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The Fate of the Iris Wilkinson Manuscripts

Derek Challis 

The present text is a corrected version of the essay published in The Journal of New Zealand Literature 16 (1998): 22-32.  

Much of the fine detail of Iris Wilkinson’s life and death is shrouded in uncertainty, nothing more so than the tortuous pathway followed by her surviving manuscripts and journals.  The difficulty of this passage was increased by the manner of her passing, the proximity of her death in 1939 to the outbreak of hostilities between the Allied and Axis powers, her death occurring in a country at the greatest possible remove from friends and her native land, the tender age of her son, and some ambiguity regarding her own wishes in the matter.  The present paper outlines the events involving the manuscripts after Iris left New Zealand, her correspondence with her family, her friends and her lawyer regarding them, and their eventual fate. 

Iris Wilkinson left Auckland on the S.S. Awatea on 18 January 1938 bound for England via Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kobe, Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian Railway.  The elaborate route was chosen because it was still at that time perceived as a noteworthy adventure and she planned to use material collected along the way for a saleable travel book.  Before departure she visited her Wellington family home at 92 Northland Road and deposited for safe-keeping a substantial collection of published and redundant material with her mother, Nelly Wilkinson. 

After Christmas she returned briefly to The Lodge at the Auckland Mental Hospital in Avondale to prepare for the journey.  As Rosalie Rawlinson, with whom she was in constant touch at this time, recalled, 'Iris's ideas of luggage for a long and demanding journey such as this were weird and wonderful; [she had] two large exceedingly heavy suitcases of manuscripts and papers, one middling carelessly packed case of clothing'.  The case of clothing contained absolutely 'Nothing suitable for Siberia in March.’ [1] 

The suitcases of papers contained work in preparation; the later poems from 1935 to the end of 1937 mostly published later in Houses by the Sea, and the Later Poems';[2] the manuscript of A Home in This World;[3] the short stories comprising the volume of fantasy stories 'Unicorn Pasture’;[4] the manuscript of the long poem The Book of Nadath,[5] the incomplete verse version of the De Thierry story, 'De Thierry's Progress'[6] and other manuscripts, many of them in multiple versions.  Much of this material was subsequently forwarded directly to London from Hong Kong. In a letter to C.A. Marris written in Wuhan (Hankow) in April 1938, she writes: 'So I posted off nearly every scrap of my papers to London in a large Gladstone bag and will be badly upset if that has gone astray'.[7]  Some material, particularly the manuscripts of Houses by the Sea and other recent poems, were kept in hand. After visiting first Shanghai and then Guangzhou (Canton) Iris travelled by train to the provisional capital and administration centre, Wuhan. There she eventually received permission to travel on to the important railway junction and rural centre Xuzhou (Hsuchow) which was close to the Chinese Taierhzhuang front.  The case containing the poems was left behind for safe-keeping at Wuhan. 

From Xuzhou on May 19th, with the Japanese conquest of the city an accomplished fact and her own fate decidedly uncertain, she wrote of the poems to her mother and family: 

The last poems I've been writing [ . . . ] are a longish series about Wellington, from Island Bay to your sewing machine, and [ . . . ] one called 'Fragments From Two Countries' which I intended for C.A. Marris's Art in New Zealand [ . . . ] They're in Hankow, with a suitcase and my typewriter.  In a codicil to my will written and signed before I left Hankow, I explained as best I could the location of my mss and papers and I do hope you can recover them all.  Mr Edge is my business executor and trustee, but I appointed you and old Gwen my literary executors -- that is, you’re to sort out my stuff for publication because in the end I trust you two to be loyal to me if I'm dead, even beyond other good friends. But please, Mother, don’t let prejudice of any kind stop the publication either of my work, if it's good enough, or of anything whatsoever about my life, if anybody should be interested in it [ . . . ] Don’t tear anything up please.[8] 

On the same day she wrote to her solicitor, W R. Edge, discussing the distribution of her estate, leaving her crystal and the co-authorship of  'The Unbelievers’[9] (if she wanted it) to Gloria; her typewriter to Mr Edge, and the instruction:           

     Do try to reclaim both the suitcase of mss which is at Messrs Neale and Wilkinson, London -- shipped through L.D. Nathan’s -- and my Gladstone bag of mss shipped through the Hong Kong office of Thomas Cook’s to the London office of that firm [ . . . ] it contains the best of my recent poetry.[10] 

Iris survived the fall of Xuzhou and returned to Hong Kong by sea from the port of Qingdao (Tsingtao). Once there she spent a period in hospital recuperating and recovering to a degree from the effects of sprue and dysentery, and transcribing her experiences into both poetry and prose.   From Hong Kong she recovered the manuscripts she had left in Wuhan. Her illness precluded further adventures in China and, abandoning the planned Trans-Siberian route, she resumed her journey to England on 11 August, this time by sea. However the ship on which she sailed, the Serooskerk, carried no doctor and her health was so poor and her temperament so irascible that it was thought advisable to transfer her at Singapore to a larger, more suitable vessel.  After a brief period in the Singapore hospital and some minor exploration of Malaysia, she finally left for England on the liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.        

She arrived in England in mid-September and after a brief period in London had recovered the forwarded manuscripts, and by the end of October was installed in an ancient circus caravan in a field in Kent working on 'Accepting Summer',[11] an account of her experiences in China.  By mid-December the first draft was finished and she moved to London to the same boarding house as James Bertram, who became concerned about her poor physical condition and arranged her admission to the Middlesex Hospital. Unable to endure the regime of inactivity and strict diet she discharged herself from the Hospital about 15 January, and spent the next month in a lodging house in complete seclusion, working on the draft of the book. When this task was completed she returned to Bertram’s boarding house for a fortnight and they worked together, with Bertram correcting both her Chinese place names and her Chinese politics. 

She returned briefly to the caravan in Kent, then, with her medical condition deteriorating, went back to the boarding-house again to await entry to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases where she remained from 16 March to 14 April.  On 19 April Iris visited Charles Brasch at Bishop’s Barn in Wiltshire for five days and in this setting completed the final draft of Houses by the Sea. She returned to London to a vacant flat in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury, owned by Heron Carvic, the playwright-actor-manager with whom she was collaborating on the script for the stage-play of Wednesday’s Children. Brasch visited Iris at this address several times in early May and on 13 May she again visited Bishop's Barn, remaining on this occasion for a week.  In early June Iris visited her English cousins the Sircoms in Surrey, then returned to an apartment at 1 Pembridge Square in Kensington. She remained at this address until her suicide on 23 August 1939. 

After her death the apartment and her papers were found in considerable disarray. In late August Nelly Wilkinson, clearly concerned about the security of her daughter's effects, wrote to Mr Grant, the solicitor acting for Iris in place of Mr Edge, who was at that time also in England:      

       Before leaving New Zealand Iris informed me that I was an executor for her will – Will you kindly inform me if this is correct . . . '[12] 

Mr Grant replied, enclosing a copy of the will which Iris had signed on 6 April 1935 and the only one known, but conceded that: 'It seems probable that a new will was made after the execution of the will enclosed'.[13]  No later will was ever found. On 25 September Mr Grant noted: 'Mrs Mitcalfe produced a letter dated Aug 1938 from the S.S. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt referring to Iris's appointment in a codicil, of Mrs Mitcalfe and her mother as Literary Executors -- no letter or writing (from Iris) was ultimately received as yet'.[14]  Although Iris's letter to Gwen, Gwen's letter to the solicitor, or the codicil referred to are not extant, Mr Grant's note confirms that Gwen did receive, and the solicitor did sight, correspondence from Iris en route to England regarding the codicil.        

On 1 December 1939 Mr Wilkinson received a letter from the Department of Internal Affairs passing on information from the High Commissioner's Office in London noting that:           

            Mr W.R. Edge, a solicitor of Auckland, who has been visiting England, claims to be the Executor. It is gathered that there is a will in New Zealand and Mr Edge has sent for it. Certain personal effects of your late daughter have, in the meantime, been taken charge of by the High Commissioner.[15] 

A further letter from Internal Affairs followed. It contained a general description of Iris's effects and noted: 'The greater part of the effects consists of manuscripts and personal letters. Nothing has been destroyed. The cases containing the effects have been consigned to Mr W.R. Edge, who is the executor'.[16]  The described 'effects' made no mention of the script of the stageplay of Wednesday’s Children that had been such a serious bone of contention between Iris and Carvic -- nor has it yet been found.   

In January Nelly Wilkinson wrote to Edge noting that she had received advice from the High Commissioner regarding the despatch of Iris's effects and asking for authority to take delivery of them should they arrive in Wellington. She wrote: 

I understand that all personal effects are left to her sisters [ . . . ] There is a box of papers at the Mental Hospital, which Dr Buchanan kindly took care of until you returned to New Zealand. They may be of no value. Mr Marris of the Evening Post has kindly offered to go through any unpublished writings and, if of any value, to see them published [ . . . ] The codicil she wrote to me about from Hankow may be amongst her papers.[17]   

Five days later Edge replied, agreeing that: 'Mr Marris would be eminently suitable to go through any mss if he would be kind enough to undertake the task’.  His concluding paragraph says: 

Miss Wilkinson did not inform me that she had varied her will in any respect; she wrote to me from China but did not mention literary executors.  Although it is desirable to ascertain if possible whether there was an effective alteration to the will the matter of separate literary executors does not seem of practical importance if we can enlist the co-operation of Mr Marris.  At the same time I can appreciate that you would like to know whether the appointment of literary executors was ever made.[18] 

In late January Nelly replied that she had received a letter from a Mr Drew, who considered that many of Iris's papers might be of value and suggested they be submitted to Mr [John A.] Lee.[19] Nelly had told Mr Drew of Marris’s kind offer.   

By 21 February the effects had arrived in Wellington and Nelly took delivery of them. In March Edge replied to a letter from Nelly listing the contents of the cases. He appended a list he had received from England of the published material and added:                       

          I have also a record of the following mss: ‘Unicorn Pastures’, ‘Thine Accursed’, ‘The Unbelievers’, ‘The Club’, ‘The Book of Nadath’, ‘Chariot Wheels’ and ‘The Beggar in the Doorway. [ . . . ]  A list dated 19th May 1937 refers to ‘The Book of Nadath’ completed but not yet submitted. I have a pencil note [in his own, not Iris’s hand] against it: ‘For Rosalie and Gloria if not disposed of’.[20]   

Later in the same letter he says that he had received a letter from Iris in Xuzhou dated 19 May 1938 in which she wrote: ‘if “Nor The Years Condemn” and “The Book of Nadath” are also published, the royalties from these may help Derry [Derek Challis] along’.  Edge’s letter continued with an inconclusive review of the Wednesday’s Children issue.   

In early March Nelly again wrote to Edge reiterating the contents of the codicil and saying that Iris had expressed:         

          the wish that the money received from all her writings should go to Derek. She evidently thought that the father would fail to do anything in the event of her death. This was the only provision she could make beyond her Insurance policies. This, I think, was the reason for Mrs Mitcalfe and myself being appointed to act as Literary Executors. There is so much work in connection with anything literary that she may have thought it too much             to ask you to do.   

Of the manuscripts she stated that:  

          There are so many copies of the same thing, but I am getting them sorted out and will then ring Mr Marris – I cannot do this until I have been through all her papers – many of them have been published – but I hope to get them into order soon. [ . . . ] Iris seems to have been very unwise if she has handed over her rights in any of her manuscripts to outsiders and distinctly unfair to Derek. She could not surely have intended this. [ . . . ] Mrs Rawlinson informed me that she considered 'The Book of Nadath’ would make Iris's name famous and also her fortune -- I really don't think Iris intended either Mrs Rawlinson or Gloria to have this work.[21] 

By the end of March Nelly had finished her preliminary sorting and had forwarded an assortment of manuscripts to Marris. In a letter to Gloria Rawlinson, Marris wrote: 

     Presently I hope to nosie [through] the remaining mss of Robin Hyde's work to look [them] over (this between ourselves). They arrived a fortnight ago and I think Robin’s poem in the last B.P. was the finest of all.[22] 

In a personal discussion in 1965 Hazel Wilkinson, Iris's elder sister, recalled her mother 'passing over a lot of stuff to Marris that did not eventually go to Mr Edge'.[23]  Included amongst this material was the only revised manuscript of 'Unicorn Pasture', the title story of the fantasy collection.  Regrettably this material was never returned and it seems not to have survived the destruction of the Marris papers. 

Both Nelly and Edward Wilkinson died in late 1944, and early in the following year their eldest daughter Hazel wrote to Edge:           

     There are among their [her parents'] effects a lot of poems, manuscripts etc. of Iris' which were returned from London. I do not think they are of any value but I thought as you were her executor I would ask your advice. If you would like me to send them up to you would you please let me know as otherwise I will destroy them.[24]   

After she received a note from Edge expressing the desire to have the manuscripts, Hazel sorted the documents, letters and manuscripts she had and forwarded them to Edge in May 1945. With Derek now 14 years old, in an orphanage and with no contact with Iris's family or friends, the Rawlinsons, who now lived with Edge, had unrestricted access to the manuscripts. When the estate arrived from Wellington much of the material, other than the manuscripts of the published prose, was in a very confused state, and during the next year the Rawlinsons undertook the trying task of sorting the jumble of paper.   

By late 1946 the sorting that could be done had been done, and by October 1947 the volume of poems entitled Houses by the Sea, and the Later Poems had been prepared from the some 300 unpublished poems in the estate. It is surprising that neither Derek nor the surviving literary executor, Gwen Mitcalfe, were consulted about the publication of this volume, and it is clear that the de facto literary executorship had effectively passed into the Rawlinsons' hands. On his attaining the age of 21 years, the responsibility for the papers and the literary executorship passed to Derek who in 1952 received a letter from Edge which, as well as the balance of Iris's estate, contained the following request: 

     The writer has a wooden box containing papers and manuscripts of your mother's and also a suitcase with other papers, and should be glad if you will take them away when you are next in Auckland.[25]   

The request posed some difficulties: Derek was still at this time serving in the Navy, stationed in Wellington on the survey ship H.M.N.Z.S. Lachlan but scheduled to spend a year in Korea. Noreen Hutson, the eldest but invalided daughter of the family who had fostered him, and who had provided him with an Auckland home, was now too ill to continue in this role. The Turnbull Library was offered the papers but there was little or no interest from the librarian, and no alternative remained but to leave the collection of papers with the Rawlinsons. 

After his return from Korea at the end of 1954 Derek left the navy and for the next two years occupied a small bach in the Rawlinsons' Ellerslie garden while he pursued a course at Auckland University and worked as a technician in the university’s Zoology Department. During this period he finally took possession of the very substantial collection of papers which comprised the Iris Wilkinson literary estate.  On his leaving the Rawlinsons' bach Derek found the possession of such a large and fragile collection of papers an embarrassment, and in 1962 he passed to Mr Sandall, the Auckland University Librarian, a substantial part of the collection, including the manuscripts and drafts of much of the published prose and the great bulk of the published poetry. He retained in his own possession much of the more personal material, including holographs of poems, private journals, poetry fair copy books, letters and unpublished material such as short stories and the several manuscripts of the unpublished novel, 'The Unbelievers'. 

During the years at Ellerslie there had been some discussion with Gloria about the preparation of a biography of Iris, and in 1964 agreement to proceed with a joint biography was reached. Derek was to provide the autobiographical material, open doors to Iris's friends where this was necessary, help with the research in libraries where access was difficult for Gloria (in a wheelchair) and generally consult and advise. Gloria was to do the writing.  The residual papers were the obvious major source of material and so at this time virtually all the papers and manuscripts containing biographical material were again returned to Gloria, since Iris's predilection for incorporating biographical material into both her prose and poetry made it necessary for Gloria to have access to the total literary estate. In March 1965 Gloria applied on behalf of the collaborators to the State Literary Fund for a grant to help fund the project and the Literary Fund responded with a small grant, the bulk of which, in keeping with their set policy, was assigned to Gloria as the established writer, and the lesser part to Derek for research. Work on the biography continued apace for the next several years with the collaborators meeting on a weekly basis to discuss problems and progress. 

In a letter to Gwen Mitcalfe in April 1965 Gloria wrote:  

   You will know, at any rate, that we are collaborating on a biography of Iris.  We had long talked about it and over the years have each had numerous approaches from people who either wanted to write up Robin Hyde's life or were critical because her friends were slow to do it [ . . . ] We agreed to do the book together some 18 months ago but Derek had first to complete his Master's thesis and I am committed to two big projects that took up most of 1964 . . .    All Iris's papers are with Derek and he is now the executor.  The papers [ . . . ] include several autobiographical pieces [ . .  ]. [This narrative] contains some of the best writing Iris ever did and at least one publisher [ . . . ] wanted to publish it as it stood plus a short biographical introduction. However Derek decided against this. Well, for one thing, Gwen, a short biography would not fill the bill, her own fragments raise so many questions that only something more definitive could answer.[26] 

In 1970 Derek left Auckland University to take up a teaching job at Bay of Islands College and contact with Gloria was reduced to telephone calls, letters and meetings during the term holidays. For a variety of reasons the biography was shelved during the early 1970s and despite frequent visits all attempts to discuss the progress of the project proved unfruitful. By the time the project was shelved Gloria had in fact prepared a substantial though incomplete draft. On her death in 1995 Derek regained possession of the remaining Iris Wilkinson material, together with the draft manuscript of the biography. 

In December 1998 an application was made to the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand by a number of researchers involved in different aspects of Iris's work (Dr Mary Paul, Dr Michele Leggott, Dr Patrick Sandbrook, Lisa Docherty and myself). The application was successful and it is anticipated that the biography and several other equally important projects will be completed in the next three years.  The fate of the manuscripts still in private hands has not yet been decided; however it is probable that most will eventually be deposited in an Auckland library.   



[1] Unpublished manuscript, Gloria Rawlinson, held in the Derek Challis Collection (CC).
Robin Hyde, Houses by the Sea, and the Later Poems, ed. Gloria Rawlinson (Christchurch: Caxton, 1952). 

[3] Robin Hyde, A Home in This World, introd. Derek Challis (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1984). 
[4] Mostly unpublished stories, title story missing, CC.
[5] Robin Hyde: The Book of Nadath, ed. Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland UP, 1999). 
[6] Robin Hyde, ‘De Thierry’s Progress’, incomplete unpublished manuscript, CC.
[7] Iris Wilkinson, letter to C.A. Marris (18 April 1938), CC.
[8] Iris Wilkinson, letter to ‘Dear Old Mother, Dad, Hazel, Edna and Ruth and Dan’l the pup’ (19 May 1938), CC. 
[9] Robin Hyde, ‘The Unbelievers’, unpublished novel, CC. 
[10] Iris Wilkinson, letter to W.R. Edge (19 May 1938), CC. 
[11] Renamed Dragon Rampant (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1939; rpt. Auckland: New Women’s Press, 1984, introd. Derek Challis, critical note by Linda Hardy. 
[12] Nelly Wilkinson, letter to Mr Grant (31 August 1939), CC.
[13] Mr Grant, letter to Mrs N.E. Wilkinson (31 August 1939), CC.
[14] Solicitor’s note, Challis Collection.
[15] J.W. Heenan, Under-Secretary, Department of Internal Affairs, letter to Mr Wilkinson (1 December 1939), CC.
[16] J.W. Heenan, letter to Mr Wilkinson (7 December 1939), CC.
[17] Nelly Wilkinson, letter to Mr Edge (11 January 1940), CC.
[18] Mr Edge, letter to Mrs Wilkinson (15 January 1940), CC. 
[19] Nelly Wilkinson, letter to Mr Edge (29 January 1940), CC.
[20] Mr Edge, letter to Mrs Wilkinson (5 March 1940), CC.
[21] Nelly Wilkinson, letter to Mr Edge (6 March 1940), CC. 
[22] C.A. Marris, letter to Gloria Rawlinson (March 1940), CC. ‘B.P.’ is New Zealand Best Poems, ed. C.A. Marris, an annual anthology of new poetry (1932-43). The 1939 issue contained Hyde’s poem ‘Journey from New Zealand’.
[23] Conversation between Hazel Woodcock (née Wilkinson) and Derek and Lyn Challis, notes in CC. 
[24] Hazel Wilkinson, letter to Mr Edge (8 February 1945), CC.
[25] Edge and Beeche, letter to Derek Challis (18 January 1952), CC.
[26] Gloria Rawlinson, carbon copy letter to Gwen Mitcalfe (née Hawthorn) (April 1965), CC.  The publisher referred to was Blackwood Paul.


Last updated 23 November, 2002