Story: Rawlinson, Gloria Jasmine

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Rawlinson, Gloria Jasmine

1918–1995

Poet, novelist, short-story writer, editor

This biography was written by Riemke Ensing and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Gloria Jasmine Rawlinson was born in Ha'apai, Tonga, on 1 October 1918, the daughter of Ethel Rose (Rosalie) Jennings and her husband, Alexander John Rawlinson, a photographic artist. Although Gloria left Tonga when she was only six, she always remembered its exotic sights and fragrances, which she described in her much reprinted and anthologised long poem ‘The islands where I was born’. In 1924 Gloria’s parents separated and she and her mother travelled to New Zealand, settling in Auckland. Favoured with beauty and intelligence, Gloria had the misfortune to fall victim to poliomyelitis soon after arriving. She was hospitalised for four years, first in Auckland and then in Rotorua, and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

In spite of her physical handicap, Gloria led an active life. She was educated briefly at Melmerly Collegiate School and then at home, played the guitar, and belonged to the Post (disabled) Branch of the Girl Guides’ Association. As a poet her first significant achievement was the publication of Gloria’s book in 1933 when she was just 14. Introduced by Elsie K. Morton, many of the poems had previously appeared in the children’s pages of the New Zealand Herald or had been broadcast on C. G. Scrimgeour’s ‘The Friendly Road’ radio programme.

Acclaimed as a child prodigy, Gloria received further encouragement from Winifred Tennant, who edited the children’s page for the Auckland Sun. As her fame grew, her poems (sometimes with illustrations by Gordon Minhinnick) were published in other newspapers and magazines and attracted attention beyond New Zealand. In 1935 her second book of poems, The perfume vendor, appeared. Sales exceeded 7,000 copies, and the book was translated into Dutch and Japanese. Reviews were enthusiastic, praising the work’s originality and gracefulness.

Gloria Rawlinson’s poems, with their romantic, whimsical and often fantastical themes, were welcomed by readers enduring the unpleasant realities of economic depression. So popular was her poetry at this time that her weekly mail averaged 300 letters ‘from all over the world’. Actress Sybil Thorndike, on a tour of New Zealand in 1932 and 1933, saluted her as a fellow artist; critic Wilfrid Gibson and poet Walter de la Mare corresponded with her and read her poetry at their London poetry circles; and in 1934 Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States and a fellow polio patient, wrote to her. She enjoyed celebrity status in New Zealand and the prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, made a surprise visit to see her one New Year’s Eve.

Rawlinson followed her successes as a poet with the publication in 1938 of her first and only novel, Music in the listening-place. This too received glowing reviews. Jane Mander called it ‘a triumph for a young writer…nurtured in a materialistic country where delicacy and exquisite fancy are increasingly in danger of being smothered’. Rawlinson continued with fiction writing, and in 1938 the London Mercury and Bookman published her story ‘The fatalist’. She was a frequent contributor to the Australian Bulletin, and from 1947 to 1954 her stories appeared regularly in the Australian anthology of short stories Coast to Coast.

Meanwhile Gloria Rawlinson continued to publish poetry regularly in literary journals, New Zealand Best Poems, and the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, to which she contributed from its second issue. Her work was featured in many anthologies of New Zealand and international poetry. A number of the early poems were set to music: Mirrie Hill, wife of composer Alfred Hill, arranged three poems for voice and string quartet, and these were recorded in 1952 by soprano Halinka der Tarezyska for Columbia Gramophone (Australia) in Sydney. In 1963 Rawlinson published more poems under the title Of clouds and pebbles. While this received praise for its ‘hard-headed, flinty' quality it was to be her last published collection.

Rawlinson was a close friend of the writer Robin Hyde, whom she first met in 1933, and it is possible that her own accomplishments may have been undermined by her tireless involvement with and promotion of Hyde’s work. For much of her adult life she was engaged on an extensive biography of her friend. This remained unpublished during her lifetime, but was later drawn on extensively by Derek Challis for his biography of Hyde, The book of Iris (2002), and Rawlinson was credited as co-author. In 1952 she edited and introduced a painstakingly researched collection of Robin Hyde’s later poems, Houses by the sea, which established Hyde as a leading poet (she had formerly been best known as a fiction writer and journalist). In 1970 she introduced Hyde’s autobiographical novel The godwits fly, which she edited for the Auckland University Press New Zealand fiction reprint series.

Among other scholarly enterprises, in 1951 she edited, with William Hart-Smith, the first trans-Tasman issue of the Jindyworobak Anthology. For many years she worked on a history of early Auckland, writing in an army hut decorated as a whare of traditional Maori design located in her garden. The manuscript remains unpublished, but an extract from it, a poem called ‘Tainui – the Old Warrior story’, was printed in the Auckland Star as part of a feature on the Tainui sexcentennial celebrations at Ngaruawahia in 1950.

Rawlinson’s acquaintance with Czech photographer Frank Hofmann and his poet wife, Helen Shaw, led to a collaboration resulting in a translation and setting of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Bohemian Christmas Mass. It was the first English version of the work, which was performed by the Auckland Choral Society conducted by Ray Wilson in the Auckland Town Hall in November 1964.

In 1955 and 1959, with her mother and honorary uncle William (Bill) Edge, she had travelled extensively through Great Britain and Europe, and in the early 1960s with an aunt she toured New Caledonia, Fiji and Tahiti. She remained unmarried, and lived with her mother and uncle until they died (in 1988 and 1993 respectively). She was for many years a member of the Auckland Penwomen’s Club, PEN New Zealand Centre, the New Zealand China Society and the Auckland Institute and Museum. In 1957 she received a PEN award for her writing achievements. Towards the end of her life as a tribute a selection of her poems was published by the Pear Tree Press under the title Gloria in excelsis.

After suffering from ill health for some years, Gloria Rawlinson died of cancer on 25 July 1995 at Auckland Hospital. At her funeral service those assembled read from her work, and recalled her talent, courage and gift for friendship.