Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde

A New Zealand Classic

Spanning the years 1910 -1928 The Godwits Fly is a semi-autobiographical novel which tells the story of a young girl, Eliza Hannay, growing up in the suburbs of Wellington.

The title refers to the migration of the godwits which every year leave the northernmost tip of New Zealand and fly north to Siberia.
"Later she thought, most of us here are human godwits; our north is mostly England. Our youth, our best, our intelligent, brave and beautiful, must make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long. They are the godwits. The light bones of the mother knew it before the chick was hatched from the eggshell."
Eliza grows up a New Zealander but confused as to where she really belongs because of her mother's longing for 'home' and the strong British influence of her education.
" You were English and not English. It took time to realize that England was far away. And you were brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow. One day, with a little shock of anger, you realized there were no robins and no snow, and you felt cheated."
Robin Hyde was a poet and her lyrical prose is beautiful especially when describing the physical background of her youth and as a journalist she had a perceptive eye for the social attitudes and patterns of change within New Zealand but the novel is not always easy reading. Dealing with the subject of disconnectedness it becomes itself rather wandering and disconnected. 

Written in the early 1930's it's importance to our literature lies more in that Robin Hyde had never taken the godwit's flight - while her early work was heavily influenced by the Victorian Romantics in The Godwits Fly she found her inspiration in the imagery of her own country.

On a more personal level reading this book has been both a nostalgic and a thought-provoking experience. This is the era and the place that my parents grew up in and it's also the place where I grew up a generation later. The author's descriptions of places are not just words.....

Day's Bay c.1930
" Day's Bay sand is smooth and warm, honeycombed with tiny airholes in which hide the blue crabs.........the water is marled, pale and transparent, full of thready green veins like those in jade.........the macrocarpas have dipped the tips of their plumes in white dust."
Memories! Our primary school's annual picnic at Day's Bay was always a highlight of the year. 

Like Robin Hyde, my father came to New Zealand as a baby prior to WWI and although I never knew my grandparents my third-generation mother always described them as 'very English'. It was my Dad who fostered my love of reading and history - 'very English'. Plantagenets, Dickens , Enid Blyton be fair I don't think there was a New Zealand alternative in the 1950's.

I've never really thought about it until now but I am a godwit. I may not be able to travel physically but I constantly fly north in thought.
I yearn for England as much as , I think now, my father did. I only have to look at my Classics Club list to know that - and I'm feeling a bit guilty. I need to read more New Zealand authors and I need to write about those books so others can learn about our literature and our beautiful land.

The author: Iris Guiver Wilkinson (1906 -1939)

One of New Zealand's most significant writers of poetry and fiction and, as a journalist, she did much to challenge the boundaries of women's writing.
Following the death of her newborn son, Robin Hyde, she took his name as a pseudonym.
Her personal life is a tragic story which culminated in her taking her own life in 1939.
Read a full biography.
Read The Godwits Fly online.

The Classics Club


  1. How interesting! How tragic also about the author. Your family history is interesting to me also!

    1. I really have to make an effort to read more NZ authors. Robin Hyde did have a sad time and The Godwits was actually begun when she was a voluntary patient at a mental hospital.

    2. I added this to my Classics Club list. My goodness, you know it seems often when reading the classics, the author's lives are just as interesting as the books they write!

    3. That's true, Missy. This year I've read several biographies of classics authors after reading novels and very interesting they've been.

  2. I've never heard of this book - isn't it sad how classics from one country often don't make it out into other countries? I feel like it would be nice for kids around the world to get a sense of what it's like to grow up elsewhere :-)

    1. I think so too - which is why I feel I should be promoting NZ literature more.

  3. Thank you so much for highlighting a NZ author! I love that you put a historical picture with the quote - very cool for those of us who've never been! And what a tragic story of the author... -Sarah