DO I SPEAK WELL? The Letters of Robin Hyde
My PhD thesis “‘Do I speak well?’ A collection of letters by Robin Hyde 1927-1939” (University of Auckland, 2000) began with the transcription and chronological assemblage of four collections of letters written by Hyde to JHE Schroder, JA Lee, W Downie Stewart and PA Lawlor, over the time of her writing life. Robin Hyde was the pen-name (or in her words, “nom-de-guerre”) of New Zealand writer Iris Wilkinson (1906-1939), and the four men with whom she corresponded were “men of letters.” The text that emerged produces questions about writing, autobiography and genre because the 166 letters have become another kind of volume in Hyde’s strongly autobiographical oeuvre. In their collected form the letters are also a multiply-addressed enactment of Hyde’s writing practice over the twelve years of its duration.
The first part of the introduction, which I have adapted here, addresses issues of self and other imaged in the letters. My objective was to locate Hyde in a tradition of twentieth century women who wrote the Self into writing with an awareness of the genre boundaries they were disturbing.
Disclosure at the Precipice: Writing Letters
Presented as merged chronology with supporting continuity Hyde’s letters convey the metanarrative of an unfixed narrator. Hyde writes each at a particular time and place in her life and writing, resulting in two kinds of disclosure. The first is quotidian information, functional and specific, that provides chronology: addresses, dates, names, events described in the letter and its physical details of ink, paper and watermarks. “Letters are the great fixative of experience,” wrote Janet Malcolm sifting the biographies of Sylvia Plath, “They are the fossils of feeling”(1994, 110). But this kind of disclosure is not equivalent to historical truth. The rich quotidian record and its cross-referencing in these four collections yields competing versions.
There is a second level of disclosure, the abyssal, “precipice” writing that reveals desire and need, histrionics, theatricality and play. This is the kind of writing from which quotation is routinely excerpted; Hyde’s letters have been combed for such exhibits by researchers wishing to construct her one way or another. At this level it becomes apparent that address is not bound to the recipient so much as to the activity of writing itself.
Hyde’s fascination with the cri de coeur was perhaps most revealingly in her correspondence with John Schroder. In August 1934 she wrote telling him of a book with which she had become “a little bit obsessed”(JS75). The book was Folle-Farine (1883) by Ouida, pen-name of the popular novelist Marie Louise de Ramée. The excerpt she quotes closes with the question, “Do I speak well Sartorian?”(JS75). The same question, at once reflexive and rhetorical, hurled at self and other, whispers beneath the text of Hyde’s letters. Sometimes it is a plea, sometimes it seems ironic, and often it is produced in certain knowledge that the address is on target so that it resounds at both the quotidian and abyssal levels.
However, the question does not actually appear in Ouida’s Folle Farine. Hyde’s “quotation” is selected from different parts of the novel, and includes her own flourishes:
Folle-Farine, (literally flour dust), illegitimate and cast out, works for her grandfather the miller of Ypres as a kind of feudal slave. She was deposited on his doorstep as a small child by a well-meaning gipsy protector after the death of her mother who had eloped with her shiftless gipsy father. Folle-Farine is hated by the local villagers who become convinced she is a witch. As a lonely young woman she meets the starving, delirious artist Arslan, also an outcast, and tends him back to health. Arslan lives for his art and Folle-Farine’s love for him goes unrequited. Eventually she approaches the Prince Sartorian, whose folly is art, hoping to interest him in Arslan’s work. She is proud, pure and honest, and refuses Sartorian’s demand that she give up her love for the artist in return for Sartorian’s assurance that Arslan will be provided for. Folle-Farine refuses the bribe several times, she and Arslan (separated) suffer terribly until she surrenders and marries Sartorian. The novel ends with Folle-Farine’s long sought-for meeting with Thanatos (Death), and his lament: “I am the only pity in the world. And even I — to every mortal thing I come too early or too late”(Ouida 1893, 802).
Hyde’s “quotation” conflates two parts of the novel in which the narrator evokes the poverty of the artist and his bitterness and frustration at not being able to work(Ouida 1893, 530, 582). Her question “Do I speak well?” addressed to Sartorian, is an appendage which joins her own strong feelings to those of the artist with whom she is in sympathy. Here she speaks in the role of Folle-Farine to the power-broker Sartorian. Addressed to Schroder the speech sounds like an affirmation of her (writing) voice. Hyde recited a near identical “quotation” at the 1936 Authors’ Week (including the interpolated question), in a speech titled “The Writer and His Audience” (or as she joked to the crowd “Yourselves and Ourselves”). This time she followed the question with a closing quip:
Hyde’s fascination with this text endured. In the Auckland University collection of Hyde’s poetry manuscripts there is a prose fragment which begins “The bronze Zeus...” and also includes the question “Do I speak well?”(AU 4c/490). Further, in the Derek Challis Collection there is a short story (incomplete and unsigned) titled “The Sacred Person of the Emperor” which incorporates another variation of the Folle-Farine paragraph. There is another two-page prose fragment which may in fact belong with the single page in the Auckland University collection.
The words “J’avais quelquechose là,” I had something there, or in Hyde’s translation “I had something to give”(JS75) are repeated to Schroder, in this and later letters. It is a cry for acknowledgment, an expression of the desire for communication. As in the question “Do I speak well?” (my choice of a title for the letters text) the words convey urgency, display and a sense of the abyss into which they fall.
In this context Georges Bataille’s 1945 interpretation of Nietzschean communication is useful:
Hyde often wrote at this precipice, and was aware of it. She was looking for the other who would look into the abyss alongside her. There are three surviving “precipice” letters to Schroder. They are the undated 1934 Folle Farine letter quoted above (JS75); a letter of 14 February 1935 in which she quotes Tagore: “I do not remember if you ever shamed me by looking away when I bared to you my heart?”(JS77); and one of 27 December 1937 in which she confesses to a “carping half-hatred” of him.(JS96) [See end of essay for excerpts.]
The desire and struggle to communicate is intrinsic to Hyde’s compulsion to write her life. Other letters in these collections include actual biographical sketches written of necessity, variously revealing and concealing her self. A long-embargoed letter to John A Lee of 23 October 1937 (JL21) was written in response to a misunderstanding. A letter to Trevor Lund of the Southland Times (8 October 1936) also responded to a sort of misunderstanding. Hyde wrote yet another sketch (12 April 1935) at poet Eileen Duggan’s request for biographical information to use in an article about her. Each letter openly desires to “set the record straight,” insisting on its authenticity.
The Wild Indecency of Selfhood: Understanding Letters
The three overtly autobiographical letters noted above are exceeded by the letters’ collectively generated proliferation of biographical data which maps the course of selfhood across and in time and place. Hyde is sometimes deliberately false, often only uncertain. Each of the men will make a claim to a particular knowledge of her, despite this occlusion. “Hyde is about hiding, about surviving by hiding, and she stamps the exigency as a personal signature in every part of her work”(Leggott 1995, 271). She is always only this particular presentation of her self, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) — hybrid one. But because she is repeatedly marking the momentary, we must also consider the effect of this (so-called) repetition.
Reading this mass of moving particulars led me to Julia Kristeva’s 1984 essay “My Memory’s Hyperbole,” in which she discusses the difficulties of bringing the self to a piece of autobiographical (in this case, essay) writing. She argues for the use of all resources of biography in the presentation of the Self as fluid, temporal, incomplete and endlessly making itself over.
It is this wild indecency of selfhood, its excessiveness, that I believe is revealed by the presentation of Hyde’s letters amongst fragments of autobiography. Hyde repeatedly rewrites her self; in the letters she writes for nameable others, in the published works for a less specific audience (Other), and in her 1935 Journal for those she calls her ghosts. The shift in voice echoes these changes in proximity, the fluctuating distances between self and other.
A letter is as urgent or immediate as the date on which it is written. Kristeva suggests a diary (defined in SOED as “lasting for one day”—why not a letter?) as perhaps a place where eruptions can take place. Kristeva legitimises the use of auto/biography in the literary field sixty years after Robin Hyde, and following thirty years of her own and others’ feminist theoretical writing. Hyde’s writing practice reveals a woman compelled always to tell her story in writing. Excessive repetition of the wild is wild. This is the force we encounter in the letters and the notional (and un-bound) archive in which they lie.
A Moment of Writing Before Genre: The Transverse
Reading Hyde in this way we move outside or across genre distinctions already put under pressure in her writing. The letters in their chronological sequence disclose the gaps and imponderables; notes and continuity acknowledge that poems, fiction, journals, journalism and other letters are coincident and open-ended.
This passage from Jacques Derrida implies a disobedience already detectable in Hyde’s own refusal to fit genre specifications. Her writing is still as resistant to a linear management of literature as it was in 1953 when James Bertram’s review article “Robin Hyde: A Reassessment” appeared in Landfall. Bertram began his essay with a biographical sketch which reduces Hyde’s life to “a rather embarrassing record of dangerous living and over-stretched ambition”(182). He followed this with notes on each book of prose, where in every case he undermines praise with a series of pejorative adjectives. By isolating Bertram’s pejoratives we can form a reading of the works as Hyde’s effort at resisting the force of assimilation.
Journalese is “impressionistic.” Passport to Hell is “imaginative reporting” in which the writing is “over-coloured and over-sensational.” Check to Your King, despite its “zest” (or because of it) is “tour de force, rather than pure creation.” The late Thirties brought “the only two straight novels” Hyde wrote. It seems that the fact that they come close to definition by Bertram condemns them to harsher criticism. Wednesday’s Children is “an unsatisfactory book,” “uncertain,” and “improbable.” “Much more straightforward” is The Godwits Fly although the end is “cobbled up.” Bertram produces a reason for this novel’s short-comings, that its writing was “interrupted.” Her final book, Dragon Rampant, written with Bertram’s assistance in fact-checking, is “fragmentary and chaotic, and not very easy to follow”(182-83).
The consistency of her failure to comply seems to indicate something deliberately antagonistic to genre in Hyde’s work. Perceptions have changed sufficiently since Bertram’s time of writing to accord value to this indeterminacy that he neither recognises nor values. In a recent essay on the essay, poet-critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis wrote of the restlessness in writing not in, or for, a genre, but at “a moment of writing before the genre,” at an “impacted point prior to the flying off of matter into planets, fragments into texts, and over all [with] a sense of volatile incipience”(1996, 23). Hyde’s prose writing suggests such a level of excitement, the fragile tension of writing on and to the edge. The letters also are written at this proximity, and indeed DuPlessis notes a similar poetics of essay and epistle, “obeying intuition’s agonising necessity”(25). Hyde’s voice is insistent; repetitively and compulsively telling and turning the story.
Bertram underpins his criticism with a misreading of Hyde’s own uncertainty about her work. He writes that “in clear-sighted moments at the end she had few illusions about the quality of her published work”(1953, 183). The following comments from her letters illustrate that her awareness of the instability of her prose is coupled with the conviction that she is propelled by necessity and authenticity.
Then, in 1937, of The Book of Nadath:
And to JA Lee about Dragon Rampant she wrote:
Hyde’s need for an audience was documented by Lawlor in Confessions of a Journalist (1935), to which she replied that “though the young woman hotly denies always wanting an audience,” she will allow that she does “love to make speeches”(PL 11). (She makes no comment on his claim that this “girl” is a “genius,” 214.) If the books are written in some cases with a desire to impart a certain knowledge or history (and accepting that all writing seeks an audience), it is never the case that Hyde writes with a view to complying with any generic expectation. What her peers and later critics have lamented as a perceptible lack of control in the prose, is better read as an indication of the reader’s discomfort in the face of Hyde’s willingness to write the problem of writing. Murray Edmond has suggested that in her poetry a “bumpy diction” read in her own time as “Georgian, archaic, genteel, poeticised, excessive and hysterical,” can be read now as “peculiarly satisfying to the baroque, fragmented sensibility of a postmodern age”(2000, 116). This syncopated rhythm is perhaps a specifically feminine response to the sound of her own voice (unfamiliar in the patriarchal tradition). Hyde often seems to be astonished by her work. The word that emerges idiomatically in this disquiet is queer.
Queer, from the Greek quer meaning cross, oblique, squint, perverse, is also etymologically linked to the Middle High German word twer meaning thwart. What is strange, eccentric, suspicious even, is then also resistant, perverse, frustrating, and transverse. It is the transversal quality, the crossing of queerness, that makes Hyde’s work disobedient. In a letter to Schroder 21 June 1930 Hyde describes her restlessness as a “happy-queer state of being”(JS57).
Giving the Self Over to Writing: A Feminine Tradition
Caren Kaplan’s recent essay “Resisting Autobiography: Out-law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects” uses the term “out-law” in much the same way as Hyde uses “vagabond” to describe her restless outsider position (Kaplan 1998, 208). The structure I have chosen for the letters privileges place as well as time, marking out Hyde’s literal restlessness. The letters are linked integrally to spaces and places, escapes and landscapes, and the shifting of borders.
“Extravagance, said Thoreau, wandering around, eccentricity, excess, overdoing it in the strangest ways —why it’s a description at one and the same time of The Essay and The Female of the Species”(DuPlessis 1996, 34). Thoreau knew that writing hinges on experience. Letters provide access to the sliding of one moment into another. It is this movement that resists the law of genre. I am tying together this resistance with a writing of self that gives the self over to writing.
A genealogy could be constructed to link Hyde’s work with other women’s autobiographical genre-breaking productions. Parallels emerge in both life and writing between Hyde and HD (1886-1961) transatlantic poet and writer a generation older than Hyde. Each woman was the mother of a still-born first child and an out-of-wedlock secondborn. HD’s palimpsests repeat her biography in variations of concealment and revelation. Her writing has been vigorously republished since the 1980s and is presented now as “an escape from binary and hierarchical thinking associated with patriarchy. The term [palimpsest] denotes a parchment that retains partially erased parts of earlier writings, which strain productively with new text. [. . .] HD can be credited with anticipating the maternal semiotic of Julia Kristeva, and with giving a female voice to classical myths”(Scott 1995, 496). The maternal semiotic is an unsettling quality, a destabilization of the text. Its presence endures and may be read back across cultures and history. The value given to its performance will vary significantly depending on the critical climate of a given era.
In 1994 Bernadette Mayer published The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. It is a work of textual dissent, particularly interesting here because it is composed of letters written but not sent to various addressees some twenty years before publication. The letters record a period of domestic and creative life in which the crossing of narrative threads between letters is a deliberate strategy for producing a non-linear text. As in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1980, 1987) a formal structure which has temporal implications (the years of a life; a sequence of letters) refuses customary arrangements of genre. Mayer put these letters aside before publishing them as a writing project, giving titles to the letters in place of an address. She confounds the notion of letters as private communication from the outset, and is useful here as one who is writing and archiving letters without following the conventions of sending, retrieving and assembling for later publication. The letters remain with Mayer like any other manuscript. She is her own editor, testing and taking charge of the writing then and now, and refusing the conventional production of historical autography. Hejinian describes the letter-writing Bernadette as “at any given point precisely and descriptively somewhere, and yet she is also everywhere”(Mayer 1994, back cover).
presentation of Hyde’s letters in a feminist theoretical context they
seem to prefigure is also an attempt to address the problem of genre.
The text crosses Hyde’s writing: it is always there with the letters,
and yet also everywhere else Hyde was writing. This kind of generative
text, still finding out what it can be and what (like a letter) can be
added at its next issuing, finds a natural home in cyberspace. We post
to the internet, and the posting is updatable. Like DuPlessis, Alice Notley
advocates an inclusive excess in her work which is often published electronically
before, or in place of, hard copy. In her essay “The Poetics of Disobedience”(1998),
Notley writes from a position of “not believing, and telling the truth
as it comes up,” adding that “one must disobey everyone in order to see
at all.” Hyde, writing her 1934 Autobiography (a diary commission to which
she assigned chapter titles so that it already conflates therapeutic and
literary production) understood the audacity of reversing authority’s
gaze. “I discovered for myself, this afternoon, a scientific
The letters text is not a different kind of selected letters, and not a form of biography. Genres support the classification of end products. In a selected letters, an editor cuts out repetitions excessive to the requirements of narrative progress. This text exceeds narrative and exposes the monolinear fiction of “autobiography” or “selected letters.” Its function is to show excess, repetition, neurosis and brilliance in context. What remains is the writing of a life, and the life of writing. It is an invitation to tra(ns)verse writing. It is only the clue.
EXCERPTS FROM THE LETTERS:
JS 75: to John Schroder, [August 1934]
JS 77: to John Schroder, 14 February 1935
JS 96: to John Schroder, 27 December 1937
Ash, Susan. “Narrating a Female Subject(ivity) in the works of Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, and Keri Hulme.” PhD thesis. Otago, 1990.
Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche. Trans. Bruce Boone. London: Athlone, 1992.
Bertram, James. “Robin Hyde, A Reassessment.” Landfall 27 (Sept 1953): 181-191.
Boddy, Gillian and Jacqueline Matthews, Ed. Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde, Journalist. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1991.
Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “f-words: An Essay on the Essay.” American Literature 68.1 (March 1996): 15-45.
Hejinian, Lyn. My Life. Providence: Burning Deck, 1980; Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.
Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Out-law Genres and Transnational Feminist
Subjects.” Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia
Watson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1998.
Kristeva, Julia. “My Memory’s Hyperbole.” The Female Autograph. Ed. Domna Stanton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Lawlor, Patrick A. Confessions of a Journalist. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1935.
Leggott, Michele. “Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record.” Opening the Book: New Essays on NZ Writing. Ed. Mark Williams and Michele Leggott. Auckland, Auckland UP, 1995.
_____. The Book of Nadath. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1999.
Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. London: Picador, 1994.
Mayer, Bernadette. The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. West Stockbridge: Hard Press, 1994.
Notley, Alice. “The Poetics of Disobedience.” Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo. Ed. Mark Peters. May 1998. 21 Nov 2000. <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/notley/disob.html>
Ouida [Marie Louise de Rameé]. Folle-Farine. London: Chatto & Windus, 1883. Victorian Women’s Writing Project. Ed. Perry Willett. Indiana U. Oct 1996. 21 Nov 2000. <www.indiana.edu/~letrs/vwwp/ouida/folle.html>
Sandbrook, Patrick. “Robin Hyde: A Writer at Work.” PhD thesis. Massey, 1985.
Scott, Bonnie Kline. “About HD’s Life and Career.” Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy Davidson. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. A Multimedia Companion to the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 1999. 21 Nov 2000. <www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hd/life.htm>
 For earlier discussions of this work see Patrick Sandbrook’s 1985 thesis “Robin Hyde: A Writer at Work” (425), and Michele Leggott’s The Book of Nadath (1999, 62).
 “The Writer and his Audience” is reproduced in part in Disputed Ground (Boddy, 322-27). The Folle-Farine paragraph is not included. A typescript copy of the full speech is held in ACL (NZMS 542).
 I am grateful to Alison Jeffreys, who is currently writing an MA thesis at Auckland on Hyde’s short stories, for pointing out connections between the short stories and Folle-Farine. The motif of the “Red Mouse of Brocken” occurs often in Ouida’s novel and is also the title of a Hyde story (mentioned to Schroder Mar 1935, JS78). The single page fragment at Auckland (AU 490) is not clearly numbered and could be read as 5 or 3.
 By the time of her Authors’ Week speech (Apr 1936) Hyde had amended her translation to “I had something there” ACL (NZMS 542, 10).
 Also published in The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver (New York: Columbia UP, 1997).
 Derrida’s essay “The Law of Genre” appeared first in Critical Inquiry 7:1 (1980): 55‑81, translated by Avital Ronell, and was reprinted in Acts of Literature (1992).
 In her 1990 doctoral thesis Susan Ash describes a similarly pejorative reading of Hyde by Frank Birbalsingh in Landfall 124 (Dec 1977). His comments “indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of Hyde’s method” (45).
BIO: Lisa Docherty recently graduated with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland. Her thesis is titled Do I Speak Well? A selection of Letters by Robin Hyde 1927-1939. She currently lives in Wellington working as a freelance researcher and editor, while pursuing her own research and writing projects.
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