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Friday, 3 April 2015

The Extraordinarily Brave and Brilliant Robin Hyde - and her Hermes Bay Portable Typewriter

A photograph taken by fellow New Zealand poet Charles Orwell Brasch (1909-1973) of the great writer, the tragic Robin Hyde (real name, Iris Guiver Wilkinson), typing in the garden outside Bishop's Barn, a country cottage in Wiltshire that Brasch had been loaned for his last three months in England before leaving for the United States on June 30, 1939. The photo was taken during the first of two visits Hyde made to the cottage within a month, on April 20, 1939. Four months later Hyde suicided in her rented attic room at 1 Pembridge Square, Notting Hill, London. She was just 33.
'By choice you stood always on disputed ground,
At the utmost edge of life ...'
- Brasch's tribute to Hyde
Photograph possibly taken by Hyde's former hospital medical superintendent Dr Henry Meredith Buchanan (1887-1974) on November 11, 1938, during a visit by Buchanan to Hyde's rented caravan at Pope's Hall in Kent, which she apparently called "Little China". Hyde had arrived by ship at Southampton on September 18.
' ... when I recall that thrusting indomitable figure, with a stick in one hand and a portable typewriter in the other, limping into the front line of a particularly nasty war ... then this is for me no figure of despair or defeat, but a true flag-bearer of the human cause. Iris was writing not just for China, but for the oppressed and afflicted everywhere'
- Tribute to Hyde from fellow New Zealand writer James Munro Bertram (1910-1993)
(A special thanks to Georg Sommeregger
for alerting me to the story of the incredible Robin Hyde)
Believed to be a 1937 self-portrait by Hyde
' ... whilst in your own little lighted cubbyhole, you bang the keys of a vicious-looking typewriter of ancient mode, and wish to God that somebody would invent new adjectives for describing society brides: I mean, new printable adjectives.'
- Hyde bemoaning her lot, as a women trying to earn a living as a newspaper journalist in late 1920s-early 1930s New Zealand and, merely because of her gender, being forced to write the social or shopping columns. But she still managed to insert controversial interviews or subversive comment in these.
One of the few blessings for the archivists trying to sort through the poetry and other writings left behind when a 33-year-old Robin Hyde took an overdose of Benzedrine in her rented attic in Notting Hill, London, on August 23, 1939, is that 32 months earlier she had bought herself a Hermes Baby portable typewriter.
Hyde purchased the typewriter on instalment on January 25, 1937, from Bill Mawle's British Typewriters and Office Equipment branch at 8 Queen's Arcade in Auckland, New Zealand. The serial number of 88485 would indicate the machine was made by Paillard in Yverdon, in Switzerland, in the second half of 1936. Mawle, who had a contract with Paillard to make this portable as the Baby Empire in West Bromwich, England, had established contacts with New Zealand in 1931 while he was sales manager for Imperial typewriters in Leicester. 
The ornate Queen's Arcade in downtown Auckland, where Hyde bought her Hermes Baby portable typewriter.
Three weeks after buying the Hermes Baby, on February 13 Hyde took it north for a solid workout, renting a cabin at Whangaroa Harbour to type the final draft of her autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly. She posted the typescript to her publisher in London in early March (the book was published in 1938) and almost immediately started typing the first draft of another autobiographical work. A painfully honest account of her previous 10 years, this was eventually published in 1984 as A Home in this World. By August 1937 Hyde had typed another novel, Nor the Years Condemn (her second book about James Douglas Stark*, also published 1938), while having earlier works, Wednesday's Children and a collection of poetry titled Persephone in Winter: Poems, accepted for publication. Nor the Years Condemna powerful commentary on New Zealand between the wars, was distinguished, like her travel articles for the New Zealand Railways Magazine and her best poetry, by a then-unique (for New Zealand poets) and remarkable sense of place.
(*James Douglas Stark, 1898-1942, was the Invercargill-born son of a Great Bear Lake Native American, Wyald Stark, who had settled in New Zealand from the Australian goldfields in 1857, and a Madrid-born mother. Wanted by police, Doug Stark stole the place of a drunken solder on a troop ship and found his way to Gallipoli, where he served in the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He showed extreme bravery on the battlefield and was recommended for both the Military Medal and the Victoria Cross, but because he was under punishment at these times did not receive the awards. Stark was also badly wounded twice. Because he was recommended for a commission and did not receive it he had his pips tattooed on his shoulders, as well as circles tattooed around his wounds. He was "notorious in the New Zealand Division for both his reckless courage when in action and for his total lack of military discipline when out of line". He was described as "brave enough to have been recommended for the VC, reckless enough to have served imprisonment, tough enough to have escaped from Le Havre prison". But as Hyde put it in her first book about Stark, Passport to Hell, "It was not considered the thing at headquarters for a soldier to win his country's highest honour while on probation for a proud and picturesque crime sheet."Hyde described her novel as an "illustration of Walt Whitman’s line: ‘There is to me something profoundly affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who do not believe in man'."
The year-old Hermes Baby travelled with Hyde when on January 18, 1938, she sailed for Sydney on the Awatea and from there for Hong Kong on the Changte, sailing via Brisbane, Cairns, Thursday Island and ManilaHyde had planned to travel to Kobe then Vladivostok to take the trans-Siberian railway to Europe, but the Japanese occupation caused a delay in the connection. Having met James Bertram in Hong Kong, Hyde made the momentous decision to travel to China. In Shanghai she met fellow New Zealander Rewi Alley, already committed to his lifelong work for the Chinese people. Hyde travelled to the war front, the first woman journalist to do so, witnessing the barbaric realities which she had only imagined in the first Stark book, Passport to Hell.
Undeterred by Japanese bombing, she visited Canton (Guangzhou) and met Chinese generals and the writers Agnes Smedley and Edgar Snow. She was able to obtain a pass for the front signed by Chiang Kai-shek. Some of her finest poems, the travel book Dragon Rampant (1939), and many articles emerged from her extraordinary journey into the war zone. And during it, Hyde still found time to write to her mother about the poems she was working on: "a longish series about Wellington, from Island Bay to your sewing-machine, and a slight one called Fragments from Two Countries … They’re in Hankow, with a suitcase and my typewriter."
Hyde was in Hsuchow when Japanese forces took the city on May 19, 1938. After it was bombed and captured, Hyde attempted to flee the area by limping 50 miles along the railway track, and was eventually escorted by Japanese officials to the port city of Tsing Tao, where she was handed over to British authorities. Assaulted by Japanese soldiers, she sustained a painful eye injury, which was treated by a Japanese doctor. While hospitalised in Hong Kong with a skin infection and digestive complaint, she still managed to interview Soong  Ch’ing-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen). Hyde finally arrived in England - via Manila, Belawan, Sabang, Colombo, the Suez, Port Said, Genoa, Villefranche and Algiers - on September  18, ill and penniless. In England she became involved with the China Campaign Committee, the Left Book Club and the Suffragette Fellowship. From a rented caravan in Kent, she wrote of China and insightfully of "the world we know, love, and are probably about to destroy". But she was in and out of hospital, suffering from depression, dysentery and anaemia.
At one time tarred by one critic as being part of a group of "lady writers. A bunch of bores in stuffy drawers", Hyde has belatedly become recognised as one of New Zealand’s most significant writers in poetry, fiction and journalism. She was born Iris Guiver Wilkinson in Cape Town, South Africa, on January 19, 1906, the second daughter of Edith Ellinor (Nelly) Butler, an Australian nurse who on her way ‘Home’ (to England) had met and married George Edward Wilkinson, an Englishman working on the installation of a post and telegraph system in South Africa. When Iris was a month old, the family sailed third-class in the Ruapehu for New Zealand and settled in Wellington. At 16 the ‘Schoolgirl Poetess’ joined the staff of The Dominion newspaper, but at 18 spent some months in hospital after a knee operation. She came out on crutches, lame for life and dependent on opiates for relief. The pain haunted her for the rest of her life.
Covering the 1925 national election for The Dominion, Hyde became friendly with social reformist William Downie Stewart, who had bought a Blickensderfer 5 from Alf Reed of the New Zealand Typewriter Company in Dunedin at the turn of the century - in part exchange for a Sholes & Glidden Stewart had bought during a visit to the United States.
A brief affair while Hyde was in Rotorua to receive treatment for her knee left her pregnant. The father was a handsome Auckland motor mechanic, Frederick de Mulford Hyde AFC (1897-1962), a man eight years Robin Hyde's senior. Hyde had in 1917 flown for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Royal Flying Corps and rose to Second Lieutenant with the Royal Air Force. 
In April 1926 Robin Hyde resigned from The Dominion and sailed for Sydney. In September her son died at birth. She gave him the name [Christopher] Robin Hyde, then borrowed it back from the dead baby, to use as a nom de guerre’ for her serious writing. On her return to New Zealand she had a nervous breakdown, and  in 1927 spent some months in Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs. Recovering, she began to write again, and bought a typewriter (a predecessor to her Hermes Baby) with earnings from her prize-winning South African story One Soldier.
Her first collection of poetry, The Desolate Star, was published in 1929. In Wanganui she became pregnant again, after a brief fling with a married journalist, Henry Lawson-Smith (1895-1982), another World War I veteran. Lawson-Smith suggested she pay half (£20) the cost of an abortion. "Well, I thought, you can’t say we haven’t got sex equality all right", Hyde wrote. She refused the abortion; her second son, Derek Arden Challis, was born in October 1930. 
Hyde with her son Derek Challis, Palmerston North, 1931
Hyde was saved from penury by the offer of a job at £4 a week as lady editor of the New Zealand Observer, a popular Auckland weekly. Under various pen-names (lady editor as Iris Wilkinson, book and film page editor, special article writer as Robin Hyde, social page columnist as Jennifer Larch, and so on) she filled the pages. In the deepening economic slump her articles on vagrant women and soup kitchens contrasted with the fashion and balls she reported in the society pages. But the pressures were too great: deadlines, Derek’s needs, sordid boarding-houses, the temptations of morphine. In mid-1933 she tried to drown herself by jumping off the wharf at the bottom of Queen Street, Auckland. Rescued, she was arrested and taken to the cells for women delirium tremens patients at Auckland Hospital to await a trial. She was charged and languished in a basement ward of the hospital for six weeks, then entered the Grey Lodge at Auckland Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient.  
Vicki Baum wrote a positive review of Hyde's Journalese on this white Mignon.
In this refuge, encouraged by her doctors, Henry Buchanan and Gilbert Tothill, she resumed writing. After a year she was writing a robust account of New Zealand newspapers and journalists, and beginning research in the Auckland Public Library for a historical novel on Baron Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry (1793-1864), a Dutch-born adventurer who attempted to establish his own sovereign state in New Zealand in the years before British annexation. The "robust account" appeared as Journalese (1934), a quickly written commentary on life and literature which was praised by the popular novelist Vicki Baum. Indeed, Hyde felt "much of the really unfair criticism is based on sexual grounds". Her historical novel Check to Your King (1936) addressed the role of colonisation in creating the contemporary plight of Maori. Her remarkable war novel Passport to Hell followed the same year. Much of Hyde’s prodigious output early in 1935 remains unpublished but included the first draft of The Godwits Fly. Later that year she was also working on Wednesday’s Children, an extraordinary "dream novel" which defiantly rewrites women’s experience. Her second collection, The Conquerors and Other Poems (also 1935) was the first by a New Zealander to be included in Macmillans’ Contemporary Poets series. It included some of her most haunting poems such as Babel Tower and one of her own favourites, Nirvana. In 1936 she travelled to Dunedin hoping to take up an invitation from Downie Stewart and write a historical novel based on the Hocken Library papers of Edward Markham, a 19th-century Englishman who had lived with the Maori of the Hokianga. When the library trustees withdrew permission she abandoned the project, although her research provided the basis for her hauntingly beautiful poem Arangi-Ma.
In her fiction and poetry Hyde had turned to Maori and Pakeha history and stories to find a distinctive New Zealand voice. She began studying Maori, and became more assertively feminist and socialist. The result was quite different from the style of contemporary male writers, especially in the attempt she made to articulate the experience of Maori and women. At its best, Hyde’s writing achieved a compelling vividness and insight. While she regarded herself as a poet first, during her lifetime she made more impact as a novelist. 
Hyde saw New Zealand’s future in the Pacific, not crouching "in the shadow of the old world". She wrote feelingly of those victims of greed and war living on society’s margins. As one who had suffered personal loss, illness and poverty,  she identified with the dispossessed.   
While the sequence of her written and published work following her purchase of the Hermes Baby can easily be traced, the poetry Hyde wrote between early 1937 and her death in August 1939 is what has caused archivists the greatest difficulty. She left an enormous body of work along with unanswered questions about her life and her work. Unfinished projects included a dramatisation of her novel Wednesday’s Children and a collection of poems with a distinctly New Zealand theme. Her papers were too disordered. But an important distinction in Hyde's typescripts from early 1937 onward helped with the general dating of her poems, many of which were posthumously published as Houses by the Sea in 1952. A vital discovery in the dating of a series of placename poems was that all the texts were typed using the same machine, the Hermes Baby.
This typewriter was easily distinguished from her previous one, which had a faulty typeslug. Typefaces were also used to discern the insertion of texts by her editors, especially Gloria Rawlinson (above). The typewriter Rawlinson used during the preparation of Houses by the Sea also had a characteristically defective typeslug. Evidence of Rawlinson is found on the typing she titled The Familiar and placed at Castor Bay (as Hyde had labelled the untitled text), while the version of Whangaroa Harbour which has a typed location at the end is also from Rawlinson’s typewriter. Using the typewriters to establish dates was important, as some of the placename poems were composed before 1937. For example, Hilltop and Lover, typed on Hyde’s earlier typewriter, are versions of the untitled If I set my lips to thee, tree typed on her Hermes Baby. The typewriter used by Rawlinson in the second half of the 1940s had a defective lower case ‘d’. The ‘d’ was damaged on the left hand face of the loop, preventing full registration of the letter.  Hyde’s Hermes Baby did not have this fault in the respective key. Examples of typing from Hyde’s first typewriter showed it had a defective lower case ‘a’. The upper horizontal part of the typeslug was damaged and did not print completely. The Hermes Baby had an accurate registration of this key and most others.
So what became of Hyde's Hermes Baby after her death? The portable typewriter was listed among her effects to be shipped from England back to New Zealand on December 23 1939. Hyde's executor, W. R. Edge, had been willed the earlier Hyde typewriter in 1935 and on February 12, 1945, he wrote to Hyde's sister Hazel, "Iris by her will left me a portable typewriter which I think was sent to Wellington with her effects. Do you happen to have it? If so I should like it!" It seems that it remained in New Zealand.


shordzi said...

super story superbly told Robert! except i don't believe it's a hermes baby on the cottage photo. the machine depicted looks much higher, and it might be a typewriter case next to the table? super you could unearth the picture.

Robert Messenger said...

Thanks Georg. The author of the book you pointed me to, Michele Leggott, insists in her biography "Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde" that it is the Hermes. See lines 5 to 8 here
So who am I to argue? The case does look as if it belongs to a Remington portable. Brasch's, maybe? But Hyde did take the Hermes everywhere she went, that's why she bought it, for mobility.

Anonymous said...

They did it tough in those days! Beautiful poetry that must have helped her through some tough times. But in the end it wasn't enough. The future might have seemed especially bleak in 1939.

Tony Eyre said...

Great article - well researched - and some excellent photos. Robin Hyde - one of my most admired writers.

Tony Eyre