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Looking for the Dottoressa: Dr Helen Macdonald Simpson 1890-1960

Rosemary Brewer, Bronwyn Lloyd and Michele Leggott.
Research in progress, University of Auckland, April 2005.

 

In an interview with Rosemary Brewer 3 April 1995 Ursula Bethell's last surviving woman friend, Kathleen Davies, described Dr Helen Simpson as 'Ursula's most long-standing close friend' (Brewer 72). Beyond this information not much is known about the friendship between Ursula Bethell and Christchurch-based writer, teacher and academic Helen Simpson. Simpson does not figure large in Bethell’s archive though she is the most scholarly, public, and literary of her later close women friends. The low archival profile may be Simpson’s own choice (she helped establish the collection now housed at the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Library). But it might also be the consequence of a friendship conducted in person rather than by correspondence. From the mid-1930s Bethell and Simpson lived in adjoining suburbs (Merivale and St Albans) and there was perhaps no call for letters when visits were easily arranged. Their exchanges may have been more conversational than documentary. Whatever the case, Dr Helen Simpson’s curiously fugitive presence among the literary and cultural luminaries who surrounded Bethell deserves more attention than it has received to date.


DNZB Helen Macdonald Simpson


Along with Lawrence Baigent, Simpson was Bethell's literary executor. She, Bethell and Baigent began planning a comprehensive edition of the poems before Bethell’s death in January 1945. The work of selection continued beyond 1945, with some input from Charles Brasch, and the first Collected Poems was eventually published by the Caxton Press in 1950. Helen Simpson wrote the brief prefatory Note that accompanied the poems but no editor’s name appeared in the book.

Simpson is perhaps best remembered for writing The Women of New Zealand, published in 1940 as one of a series of government-sponsored centennial surveys. In a letter written by Simpson 6 April 1938 to her relatives Mary and Emily Richmond in Wellington she enclosed a copy of her review of the Everyman edition of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy and discussed the proposed centennial publication:

My Burton article appeared at last some weeks ago and I send it with my love…I've written nowt since but may soon be engaged on something on which I urgently need your advices both as to whether I shall do it and if I do, how. This is strictly between ourselves, but it has been suggested that I should write one of these centennial books – 30,000 to 40,000 words. The thing is not yet settled, either by the authorities or by me, hence the secrecy. The subject I am sorry to say is Women (N.Z. 1840-1940). Both the editor [Oliver Duff] and I think this entirely unnecessary – women have had their part and will therefore be included equally with men, in all the other subjects about which books are to be written. But the Committee insists, and the Editor, after a fight says: Very well, then I want her to write it.
I have thought about it off and on during the 5 or 6 days since it was first mentioned to me, but thus far have had no brilliant ideas, nor indeed many ideas at all. Do you think I ought to try it?

Simpson did agree to undertake the project of writing an account of women's experience in New Zealand and in the closing pages of the resulting book Ursula Bethell's contribution to New Zealand literature is acknowledged:

Last and greatest, Miss Ursula Bethell need fear comparison with none. Her spacious scholarship, wide humanity, and delicate perceptiveness have been, with exquisite craftsmanship, transmuted into poetry at once rich in content and finely austere in form. Hers is the most individual voice in New Zealand literature to-day: no other woman's, and only one man's can compare. (Simpson 165)

Simpson’s DNZB biographer, Bronwyn Labrum, and the records of the University of Canterbury contribute more detail to the portrait of a remarkable woman. Helen Macdonald Richmond was born 21 November 1890 in Wellington. Her father was a solicitor and both sides of the family were part of the Richmond, Atkinson and Hursthouse clans who played a major role in the settler government of the country. Helen attended school in Wellington and was enrolled at Canterbury University College from 1916. She graduated BA in 1919 and appears in the records of the University as an MA graduate in 1920, with first-class honours in English and French. She was awarded a scholarship for post-graduate study 1920-23 at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, and completed a PhD in 1923 on the work of Scottish author Henry Mackenzie. Dr Helen Richmond was therefore one of the first New Zealand women to receive an English doctorate.

As an undergraduate, Helen Richmond taught at Rangiruru Girls School while studying for her first degree. She taught at the school again on her return to Christchurch in 1924, and was then appointed assistant lecturer in English and History at Christchurch Teachers Training College 1925-26. She married Arthur Barrows Simpson in Eastbourne, Wellington, 27 January 1927, and the couple travelled that year in England and Europe before returning to Christchurch. There were no children from the marriage.

Simpson taught in the Department of English Language and Literature at Canterbury College 1929-32, at which point, according to University records 'Dr Simpson [was] not prepared to accept re-appointment as Lecturer.' In the History of the University of Canterbury, Simpson is shown to have been on the Council of the University 1939-51:

Dr Helen Simpson was [. . .] a force on the Council, backing good, but often lost, causes with cool judgment, wit and sincerity. During his term as chairman, [J.H.E.] Schroder often received sharp little notes from her criticising a ruling or commenting on a decision. They were signed with a drawing of a cat. (Gardner 233)

She is also shown to have led persistent, unsuccessful attempts to rescind a Council resolution 'that any employee who refused military service on the ground of conscientious objection would be given leave of absence without pay for the duration of the war’ (Gardner 214). It appears that Simpson, like Bethell, was a pacifist during World War II.

It is not clear just when Helen Simpson and Ursula Bethell met but their parallel paths probably converged after Dr Helen’s return from London in 1924 – the same year Bethell and Effie Pollen built and moved into Rise Cottage on the Cashmere Hills. There are only four letters from Simpson to Bethell preserved in the Macmillan Brown archive but each bears witness to an easy, personal relationship, juxtaposing intellectual and domestic matters with breath-taking speed and an entertaining self-awareness. Of the four letters, two are in that part of the inventory which lists letters from 'others.' The remaining two are in the files Bethell kept of responses to her poetry collections, and it is from the earlier of these that we see what looks like the beginning of Simpson’s serious engagement with Bethell’s poetry. The letter is written on Canterbury College letterhead and is undated. It begins with an effusive response to From a Garden in the Antipodes, published in 1929:

41 Holmwood Road

Monday

Please forgive my style in stationery. It's cheap if not chaste –

Yes, well I haven't forgotten that day I spent at Rise Cottage only it was almost too exciting. And your little book almost totally disabled me for going about my various duties when I got home. You see, I turned the iron on, and then I thought I'd read while it got hot. And of course it got too hot – all to the good – more reading while it cooled – and so it went on – a lovely afternoon.

You know, I think it is very beautiful, that little book. The only thing that worries me is that it is so like you talking that I can't get an impersonal view of it. I ought to have read it without (there's a riro! in my garden, now) knowing who done it. As it is, it and Walt Whitman are the only so-called free verse that I really like – and I like it so much because it isn't as free as all that – you can feel its selection & senses & things. This is all tosh & I'd better stop. I obediently, albeit, unwillingly, posted it off to the address you sent. Was it to poor Miss Craighead Salmond? as I thought? because if it was, I'd better write and ask to have it sent back, nicht?

As to me – I'm recovered, thank you very much. Of course we often think about a nice baby (& oh what a nice baby it would be!!!) but we don't know – S's afraid of losing me (don't tell anyone) & indeed I don't a bit want to be lost, but then I don't think I should be. But life isn't very simple. And I think of how when we came away from seeing ‘All Quiet,’ S. said, well they can't get our children anyway. And so they can't.

These hostages to fate – and have we not given enough already? It's cowardly perhaps but I often shake in my shoes as it is. When mother died, I said: I must never love anyone so much again – and straightway went & staked my all once more.

But I often wish we could be careless.

I'm foreseeing – It's a _____ of a life!

I'd better get the breakfast – my love to you both, anyway

Helen M. S.

The love sent by Simpson to two confirms that this letter was written before Effie Pollen’s death in November 1934; the reference to seeing ‘All Quiet’ dates the letter to some point after the New Zealand release in 1931 of the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).[1] Since university stationery is being used, it seems likely that the letter was written 1931-32, when Bethell was still sending copies of the book to friends.

The Simpsons travelled again in England, France and Germany after Helen’s resignation from Canterbury College, though it is unclear how long they were away. By 1936 the couple were back in Christchurch, living at Holmwood Rd. But despite the obvious warmth of Helen’s relationship with the women at Rise Cottage there are no surviving Simpson letters from the time spent overseas or from the period around Effie’s death in 1934. Alongside the absence in the archive of letters from Effie Pollen and Bethell’s beloved sister Rhoda who lived in England, it may be possible to read a decision taken by Bethell and her executors to remove some (not all) private correspondence from the literary archive. In this light it seems significant that the only surviving letter from Effie in the archive is a note enclosing the first local review of the Garden. It is in the same file of correspondence about the book as Simpson’s undated letter.

The second of Simpson’s letters to Bethell is dated 4 June 1936, some 20 months after Effie's death and as Bethell was deliberating the contents of Time and Place, published by the Caxton Press in September that year. Simpson has been asked for a critical opinion, and Interestingly her letter discusses the contents for not one but two projected volumes, one of them a second Rise Cottage collection, a follow-up to From a Garden in the Antipodes. Simpson refers to the poem 'October 1935,' the first of Bethell's memorials to Effie, recommending its inclusion in the new volume:

41 Holmwood Road

4.6.36

You know I'm not much good at this – I like them all too much – but I will try to be sensible. I think the October 1935 should go in. They are all private really, certainly that more so but still – could it be a sort of dedication? be put first? perhaps apart from the others? Either that or at the end though I find it difficult.

[. . .]  

May Night or Vigil is lovely. Of course I see & feel it from the hills too, & wouldn't the general reader? doesn't the ‘city-plain’ give the hint (which isn't the word I want)? Rainy Morning and the riro seems to fit but if you are getting crowded (if) both it & the lovely Autumn 1934 would go in the new Rise Cottage volume, nicht? So too would May Night? But I think they would all go here, too. (And if Autumn 1934 was prophetic – so was its last verse please)   

This isn't very definite or suggestive I'm afraid – & I've been a long time coming to it…No day is ever as I expect it to be. What a little sweet creature K is. And did you see the D.K.R's? On my next visit I was considerably cheered & S. thinks it's all right though we both still feel there are others here better than anything in the show.

My love to you. I wish I were more helpful. If the gods had made me considerably more poetical or a little less so, my general usefulness would be more evident.

Helen

Effie is going to like this volume.

The ‘D.K.R’s’ probably refers to a selection of D.K. Richmond paintings on show in Christchurch at the time; D.K. (Dorothy Kate) Richmond was Simpson’s aunt. As for the poems, Time and Place was in the event small and calendar-like; 16 poems in all, four per season. ‘October 1935’ was not included, ‘May Night’ became part of the Winter section, and ‘Eros. Agape. Autumn 1934,’ the poem that seemed prophetic of Effie’s death, was included in the same section re-titled ‘Warning of Winter.’ ‘Rainy Morning’ went into Day and Night (Caxton, 1939). It is one of many Bethell poems in which the riro riro (grey warbler) is a ‘rainbird’ whose invisible song signifies first the happiness of the Rise Cottage years and later the abiding grief of their loss. It was a signal Bethell’s readers and friends understood and sometimes reported back to her (‘there’s a riro! in my garden, now’).

The new Rise Cottage volume may be Day and Night, larger than Time and Place, still without the memorial poems for Effie, but containing mostly pieces written during the years on the Cashmere Hills.

In the third letter to Bethell dated Thursday 14 November 1940 Simpson was working as an examination supervisor:

I've written so many letters to you in my head that I could almost persuade myself I had actually posted at least one. But my heart, which I find a safer guide, tells me it isn't so. And why? because, I suppose, I allow all the comparatively unimportant things first place. I'm sorry.
[ . . .]
And now I think I shall retire onto the stairs with the thermos flask and appropriate accompaniments, leaving my puppy-like assistant to care for those busy young scribes…poor children – they must be so tired after nearly 3 weeks of it. I used to wilt with them, but I am calloused & immune with long experience. My love to those you think will accept it.

In the fourth letter written 12 days later on 26 November 1940 Simpson mentioned to Bethell that she was working on a novel, suggesting that they might discuss it at their next meeting:

The book, never fear, is virgin and untouched. The novel? – almost equally so. But I did axually [sic] write a page on my birthday – because I'm fifty (50), and it seemed a suitable moment to begin. But though it has developed very considerably in my alleged mind since Thursday, it is still terribly shy and delicate, and at present unreadable – whether it will ever be anything else we may discuss when we meet. Meanwhilst it is, except when I am over-tired, easily the most amusing game I have ever tried.

All four letters reveal a personal and an intellectual bond between Simpson and Bethell. The pair were gratefully acknowledged by Eric McCormick for critical feedback they supplied mid-1940 on the draft of his Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940). The annotated typescript is still in Bethell’s papers at the Macmillan Brown Library, and a 24-page letter from Bethell incorporating comments from both readers about the first five chapters of the draft is in McCormick’s papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library. McCormick had taken over from Oliver Duff in 1939 as editor of the centennial publications and his letters are full of admiration for the combined critical intelligence of Bethell and Simpson, the latter of whom he referred to at one point as the Dottoressa. The lady doctor took McCormick’s supervision of her centennial survey with characteristic sang froid: ‘Many thanks for your sympathetic letter,’ she wrote to him as deadlines loomed. ‘I am about to order a case of sherry, 10,000 cigarettes, and 1 cwt. of coffee’ (quoted Labrum 2003).

There are also two telegrams from McCormick to Bethell in the Macmillan Brown archive. The first is dated 1 July 1940: ‘ Grateful to you both for your superb criticism. McCormick.’ The second is dated 6 December 1940: ’ Shall be with you in spirit, love to both. McCormick.’ This may refer to the imminent celebration in Christchurch of a recently published book (Simpson’s survey?) mentioned in an undated letter to Bethell of around the same time. Perhaps it was the same ‘virgin and untouched’ book Simpson spoke of to Bethell 26 November 1940 as she turned her attention to novel-writing after the pressures of the centennial project.

When Bethell was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in mid-1944, she wrote to Lawrence Baigent asking him to come and discuss with her (and Helen Simspon?) the practicalities of re-publishing Time and Place and Day and Night. From a Garden in the Antipodes was soon added, and the project took on the dimensions of a collected edition as Bethell sent Baigent unpublished work for consideration, including the six memorial poems. The multiple coordination of the selection process   shows in Simpson’s note, probably addressed to Baigent, and now archived with the manuscripts and associated material for the 1950 Collected Poems along with Bethell’s letters to Baigent from June 1944:

41 Holmwood Rd

Thursday, 10.8.44

In rude haste, I send you these more or less fair copies of the extra poems for Miss Bethell's volume, together with the verse for The Long Harbour that Denis apparently cut out in Time & Place.

Just off to see U.B, and want to tell her this job is done.

My respects

Helen M. Simpson

Tell me where I can be of any help.

Two letters written about Ursula Bethell by Helen Simpson to her relatives in Wellington have recently been found in the Richmond family archive at the Turnbull Library. They offer valuable insight into Ursula Bethell's final days and powerfully convey the depth of the friendship between the two women:

To the Misses Richmond
15 Easedale Street
Wellington C1

9 January 1945

41 Holmwood Road
Christchurch

My little darlings M & R & N.N,

[. . .]

No I am not dead. I am not anything like dead; but you are right – there is not very much left of darling Ursula and every time I say goodbye to her I feel it is very likely to be the last time, and though there is so very little left she weighs heavily on my mind and heart. The whole thing has become now a tragedy because the young people who were to live with her and who have been occupying her house, have just left for England, earlier than they or anyone else expected. He is a parson, very Welsh – intelligent, intellectual, strong (though not physically), and very lovable and what he and his dear young wife have been to, and done for, Ursula, is beyond all telling.

He has been in NZ for about 3 years but has now been appointed to some position in Bristol which is exactly the work he wants to do. We all thought that Ursula would be safe and at peace long before this and she was well content to think so too. But there it is – she is still here and they have had to leave. And now, though she bore the parting admirably, I'm afraid all is pain to her – mental and spiritual almost more than physical – she cannot find her way and Merlin was so great and so dear a help to her.

Now she is depending almost entirely on me – her brother & a nephew, whom she loves dearly, come in from the country once a week & would come at a moment if called, but though she loves them they are made of a rather different fibre & sometimes she wants them there only for a few minutes, sometimes not at all. Until now I have been going only twice a week. Now I shall go three times at least.

It can't be much longer – I want nothing for her but blessed death now & I hope, I hope she may die in her sleep. She seemed calm yesterday – very tired and weak but perfectly lucid – she is seldom anything else…

The ‘very Welsh’ parson was Merlin Davies, recently married to Kathleen Taylor. The letter card Simpson wrote a few weeks later described Bethell’s death:

Miss Emily Richmond,
15 Easedale Street,
Wellington

Thursday 1/ 2/ 1945

Darlings,

Thank you for your p.c. thank you & my love – I would have written a fortnight ago to tell you of the beloved U.B's death, but supposed that the Wellington papers would have announced it. Evidently they are not aware of her quality and her literary importance. She died on the morning of January 15th – peaceful, the nurse assured me, for the last little hour – I had been with her all the afternoon, from 3 until 7.15 when I left only because her brother came, in answer to a summons. They expected her then to go at any minute and I thought he would be with her – nothing else would have induced me to leave – for she was restless and unhappy all the afternoon & although I can't be sure that she knew me I think she did, at least part of the time and I should like to have held her hand at the end. The last week was utterly tragic and that afternoon all but unbearable in retrospect. But all is well with her now, & presently the memory of the old magnificent friend, Ursula, will come back, nothing will ever take it away again. I am to write about [torn edge of card unreadable] soon, when I can – at present too much visiting and too much sad news.

Helen Simpson died 6 November 1960, a year after the death of her husband Arthur, whom she had cared for during a prolonged illness that seems to have left little time for writing or publishing through the 1950s. Her own death was sudden, the notice in The Press 7 November named no living family members or friends and gave her Holmwood Rd address. She was cremated 8 November 1960.

Many questions about Helen Simpson’s life and activities remain unanswered, and there appears to be no record of what happened to her papers. Her fragmented, illuminating presence in the records of others (Bethell, the Richmond family, McCormick, Internal Affairs/Centennial publications) leaves no doubt that our national archives are the poorer for that loss. Meanwhile the search should continue for the flashes of mingled wit, erudition and affection that signal Helen Simpson’s engagement with the world she and Bethell shared. After all, perhaps they did meet and discuss her novel late in 1940, and perhaps she was inspired to carry on with that ‘most amusing game.’

 

References

Bethell, Ursula. Letters and postcard to Lawrence Baigent, [1944], 2 June 1944, King’s Birthday [1944], 12 June 1944. MS Papers 558 L4. University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch.

-----. Letter to E.H. McCormick, 27 July [1940]. MS-Papers-0166-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Brewer, Rosemary. ‘A Pilgrim in the Library: the Private Letters and Public Poetry of Mary Ursula Bethell.’ MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1995.

Brasch, Charles. Letters to Lawrence Baigent and Helen Simpson, 27 August 1946. MS Papers 558 L4. University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch.

Gardner, W.J., E.T. Beardsley and T.E. Carter. A History of the University of Canterbury, 1873-1973. Christchurch: University of Canterbury, 1973.

Labrum, Bronwyn. 'Simpson, Helen Macdonald 1890 – 1960.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 16 December 2003

URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/

McCormick, E.H. Letters and telegrams to Ursula Bethell, [1940], 1 July 1940, 6 December 1940. MS Papers 558 C6. University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch.

Simpson, Helen. The Women of New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940.

-----. Letter to [Lawrence Baigent], 10 August 1944. MS Papers 558 L4. University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch.

-----. Letters to Ursula Bethell, [1931-32], 6 June 1936, 14 November 1940, 26 November 1940. MS Papers 558 C18, L1/5, L2/3. University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Library, Christchurch.

-----. Letters to Mary and Emily Richmond, 6 April 1938, 9 January 1945, 1 February 1945. MS Papers 77-173-25/9, 84-056-3/13. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

 

1. Robin Hyde (as ‘Touchstone’) reviewed the film for The New Zealand Observer 6 August 1931, considering it the best film of 1930.


© Rosemary Brewer, Bronwyn Lloyd and Michele Leggott, 2005
 


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Last updated 22 May, 2005