Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award

I have mentioned the National Biography Award before, but have never dedicated a post to it. Since this Monday musings coincides with the announcement of the 2014 award, I thought it would be a good time to write a little about this award.

The National Biography Award was initially endowed by Geoffrey Cains, with support a little later by Michael Crouch, and is managed by the State Library of NSW. Its aim, says its website, is “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”.  As of 2013, the winner receives $25,000, with each shortlisted book receiving $1,000. I like the fact that more and more awards are providing a monetary prize for the shortlisted works. Associated with the award, since 2003, has been an annual lecture on the subject of life-writing. The list of lectures, and papers if available, can be found on the State Library of NSW’s website.

The shortlist for 2014 was:

  • Alison Alexander, The ambitions of Jane Franklin

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

    Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin (Allen & Unwin). This one intrigues me as Lady Jane Franklin, about whom I’ve written before, was one of those amazing 19th century woman who came to my attention through contemporary novels, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Andrea Barrett’s The voyage of the Narwhal, and a book of poetry titled Jane, Lady Franklin by Tasmanian Adrienne Eberhard. The biography is subtitled, Victorian lady adventurer. I don’t know Alexander, but she is apparently a Tasmanian historian.

  • Steve Bisley’s Stillways: A memoir (HarperCollins Publishers). Steve Bisley is an Australian actor and this book, the website says, is “a classic memoir of an Australian childhood in the sixties”. That in itself gives it some appeal to me.
  • Janet Butler’s Kitty’s war (University of Queensland Press). This one is on my TBR. It is based on the war diaries of World War 1 army nurse Sister Kit McNaughton. In 2013 it won the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australia. Butler works in the History department at La Trobe University.
  • John Cantwell & Greg Bearup’s Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror (Melbourne University Publishing). Cantwell was a Major-General in the army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has written this with Walkley Award winning journalist, Greg Bearup.
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Publishing). Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick lived in the Russia during the Cold War, while researching for her doctoral thesis. She apparently felt at home in Russia, but, as a foreigner, was always seen by Soviet authorities as potentially a spy. The book explores this part of her life. Fitzpatrick is regarded as an expert in the field of Soviet/modern Russian history.
  • Gideon Haigh’s On Warne (Penguin Australia). Australians will know immediately the subject of this biography, the flamboyant, controversial but highly-talented cricketer Shane Warne. Gideon Haigh is a journalist who has written several well-regarded and award-winning books on sport, media and the automotive industry (among other topics).

All books I’d willingly read … though Alexander’s and Butler’s would be my top priority.

And the winner is: Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin! Now I really do want to read this book … It was a little tricky to find who won via a normal Google search several hours after the announcement, so I turned to Twitter and there it was (of course). Will it be reported on Australian television news tonight? I wonder!

Anyhow, once I knew the winner, I was able to search on that and found a Sydney Morning Herald article which quotes chair of the judging panel (and a previous winner), Jacqueline Kent, as praising the book for its detailed portrayal of a “highly intelligent, vital and strong-minded woman” She said that “This is a biography that drew on a huge amount of research but is also very light on its feet”. Apparently Franklin, according to the Herald, had left behind “8 million words in journals and correspondence”. Alexander is reported as saying that the biography would have been impossible without a “Find” key to search documents. Isn’t modern technology grand – though the “find” function can’t completely replace in-depth reading during which you can find all those wonderful serendipitous details that make research such fun.

6 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award

  1. How interesting that Monday Musings is about this award as I was reading about it this morning before you posted. Alexander is also the one I shall read first. I’m off to Zurich later today and will get it at the English language bookshop as they have it in stock! How fortuitous is that?

  2. I read it a while ago and can highly recommend it. The research is substantial but lightly worn and the narrative zips along. Jane Franklin definitely comes across less as the power behind the throne, and more as a woman whose many talents were stifled by the conventions of the day.

    • Welcome MST. I heard Alexander interviewed on the ABC yesterday and she said that Franklin was definitely not a feminist, but she did suggest that she was more ambitious for Sir John Franklin than he was for himself. Must read it.

      • An interesting list and I like it that both biography and memoirs feature in it. I only read the occasional biography but a good one is always a joy – Hilary Spurling’s biography of Pearl Buck is the last I really enjoyed.

        • Yes, I’m like you, Ian. I do like good biographies – regardless really of subject matter, though I’m drawn to bios of writers. A good bio of Pearl Buck would be great to read.

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