Writing seems to have been almost as essential to Robin Hyde as breathing. Within her short life (1906-1939), she published five novels, three volumes of poetry and two non-fiction books. A professional journalist, she also contributed a huge number of articles to newspapers and magazines. Besides the work that appeared in print during her lifetime, she left behind many manuscripts, including unpublished poems, stories and memoirs. The difficult circumstances under which she worked makes her output even more impressive.
Robin Hyde was the pen-name of Iris Guiver Wilkinson. She was born in Cape Town, but her family moved to New Zealand when she was a month old. Her first poems and short stories were published while she was still a pupil at Wellington Girls College. She joined the staff of Wellington's morning newspaper, the Dominion, when she was seventeen.
A series of disasters blighted what should have been a bright career. In 1924 she suffered a knee injury that left her permanently lame and dependent on opiates for pain relief. Her mental health broke down in 1926 when the baby she conceived from a love affair was stillborn. Four years later, when she gave birth to a son after another affair, she faced bitter prejudice as an unwed mother. In despair in 1933, while ill from influenza, she tried to drown herself in the Waitemata Harbour but was rescued by the police. She then signed herself into the Grey Lodge of Auckland Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient. She lived there for four years, during which time she wrote some of her most powerful prose and poetry.
En route to England in 1938, she decided to travel across China, just as the Japanese forces were entering that country. It proved an arduous journey. In depleted mental and physical condition, Hyde committed suicide a few months after her arrival in London.
A summary of the grim facts of her life might suggest that Hyde is a gloomy writer, but this is far from the case. Even in her darkest moments she emerges as a vibrant personality with a keen curiosity in the world around her. After a period of neglect in the decades following her death, Hyde's work has been rediscovered and reassessed in recent years. Her reputation as one of the key New Zealand writers of the twentieth century continues steadily to rise.
The unpublished autobiography shown here was written during Hyde's residence at Grey Lodge. It was given to the Library by Dr Gilbert Tothill, the psychiatrist at Auckland Mental Hospital who encouraged Hyde to write. He also donated a first-edition copy of Hyde's 1938 novel The godwits fly. The inscription, in the author's hand, reads: ‘Dr. G. M. Tothill, This imperfect part of truth – Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) April 1939, England.’