Approaches to the Book of Iris
[The Book of Iris (AUP, 2002)]
A year or so after it came out, I bought a second-hand copy of The Book of Iris (2002), Auckland University Press’s massive hardback life of the New Zealand writer Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde). I was – mildly – curious about Hyde, but before long the nature of the book itself began to intrigue me even more.
It had two authors: Gloria Rawlinson, a precocious child poet who’d befriended Hyde in the 1930s; and Derek Challis, Iris Wilkinson’s son. Not that this is in any way unusual – what did seem surprising was the degree to which the latter seemed anxious to distance himself from the former. Rawlinson had died leaving her draft biography stalled and incomplete. Challis had then taken up the task, but included a preface denouncing not only his collaborator’s errors of tone and emphasis, but also her downright distortions and lies.
This created the interesting spectacle of a book at war with itself, I thought – a text which had no stable sense of being except in the dialectic struggle between two wills.
Anyway, I was shooting my mouth off to that effect one day to a group of people which included my Massey university colleague Mary Paul, then engaged in editing a book of Hyde’s copious, overlapping autobiographical writings. She suggested I write an essay about it.
It sounded like a fine idea, but since writing such an essay would (inevitably) involve having to reread and annotate the 800-pages-odd Book of Iris, I didn’t immediately take up the challenge. Easier, I thought, to keep on talking about it than face the stiffer task of documenting my assertions.
Then, a short time later, Mary decided to put together a book of critical essays on Hyde (which subsequently appeared as Lighted Windows (Otago UP, 2008)), and asked me specifically to contribute a piece on The Book of Iris to the volume.
There’s a curious hierarchy in the ranking of pieces of Academic writing. On the one hand, there’s the refereed article or review, in a peer-reviewed journal. That’s what counts for most in the glorified crap-shoot which is the PBRF (Performance-Based Research Fund): the points-system which governs how much university departments can expect to get off the government to aid them in their research activity.
Without peer-review, the value of random bits of writing declines sharply. That’s one reason why an essay in a critical book issued by a university press seemed quite a desirable thing to me. One must get ahead, after all – all universities operate on the “publish or perish” model, but exactly where you publish is now more crucial even than it was before 2003, the year the PBRF system came into operation here in New Zealand.
So back to The Book of Iris I went, pencil in hand, looking for good material for my piece. It wasn’t easy to force my way through it again. Gloria Rawlinson was an appallingly verbose prose writer. Her own thousand-odd-page draft was still far from complete. With additions and revisions by Derek Challis, the typescript grew (apparently) to almost 1200 pages. AUP’s editors managed to cut this back by almost a third, but even so it’s a colossal book, hard to find things in.
What’s more, I think even the book’s biggest fans would agree that there are very important aspects of Hyde’s life which are examined pretty superficially in it – the precise date and circumstances of the birth of Hyde’s first child in Sydney, for example. A lot of unanswered questions remain about that event.
My initial plan had been to concentrate on the somewhat Borgesian implications of having two authors at war over the ownership of one book, a dispute which could only be solved by the death of one or other of them. Hence my choice of title for the essay:
The Art of Postmodern Biography:
Derek Challis, Gloria Rawlinson and The Book of Iris
This is the abstract I wrote at that point, when the whole project seemed easily attainable and without significant conceptual flaws:
The Book of Iris was a long time in the making. Derek Challis, Robin Hyde’s son and the book’s co-author, pinpoints its beginnings in 1947. That’s when he wrote to Gloria Rawlinson, Hyde’s friend and literary ally, suggesting the project. Fifty-five years later, in 2002, Auckland University Press published the results of their joint labours as an 800-page authorised biography.
This time-lag in itself would suggest that certain difficulties had arisen with the project. When, however, one reads in Challis’s fascinating preface that his co-author (now dead) was untrustworthy in her use of original sources, had a consistent tendency to exaggerate her own importance in Robin Hyde’s life, and was also prone to long, irrelevant digressions, then it’s rather difficult to see how the book ever came about at all.
Besides this, however, he goes on to say, her text has many merits. By correcting the inaccuracies, cutting out the digressions, and adding a few bits here and there, all can be easily set right.
This paper tries to examine both this set of assumptions and the end-results of Rawlinson’s and Challis’s labours: the uniquely self-questioning and self-undermining textual artefact which they have created between them.
Mary approved this basic overview, so off I went.
The trouble was, when I finally got down to it, I ran straight into writer’s block. Not since I was writing my Doctoral thesis back in the late eighties have I found prose composition such a chore. Nothing fell easily into place. I’d got used to trying to write punchy reviews and editorials – journalistic pieces where the strong expression of interesting opinions is the principal criterion of merit. By contrast, a more measured, “Academic” style now held few charms for me.
Anyway, I eventually dragged my way through it. It began with what I thought was a striking analogy between New Zealand and Russian literature, a weird precedent I’d been wanting to fit in somewhere for ages:
“A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
In 1971, Andrew Field, Vladimir Nabokov’s first English-language biographer, edited a book called The Complection of Russian Literature, a collection of essays by Russian writers about each other’s work. The piece which concerns us here is by Ivan Goncharov: an account of his various meetings with Ivan Turgenev.
In it Goncharov, author of Oblomov (archetype of the futile, idle “superfluous man” in Russian literature), accuses his fellow-novelist Turgenev of systematic plagiarism on a grand scale. Essentially everything that the latter published, with the exception of a few early sketches, was based on recollections of what Goncharov had told him he was planning to write. It’s a damning indictment, full of circumstantial detail.
After I’d finished reading this essay, I looked in the back to check where it had first appeared, only to find the following note:
Obviously the work which is presented here for the first time … An Extraordinary Story, requires some accompanying explanation. … [It] is briefly mentioned in Prince Mirsky’s history [of Russian Literature] as a “psychopathic document,” but the internal evidence of several details in his references show that Mirsky had not actually read the document himself. The book itself, it should be stressed, is written by a demonstrably mentally ill person. My usage of his argument has purposely sought to present Goncharov’s claim in a more reasonable light [my italics].(Field, 274-75)
In other words, Goncharov was “demonstrably” mad when he wrote the “manuscript, of book length (nearly two hundred pages)” which Field has edited down to sixteen more “reasonable” pages. And what is his justification for this procedure?
… while Goncharov was in a paranoiac state while writing An Extraordinary Story, there is now at least very strong circumstantial evidence … that Turgenev did plagiarise from him, and – a chicken-and-egg problem – Goncharov’s mental collapse may have resulted from Turgenev’s action. (Field, 275)
The “very strong circumstantial evidence” turns out, on examination, to be a piece by the Soviet critic Leonid Grossman, also reprinted by Field, which purports to show that Turgenev’s famous play “A Month in the Country” resembles – slightly – an earlier drama of Balzac’s, “La Marâtre,” albeit “freed of melodrama” (Field, 152).
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that everyone isn’t against you … That, at any rate, appears to be Field’s reasoning. Shorn of 180 or so pages of “mentally ill” ravings, Goncharov clearly had a pretty good case. After all, why shouldn’t one of the greatest European novelists, one of the finest stylists in the Russian language, have stolen all of his plots from a few conversations with his contemporary Goncharov? The fact that (as Field, to do him justice, acknowledges) “his other two novels besides Oblomov (1859), A Common Story (1847) and The Precipice (1869) are distinctly inferior,” is neither here nor there. It wasn’t jealousy at Turgenev’s greater success as a writer that drove him mad, but the plagiarism itself.
It’s a little hard to weigh up these accusations and counter-accusations at such a distance in time. Goncharov may indeed have been right. But there is a little thing called burden of proof. If a “demonstrably mentally ill person … in a paranoiac state” accuses someone else of a crime, then there’s at least a strong supposition that the accusation may be baseless. It is, in any case, completely indefensible to tidy up the accusation, eliminating its more obviously “psychopathic” features in order to “purposely … present (the) claim in a more reasonable light.”
The career of Andrew Field contains many similar examples of playing fast-and-loose with what he was pleased to call the “wombat work” of conventional scholarship, culminating in a controversy in the TLS with Nabokov’s subsequent biographer, Brian Boyd, where Field proved unable to recall the precise year of the Russian Revolution. Look up his name in the index to Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years if you wish to savour more of Field’s enormities.*
[* “The number of absurd errors, impossible statements, vulgarities and inventions is appalling.” – Nabokov on the first draft of Field’s Nabokov: His Life in Part (1977), quoted in Boyd, 611. See further the three pages of notes (723-26) Boyd devotes to substantiating Nabokov’s statement.]
After that, I went into a more straightforward account of Challis’s introduction to his edited form of Rawlinson’s biography, pointing out the difficulties inherent in something which he seems to see as a very simple procedure: the “adaptation” of one author’s text by another with significantly different intentions.
Unfortunately, as everyone who read it was quick to point out, my Russian opening had the effect of equating Rawlinson with the “demonstrably mentally ill” Goncharov, and Derek Challis with the “absurdly error-prone” Andrew Field. One of the essay’s eventual referees put it best, I think:
in its current form, the discussion relies heavily on the force of juxtaposition. Talking about Andrew Field allows the writer to make points about the perils of biography economically, and makes for interesting reading, but the move to Challis and Rawlinson seems to invite judgment by innuendo.
Quite so. The other thing that everyone agreed on was the timing of the piece:
The main problem is that it half reads like a book review when the time for a review has long past, and half reads like a sketch for a more extended consideration.
That, too, was a point I found difficult to dispute.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I’d spent quite a lot of time on the piece already by this time, and the prospect of a more-or-less guaranteed book publication made it seem worth taking the time to remodel it, so (with the help of various suggestions from Mary Paul) I proceeded to do so. I’d written the original between December 2005 and January 2006. It took most of July 2006 to revise it.
I toned down the feisty, reviewer’s language everyone seemed to object to so much, added a lot more examples from the field of literary biography in general, and sent it back, retitled: “Two Faces of Biography: Derek Challis, Gloria Rawlinson & The Book of Iris.” (This is more-or-less, give or take a few phrases here and there, the text attached to the end of this introduction).
And so the matter rested.
But then the book itself started to undergo strange changes. First the decision was made to drop the planned reprints of “classic” critical essays about Hyde (many of which were already available online on the Robin Hyde page at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, in any case).
After that, the publisher expressed the view that my piece in particular was too much like a book review, and should really be presented as such somewhere. It was suggested that I send it to Landfall – hardly a likely venue for a review of a book which had already, by then, been out in the world for five years! By now it was December 2007.
And that was that. After two years of work on an essay I never particularly wanted to write in the first place, my precise gain was nothing – no publication, no PBRF points, nada.
So my next step was to submit it to the Journal of New Zealand Literature, where I’d already had work published (albeit under the beneficent regime of Ken Arvidson). I still hankered after seeing my Russian comparison in print, though, so it was the first form of the essay which I submitted to them (somewhat foolishly, in retrospect).
Back it came, after a couple of months, with two referee’s reports pointing out:
- how much like a review it sounded (a tone only forgivable at the moment of the book’s original appearance);
- the undesirability of even seeming to equate Rawlinson and Challis with the lunatic Goncharov and unscrupulous Field.
They had a point, I had to admit.
I then submitted to them the second, revised version of the essay, which started to grind its way through the same set of processes, only (I think I was right in detecting) with slightly greater auguries of success.
At this stage I was forced to rethink my whole attitude towards the piece. I’d long ago ceased to feel any fondness for it (though I did – and do – still agree with its main points, and, indeed, the tone in which those points are made). I started to wonder how I’d feel at being compared to the error-prone, scholarly buffoon Andrew Field.
The occasion of these musings was what seemed to me an exceptionally bitchy and patronising review of my anthology Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, which happened to appear at this moment (coincidentally?) in the pages of JNZL. My indignation at being accused of basic “uncoolness” by the reviewer reminded me of how personally one tends to take such – basically footling and fatuous – aspersions. Doing the same thing to Derek Challis, albeit in muted form, in the very next issue of the journal, suddenly looked like a very uncool thing to do indeed.
And I’d started to think, too, that the lessons I’d learned through the long process of conceiving, composing, revising and editing the wretched thing were possibly more valuable than the piece itself: the piece as it stood, that is.
Why not play Derek Challis to my own Gloria Rawlinson, I thought? Why not publish the essay with commentary? That way the “perfect, post-modern” self-refuting book could be matched by the self-doubting, self-undermining literary essay.
I don’t know. You can judge the end result for yourselves. In any case, while I’m still fond of my Goncharov / Field anecdote, and still agree with the basic contentions of my belated, beleaguered Book of Iris review, I’ve had a hell of a lot more fun writing this account of their vicissitudes than I ever did composing the essays themselves.
Two Faces of Biography:
Derek Challis, Gloria Rawlinson and The Book of Iris
I’m told that biography – and popular history, which overlaps with it – is the bestselling non-fictional genre at present. Certainly Geoff Walker, managing editor of Penguin Books in New Zealand, seems to think so. In a talk he gave at a recent university research day he exhorted us all to think small: to write up esoteric aspects of our subjects in an amusing, newsy way. That was the kind of book the public was keen on buying, and the kind (accordingly) publishers were eager to publish.
What Walker presumably had in mind was the immense success of books such as Simon Winchester’s Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998) and Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995): books which illuminate little-known areas of human achievement – lexicography and navigation, respectively – by focussing on heroic (preferably rather eccentric and isolated) figures within the history of each discipline.
However, Walker also highlighted a dichotomy which goes deeper than the much-trumpeted distinction between Academic and Popular writing. After all, a biography must always be somewhat speculative, even when the materials its subject has left behind are copious beyond belief (as in the case of US Presidential libraries). To be comprehensible to other human beings, a person’s life must be presented in human terms: through their likes, dislikes, achievements, disappointments, loves and hatreds, however esoteric the field they may have flourished in.
What each writer must choose, though, is the angle they are going to take on their subject – either the (so-called) Life and Times approach: some kind of attempt at a comprehensive overview; or the more particular Themed Account: the carefully teased-out threads of one aspect of a life (or lives). The immense detail of Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson (1791) exemplifies the first approach, the essayistic debate of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (c.100) the second.
Both Longitude and The Surgeon of Crowthorne clearly fall into the second category. There are fuller studies available both of John Harrison and his invention of the chronometer, and of James Murray’s titanic labours as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Nor are they necessarily less readable (K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words (1977), in particular, is a fascinating book). But the lack of a claim to completeness has served both Winchester and Sobel well. Readers don’t always wish to be edified and educated, but we do all crave to be beguiled and entertained.
For the moment, then, the themed account could be said to be in the ascendant – in publishing terms, at any rate. But there are certain disadvantages to these works. They’re unreliable for reference, for a start. It’s not that their authors are necessarily less fastidious researchers, but simply that the conventions of the form don’t require them to provide full details of their subjects’ ancestry, travels (or lack of same), street addresses, friendships and intellectual (not to mention less respectable) interests. Sometimes such details are all one’s looking for.
One might say, then, that the only thing that makes these biographies possible is the prior (or at least parallel) existence of a more standard biography of the Life and Times variety. Andrew Birkin’s brilliant J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (1979), based on his three-part BBC drama series (which in its turn inspired the recent Johnny Depp film Finding Neverland (2004)), depends on the encyclopaedic detail of Denis Mackail’s The Story of J. M. B. (1941) as much for its choice of what not to discuss, as for its decisions on what to foreground.
It’s a truism, but apparently a necessary one, to say that we will always need both types of book. Syntheses and overviews are as important as brilliant individual analyses. The important thing is:
- to maintain some kind of balance between them, &
- to make sure that they’re not mistaken for each other.
It would be as pointless to criticise Birkin’s book for neglecting to discuss Barrie’s success as a playwright as it would to criticise Mackail for failing to foreground the vexed relations between “Uncle Jim” and the Llewellyn Davies boys.
So how does New Zealand measure up in this respect? In many cases, yes, we have dual biographies of major figures – each of which attempts to supply what the other lacks. Denys Trussell’s Fairburn (1984) is an attempt at a comprehensive Life and Times, whereas James and Helen McNeish’s Walking on My Feet (1983), subtitled “a Kind of Biography,” leans more towards anecdote and oral reminiscence. In the case of James K. Baxter, we have Frank McKay’s 1990 Oxford University Press biography, but also the 1983 memoir by W. H. Oliver (supplemented more recently by Mike Minehan’s “Intimate Memoir” O Jerusalem (2003)). In this country, though, the dichotomy tends to be presented as a distinction between Memoir (avowedly partial and personal), and Biography (an attempt at objective assessment). This, it seems to me, is unfortunate, as it restricts the definition of the Themed Account, thus lending a kind of primary authority to the Life and Times.
The result, in publishing terms, has been a succession – very useful but at times a little overwhelming – of doorstep-sized Lives of New Zealand literary figures, and a paucity of more nuanced studies, such as Dick Scott’s classic Seven Lives on Salt River (1979).
Michael King led the charge with his Frank Sargeson (1995), followed by Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000). Gordon Ogilvie’s Denis Glover: A Life (1999), Keith Ovenden’s A Fighting Withdrawal: The Life of Dan Davin (1996), Ian Richardson’s To Bed at Noon: The Life and Art of Maurice Duggan (1997) and Vincent O’Sullivan’s Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan (2003) are further examples of the trend. It’s interesting that this last book came out more or less simultaneously with James McNeish’s Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung (2003), a splendidly entertaining group biography of the leftist New Zealanders who went to Oxford in the 1930s.
In this latter case, what seemed to me a complementary overlap (as I explained in my review of the two books, “A Low Dishonest Decade,” WLWE: 39 (2) (2002-3): 143-46) inspired some commentators to criticise McNeish for lacking O’Sullivan’s comprehensive detail – a clear case of mistaking one genre for the other.
The same situation recurred with Rachel Barrowman’s Mason (2003), which, splendidly informative as it is, lacks the energetic sense of indignation of John Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant: The Life and Writings of R. A. K. Mason (2004), published under the pseudonym ‘Asclepius’. Here there had even been an attempt at collaboration between the two authors, which (wisely) was abandoned in favour of two completely separate books.
Barrowman’s book has been much praised, and deservedly. But Caselberg’s was hardly read, or mentioned, at all (again, for more on this matter see my review of Asclepius’ Poet Triumphant in WLWE 40 (2) (2004): 144-47). Why? It is, admittedly, an eccentric book in structure and emphasis, but I think there’s little doubt which of the two Mason himself would have preferred. Caselberg, after all, sees Mason’s life story as a triumph, Barrowman (by and large) as the tale of a tragic might-have-been.
In almost all cases we benefit from having both angles on a life. There can, of course, be as many themed accounts of a multi-faceted individual (or group of individuals: the Inklings, say) as he, she or they had interests. What is less commonly recognised is that the same goes for comprehensive overviews. When will we feel we’ve had enough “definitive biographies” of Dickens, or Henry James, or Hemingway – for that matter, of Katherine Mansfield?
All of which brings me around to the subject of Gloria Rawlinson, Derek Challis, and the only existing full-length biography of Robin Hyde, The Book of Iris.
Where Gloria’s text is an adequate and fair representation of the facts and of the events that determined the course of Iris’s life, I have used it in an almost completely unmodified form, but as far as is possible I have tried to minimise supposition, speculation, misinformation and subjectivity. (xxii)
This is a curious statement. It comes from Derek Challis’s introduction to The Book of Iris, the “definitive” (xxi) – or at any rate authorised – biography of his mother Iris Wilkinson (better known by her pen-name, Robin Hyde). Gloria Rawlinson, his co-author, died in 1995, bequeathing him the text of a 1043-page draft of the biography completed in 1971. It’s natural that the typescript should require some updating and revision after a hiatus of 30 years. However, that was not the only problem with Gloria’s work:
As well as being both overly sentimental and hypercritical the draft manuscript exaggerated the importance of the part played by the Rawlinsons in Iris’s life. She is presented as being dependent on their generosity and goodwill to an extraordinary degree. (xvii)
The charge of being “overly sentimental” is certainly easy to substantiate, even in the edited version of the book. An early passage about Iris’s wanderings around Wellington includes the following:
It was here too that she heard, and never forgot, a mysterious wind-blown music, music without a musician, that vibrated on the air about her before it died away. (13)
Even the justification given for including this romancing about the “mysterious music” wafting around the “rock outcrop … she romantically named ‘the Druids’ stone,’” the claim that “[t]hese romantic memories later haunted the themes and language of her verse” (13) seems unconvincing. One can’t help feeling that such details are being emphasised somewhat beyond their due.
The description of Gloria’s work as “hypercritical” is harder to understand. Perhaps it lies in the numerous throwaway comments about the disorder and waywardness of her private life:
… the depressed mood of the last two months on the Dominion goes some way towards explaining the next sorry chapter in her life, one that distorted and complicated her future. (65)
The “next sorry chapter” in question was the brief affair with Frederick de Mulford Hyde which led to an unplanned pregnancy and, eventually, to her first (stillborn) child Christopher Robin Hyde. Gloria clearly sees the perpetuation of this child’s memory in Iris’s choice of a pen-name as a mistake: “it was an additional burden on her psyche, keeping the image of her lost child constantly before her, and the wound that would, with time, have healed, endlessly open.” (84)
To do Gloria justice, this is little more than a paraphrase of the autobiographical passage quoted immediately afterwards:
And now indeed, I have no cause to be glad that I did it, have I [?], I wish that I had left him to the care of the earth. (85)
It is interesting that the question mark one would normally expect after “have I” is missing. If it had been included, it would have made it clearer that Hyde was asking her audience (in this case, Dr Gilbert Tothill, the psychiatrist for whom she wrote this account) a question. Presumably because her life is so disordered, and thus unlikely to throw lustre on the memory of the dead child, she doubts the wisdom of her choice. In different circumstances she might have thought otherwise: “And yet at times, when I think all’s going to be quite well, I take for Robin Haroun’s words, ‘he might be one of the world’s great men.’”
Self-confidence was clearly a fluctuating factor for Hyde. “I am a writer and a great one,” (90) she reminded her friend Gwen Hawthorn at one of her lowest ebbs.
Alternatively, one could speculate that the “hypercritical” passages Challis complains of may have been pruned away in this version of the biography. There’s really, then, no way to be sure what Gloria Rawlinson found to be so critical of in Hyde’s life. Only Derek Challis – and his editors – can know exactly what he meant. As Iris Wilkinson’s only surviving child, it’s certainly understandable that he wouldn’t wish to perpetuate speculative or defamatory opinions about her.
The third of Challis’s stated reservations about Gloria Rawlinson’s draft biography refers to Rawlinson’s persistent over-emphasis on her own family’s importance in Iris’s life. Rawlinson’s distortion (we’re told) became evident in her introduction to Houses by the Sea, the volume of Hyde’s late poems published in 1952.
Michele Leggott’s verdict on Rawlinson’s editorial procedures is even more damning than Challis’s:
The misrepresentation of Hyde’s words in … Houses by the Sea is disconcerting, especially when the extent of Rawlinson’s ventriloquising in the introduction becomes apparent. Not only the ‘letters’ from China but most of the quotations attributed to Hyde do not match their sources. Simply put, Rawlinson took material from a number of autobiographical sources (including the first version Godwits draft) and reshaped it to fit a story she was making about Hyde that would not let anyone forget Rawlinson. (Leggott, 29)
Leggott, editor of the most substantial collection of Hyde’s poems to dates, Young Knowledge (2003), was forced to disentangle many of the texts she used from Gloria’s interference:
Each poem was transcribed but not checked very thoroughly because there are numerous mistranscriptions of the copytexts … More serious are the places where Rawlinson chose to alter the copytext, sometimes a word here and there, often from a variant version, and sometimes an ‘improvement’ of line, phrase, punctuation or layout without any obvious authorial source … At the macro-level, Rawlinson recomposed some poems by combining two or even three typescripts … or by combining typescript and manuscript … In each case there was a single and complete copytext available. (Leggott, 29-30)
Leggott is careful to point out that while occasional editorial interference was not unusual at the time (or now, for that matter), particularly with poems published in newspapers, Rawlinson’s manipulations go far beyond this: “[John] Schroder occasionally modernised Hyde’s archaisms in copy-editing contribution for newspaper publication (‘thou’ became ‘you’ on a marked-up typescript of ‘Interlude’ now among his papers). But he did not, as Rawlinson did, change ‘thy’ to ‘my’… or rewrite endings as in ‘The Beaches’ V.” (Leggott, 29)
How did Gloria justify all this – to herself, let alone to others? Leggott ventures a theory:
A trace remains of what she thought she was doing in a comment made to Schroder in November 1947 about the draft introduction she had asked him to read: ‘The Conversational Piece was based on actual conversations, so clearly remembered, but I see that it needs clarifying.’ It seems that the ‘Conversational Piece’ disappeared in revision, but Rawlinson’s confidence in her ability to author the past was applied at a less overt and more insidious level throughout. (Leggott, 29)
She began, it seems, as she meant to go on. The past, in her version, was to be presented as Rawlinson recalled/interpreted: “[I]n 1938 the Rawlinsons (and more particularly Rosalie rather than her teenage daughter) in fact received seven letters from Iris, but the text of the introduction to Houses by the Sea suggests that they received twenty-four. In 1939 the Rawlinsons received four letters from Iris, but Gloria claimed to have received eight.” (xix)
Perhaps more disappointing was the way in which messages and comments favourable to the Rawlinsons and strongly suggestive of a dependence on them by Iris were inserted into the quoted text. For example, nowhere in the 10 November letter from Iris to the Rawlinsons does it say ‘please keep on writing as much and as often as you can’… [In] the letter to Rosalie from Iris on 9 June … nowhere does it say ‘I wish you were here so that we could talk it all over. I don’t know what to do. It is all so unsettling’. (xix)
Leaving all these reservations to one side, however, her draft biography has (we’re informed in Challis’s preface) many merits. It’s long and comprehensive (over a thousand pages long, in fact), and – most of the time – gives “an adequate and fair representation of the facts and of the events that determined the course of Iris’s life.” (xxii) All that was necessary to use it in “almost completely unmodified form,” in fact, Challis tells us, was to “minimise supposition, speculation, misinformation and subjectivity.”
I’m not sure that Derek Challis was quite aware just how challenging a statement this is. It’s true that something like this process of pruning and remodelling often takes place when a book is edited, particularly in the case of posthumous publication. However, it seems a little odd (at any rate on the surface) that Challis should feel that an untrustworthy fantasist with an axe to grind might still make an acceptable co-biographer.
“biography tends towards oblique self-portraiture”
– S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (Schoenbaum, viii)
Is The Book of Iris a reliable Life and Times account of the individual we generally refer to as Robin Hyde? That’s an exceptionally difficult question to answer. There are as many different approaches even to this branch of biography as there are people who write them. While thinking about some of the issues raised by this essay I thought it politic to try to read as generally as possible in the field.
One interesting point struck me almost at once. You don’t have to believe in biography to write one. Ian Kershaw, author of a massively-detailed, two-volumed biography of Adolf Hitler (1998-2000), stresses his own reservations about the form:
There is no little irony … in my eventually arriving at the writing of a biography of Hitler in that I come to it, so to say, from the ‘wrong’ direction. However, the growing preoccupation with the structures of Nazi rule … drove me … to considering whether the striking polarization of approaches could not be overcome and integrated by a biography of Hitler written by a ‘structuralist’ historian – coming to biography with a critical eye, looking instinctively … to downplay rather than to exaggerate the part played by the individual, however powerful, in complex historical processes. (Kershaw, xiii).
Kershaw is, to be sure, writing the life of a public man rather than a writer, but his comments do show that it’s possible to distrust a genre whilst making substantial contributions to it.
Shakespeare’s Lives, by Samuel Schoenbaum, an attempt to analyse Shakespeare’s myriad-minded biographers rather than their perpetually elusive subject (a task somewhat similar to that attempted by Pieter Geyl in his classic Napoleon: For and Against (1967)) constitutes a valuable extended meditation on the genre.
What struck me most forcibly while reading Schoenbaum was the fallibility of scholarly objectivity. One tends to assume that standard Life and Times biographers fall into distinct categories: unreliable cranks with some kind of axe to grind; dry-as-dust chroniclers of facts; and, in between, as a kind of golden mean, reasonably honest researchers.
In fact the lines are far more blurred. The bibliographical works of that notorious first-edition forger Thomas J. Wise are still in use, since (we’re told), if one discounts the obviously fraudulent entries, then the rest is as accurate as one could desire. The same is true of various other pillars of Shakespearean scholarship. J. Payne Collier, for instance, whose forged Elizabethan letters contaminated mid-nineteenth century knowledge of the poet, did valuable pioneering editorial work on Shakespeare’s text.
Not only dishonesty but even eccentricity can have a strong influence on subsequent scholarship. J. B. Halliwell, for instance, had a tendency to issue the results of his antiquarian researches “in editions of one hundred, fifty, thirty, twenty-five, or – not seldom – ten copies only. …. Why not, he was asked, have print runs of five hundred?”
He defended his practice by insisting that the collation, transmission and keeping of accounts encroached severely upon his time … His justification fails to explain why – if he was so eager to economise on time and labour – he would sometimes print twenty-five copies and himself take the trouble to destroy all but ten. A letter … suggests that his true motive was a collector’s desire to create rarities which would afterwards command ‘marvellous’ prices. (Schoenbaum, 290)
And yet, “despite the streak of larceny in his character,” Schoenbaum concludes that “Hallliwell is the greatest of the nineteenth-century biographers of Shakespeare in the exacting tradition of factual research.”
Gloria Rawlinson’s peculiarites as a researcher and a writer begin to look quite unremarkable when matched against such a rogue’s gallery – many of them renowned pillars of English studies.
The question remains, was Gloria Rawlinson a good choice as Robin Hyde’s first biographer?
There are strong reasons for doubting it. Her extreme youth at the time of their friendship – just fifteen when they first met – meant that their relationship can never have been one of equals. Challis points out that: “comments in her letters to a wide variety of friends [make it] clear that Iris thought of Gloria as a brave, loveable, intelligent, remarkably talented young adolescent.”
In both age and experience Iris and Rosalie [Gloria’s mother] were obviously much closer, and in real terms the relationship was naturally centred on the friendship between these two more mature women. (xviii).
Then there was Gloria’s failure to write to her friend all the time she was away from New Zealand. “You must remember I haven’t heard from you for over nine highly peculiar months. Didn’t you want to write to me?” (xviii), complained Hyde in a letter addressed to both of the Rawlinsons. Later, in a letter written from hospital, six months before her suicide, she remarked rather plaintively:
There is no reason in the world why Gloria should be pushed, or push herself, into writing to me if she doesn’t feel like it. She has her own world to make … (xviii)
How such asides must have irritated Gloria when she came to collect the materials for the biography! How she must have cursed herself for neglecting this friendship, now one of the central planks of her professional (and emotional) life. How tempting it must have been to rearrange the evidence a little to suggest the intense exchanges which should have taken place.
Fantasist and liar, schoolgirl with a pash, fiercely ambitious writer … am I talking about Gloria Rawlinson or Robin Hyde? The description could, after all, apply to either of them. And that, paradoxically, is why I think we do get a certain insight into Hyde from Gloria Rawlinson which it’s hard to imagine obtaining from anyone else.
Take, for example, the introduction Hyde contributed to Gloria’s first major book of poems The Perfume Vendor (1935):
Sometimes the verses … argued a long and intimate acquaintance with the fairies. Sometimes there was a poem which seemed to me not childish at all, but lighted with that deep and soft light which belongs to that ‘far countree.’ (245)
“A long and intimate acquaintance with the fairies.” It’s hard to imagine any present-day writer fully empathising with that aspect of Hyde’s own writing. The first hundred or so pages of the Challis/Rawlinson biography record an excursion to a strange, unknown country, where children walk in procession around Druid stones and chat with elves and fairies. It’s the world of Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne (it’s not by accident that Hyde called her first, stillborn child “Christopher Robin”) – the world of the Cottingley fairies. As one of Iris’s primary school classmates recorded:
… her oddly different ways, and her ability to see fairies even around school shelter sheds, earned her the pseudonym ‘Dotty Iris,’ which even then I hotly disputed. She was too clever for most of us, although she did not come top. (12)
In many ways it would be easier for us to forget that aspect of Robin Hyde altogether. Most of the fantastic, fairy-haunted stories she composed in the first year of her residence in the “Grey Lodge” in Avondale remain unpublished to this day, but they clearly retained considerable importance for her even while the first drafts of The Godwits Fly were being written. It would be no more acceptable for us to recast her as “purely” proto-modernist than it was for Gloria to garble the texts of her letters and poems in the first place.
There are, of course, drawbacks to Gloria’s choices of what to emphasise:
And then the baby was ready to be born … (76)
That’s a very oblique way of referring to all the uncertainties over just when and where (if?) Christopher Robin Hyde was born, whether Hyde’s mother was present, and the host of other perplexing questions which surround this crucial event in her life. “Afterwards she could never recall the name of the cemetery” (77): a very convenient failure for Hyde – galling, however, for subsequent researchers.
Perhaps to her credit, Rawlinson lacks the instincts of a snoop. So does Derek Challis, on the evidence of the later chapters of the biography, which must be mostly his work. Mind you, I see no evidence that the end product of their joint labours hides anything substantive from the reader, but there certainly are places they have chosen not to dig.
The point I am coming round to is that most of our difficulties with the text published as The Book of Iris dissolve if one simply ceases to regard it as a standard Life and Times biography.
I can certainly see the commercial advantages in marketing it as such – especially given the fact that at least one of her autobiographical memoirs, A Home in this World (1984), was already available to readers. I do feel, nevertheless, that it would have been better to present Gloria Rawlinson’s work as a themed account rather than as an example of the Michael King-style comprehensive biography.
There are, after all, various precedents: hybrid texts with an ambiguous authority exceeding that of any subsequent historian. I’m thinking of the curious case of Thomas Hardy’s autobiography, which he left behind in the form of a third-person text (with his second wife deputed to be ostensible author). This is now available both as an autobiography, with the (very few) cuts and additions Florence Hardy felt compelled to make sedulously edited out, but also in its original form, as a hybrid auto/biography, still with her name on the back.
I’d rather read an edition of Gloria Rawlinson’s My Robin Hyde, heavily edited and annotated by Derek Challis or another scholar, than the seemingly-objective Book of Iris. The fact remains that a more straightforward Life and Times biography of Hyde is still required (and hopefully will be written sometime soon).
It’s true that the monumental size of the Book of Iris virtually guarantees that there are matters which will never again need to be dealt with in such detail, but its main virtue will remain that irreproducible quality of bearing witness. There is something very moving in that letter the seventeen-year old Derek Challis wrote to Gloria Rawlinson in 1947:
I don’t know whether I will ever be able to write […] a biography on my mother but there is tons of time yet and I will try hard. (xiv)
This project has had a long inception and a long gestation. It seems pointless now to condemn it for trying to be something that it’s not: a calculated and considered Life and Times biography, rather than a complex and idiosyncratic themed account of the life of that most multi-faceted of individuals, Iris Wilkinson/Robin Hyde.
Gloria Rawlinson and Derek Challis may not have been the only people who knew her well, but they are the people who remained (for different reasons) most committed to her living memory. What they have to say about her life (jointly and separately) may not have quite the intimate authority of Hardy’s third-person biography, but it will continue to hold an indispensable place beside both the autobiographical writings and the works of future critical biographers.
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Ross, Jack. “Review of ‘Asclepius,’ Poet Triumphant: The Life and Writings of R. A. K. Mason (1905-1971) (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2004) & Lawrence Jones, Picking up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003).” WLWE 40 (2) (2004): 144-47.
Schoenbaum, Samuel. Shakespeare’s Lives: New Edition. 1970. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.