Alison Hunt and Bronwyn Lloyd
Text of a talk presented 23 April 2006 at BLUFF 06, Te Rau Aroha Marae, Southland
In the spring of 1936, Robin Hyde received permission from her Auckland Mental Hospital doctors to travel to Otago to work alongside the ex-parliamentarian William Downie Stewart (Docherty 216, 218). This was Hyde’s first extended parole or probation since her admission as a voluntary boarder in June 1933. A period of probation was a normal precursor to patients leaving the mental hospital, giving them a chance to prove to themselves and the authorities that they could stand alone (Gray 2). Hyde went home to Wellington in late September and from there caught the inter-island ferry to Christchurch, arriving in Dunedin 30 September (Leggott 387). Her solo tour of the far south began on 7 November, lasted about 10 days and included the Queenstown area, Invercargill and Bluff, culminating with a week on Stewart Island. She returned to Dunedin and then visited old friends in Christchurch, travelling on to the West Coast and to Nelson and Marlborough, where she met up with her mother, Nelly. The women flew home to Wellington from Nelson on 2 December.
The significance of this journey south resonates in Hyde’s writing and rewriting in the following years. In autobiographical terms, it was an experiment in independence in the world outside the Lodge and away from the support of her doctors. In symbolic terms, it represented a rebirth into the world, an intense experience which is reflected in the attention paid to it in her writing.
Hyde's southern journey also provided material for the last of a series of twenty travel articles that she had been writing for the New Zealand Railways Magazine as a means of earning a modest income. Under the general title 'On the Road to Anywhere' Hyde's articles appeared in the magazine between April 1935 and September 1937 and covered much of New Zealand. Hyde had a discerning and appreciative eye for the charm and peculiarities of the New Zealand scene. Two articles were written about her week on Rakiura, 'Isle of the Glowing Sky: Stewart Island and a Glass Box' and 'The Birds of Rakiura: Titi, Kiwi, and the Summer Bird'.
At first glance these articles read as charming descriptions of the flora and fauna of the island punctuated by lively anecdotes recounted by the locals. She learns about a visit by famous Canadian harpist Prosper Ralston who had travelled all the way to Stewart Island to find paua shells with which to adorn his dream harp. There is the story about the daredevil aviator, Oscar Garden, who crash-landed his plane near the shore on a day when all the Stewart Island men were away fishing. A chain of women dragged plane and pilot ashore just as the first set of triplets on the island were being born.
Hyde provides an account of the various styles of home on the island, from the makeshift home of the authentic Stewart Island hermit caveman with a tent-flap and a few punga ferns to shelter him from the icy blasts, to the exquisite cottage of authoress Mrs Dorothy Baker, complete with rockery garden, sloping terraces and a green amphitheatre bordered by primroses and daffodils. She pictures the Norwegian whaler's house, its gables crowned with brightly painted wooden dragons.
As Hyde points out in the opening lines of her article 'Isle of the Glowing Sky’, Rakiura made an impression on her far beyond the scope of the travel article she was writing:
In Hyde’s writing, an island is always some version of Hy-Brasil; it is a mystical place, a paradise, a place of death and rebirth into a new life, a meeting place and the conjunction of the earthly and the spiritual. It is usually situated at an extreme (the far north or south, the edge of the world, the west) and it is approached across water on a ship, a rowboat or a barge. It is holy Avalon where Arthur goes to the afterlife; it is the land of the Hyperboreans, fair northern divinities; and it is the island in the stream where Ratty and Mole meet the god Pan in Wind in the Willows. In Hyde’s novel Wednesday’s Children, it is Wednesday’s island in the Hauraki Gulf, populated by dream people. It is a place of life, death, afterlife and the imagination. All of Hyde’s islands would have been present in her mind as she ferried across Foveaux Strait to Rakiura. And Rakiura would come to symbolise for Hyde a place of ultimate New Zealandness, an Eden, and a place of potential social rebirth.
Rakiura is the third garden of New Zealand in the poem ‘The House of Woman’ from The Book of Nadath:
During her excursions around the island, one of Rakiura's companion isle-dots, as Hyde described it, captured her imagination: Ulva, an island in the entrance to Paterson Inlet. The circumstances of the island, the beauty, the quietude and the unspoiled surroundings seemed designed for Hyde's kind of happiness. She writes:
The old song is ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ by Thomas Campbell, a ballad of doomed love and death by drowning on a stormy passage to ‘ Ulva’s isle’. The most romantic account of Hyde's visit to Ulva Island can be found in a letter to Mary Smee written a little later from Hyde's Wellington home. The time on Ulva blends into a general account of the week’s island highlights:
Prominent amongst Hyde’s distillations of New Zealand are motifs that can be traced to her experience of Stewart Island and the keepsakes she found there. Hyde lovingly describes these keepsakes in the first of her Rakiura articles:
The weather-glass and the pieces of ambergris in particular were a source of fascination for Hyde. The properties of the weather-glass were revealed to her by Fred Traill, the authority on Stewart Island lore, and guide, philosopher and friend to visitors to the Island:
Of ambergris Hyde writes:
In Hyde’s semi-autobiographical novel The GodwitsFly, these souvenirs from Rakiura, the ambergris and the weather-glass, symbolise that which is beautiful and that which is wise. Eliza Hannay observes that men mean everything to women, but women only figure in the lives of men as the providers of dinners and children. She thinks forward to old age and the keepsakes that are redolent of significance in their lives:
In Nor the Years Condemn, Hyde’s 1938 novel about Depression-time New Zealand, the healer Macnamara tells the nurse Bede Collins:
Ambergris occurs in a strange and luminous passage in Chapter 16 of Godwits which is titled ‘Barbarian for Caesar’. The text is a stream of consciousness attributed to Timothy Cardew as he waits to board the boat for London and thinks of the relationship between himself, a New Zealander, and the Imperial power of Britain represented by the figure of Caesar. The motifs connected with Stewart Island in Hyde’s travel writing are representative here of essential, exotic, colonial outpost New Zealand and are fully possessed by the pakeha Timothy:
This passage in Godwits is patched into an otherwise realistic chapter. It is a narrative departure startling in effect and it is possible that it was inserted into the text as Hyde edited it on Stewart Island. From Woodsley House, Stewart Island, she wrote on 10 November 1936 to Downie Stewart that she was
She added: ‘Haven’t done any of my novel since I left Dunedin, but I have hopes for this week’. And then:
The ‘lovely south’ is ultimate New Zealand and ultimate succour for Hyde, resonating in her writing as a counterpoint to her experiences in China in 1938. In the poem ‘Thirsty Land’, the speaker is situated in a China suffering from heat, drought and war, and takes comfort in her mind’s journey down the length of New Zealand, north to south, eventually travelling past Reefton and on to Rakiura:
The lonely, rugged lee shore of Hellfire Beach got its name from the glare of whalers’ try-pots. It came to signify for Hyde a place from which the first narrative of European contact might be replayed if the Japanese advance into the Pacific were to reach New Zealand and the population take to the hills. On 16 January 1938, two days before leaving for England via China, she wrote to Eileen Duggan from her temporary quarters in the attic of the Grey Lodge, Auckland Mental Hospital:
Hyde never did make a return visit to Rakiura but the people, the folklore, the birdsong, the flowers and the ambergris from the Isle of the Glowing Sky certainly remained with her. ‘I am going back’, she wrote in the closing lines of her second travel article,
Alison Hunt’s research is supported by a Bright Futures Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship awarded by the Foundation for Science and Research Technology. Bronwyn Lloyd’s research is supported by a University of Auckland doctoral scholarship. Grateful thanks are due to Michele Leggott for her input to this essay.
Campbell, Thomas. ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’. In Francis T Palgrave, ed. The Golden Treasury. 1875. 27 June 2006. <http://www.bartleby.com/106/181.html>
Challis, Derek and Gloria Rawlinson. The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2002.
Docherty, Lisa. ‘“Do I Speak Well?”: A Selection of Letters by Robin Hyde 1927-1939.’ Ph.D. Thesis. Auckland University, 2000.
Gray, Theodore G. ‘Report on Mental Hospitals of the Dominion for 1929’. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1930, H-7.
Hunt, Alison. ‘Lotus-eating in Avondale: Tennyson in Robin Hyde's Poetry and 1934 Autobiography’. Ka Mate Ka Ora 1 (Dec. 2005): 34-66. 27 June 2006. <http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz>
Hyde, Robin. ‘The Birds of Rakiura: Titi, Kiwi and the Summer Bird’. New Zealand Railways Magazine Mar. 1937: 20, 21, 23.
---. The Book of Nadath. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1999.
---. The Godwits Fly. 1938. Ed. Patrick Sandbrook. 3rd ed. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2001.
---. ‘Isle of the Glowing Sky: Stewart Island and a Glass Box’. New Zealand Railways Magazine Feb. 1937: 27, 29, 31, 34.
---. Nor the Years Condemn. 1938. Dunedin: U of Otago P, 1995.
---. Wednesday's Children. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1937.
---. Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2003.
Leggott, Michele. ‘Robin Hyde: A Chronology.’ In Young Knowledge: 384-94.
1. See Hunt for a discussion of these allusions and connections.