Wilkinson, Iris (1906–1939)

views updated

Wilkinson, Iris (1906–1939)

New Zealand writer. Name variations: Robin Hyde. Born Iris Guiver Wilkinson on January 19, 1906, in Cape Town, South Africa; died on August 23, 1939, in London, England; daughter of George Edward Wilkinson and Adelaide (Butler) Wilkinson; never married; children: Derek Challis (b. 1930).

One of the best-known journalists of New Zealand, Iris Wilkinson was also a celebrated poet and novelist. One of three children of an Englishborn civil servant and his Australian wife, Wilkinson was born in 1906 in South Africa. The family relocated to New Zealand soon after her birth, her father hoping to establish himself in the colonial bureaucracy. However, her family struggled with poverty and moved frequently throughout her childhood. An excellent student, Wilkinson entered a public secondary school in Wellington at age 13. She decided to become a writer when her stories and poetry were first published in the school newspaper in 1919. In writing she found a means of expressing herself and overcoming the stress of poverty and her parents' unhappy marriage. She won several literary competitions, and her poetry appeared in a number of monthly magazines. In 1922, she entered Victoria University College as a part-time student, and accepted a position writing for children in The Farmer's Advocate the following year. She was beginning to establish a name for herself as a fiction writer when she was stricken in 1924 with crippling arthritis of the knee joint. She underwent numerous surgeries but for the rest of her life suffered excruciating pain in her legs and could not walk without crutches. Her poetry again became an outlet for her emotional and psychological suffering at her sudden incapacitation.

Nonetheless Wilkinson returned to work, where she was promoted to write a women's column on Parliamentary proceedings for the Dominion, a pro-Conservative Party daily newspaper. To satisfy the editors, who believed women would not read serious articles, Wilkinson had to write in a breezy, gossipy style which she resented. However, her position brought her into contact with New Zealand's highest politicians, who courted her favor in order to influence her coverage of political issues.

She resigned from the Dominion in 1926 after discovering that she was pregnant from a brief love affair. She refused to marry the father but to avoid the scandal of an illegitimate child moved to Sydney, Australia, where she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Depressed, unemployed, and in ill health, she returned to her family in Wellington. There she was hospitalized several times as a borderline psychotic. She became addicted to morphine and other painkillers, and in May 1927 committed herself to a mental institution. The regimen improved her health and spirit, but she would remain dependent on painkillers for the rest of her life. However, by the end of the year she was composing poems again. From this point on she would write under the pseudonym Robin Hyde, the name she had planned to give her stillborn son.

Wilkinson found work as a freelancer, writing for the Christchurch Publicity Bureau and contributing articles to the Christchurch Press and the Sun. She also wrote book reviews and a regular society column for the Auckland Mirror. Her vivid, colorful style subsequently brought her a position writing human interest stories aimed at women readers for the newspaper The Truth in 1928. She lost that position a few months later, after refusing to sign a contract stipulating that she would not sell her fiction or poetry to any other publisher.

In June 1929, Wilkinson moved to Wanganui, where she became the women's editor for The Wanganui Chronicle. There for the first time she was occasionally allowed to write articles on current events and issues, in addition to a society column and other articles for New Zealand's middle-class women. Her editorials addressed controversial topics, such as women's suffrage, education, the plight of the native Maori people, and immigration.

The publication in late 1929 of her first book of poetry, The Desolate Star, brought Wilkinson a national readership. In late 1930 another pregnancy following a love affair with a married journalist led to her dismissal by the editors of the Chronicle; she gave birth to a son, Derek, in October. Unemployed and destitute, Wilkinson placed the baby in a nursing home; he grew up with a foster family, although Wilkinson kept in contact with them, visiting her son occasionally and paying for his board.

She was soon offered another editorial position, at The New Zealand Observer in Auckland. Even with a regular salary, she felt obliged to remain separated from her child out of fear that she would lose her job if her employers learned of him. By 1933, overwork combined with emotional strain and morphine addiction led her to attempt suicide, after which she was hospitalized as a mental patient. Again she re-established her writing career, publishing more poetry and her first two novels in the mid-1930s. Residing in Auckland, she contributed articles to The Observer on topics ranging from the Depression to feminism to the beauty of the New Zealand landscape, in addition to her prose and poetry. The works produced in her last few years include autobiographical and historical novels and travel pieces, all of which display Wilkinson's deep love for her native land's people and culture. They continue one of the overriding themes of her writings, the oppression of women and the need for economic and social equity for women. She also wrote passionately against the oppression of the Maori, and professed a strong sympathy with the Socialist movement.

In January 1938, Wilkinson left New Zealand to fulfill a childhood dream of seeing England. On an impulse she stopped for a long trip through China, sending back travel articles describing her journeys to Woman Today and The Mirror. As a journalist she was allowed to travel to the warfront, where she was moved to volunteer to nurse the Chinese soldiers and civilians wounded in the fight against the invading Japanese army. Witnessing firsthand the atrocities of war, Wilkinson wrote articles displaying a new-found and eloquent pacifism. Attacked by Japanese soldiers who thought she was a spy, she took refuge with the British ambassador in Tsingtao (Qingdao), who sent her to a Hong Kong hospital to recuperate. She finally left China in August, arriving in England in September. Through the help of old friends she was hospitalized for malnutrition, while at the same time she drove herself to write a book about her experiences in China. Depression and her continuing drug addiction kept her in and out of London hospitals.

In November 1938, her autobiographical The Godwit's Fly appeared to disappointing reviews. It was followed in early 1939 by her book on China, Dragon Rampant, which achieved considerable acclaim and high sales. Homesick and ill, Wilkinson had neither the mental or physical strength nor the money to go home. She also suffered, as her letters attest, from a debilitating lack of confidence in herself as a writer and a fear of the inevitability of the coming world war. While her friends were arranging government aid to send her home, Wilkinson took an overdose of pain medication and died in a hospital on August 23, 1939. She was 33 years old.

Iris Wilkinson was buried in a London cemetery. Her last book, a collection of poems, was published by her son and friends in 1952 as Houses by the Sea. It is considered her finest work.


Boddy, Gillian, and Jacqueline Matthews, eds. Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde, Journalist. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press, 1991.

Roberts, Heather. Where Did She Come From? New Zealand Women Novelists, 1862–1987. London: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

About this article

Wilkinson, Iris (1906–1939)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article