The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Infinite Promise . . . Uncertain Direction
Infinite Promise . . . Uncertain Direction. Robin Hyde's record up to 1937 is of several starts in different directions; first, the realistic, as in Passport; then the fantastic, as in Wednesday's Children; all the time, the poetic, for her verse volume Persephone In Winter appeared in 1937. Would she ever find the medium which would be right for her, and on which she could concentrate, achieving a rounded, full and consistent work of art?
Her next and last novel, The Godwits Fly, represents the nearest she approached to this. It has flaws, but also merits, and it does begin to achieve what Robin Hyde felt her generation of writers had consciously set out to do, to make possible "the integration of a country from the looseness of the soil".
In its issue of July, 1932, the short-lived little magazine, Phoenix, expressed this idea in another way: "We are hungry for the words that shall show us these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought."
Robin Hyde tells of the Hannays, a Wellington family whose trials, vicissitudes and enjoyments she contrives to make representative of us all, the middle-class New Zealanders. The period is that of her page 59 own life, the Great War and its aftermath; the social tensions observed, the suburban hopes and fears, the struggles and failures are those of many such households of the time. The early chapters in particular stand out in the memory.
The Hannays, John and Augusta, come to New Zealand with their children. Augusta has genteel notions, of English origin, "but tinned as it were", and sinks only reluctantly into New Zealand ordinariness. She cannot at first, for instance, stomach the "meaty-coloured combinations and underpants" displayed to view on many a backyard clothesline. John, on the other hand, merges happily with the democratic good-fellowship around him, is attracted by socialistic theories, and craves for the warmth of casual company. In spite of Augusta, the family assumes a protective New Zealand colouring. "Whenever she won some little advantage, a neighbour who could be called 'nice', a patch of lawn, . . . something went wrong." How clearly Robin Hyde conjures up the Wellington world of the young Hannay girl Eliza! She is excellent at capturing the feeling of place, as we have seen in her Auckland descriptions and in the account of Starkie's childhood in the South. Eliza knows the old Newtown Zoo, with the fire-bellied newt which she is never allowed to see because "belly" is a rude word; we see the old, loved ferry boat Cobar, on its excursions across the harbour to Days Bay; we see Form 3 at Wellington Girls' College, where John Masefield's poems are read in privacy at the bottom of the grounds, Eliza imitating them, just as young Iris Wilkinson did— "It's a far way to England".
There are several themes in the book, not well fused. Most striking is the personal anguish, reflected in the explanatory foreword; what does it mean, especially to the sensitive child who may become an artist, to be a New Zealander? Eliza, who is the focus of the book, grows up unable to resolve the intolerable split in her experience. "You were English and not English . . . you were brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow . . . one day you realised that there were no robins and no snow and you felt cheated." Those who rebel against the cheat are the human godwits, "who fly every year from the top part of the North Island to Siberia, thousands of miles without a stop. They fly north . . . they fly north." Like the godwits, young New Zealanders "must make the long migration, under a compulsion they barely understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long".
Eliza, questioning her world in her schooldays, asks "Don't you think we live half our lives in England, anyhow? I was thinking—there can't have been anything quite like this since the Roman Colonists settled in Britain: not the hanging on with one hand, and the other hand full of seas. Wouldn't we be different there [in England], more ourselves?"
This theme is not, however, worked out in the terms of the novel, page 60 being stated, but not shown in its impact on Eliza's life. This is a major weakness. Instead, we have a brilliant rendering of a Wellington girlhood, which shades off into loneliness, unhappiness, disaster in love, the loss of a child, and final grey acceptance of what life has brought. The godwit, in this case, did not really fly; but we are not made to feel that Eliza would have been "more herself" had she "flown" to the other hemisphere, for the tragedy is in her own temperament. The godwit theme peters out, after a memorable opening.
Yet The Godwits Fly remains one of the remarkable novels of its time. Technically there is nothing new—our novelists till the 1950s have not been venturesome in their craftsmanship—but there are evocative writing, perception, compassion, and an understanding of loneliness and of the springs of human conduct "beneath the surface lies".