The subject of IRIS DREAMING is the poet and novelist Iris Wilkinson, 1906-1939, who wrote and published her works under the name of Robin Hyde. Her life was an eventful and ultimately tragic one (she died by suicide), but always her lively, adventurous nature and her determination to succeed shone through the illness and depression she had to fight against. Robin Hyde was a star, a significant figure in New Zealand literature and a popular and respected journalist in her time. Her resistance to conventional attitudes also made her a pioneer of feminism. In this piece we try to present the inner compulsions that drove her. (The passages in italics are from her own writings).
The drama falls into five sections. In the first we find Iris in London in 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II, displaced and unhappy, recalling the Wellington of her youth and wondering about the next step. She stares at the window, singing some words from one of her poems:
It looks towards the West.
Outside, the great bronze sickle of the dusk
mows the red poppies of the sunset clouds.
She is suffering from a tropical illness caught recently in China as well as constant pain from her permanently damaged knee, and she contemplates the morphine to which she became addicted in hospital when her knee injury was first being treated: the ‘silk petals’ of the poppies she can see reflected in the sunset.
In Section 2 she meditates on the births of her two children, a stillborn child born and hushed up when she was 20 years old and a little boy deliberately conceived to console her for the loss of the first baby, although she was unmarried: a great scandal in New Zealand of the period. She is a rebel, given to stepping outside the norms of society, but unwilling to hurt her family by disgracing them publicly; she sings:
Sometimes it seems to me I am caught
in the hinge of a slowly-opening door
between one age and another – the age
of respectability and the new age.
Her little boy will have to be smuggled back to Auckland where he can be cared for in private by foster parents, while Iris herself works as a journalist to support him.
Section 3 sees her struggling against depression. She relives her time in Auckland, desperately trying to juggle her responsibilities: her small son Derek, her job on a newspaper, her vocation as a poet and novelist. After attempting suicide by jumping into the harbour she is taken to a mental hospital, a refuge where she can work obsessively on her books. Her writing is the whole point of her life.
Section 4 introduces her great adventure: a trip to China undertaken in 1938 during its war with Japan, with the object of writing a book about it and earning enough money to solve her problems. With crazy dauntlessness she travels alone through all kinds of danger, in spite of her disability, and falls in love with the Chinese people and culture. However, the Japanese invasion makes it too dangerous for her to stay; she witnesses gruesome sights, and narrowly escapes rape and physical harm, but eventually manages to escape and find her way to England.
The final section focuses again on her lonely room in London, with all her plans overturned by the coming war; she has discovered that she can't learn to love England: she yearns for China, and feels too ill (her disease, tropical sprue, was at that time incurable) to carry on. She thinks tenderly about New Zealand, and about the "silk petals" of morphine, and gradually slides into a dream.
ⓒ FLEUR ADCOCK, LONDON, FEBRUARY 2015