio, too much polish on the floor, or the merest glimpse of our Matron, for whom I feel the same unmitigated aversion that I had in my childhood for lentils.” (Pg.225)

            To me such writing, typical of this volume, represents at once the severe nervous disorder and hyper-sensitivity Hyde was suffering, and the clarity of her mind. She is able to write lucidly of her condition and provide a somewhat self-deprecating critique of it. This is a sane and rational woman in a state of emotional disorder -  not a madwoman.

            The Cage with the Open Door is very autobiographical, and more packed with detail on the Auckland scene than the other writings in this volume. The unpublished “essay” on mental health is really another reflection on the nature of The Lodge and its care, though this time written up in more generic terms. (It seems to have been intended for publication in an American magazine.)

            Inevitably, though, what held my attention most in Your Unselfish Kindness were the 108 pages of the longest document, the 1934 “Autobiography”.

            It is in effect her Apologia Pro Vita Sua, justifying herself and her life to Dr Tothill, asking for his acceptance (and forgiveness?) and constantly presenting her behaviour as less wicked than it has been painted by others. Highly impressionistic and occasionally including drafts of poems, it is not in strict chronological order. It moves roughly from her childhood to her present condition, replaying emotional highlights, her views on various lovers, the trauma and the psychic wrench of the birth of her two sons, and her treatment (often unsympathetic) in different nursing homes in Sydney and in New Zealand. The tone is sometimes cajoling and playful (she is addressing a man she seems to love, after all), sometimes self-analytic and often almost stream-of-consciousness, drifting by association from one topic to the next.

            Robin Hyde displays what is a gift for creative people – the gift of self-mythologization. It is seen in such statements as “You told me once not to be Joan of Arc. If the burning of my maimed body and mind could only help, I’d be Joan of Aywhere if I went to Hell for it.” (Pg.131). It is seen too in her habit of inventing (partly for the sake of discretion) fantastic names for the people she knows – “Haroun” for the father of one of her sons, “Schon Rosmarin” for Mrs Rawlinson, “Jezebel” for an early woman friend and so on.

            Very early in the autobiography, the note of vulnerability is sounded, when she recalls childhood episodes:

 I told you there were two men who wanted me, while I was still very young. About the second I may just conceivably be wrong, though I don’t think so. His secretive desire to have me alone, to pet me, make me little gifts, may, it is possible, have been a rather maudlin fatherliness. But I don’t think so…” (Pg.71). She then goes on to tell of another man who forcibly kissed her when she was seven.

            I am fully aware that Robin Hyde was an intelligent grown woman, and I have no desire to compromise her “agency” or turn her into a victim, interpretations which would raise the hackles of her feminist admirers.  But I do find this note of vulnerability throughout the autobiography. At the very least, Robin Hyde was emotionally fragile. Some men took advantage of this fact. Here you may, if so inclined, insert some comment about loving “not wisely but too well”. I am half admiring and half amazed at how forgivingly (and lovingly) Hyde writes of the fathers of her sons, neither of whom hung around long enough to support her in any substantial way. She does not submit to every man who admires her. A Queen Street pharmacist supplied her with her morphine, and once helped her smuggle it into the hospital (it was intercepted and she was punished). She knows his ulterior motives and refers to him as “a chemist who is always trying to become my lover”. But she did not let him have his way. She was not that gullible about men. She is self-critical of her own tendency to gush emotionally, as when she writes  Oh dear! As usual after reading over a page and a paragraph of this, I wonder if I should have cut it down to half a dozen facts, naked as they came into the world.” (Pg.73)

            Even so, there is throughout the autobiography this vulnerability, this hunger to be loved and accepted. She wanted to believe that her affairs were pure and unsullied and she wanted to remember them in their best possible guise. She writes “… I did dream over Haroun’s old letters, and once, at a most uncleanly little spiritualistic séance, blasphemed the past by hunting for him….. At least it ended in a flare of anger, not in tears – It may have helped to drive my most intimate memories of him far away…” (Pg.130)

            Who is more vulnerable than the willing, credulous attender of a séance?

            Out of all of this, can one admit that somebody can be at one and the same time mature, adult, perceptive and self-critical AND vulnerable, suggestible and emotionally-fragile?

            I hope so, because that is the overriding impression I am given by this book.

            I find a similar duality in the autobiography’s prose. It can be purple, as in “wisteria pours in pale amethyst torrents down either side of wide shallow steps of white stone…..” etc. etc. (pg.94). Yet Robin Hyde is aware of her stylistic sins, accusing herself of being “Ethel M. Dell-ish” when she introduces a portrait of one lover. There are also sharp and stinging passages, such as her account of an attempt to run away from one residency in a half-drugged state, and becoming aware of her situation only when she felt the gravel hurting her bare feet.

            If I were to nominate the most heart-wrenching passage in the book, it would be that in which she explains why she has chosen as her pen-name “Robin”, the name of her first, and stillborn, child:

            You’ll wonder how I could, in writing poems and in the talk of my friends, let myself be called ‘Robin’. 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. At first it cut me when people used a pen-name, or rather a nom de guerre, in speaking to me. Then it seemed a little unconscious friendliness to him, something given without knowledge. I saw to it that only people whom I liked very much ever used it – Sentiment!” (Pg.150)

            Yes, I can see how she cuts herself off abruptly with that last word. But there is still the thwarted motherhood and domesticity, the love, the pain. Forgive me. The old residual male chauvinist in me reasserts itself. Partly encouraged by the familiar photographs of her, with those doe-like, pleading eyes, I want to put my arm around her shoulder and say “It’s not that bad, really.”

            Oops. I’d make a bad psychiatrist. Her words are giving me reverse-transference, amateur shrink to patient. I firmly remind myself that I am dealing with an intelligent adult who wanted to be independent, not with a doormat.

            I have to remember that most of the contents of Your Unselfish Kindness were not intended for publication. They were private, unrevised confession. Reading this book, we are forced to consider the person rather than the writer, and we may be tempted (as I have been) to consider Robin Hyde as a “case” to diagnose. This is not her best epitaph, surely?

            I was fascinated by Your Unselfish Kindness, but my conscience was also jabbed with the thought that I really must get around to reading seriously Robin Hyde’s published work.

            I hope such a reaction was the editor’s intention.

1 comment:

  1. very good one man!!!!...
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