Scoop Review of Books

Review of Your Unselfish Kindness – Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings

Your Unselfish Kindness – Robin Hyde’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Mary Edmond-Paul (Otago University Press 2012)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

New Zealand writer Robin Hyde is perhaps best known – if at all – as a poet. In her short lifetime (33 years) she also wrote short stories, documentary novels such as Passport to Hell (1936), and autobiographical fiction such as The Godwits Fly (1938).

Here’s a precursor to most of that: a well -chosen menu of mainly unpublished writings from one of New Zealand’s first good writers – and thinkers. Hyde’s 1934 autobiography, encouraged as therapy by the kindly Dr Gilbert Tothill, and the 1935 journal are interspersed with journal fragments, a short story and an essay on mental health. Although Robin Hyde the poet is evident in the autobiography, it is in fact her first long prose piece. Painstakingly researched and heavily footnoted by Massey academic Mary Edmond-Paul, the introduction is scholarly work. This fulsome background to Iris Wilkinson/Robin Hyde and her circumstances is a substantial entree to what we really came to the table for.

Psychiatrist Tothill’s advice to Hyde to “write autobiography in order to discover the source of her fear and anxiety” offered a new treatment for mental illness. The title words are Hyde’s to Tothill, who moved her from a crowded mental hospital to a more congenial halfway house where she had more freedom to be herself – and to write. The writings also disclose some of the early twentieth century mental health “problems”, facilities and treatments along with the introduction of Freudian and Jungian thinking.

Hyde’s intelligence and open mind, wide reading and understanding of others may seem extraordinary for her age but maybe her scholarship was not so extraordinary for those classical educational times. (Are there still schoolgirls who choose to buy Spenser and Keats with their school prize money?) And with her acute sensitivity she could see that the returned soldier boyfriend who fathered their dead son (named, in her head, as Robin Hyde) before marrying a widow eleven years his senior was “someone puzzled, lonely, deprived of his own youth” by war.

Passionate about women’s rights – or lack thereof – and clearly on the side of the workers, Hyde is frustrated by having to report frippery on the society pages of the papers she works for. Her teeth are ready for the grist of career journalism and her own writing, as well as for travel, war-reporting and life experience. Some of her best writing is in her observations and descriptions of people and places.

The autobiographical writing is no more self-conscious and rambling than were Katherine Mansfield’s self-conscious letters to John Middleton Murry. Like Mansfield, Hyde was writing for an audience of one, not for the world. And there are gems such as: “my landlady’s husband was a vintage wine among the unemployed” and “where the sunlight plays like a quiet golden child”. As she moves between stream of consciousness and self-consciousness, with literary allusion and quotes (sometimes of her own poems) through schoolgirl French, Hyde herself acknowledges that “bits of it are artificial. The work of a poseur(?), the rest mostly futile”. Not so. We don’t often see into the mind of a developing writer and experience the frustrations of the world around her. Janet Frame did it for us to read; Robin Hyde did it for her doctor as part of her recovery process. And her health problems were not only of the mind. She experienced acute bodily ill health and unfortunate medical treatments throughout her short adulthood, including disastrous treatment with addictive drugs. Illnesses and two pregnancies (as a single woman) contributed to her mental anguish.

Edmond-Paul’s fascinating journey through Hyde’s development as a woman and a writer is welcomed not only by Hyde followers, but for those interested in the social history and treatment of “difference” in the early part of the twentieth century.