Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ archives

Australian author and feminist Germaine Greer ...

Germaine Greer, 2006 Humber Mouth Festival (Photo: Walnut Whippet, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikipedia)

Having heard recently about the University of Melbourne‘s acquisition of Germaine Greer‘s archives and having written in last week’s Monday Musings about the biographer Hazel Rowley who spent hours researching such archives, I thought it would be worth writing a little about writers’ archives – their importance and challenges.

First off, I am, as many of you know, a (retired) librarian/archivist, so this topic is particularly dear to my heart. The personal papers or archives or manuscripts (terminology varies a bit) of significant creators are of course the lifeblood of researchers. Without them, writing biographies of people long gone is very difficult. Consequently, libraries often start negotiating for writers’ papers long before they die – to save that embarrassing, difficult vulture-like situation of contacting families after they’ve gone! Some donate outright, some sell (though money is tight so purchase is rare except for very significant papers), some are bequeathed, and some are donated through tax incentive schemes.

So, the first challenge is negotiating acquisition. I won’t detail the challenges regarding what is acquired, but this is another minefield. What does the library want? What is the creator prepared to offer? What indeed has the creator retained? Australians will know the story of the irascible Patrick White who wrote to the National Library in 1977 that:

I can’t let you have my papers because I don’t keep any. My manuscripts are destroyed as soon as the books are printed. I put very little into notebooks and I don’t keep friends’ letters as I urge them not to keep mine, and anything unfinished when I die is to be burnt.

However, wily that he was, this was not quite true, and some 16 years after his death, Barbara Mobbs, his literary agent and executor, pulled off what White biographer David Marr has called “perhaps the greatest surprise in this country’s literary history” by offering 33 boxes of White’s papers (including some manuscripts and correspondence) to the National Library of Australia. Very exciting for Australia’s literary culture – but somewhat of an ethical quandary, because White did direct in his will that his papers be burnt. Mobbs couldn’t do it, and argued that if White had really wanted this to happen he would have done it himself. She knew him very well so we have to assume she was right. Anyhow, she waited 16 years, three years after the death of Manoly Lascaris, White’s partner of 49 years, before she made the collection known.

Another challenge is that of embargoes. Many people, when donating their papers, put embargoes on some or all of the papers, usually to protect those named within, effectively preventing the use of those papers (or sections) for years, often decades. This is pretty frustrating for the librarians who want to make their collections available and for the researchers wanting to use them, but at least the collections are secure for the future.

And then there’s the challenge of organising the papers and making them available. This is an immense task, with some ethical challenges of their own. I don’t know of any major cultural collecting institution that doesn’t have large backlogs of papers needing to be sorted, arranged, indexed/catalogued and now, these days, digitised. The first reports I saw of the acquisition of Germaine Greer’s papers implied that they were bought for A$3million which made Greer sound a little money-grubbing but it turns out, as Greer clarified on ABC’s Q&A last week, that $3million is the cost of the archives. Katrina Dean, from the University of Melbourne, writes that this amount includes “transport, cataloguing, indexing and digitisation”. She says:

Despite the efforts of archivists and digital scholars, much of the archival legacy of the 20th century [and presumably preceding centuries] remains untranslated into computer-readable language and accessible only to those with traditional archival research skills and specialised reference services.

And of course, only accessible to people who can travel to the place where the papers are stored.

Some specific writers’ papers

David Marr wrote his Patrick White biography while White was alive. He did not see the papers that the library acquired until, well, they were acquired at which time he went through them in some detail. He says they contain no great revelations that would make him want to redo the biography, but:

Jumbled and haphazard though they are, the notebooks are filled with biographical gold: scraps of diary, poems, reflections, lists of characters (121 for The Vivisector), the first pages of at least six novels in early draft, reams of detailed research for Voss (“Sydney hospital was known as Sydney Infirmary till 1881”), timelines, fashion notes and fragments of conversations overheard in the street.

Just by way of example, I thought I’d mention a few writers’ archives, and the works they’ve supported:

  • Christina Stead’s papers at the National Library of Australia were used by Hazel Rowley in her biography of Stead. Interestingly, and as often happens, Rowley’s papers relating to her research for the Stead biography are also held by the Library.
  • Elizabeth Jolley’s papers at the Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales were used by Susan Swingler in her memoir-of-sorts, House of fiction. Brian Dibble, who wrote a biography of Jolley, Doing life, did the same. There are apparently embargoes on these papers, but permission can be sought to access them.
  • Mary Durack’s papers (in the Durack Family Papers) at the State Library of Western Australia were used by Brenda Niall in her book, True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack. (See my review)
  • Miles Franklin’s papers at the Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales were used by Jill Roe in her book,  Stella MIles Franklin: A biography.

A small sample but, as you can see, these papers are spread around Australia, which is a good thing, really, in terms of preserving literary heritage. Now all we need is for them to be digitised and readily available to all, eh?

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ archives

    • Oh thanks Vicki. It does depend a bit on how well organised the filing cabinets are. From what I’ve read I think Greer’s are but that’s by no means always the case. Creative people can have very creative filing!

  1. Did you have the chance to start working with digital documents before you left the archive world? That too presents special problems. Salman Rushdie donated his paper to Harry Ransom Center at the U of Texas Austin a few years ago and while there were papers there were also a number of very old computers that he never transferred the data from as well as floppy disks and diskettes and all sorts of other old and decaying tech. That raises all sorts of issues; does the archive save the tech or transfer it to updated formats? And what does that mean for the original document? And how do you create exhibits with digital documents? Not quite as thrilling as looking at an old paper manuscript.

    On another note, I am really looking forward to the release of the T.S. Eliot to Viviene Eliot letters in 2020. There should be some really interesting stuff in there!

    • Oh yes, Stefanie … That’s a whole new ball game that I decided to leave for another post. Yes, we were starting to get digital material in my last few years of working … And also worrying about material being lost because people don’t keep their digital work, don’t back it up etc. as for old formats … Huge issues. I keep all the letters I write and we’ve had to migrate them … They don’t look the same. As for exhibiting, oh yes! No more things like Jane Austen’s handwriting, eh? Thanks for raising it …

  2. Interesting. A footnote: I worked with Brian Dibble for about a year when he was collecting material for his biography of Elizabeth Jolley, and annotated bibliography of Leonard Jolley. For Elizabeth, at that stage, much of his work was forensic, following leads from her writings and pursuing potential informants in various countries, to try to trace details of her life and its connections with her writing. He was a close personal friend of Elizabeth’s and had her permission for this work, and regular access to her own store of stories. I used to be amazed at his tireless pursuit of tiny details, and wondered whether the biography would ever be completed. But he was determined, and he did. I think he was aware of the controversial history of Leonard’s and Elizabeth’s relations (if you can call them that) with Leonard’s first family, but respected Elizabeth’s wish not to have these details revealed. I know that he met with Susan Swingler when she visited Perth, and they discussed this history, after the biography Doing LIfe was published.

    • Thanks for filling that in Christina. I wondered what he knew as I understood he knew her pretty well. It must have been hard for him. The decisions biographers have to make eh? This is a great example of that. How does this information coming out affect what he has done?

      • I can’t answer that. He may be able to but would not wish to. I feel that there was a conflict of interest between his desire to unearth the truth to the last detail, and his respect and affection for Elizabeth. I feel that it is good that the truth is out, and Susan Swingler has the right to tell her story, and that the Jolleys were complicit in an abusive belittling cover-up that reeks of patriarchy and subjugation of women and children’s rights. I feel that Swingler, from the interviews I’ve seen of her, is extraordinarily charitable about this; but I haven’t read her book. But good on her for speaking up! These strong opinions are entirely my own. I certainly feel it will affect the now and future assessment of Jolley’s literary oeuvre, which was built on secrets and lies. I make no apologies for these views. Having had a father who abandoned me, my mother and her other children and took a second wife and a second life, and then eventually dispossessed her and her family, I have no tolerance of such selfish and destructive behaviour, and I am amazed that Elizabeth took part in this rejection of a mother and child’s rights and identity.

        • It is certainly intriguing and discomforting – and rather explains, in some ways, her darkness. Good on Swingler for being charitable – but how difficult it must have been to have been treated with such falsity.

  3. The collection contains a number of literary manuscripts, including a substantial number written by E.J. Brady and single or small groups written by Mary Gilmore, Edward Harrington, Hugh McCrae, Walter Murdoch, Pixie O’Harris and others. Among the personal papers are a brief autobiography, correspondence with the Library and Angus & Robertson, and letters from many writers, particularly Mary Gilmore. There are also letters, cuttings, photographs and other material relating to the history of Cobb & Co.

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