Introduction to The Godwits Fly: (Auckland: Auckland UP, 2001)[1]

by Patrick Sandbrook


A life short as you like, but vivid

Dr G. M. Tothill
This imperfect part of truth
Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson)
April 1939, England

This is the inscription on the flyleaf of the brand new copy of The Godwits Fly that Robin Hyde sent to Gilbert Tothill, the psychiatrist whom she had also regarded as her mentor and friend. When she wrote the words she was half a world away, broke but writing hard; battered and ill as a consequence of months spent at the battle-front in China resisting Japanese invasion. She was still pitching all she had into the cause of humanity and justice as Europe too slid towards war; and about to cross swords with some hard-nosed English play producers over terms for a script she was just then completing. Four months later, at 33 years of age, she would be dead—of “benzedrine poisoning and suicide while of an unsound mind”(A Home, xx. But at that moment in the northern spring of 1939, she held success in her hand).

Gilbert Tothill’s copy of The Godwits Fly, held in the Auckland City Library’s archives, was donated by him in 1965. Its inscription, “This imperfect part of truth,” still gestures towards the things about a life that have to go unsaid—or that can only be understood imperfectly by those who haven’t lived through them. They are like the knowledge that war veterans cannot put into words. Hyde had glimpsed that painful knowledge in Starkie and his generation and written it into Passport to Hell; she had lived her own hell in the war zone of China in 1938 and recorded it in Dragon Rampant. The same kind of knowledge dwells in the contours of the “steep blue country of melancholy” as they appear in this novel. Eliza Hannay’s experience of loss and alienation is a terrain familiar to Hyde herself and to Tothill, who had been with her on part of her own journey through it.

Robin Hyde had recovered her mental health and self-esteem under the care of Dr Tothill and his colleague Dr Buchanan after a breakdown in 1933. On 1 June she had jumped off an Auckland wharf in a desperate rejection of a mentality and a set of circumstances that had made her life not worth living. Fished out, she was put in Auckland Hospital’s DT (delirium tremens) cells, had a rebellious and unhappy period at Avondale Mental Hospital and then left Auckland briefly under her mother’s care. From Wellington she went to Northland then back to Auckland where she appeared in court in early December to face a charge for the suicide attempt. The next day she collapsed again in the middle of a busy street and begged to be taken back to Avondale Hospital where she was admitted as a voluntary patient to the Lodge.  There her condition improved; she gradually rediscovered the power to write and began to forge new terms on which to live.

The impulse to write directly about her own experience led Hyde first to produce an autobiography, which she completed in 1934 for Tothill. About a year later she returned to the subject of the intimate course of her own life and wrote The Godwits Fly. Getting the story down as she wanted it to be was a long, hard struggle, involving rewriting the draft, thinking and reading about style and authorial control, and seeking advice from friends. By the time it was finished two years later, she felt she had succeeded in representing human experience meaningfully and honestly using the pattern and texture—“imperfect parts” though they were—of her own individual life.

The main elements of Hyde’s life have been described in a number of other places, but for readers encountering her work for the first time, the main outline is as follows. Iris Wilkinson (Hyde’s real name) was born on 19 January 1906 in Capetown. Her parents moved to New Zealand shortly after she was born, the second of four daughters, and she was raised in Wellington. While at Wellington Girls’ College she gained local notice as a poet.  From about the age of fifteen she also knew a young man named Harry Sweetman.  She fell deeply in love with him and dreamed of a shared life of travel and adventure. Her strong attachment to Harry endured, even though it was mixed with bitter disappointment when he set off alone for England, where he died shortly afterwards.  She became a career journalist, working during the 1920s and 1930s on the Dominion in Wellington, the Christchurch Sun, NZ Truth, the Wanganui Chronicle and the New Zealand Observer in Auckland. She also had freelance articles, stories and poems published widely in newspapers and magazines throughout New Zealand, in Australia and Britain. She earned respect as a hard-working and independent-minded journalist. She was inquisitive about what made her culture tick—sharply observant about the position of women, prepared to get actively involved in radical politics and economic debate at a time when New Zealand—and the rest of the world—was gripped by Depression, aware of taha Maori and informed about international politics.[3] By the mid-1930s Hyde was also an accomplished poet of the new generation and a novelist of great promise.

At a personal level, her life was difficult and tragic. An injury to her knee in 1924 left her lame and in the long course of medical treatment she began a dependence on drugs that persisted to the end of her life. There were two unwed pregnancies; the first baby (Robin) died at birth in Sydney when she was 20, the second (Derek) born four years later had to be provided for discreetly. The experience of motherhood with its complex economic and emotional pressures also took a toll of grief and anguish. Unmarried motherhood stigmatised her socially, strained family and other relationships and threatened to undermine her chances of a steady career in the respectable world of work.

She was driven to reckless forms of behaviour. Two breakdowns were followed by periods of convalescence, first in Hanmer in 1927, then from 1933 to early 1937 as a voluntary patient at the Lodge (she invariably referred to it as ‘The Grey Lodge’) a residential clinic attached to Auckland Mental Hospital in Avondale. In the relative security and serenity of these surroundings her creativity flourished. From her time at Hanmer had come poetry; from her attic room in the Lodge came a torrent of poetry, autobiography, novels, stories and plays. The Godwits Fly is part of this extraordinary burst of activity in 1934–35 that gave rise to almost half of her total output of creative writing. As she regained health, she was able to come and go more freely from the Lodge and get involved in the social and literary life of Auckland. She became a well-known figure in the town and kept in close touch with the current scene.

By 1936 the Depression was over and the national economy was rebuilding. A Labour government had swept to power in November 1935 with a fresh vision for New Zealand’s economy, society and place in the world. The local literary establishment was feeling confident too, and was already forging monuments to itself. There was a New Zealand Authors’ Week held in April and plans were already being laid for New Zealand’s Centennial to be celebrated in 1940. Younger writers did not have much of the limelight—Hyde was invited to speak at Authors’ Week only at the last minute—but they were stimulated by the issues nevertheless. There was a good deal of talk in the air about the Great New Zealand Novel and other prodigies. Hyde celebrated that energy and innovation in an article for Art in New Zealand, seeing great potential in the emerging talents of her own generation. Poet and personality Rex Fairburn, for example, whom she knew and admired from their period of common interest in Douglas Social Credit in the early 1930s, might be able to combine his radical politics with the energy and power of his exceptional lyric gift to produce “the New Zealand novel about which New Zealanders still moan.”[4] The prediction was also a challenge to produce the goods—and it was directed at herself as much as at Fairburn and their contemporaries.

Hyde was optimistic about her own chances of achieving recognition as a clear and strong voice for her generation, as she set to work to revise and complete The Godwits Fly in the winter of 1936. She felt she was writing with maturity and discipline. Journalese (1934) had already been published locally by the National Printing Co. in Auckland, but her big break had come when Macmillan’s of London accepted The Conquerors (1935), her second book of poems, as part of their prestigious Modern Poets series. Shortly after, Passport to Hell (1936) was taken by the English publisher, Hurst and Blackett. Now she was an international writer with a literary agent in London; and publishers wanted more of her work. Wednesday’s Children would soon appear under Hurst and Blackett’s imprint and they also had a collection of her short stories called “Unicorn Pasture” for consideration (though it was not subsequently published). America was in her sights too. Check to Your King, the product of her ground-breaking research in Sir George Grey’s sprawling archives, had been submitted for a competition run by the Atlantic Monthly and was commended by the judges.

Could The Godwits Fly now put her firmly on the literary world map? Was the “schoolgirl poetess” of six years earlier, with two slim volumes of verse from a small corner of the world about to hit the trans-Atlantic big-time?

She readied herself for greater independence. As a kind of trial flight, she made several short stays away from the Lodge on the North Shore and elsewhere, then a much longer trip in September to Dunedin and on to other parts of the country. But it was a complex set of events and motivations that finally prompted her to leave the Lodge altogether in early 1937. Now there was a difficult year of living precariously from her writing on the North Shore in Auckland before she left New Zealand on 18 January, the day before her thirty-second birthday. In Hong Kong she abandoned her intended trans-Siberian trip to Europe and went instead into war-torn China. Months later she travelled on to England but by a different route. New work was being published in England and she carried works in progress with her. Still writing prolifically, but now seriously ill and relying on friends for cheap lodgings much of the time, she survived in and around London for about a year. Then on 23 August 1939, as Europe too stood at the brink before plunging to its destruction in world war, Iris Wilkinson took her own life.

A decade before, Hyde had written to Harry Sweetman’s brother, Hardy, advising him to “Paint your own dreams—of a life short as you like but vivid”(29 May 1928). The advice was her manifesto and perhaps her requiem: a determination—almost a desperation—to make every moment count.

An individual living in the world

How are we to read Hyde’s life in relation to her fiction? Since her death, almost every one of the publications of her work has had biographical information attached to it by its editor. As a result Hyde has always been “present” alongside the work itself, like another character, needing to be read into our understanding of the fiction in some way. Boddy and Matthews’s approach in Disputed Ground is an interesting example. Where they had no other available information, they incorporated events and descriptions directly from The Godwits Fly into their biographical essay on Hyde to produce the most directly biographical reading of the novel to date. Other readers have had a variety of reactions. Some have been passionate admirers. Some have wanted to read about her life with less indirectness; others have reacted to her “hysteria” and “lack of control”; still others have not been able to find their expectations about fiction readily fulfilled because of their sense of the writer’s active presence.  The prevailing critical taste after her death was also unfavourable to her writing. A new definition of New Zealand’s “high culture” was being forged in the post-war years of the late 1940s and 1950s. A modernist style and national themes were the vogue, cast in small, highly crafted forms—lyric poems and short stories—preferably with the artist, as in James Joyce’s words, “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Looking back across the war years as a divide of time and sensibility, Curnow, Bertram, Brasch and other priests of the high culture had little sympathy or space for other ways of framing experience. Hyde was problematic: she wrote “too much” and in unsettled forms; her sense of “New Zealandness” was too prone to fuse and interlock with the supra-national, the mythical and the archaic; her “life” bled through into her “art.” She was considered as a specimen of an unsuccessful branch on the tree of New Zealand’s cultural evolution, and was bypassed.[5]

For a considerable period, her work remained largely unknown and unread. The Godwits Fly, in print continuously since 1970, has in fact been the most available point of access for readers, apart from the selective glimpses offered by the poems included in various anthologies. Then in the 1980s, there was a remarkable recovery of her other writing. Bridget Armstrong’s solo drama The Flight of the Godwit (1982) was the prelude to a burst of renewed interest in her spectacular and tragic life story.[6] In a span of less than ten years following Armstrong’s solo dramatisation, Hyde’s work achieved a publishing prominence matched by no other literary figure of her generation. All of her known prose work was brought forward from the 1930s to a new audience and a new critical climate; together with enough fresh information about her life, the depth and range of her writing and her creative process to re-make her place in the national literature.

A unique feature of Hyde’s work is that a significant amount of previously unknown work has appeared long after her death, alongside the re-published texts, and much more is yet to be published. There is still a remarkable freshness to the work as well. Her nonconformity in matters of genre and style—considered odd or perverse in her own time—now reads as a rich and insightful engagement with ways of inscribing experience and opening up the text.[7] The collection of articles, reviews and social commentary in Disputed Ground re-contextualised her non-fiction writing. Completely “new” works by Hyde have included A Home in This World and The Book of Nadath, both of which show new facets of her work and also invite a re-reading of the previously known canon. Other unpublished work comprises more poems, autobiography, almost a hundred short stories, half a dozen plays, the verse chronicle “De Thierry’s Progress,” a novel called “The Unbelievers” and the incomplete start of at least one other called “Come Away, O Human Child.” Yet other of Hyde’s teeming offspring are missing, presumed lost: novels called “The Windy House”(1929), and “These Poor Old Hands”(1935); and the playscript based on Wednesday’s Children.(1939) A considerable body of letters, journals and other evidence of Hyde’s life and craft also remains to be fully explored. Academic research interest is growing both within New Zealand and beyond. A biography and a Collected Poems are currently in preparation. Filmmakers and screenwriters continue to be drawn to the dramatic possibilities of her writing. We haven’t heard the last of Hyde yet.

Each of the new editions and new texts has been accompanied by further insights into the writing, its context and its authorship. The availability of more information about both Hyde’s personal life and her writing career has stimulated exploration of the political, social and literary tensions at work in them. Feminist and post-modernist ways of reading the literature and the life have contested the older modernist approach—though at their most reactive such readings have risked simply privileging Hyde for the same marginality that had caused her to be disregarded in the cultural construct of the “Curnow generation.” Pondering that literary-historical about-face, Mary Paul offers a useful corrective in her reminder that the work needs careful reading, not special pleading. “To understand Hyde’s narratives only for their pathos is to reduce their significance . . . Hyde wanted a new way of showing an individual living in the world, and at the same time of questioning the boundaries of self and world. [She was] interested, not so much in subjectivity for its own sake, but in sites where social ideologies and forces were busy playing out their effects”(Her Side of the Story, 174, 157).  The Godwits Fly is one such site.

Concerning godwits

It is remarkable how poorly Hyde’s use of the godwit motif has been received by critics, despite the strong readership the novel has continued to have. The title of the novel had evidently been the first thing Hyde decided on. Rawlinson, looking through Hyde’s papers, noted the “sudden” decision recorded in her journal 2 March 1935: “Settled: I’m going to write a faintly autobiographical novel called ‘The Godwits Fly’”(Rawlinson, intro. to Godwits, xiii–xiv). Joan Stevens is representative of critical opinion in passing lightly over the godwit theme. Instead she preferred the Mansfieldian depiction of “crystalline impressions of childhood days” in the first half of the novel, adding: “Unfortunately, the adult portion of the book is less effective, distorted possibly by its intimate relation to her own life”(Stevens, intro. to Check, ix). Rawlinson took the same view (Rawlinson, xi, xvi–xvii).  More recently Stuart Murray is also equivocal: Hyde is “clearly a successor to Mansfield’s analysis of an emerging settler society,” he says, supporting this with some of the major correspondences between The Godwits Fly and Mansfield’s New Zealand stories in never a soul at home (1998) (189). He finds Hyde unable to sustain fully realised characters in the larger form of the novel, however. Timothy Cardew he sees as a “stock character”: “the decade’s composite poet/tramp/scholar.” In his view, that Timothy should “command such an investment on Eliza’s part unbalances the novel, and Hyde struggles in particular to find an adequate ending to this narrative”(Murray, 192). These readers’ presumption that the novel is to be read primarily as a picture of childhood in suburban Wellington leaves a great deal unexplained. The key to avoiding reductiveness is the godwit motif itself, which needs a more complex reading.

Hyde herself draws attention to things that are wrong with the godwit motif, in the Author’s Foreword. First: “many people do not know what a godwit is.” Then “godwits, flying north, never go near England.  They fly to Siberia.” Finally, having flown away, “logically . . . they ought to have the same compulsion to come back.”   The Foreword offers no easy resolution of these difficulties. But by deliberately confronting us with the fact that the literal migration of the godwits is not a good fit with the events of the novel, Hyde is suggesting that we read with our wits about us.

Taken most directly, the godwit’s flight is intended to be read as a metaphor for an emerging post-colonial state of mind. It depicts the “white” New Zealanders’ (as she called them elsewhere) “Colonial England-hunger,” or over-easy reliance for cultural sustenance on their stock of canned and preserved culture, imported from Europe—and past its “use by” date—which had retarded their effort to cultivate more wholesome homegrown forms. The lack of a sense of community in contemporary New Zealand society had already emerged as a theme in Journalese, written just a year or so before she began The Godwits Fly: “If society consists of a body of individuals with some real tie of feeling between them, we have no society in New Zealand as yet: there are ties of prejudice and self-interest, but of genuine feeling, no” (Journalese, 113).

But that tricky Foreword also clues us in to look at Eliza’s emerging powers of thought and action rather than simply the idea of a geographical journey to England or even an exploration of social themes. In the novel Eliza realises that it is “ourselves we reach out for, our own undiscovered selves”(Godwits, 137). To be a godwit in these terms is to go in search of oneself; a search which is without end, since the self is in part defined by the journey it makes—as the godwit is defined by its endless, instinctive migrations around the world.

“A wild jumble of scenes”: traces of Hyde’s creative process

The Godwits Fly was the novel that Hyde re-worked most extensively of all her prose writing. Evidence of her creative process remains in the collections of her manuscripts and archives; and these traces provide insight into how she worked and how The Godwits Fly came to be in its present form.[8] The Hyde archives are physically disparate, and much remains to be done to establish bibliographical coherence among the various collections. Other lost pieces of the puzzle may yet come to light. Looking at the Godwits material, we can partially resolve the interrelationships of the surviving fragmentary drafts but questions inevitably remain because of that fragmentation. Bearing these limitations in mind, the following is a brief outline of the novel’s construction.

Hyde had written the autobiography for Tothill in 1934, about a year before she began on The Godwits Fly. The broad outline of the “faintly autobiographical” Godwits was clear in her mind from having written the earlier text. The First Version (as Rawlinson named it) was written quickly and evidently with very little in the way of planning or other preamble before the 2 March journal entry: “Settled: I’m going to write a faintly autobiographical novel called ‘The Godwits Fly’. . . . telling about the Colonial England hunger, and they that depart, and they that stay at home – Girl to be called Eliza Hannay, God knows why – But there she is – Like me but very much pleasanter and I think a sense of humour would be a help.” A week or so later Hyde was at chapter four, but then she paused for about six weeks to write Passport to Hell.  By 12 May the Godwits draft was finished. In the space of about four weeks’ writing time, in the attic at Avondale, she had completed 300 pages. But she was unhappy with the result and put it aside for further reflection (Rawlinson, xi–xii). This typescript is still substantially complete, though it lacks a title page and possibly an Introduction. It is currently located partly in Challis’s collection (261 pages) and partly in the Auckland University Library collection (38 pages). The story is structured in two parts.  While the title page of the first Part is missing, a separate title page for Part Two is headed “Success” but then crossed out by Hyde and in her hand renamed “The Middle Distance.” As well as this structural division, the First Version has significant differences in arrangement and treatment from the later drafts.

Hyde wrote prolifically after she had put Godwits aside.  Between 12 May 1935, when the First Version was finished, and the autumn of 1936 she produced an abundance of poems, short stories and articles as well as re-writing Check to Your King and working on three other novels: “These Poor Old Hands,” “The Unbelievers” (both still unpublished) and Wednesday’s Children. Images, incidents, themes and stylistic approaches from the First Version recur in various ways in these other works. Letters from this time and passages in her journal and notebooks show her actively experimenting with ways to overcome the problems that had left her dissatisfied with Godwits. Then, in a letter dated 8 May 1936, Hyde told John A. Lee she had begun redrafting The Godwits Fly.

What had spurred her to action? Finishing other work, particularly Wednesday’s Children, left her desk clear. External events such as the April 1936 Authors’ Week also energised her with the feeling that the moment was right to gain from a broadening public interest in local writers and themes. Lee’s own Children of the Poor impressed her as a model of fictionalised autobiography. But probably more personal pressures dictated that she would now turn her attention to the autobiographical novel, in preference to the many projects she either had started or had in mind. There is for instance a long description in her journal on 13 March 1936 of the emotions recalled by a letter received years before from Harry Sweetman, when she visited the family home in Wellington at Christmas. The letter made ghosts walk: “Twelve pages of it and tonight lying next to my heart! If that seems childish, so was he—he had a curl of my hair, and says in the letter that to sleep without it gave him nightmarish dreams.” It is strong emotions like these that may have been the driving energy that took the novel in a new direction.

Hyde returned to work on the novel in April 1936. Dialogue at this time with her closest friend, Gwen Mitcalfe (née Hawthorn), seems to have helped her to rethink the novel’s approach and in particular to focus on the relationships between Eliza, Simone and Timothy. It was this focus, and the playing out of the events of Eliza’s “21st year,” which was the “breakthrough” to resolving her dissatisfaction with the form and structure of the First Version.

Major changes to the First Version were the result. She removed an extensive treatment of Augusta’s godwit journey before Eliza is born. She rounded out John Hannay’s character—he had been killed off at the beginning of the First Version. Other friends of Eliza’s, who competed with Simone’s characterisation in importance, also disappeared. Most importantly, the final third of the novel was reshaped to remove both interpretative comments on the society and politics of the day, and an account of Eliza as a successful journalist travelling and working around New Zealand, living in Christchurch, visiting the Marlborough Sounds and the Wanganui river valley and other events. Other characters—a travelling companion called Hildred, Marlborough residents, a spiritualist called Shadow—were also removed from the novel. Hyde also abandoned the (literally) “cliff-hanger” ending of the First Version, which has Eliza drive off the road to avoid hitting a mob of sheep as she contemplates a destination either at a lonely farm called “Solitude” or at Spirits Bay in Northland.[9] Part of her dissatisfaction with the First Version may have been that so much of the lived experience in the novel was displaced onto other characters or handled obliquely, leaving Eliza’s character weakly motivated.

There is no surviving complete draft of Godwits from this period; but there are some fragments of typescript. Specifically, there is a 40-page typescript of the “Little Ease” chapter (AU-B12b, fragments 1, 2) and another collection of 81 pages of typescript in the Challis collection of episodes corresponding to the beginning of Part Two of the First Version. These are distinctive in having handwritten annotations by both Hyde and her friend Gwen Mitcalfe.[10] Mitcalfe was the person on whom Simone is based in the novel and these passages are the ones involving Simone and Timothy most directly. This is the only case where anyone other than Hyde herself worked directly on the actual drafts of The Godwits Fly as it was being composed. It is evidence that Hyde sought Mitcalfe’s advice and that these passages of the novel at least were receiving particular attention. Further work remains to be done to determine the exact date and compositional order of these “Simone” passages; but most likely they are from May–June 1936, when Hyde was recasting the novel in a significantly new shape.

The other surviving materials from this period are two notebooks containing, among much else, handwritten notes and drafts for the novel. Rawlinson ordered and named these Exercise Book 14 (Ex 14) and Exercise Book 15 (Ex 15). The Ex 15 notebook of about 100 pages contains a total of 11 pages of notes and a list of chapter titles for the novel. Hyde dated one of these pages “July 22nd 1936.” One end of Ex 15 starts with the 13 March journal entry, quoted above, and a group of poems. Ex 14 includes a redraft of part of the text. She was evidently working in both Ex 14 and Ex 15 at the same time; and old themes were taking a new focus. [11]

The outline chapter list and “phrase shorthand” notes in Ex 15 are very close to the sequence of the First Version, suggesting that these plans at least are from very early in the revision. Interestingly, this Ex 15 outline gives the novel a three-part structure. This may be the moment at which Hyde went back to the typescript of the First Version, crossed out the Part Two title “Success” and replaced it with “The Middle Distance,” which implies a third Part to come. But the idea of a three-part structure was not pursued. In fact, the whole idea of splitting the story into parts was dropped after this point, possibly because such internal divisions are at odds with the thematic concern for unity and integration.

The next stage in the development of the novel is a manuscript draft (which I have called MS version) that survives in an almost complete form, spread across three more notebooks in the Challis collection (Ex 16, Ex 17, Ex 18). This draft establishes the final shape of the novel, though there is still a great deal of detailed change to be made to the text and to the chapter divisions and titles between this and the final published version. The MS version lacks the first two chapters (and possibly an Introduction or Author’s Foreword), which must have existed either as loose pages or in another notebook. There is also a chapter and a half missing between the last two notebooks.

It is unusual for Hyde to have handwritten a revision of such a long work. She commonly worked directly onto her typewriter. She must have worked from an earlier typescript however, since large parts of this text follow word for word passages in the revised sections of the First Version. One reason why this draft was handwritten is that Hyde was working on it while she was away from the Lodge, perhaps on weekend stays with friends in Auckland at first, then while travelling further afield.[12] She went from Auckland to Dunedin by train in late September 1936, staying in a boarding house on George Street in Dunedin and spending time as the guest of the Hon. W. Downie Stewart, writing in the tranquillity of a balcony in his house on Heriot Row. The first of this set of notebooks containing the draft of Godwits also contains notes made in the Hocken Library and notes of discussions with Stewart himself about political history.[13] There is also material about Charles de Thierry in this notebook, suggesting that Hyde had first used it before she left Auckland and while she was at work on Check to Your King, which she had completed in 1935. It is possible therefore that the MS version was begun before Hyde set out for Dunedin.

There is no known complete draft of the novel after the MS Version. There is, however, the first 137 pages of a typescript draft, which currently exists as two fragments, each in a separate collection. The first, of 49 pages, is in the Auckland University Library (AU-B12b fragment 1); the other, of 84 pages, in the Challis collection. This partial draft appears to belong to the revision made over the summer of 1936–37.  While it is possible that it is the remains of a full late typescript draft which is no longer in existence, the short timeframe makes this unlikely. Hyde told Lee the novel was finished in a letter from the Lodge dated 16 January 1937 and that she knew it would “crisp out” in the final typing. This she undertook, probably on her new portable typewriter purchased on 25 January, in the baches she stayed in at Whangaroa and elsewhere over the next month or so. The completed typescript of the novel was to be sent to her agent in London “next week,” she wrote to Stewart on 5 March 1937. It is not possible to determine when or in what form the Author’s Foreword was added to the text, due to the incomplete state of the drafts. The final typescript sent to A. P. Watt and Son, Hyde’s literary agent in London, does not appear to be extant.

A sliding picture of the days

It is characteristic of her style that Hyde should have settled so fixedly on the phrase, “the godwits fly” when she began the novel. As a newspaper journalist as well as a poet, she had an ear for a telling phrase. Elsewhere she described her ability to recall events in vivid detail by attaching them to a single image. “I used a kind of phrase shorthand, very simple, unintelligible unless I explained it myself”(Dragon, 281).  The godwits evidently rang true as a piece of “phrase shorthand.” Hyde also had Wednesday Gilfillan warn us that perception is shifty; things that appear to be simple truths have “second selves, split personalities, double faces”(Wednesday, 273). These comments point to a symbolic—she would have said poetic—way of layering meaning and perception, which Hyde applied to her writing across genres. Initially she may not have fully grasped what the godwits meant for her, but she was confident that she could enable its significance to emerge.

Hyde was determined to find a way to write “artlessly” or lyrically, to let objects or incidents reveal their particular form and yet, by techniques such as juxtaposition and repetition, to make each image radiate meaning into larger rhythms and patterns. Her notebooks and letters to friends show her constantly on the lookout for new and different approaches. She admired Joseph Roth’s writing, for example, because of its qualities of texture: “His stuff is so detailed that at first it looks solid—then it breaks into pattern, like little leaves . . . I’ve tried for that—the rounding out of things, picture, person, until their separate existence is coherent in the pattern too”(To Schroder, September 1935). She was also pleased when—too rarely—her own skill as a writer was appreciated. Thanking Lee for his review of Passport to Hell, she wrote “You were the first to do what I wanted, to pay some attention to the actual structure of the book”(Lee, 7 August 1936).

So one of Hyde’s major stylistic concerns was to realise images fully in her work to convey the kind of “crystalline impressions” that Stevens remarked. We can trace this concern a long way back in her writing career. Over the summer of 1927–28 she had been commissioned by the New Zealand Publicity Bureau to write 50 articles on places of interest to tourists. For a short, exciting period she also wrote screen titles for silent films made by the Bureau. She wrote to Schroder: “I go in and watch a wild jumble of scenes which might mean anything.  I have to try to make them into [a] titled sequence”(28 November 1927). That movie-making experience occurred to her later as a vivid way of describing her style in the autobiography she was attempting to write in 1934. It was, she explained to Schroder, “a sort of sliding picture of the days . . . utterly sincere and true, not just my halting truth but the truth of all the faces, tormented and inarticulate and quelled by life, that slid past”(August 1934).[14] When she wrote The Godwits Fly Hyde used the technique with mastery. To take only one example, Eliza’s emotional battle with Simone involving jealousy over Timothy and the need for, and value of, marriage is conveyed entirely by using this filmic technique of a “wild jumble of scenes” in the “Business Girls” chapter. Hyde even foregrounds the method, heading one of these quick scenes “A last shot”—the scene is Simone sitting in the “Fleahouse” watching a “picture show”(Godwits 138).

“21 years of a life”

The most relevant formal context for The Godwits Fly is the bildungsroman, or “novel of education,” though the novel has more commonly been read as simply a lightly fictionalised autobiography. Whatever its origins in the material of Hyde’s experience, the novel stands on its own terms as a work of art. A good deal of the work she put into planning and shaping the draft from mid-1936 to early in 1937 went into paring it down, she told John A. Lee, to “21 years of a life”(2 April 1937). Big sections of the early drafts of the novel were cut or rearranged, as described above. The first person narration was transformed into predominantly an omniscient third person point of view, which removed the constraint of a single consciousness within the narrative. The result is a strongly realised set of events and characters arrayed around Eliza so as to set up symmetrical tensions and patterns of conflict and resolution which reflect and define her progress. As bildungsroman, it shows Eliza to be marked out for her special role, her world to be in a troubled state and her education (“the growth of a poet’s mind”) equipping her to engage fully with that turbulence.

The detailed naturalistic texture of the narrative contains the key thematic patterns of the novel. An example is the way Eliza is marked out as the key character. She is not the oldest child in her family, but from very early in the story she makes herself the focus of attention. In the opening pages she and her older sister Carly compete at story telling. Carly has the natural advantage of age: her “memory stretched back” further; but Eliza can “tell things better”(Godwits, 2). This first encounter prefigures their later relationship as well as setting Eliza on her course as an artist with words. Carly’s dislike of lentils, referred to three times in this first chapter, echoes the archetypal story of sibling rivalry from the Book of Genesis. The elder son Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother Jacob for a pottage of lentils, fulfilling the prophesy that “the elder shall serve the younger”(Genesis 25:34; 25:23). Symbolically it will be Eliza, not Carly, who leads the way to the novel’s meaning.

Eliza’s worthiness to lead the spiritual quest for understanding is embedded in the larger structure of the narrative as well as in its allusive detail. In chapter twenty-two, titled “Carly,” the older sister vicariously experiences the traumas Eliza has lived through. Her missed chance of marriage to Trevor Sinjohn and the death of her friend Kirsty Blake parallel Eliza’s lost relationship with Timothy. Witnessing a painful childbirth, she confronts the experience Eliza had endured with the stillbirth of her baby. Carly is moved to tears, but doesn’t have the “courage or the strength”(Godwits, 224) to go beyond that. The following chapter, “Absalom, My Son,” shows John Hannay’s vicarious pride in Eliza’s success as a poet. He pays deference to her having reached a community with mankind which he had only been able to prefigure in his impulse “to get into the masses who have no consolation but life and death”(Godwits, 82). In Eliza’s poems John recognises “a language which all could speak” and “a child could understand . . . or an ageing man”(Godwits, 229).

Eliza’s apprenticeship to her art involves her learning to be a poet, and also learning what her subject matter is to be. From being able to “tell things better,” she advances quickly—“Half-way through the war, Eliza became a poet”—and at first comically, rhyming “Hun” with “gun” and “Verdun”(Godwits, 70–71). In the “Little Ease” chapter she is engaging seriously with poetic form and subject. By the end of the novel she has been published. Her “humble little book,” “Stranger Face,” takes its place among the greats, when it is raised with John’s aid to “the middle of the top shelf” at the bookshop Poetry Counter alongside “a nice set of Browning in vermilion leather covers”(Godwits, 226).

Eliza’s discovery of the subject matter she is to express unfolds from the experiences and ideas she encounters. Her formal education begins under the tutelage of Mr Bellew, who “talked about the godwits” and their mysterious (“secret”) journey far away (“to Siberia . . . north . . .”). Even in her childish imagination Eliza is able to sense something beyond Mr Bellew’s simple account of geographic distance. She connects that mystery and remoteness with the here-and-now of her own place, sensing “something delicate, wild and far away” which has been obscured by jingoistic nationalism: “You didn’t really have to think about it—Maoris, godwits, bird-of-my-native-land”(Godwits, 33). Later, in “Little Ease,” Eliza goes further and rejects an education system which is bent on division and dismemberment. She sums this up in the image of a dissected buttercup: “we never do anything by wholes, it is all dismembered like the buttercup, and nobody has the energy to stick it together again”(Godwits, 95).[15] In her own family Eliza sees the same pattern of isolation, conflict and division in the discord between Augusta and John. The fact that a world war rages in the background of her childhood suggests that this is a universal condition.

Alongside Eliza’s formal education are more natural growth processes. Her sixteenth birthday at Day’s Bay, described in “Reflections in the Water,” is a coming of age. The motif of a journey and arrival is picked up in the picture of the Cobar at the Day’s Bay wharf. In the dressing-shed Eliza observes pink flesh, now with “patches of dark, frizzy hair”(Godwits, 117) and has an insight into how Carly’s sexuality is a vulnerability that will be exploited (Godwits, 115). She is then led by her mother along the “up-path,” beyond a waterfall like a “white bridal veil,” past “two lovers lying in the fern” (“‘And only man is vile,’says Augusta”), then on to the “lazy serenity” of a street full of “old houses.” This is her initiation into the world of “man, woman and child”(Godwits, 118–119). As they all journey back to the everyday world on the Cobar Eliza recognises in the snatches of community song the subjects with which she must engage.

The characters in the novel ring true to life, but in this aspect of the novel too, what appears to be simple documentary realism resolves unobtrusively into form and structure. The interaction and juxtaposition of characters creates a pattern of figures and “journeys” surrounding Eliza that reflects in various ways on her central “journey.” The major figures in the pattern are two women, Augusta and Simone, and two men, John and Timothy. Together the women reflect Eliza’s exploration of the personal and introspective, while the men reflect her exploration of the social, political and sensory realms.

In Augusta’s life Eliza sees the domestic realm upheld. Augusta’s values of motherhood, security and conformity find their doomed extreme in Carly. Her unfulfilled journey to an idealised England was strongly realised in the First Version of the novel but here it is pushed further into the background. Eliza’s father, John, who was a shadowy presence in the First Version and had been killed off by the end of chapter two, now plays a strong role as a foil to Augusta’s values. The depiction of their fractious marriage is highlighted as essential to the novel’s thematic structure. Augusta’s pride and desire for respectability hold her aloof from her partner and those around her. These negative qualities are the legacy which Eliza has to be able to renounce in order to see value in “the spawning ground of life”(Godwits, 234). On the other hand, Augusta’s “genuine toughness of spiritual fibre”(Godwits, 82) is her positive legacy to Eliza.

In Simone Eliza sees the emerging artist imperfectly reflected. Simone’s experimentation with personal style attracts Eliza but is ultimately empty of real engagement. Simone lacks Eliza’s bravery and willingness to take risks—in relationships as well as in other spheres: “What is the good of love without marriage?” she asks, to which Eliza responds, “What is the good of marriage without love?”(Godwits, 139). If Simone’s negative quality is her timidity, then the positive lesson she has for Eliza is her strong and intact sense of herself and her own needs as a basis for action. Eliza is disappointed that Simone chooses to marry Toby at the end of the novel, until she is able to recognise that Simone and Toby may need the complementary qualities they sense in each other: “she was looking for her lost daemon . . . Queerest of all if Toby turned out to be the daemon. Inside marriage she’ll have a new face, a stranger face”—the last phrase echoing the title of Eliza’s book (Godwits, 234). In their marriage, at which Eliza is bridesmaid in the last chapter, there is the hope of true union and equality in contrast to the isolating tensions between John and Augusta.

John Hannay’s faith is rooted in the socialist brotherhood of man. So in her father Eliza sees the world through a political frame. His failure to connect this faith with his daily life makes him by turns angry and sentimental. His fantasy of martyrdom for Tom McGrath, his union boss (Godwits, 154), is pure sentimentality and his anger is comically parodied in the oafish Olaf. The positive side of John’s legacy to Eliza is his “desire to rejoin the whole”(Godwits, 82), his conviction that the positive driving force of human nature is generated at its most instinctual level.

Timothy drags Eliza at a gasping run into the physical and sensual world. Physical exertion and sexual energy are shot through the various worlds he encounters with Birkett, Damaris Gayte, Shelagh and others.[16] His idealism prevents him, however, from being able to participate unselfconsciously in the everyday world: “he was disappointed when the tramp called him ‘Sir,’ instead of ‘Digger’ or ‘Mate’” (Godwits, 123). As if her own energy has been earthed by his, Eliza risks being trapped in a state of suspended animation under the influence of his keeping her “white, for an ideal”(Godwits, 123). But his zest for life in all its forms and his willingness to commit without hesitation to the great cause of humanity is a positive influence on her. Eliza reflects this influence in her own discovery that “It doesn’t matter much” what course of life she follows because she is capable of being a “stock now of various goods . . . for everybody”(Godwits, 235).

The central journey that Eliza makes in the novel is through the experience of alienation (“loneliness”) and loss—first Timothy, then her stillborn baby—to disintegration and beyond these to an integrating self-knowledge. The redemptive possibility she struggles towards is foreshadowed in Timothy’s mythologised journey to the seat of Empire as a “Barbarian for Caesar.” Here he is imagined not as a colonial subject who goes to pay tribute, but as a free citizen of the world in full command of himself: “I have been afraid and made others afraid”(Godwits, 182). He finds his true identity paradoxically by placing himself in the service of a cause greater than just his own. Eliza herself pays a tribute to the Kingdom of the Defeated. Her stillborn baby is the “delicate thing” chosen by the “gods of beauty” to be taken from this world into their realm.(Godwits, 209) It is after her baby is born dead that she rediscovers her “old power” to write—now with “a stronger face, an estranged face”(Godwits, 210). Like Eurydice in Rilke’s poem, “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes,” with which the novel concludes (Godwits, 235), Eliza is taken apart from the mundane world and metamorphosed paradoxically into her “undiscovered self.” Rooted now in “the wonderful deep mine of souls,” she can be “given far and wide” as if from an inexhaustible source.

After “21 years of a life,”[17] the bildungsroman leaves Eliza rooted in a deep understanding of the human condition and poised to face a future that is unknown but no longer feared. And she need no longer suffer loneliness, since she shares her fate with all other human beings whose “odd disjointed thoughts about their homes and life’s work were the hermitages in which they dwelt”(Godwits, 236).

Part of the reason Hyde was content to concentrate the scope of Godwits was that she intended to connect it to a larger thematic architecture in her subsequent work.[18] There is a direct line of succession from Eliza’s self-containment at the end of The Godwits Fly to the “centre of equipoise” Hyde describes in A Home in This World, and elsewhere in her later work (in the poem “The Balance,” written in 1936, for instance). This is a creative and restorative state of mind freed from partisan feeling and divisiveness, and in touch with the most fundamental level of human nature. Individuals in this state are capable of functioning at a high level socially, acting as what another of Hyde’s characters, Macnamara, calls a “stabilising agent” (Nor the Years Condemn, 309). In The Book of Nadath (1999), written very shortly after The Godwits Fly was finished, the section called “The Far Flyers” adds resonance to the godwits’ migratory cycle—now two-way—between geographies of the human spirit.

The godwit motif exemplifies how Hyde constantly recontextualised key images and patterns to show evolving thematic preoccupations at work. This “phrase shorthand,” so much a signature of her writing style, draws attention to sites where a particular “effort towards understanding”(Dragon, 13) is being made—always for Hyde a joint enterprise between the writer and the reader. The effort is directed at opening up the text rather than pinning it down to a final “meaning,” since, as she wrote in the Foreword to this novel, “Passing judgements . . . is no use at all.”

So when Hyde inscribed The Godwits Fly to Gilbert Tothill, “This imperfect part of truth,” she was inscribing her respect for the things that can be known and not known about a life. She was also inscribing her fascination with ways—as a writer and as a reader—of reaching out imaginatively to “our undiscovered selves,” so that the absence of certainty or closure in dealing with our own lives and the lives of others is not alienating but boundlessly integrating and creative. She was also placing herself in the company of other poets and writers whom she felt had the privilege and the duty to be “the organ of the voice, given back to the body, which is the people,” to express the fundamentals of existence in the world of “man, woman and child.” In the words of a fellow poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, to whom she alluded in the Author’s Foreword:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Hyde’s own words live through the power she had to set down sincerely and memorably what it means to be alive.


[1] For abbreviations of Hyde’s published book titles see Works Cited

[3] Robin Hyde, “Poetry in Auckland,” Art in New Zealand 9. 1 (1936): 80.

[4] Michele Leggott’s “Opening the Archive: Hyde, Duggan and the Persistence of Record,” Opening the Book (1995), remarks on an aspect of “what happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just before mid-century by a cultural nationalism inimical to previous competences”(266).

[5] In 1984, along with the reprint of The Godwits Fly, there appeared Wevers’s edition of Robin Hyde: Selected Poems; Dragon Rampant was reprinted with an introduction by Derek Challis and Linda Hardy; and Tony Isaac’s video telefeature Iris was screened. Derek Challis also published for the first time A Home in This World in that fabulous year for Hyde readers. In 1986 Passport to Hell was reprinted with an introduction by Don Smith and Nor the Years Condemn reappeared with an introduction by Phillida Bunkle, Linda Hardy and Jacqueline Matthews. Shortly afterwards, Wednesday’s Children was reprinted with an introduction by Susan Ash. The Golden Press Check to Your King also made a reappearance in 1989. Disputed Ground (1990), edited and introduced by Gillian Boddy and Jacqueline Matthews, collected much of Hyde’s journalism, but is significant not least for its two substantial essays on Hyde’s life and her writing career.

[6] Opening up the text has been interpreted as an editorial strategy in Michele Leggott’s editions of The Victory Hymn 1935–1995 (1995) and The Book of Nadath (1999). Both exert a gravitational pull back towards the poetry on which Hyde staked her reputation. With sensitivity to Hyde’s synthesising imagination, they employ multi-layered and open ways of presenting and reading textual variants. Leggott’s innovation is strikingly appropriate and relevant to Hyde’s work—so much of which, like Wednesday Gilfillan’s “truth,” has “second selves, split personalities, double faces”(Wednesday, 273), all of which need to be seen and to interplay dynamically, not to be resolved. “It’s also development of a textual strategy to fit the writing practice as encountered in an extensive archive. We are abolishing (as she did) the (Modernist) notion of a single, authoritative text. Whatever rolls through the typewriter next is the text”(Leggott, email to Sandbrook, 6 February 2001).

[7] This material was annotated and ordered to some extent by Gloria Rawlinson and Derek Challis during the 1950s and early 1960s, when some items were placed in the Auckland University Library by Challis. The material continued to be used, arranged and annotated by Gloria Rawlinson up to about 1970, when her edition of the text was published as part of the Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press “New Zealand Fiction” reprint series. There is a detailed description of the material in Patrick Sandbrook, “A descriptive inventory of some manuscripts and drafts of the work of Robin Hyde,” Journal of New Zealand Literature 4 (1986): 21–47.

[8] There is some evidence in an interpretation of Hyde’s 1935 Journal that there was a further “coda” to this ending of the text; but the text of a “Part Three” to the First Version is not with the rest of the draft and has not been identified elsewhere. The Journal says: “I’ll have to rewrite some of The Godwits Fly, I’m not sure how or why it dissatisfies me, but it just does, except the first book [= Part?] and the very small one which is at the end—the ending is really good, I think, and the whole book mustn’t be wasted”(June 2, 78).  There is nothing in the extant text of First Version that clearly fits the description of a “very small [Part] at the end.” This passage from the Journal also supports the view that Hyde’s particular difficulty lay in recasting what would become the latter part of the novel in its published form.

[9] One of Mitcalfe’s marginal notes on Hyde’s draft reads: “in this book I would like more Eliza and more real Eliza. In satisfying your secret desires by making her more heroic you make the story less real & herself less a person + less appealing. ‘Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ + her faults revealed in truthful narrative draw only sympathy”(AU-B12b, Folder 4 (fragment 2) 154). There was an extensive correspondence between Hyde and Mitcalfe over many years, but little of this remains. The Challis collection has seven letters and some excerpts in transcription included in notes made by Gwen Mitcalfe for Challis (not sighted in preparing this account).

[10] This description is different from Rawlinson’s account of events leading to the next known full draft of the novel. Rawlinson highlights a handwritten notebook draft of the chapter, “Reflections in the Water,” dated by Hyde “June 22nd 1936,” as the moment when Hyde made a “breakthrough” which enabled her to reframe the novel (Rawlinson, xiii)—a milestone event as significant in Rawlinson’s reading as Hyde’s “sudden” decision taken on 2 March 1935 to begin the First Version. The view expressed here is that Hyde began the redrafting earlier—about April 1936—and that it was the subject matter and structure of the latter half of the novel that was being re-worked: there was no single “breakthrough” to the new version.

[11] “Hyde had overnight or weekend stays with Elsie Stronach in Castor Bay at least three times early in 1936 (19–22 Feb, when she handwrites first draft of ‘In a Silent House’ into a little notebook [11.5 x 14 cm] which is otherwise blank, 33 pp in total; 12 April, when she wrote a letter to Eileen Duggan from there, and 8 May when she also addressed a letter to Lee from there. She felt very secure there (see ‘At Castor Bay,’ in Persephone; maybe ‘Digging’ in Houses) . . . going to live on the North Shore in 1937 was no accident”(Leggott to Sandbrook, 6 Feb 2001).

[12] Stewart was then working on his biography The Rt. Hon. Sir Francis H. D. Bell; his life and times, Butterworth: Wellington (1937). There was a vague understanding that Hyde would assist Stewart with research but this did not happen.

[13] Again later, she describes Dragon Rampant as having been written with “few politics and no art” to illustrate “the agony of the drops which show human faces for a single moment before they go over the waterfall”(Dragon, 12).

[14]As Hyde later wrote in “Journey From NZ”:

Our city had doorways, too many shut.
Morning and evening, facing the rampant crimson brutes of the light,
Nobody had the beautiful strength to decree:
“Leave your doors open morning and evening —
Leave your gates wide to the stranger.”

[15]Timothy’s characterisation owes a good deal to Edward Marsh’s portrait of Rupert Brooke in his 145-page memoir in Rupert Brooke: The Collected Poems (1918). Many of Brooke’s poems are present in the text of The Godwits Fly in the episodes about Timothy.

[16] Hyde wrote to Lee that the novel covered autobiographical events from her life until she was “only 22”(16 Jan 1937); then in a subsequent letter to him described the novel as “fiction ... twenty-one years of a life,” adding “. . . I liked the ending all right”(2 April 1937). The difference in these accounts is subtle but crucial. It indicates that she had deliberately rearranged the chronology of events based in her own life to produce a particular pattern in the fiction: she wanted to have Eliza “come of age” at the end of the novel.

[17] She projected two other novels, she wrote to Lee: “the first about here [the Grey Lodge], and the second about the last three months [in which she had travelled extensively around New Zealand]. But I’ll never do them unless I can do them so gorgeously well that they won’t be Iris and her blunders, but phenomenonal martian things”(16 January 1937).

[18] Robin Hyde, “The Writer and his Audience,” unpublished text of an address for New Zealand Authors’ Week, April 1936, Auckland City Library, NZ MSS 542 folder 6.

Bio: Patrick Sandbrook's PhD, "Robin Hyde: A Writer at Work," was the first major academic study of Robin Hyde. Based at Massey University, he has published widely on New Zealand literature and tertiary education management. He is a member of a joint universities research team funded by the prestigious Marsden Fund to carry out Hyde-related research in 1999-2001.

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