Helen Shaw's 50-year career as a creative writer began in the 1930s, when she was strongly influenced by the literary nationalist writing of the day. A growing interest in mysticism and spirituality led her to pursue a more personal kind of art.
Born in Timaru in 1913, she was a bookish and solitary only child who aspired to be an actress. She trained as a teacher in Christchurch in the 1930s, but, influenced by Virginia Woolf's A room of one's own, abandoned the profession to write children's stories for the Press. After settling in Auckland in 1941 with her new husband, photographer Frank Hofmann, her literary ambitions were balanced with the demands of running a home and raising two sons.
Shaw aspired to serious short-story writing, and was strongly influenced by the literary nationalist writers of the 1930s, particularly Frank Sargeson. She had a long literary apprenticeship, trying her hand at short fiction, criticism and journalism. An early story was published in Speaking for ourselves (1945), an influential short-story anthology edited by Sargeson.
She found her own distinctive style in the early 1950s, when a series of stories were published in Landfall, the New Zealand Listener and other literary magazines. Unusually for the time, her stories focused on the experiences of women, children and the elderly, and were expressed in a distinctively 'feminine' voice. A collection, The orange-tree and other stories, was published in 1957.
An intellectual and spiritual crisis in the mid-1950s led her to develop a strong interest in mysticism and spiritual philosophy. Her life and thinking was deeply influenced by her relentless spiritual explorations. She increasingly shunned modern technology, never owning a car, television set or other modern appliances. She adopted old-fashioned dress in line with the teachings of theosophy.
She also attempted to explore mystical experience and spiritualism through her writing, though she found it extremely difficult to find a local audience for her more experimental work. Many disappointments followed. In the early 1960s she refocused her energies on poetry, and all but abandoned her attempts to find an appreciative audience in New Zealand. Hundreds of her poems were published in specialist poetry magazines in India, England and the United States.
Shaw supported and encouraged other writers, particularly women, and was a prolific correspondent. She edited a collection of essays about Sargeson, and extensively researched and wrote about her friend and fellow poet D'Arcy Cresswell. Shaw regarded Cresswell as under-appreciated and misunderstood, and compiled anthologies of his Letters (1971, 1983) and Sonnets (1976). A planned biography was never completed.
She was sceptical of the impact of feminism on creative writing in the 1970s, viewing it as another form of intellectual imprisonment akin to strong political affiliation or organised religion. Despite being identified with a 'feminine tradition' in New Zealand writing, she considered gender relatively unimportant. She felt that Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield would have produced the same work had their genders been reversed.
A second collection of Shaw's stories was published in 1978, though it was half Orange-tree stories and half uncollected stories of the less experimental type. She was frustrated by this focus on her conventional earlier work, and felt that any writer who wished to explore spiritual questions rather than 'national identity' was unwelcome in New Zealand. In her view, anthologies like Vincent O'Sullivan and Macdonald Jackson's Oxford book of New Zealand writing since 1945 (1983) cemented the nationalist canon and sidelined writing such as her own. She compiled several small anthologies, such as Mystical choice (1981), to highlight aspects of New Zealand writing that she considered more important.
Helen Shaw died in 1985 at the age of 72.
By Tim Shoebridge