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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary biographies

September 21, 2015

Given that a literary biography won the National Biography Award this year, that I’ve recently posted Musings on literary autobiographies/memories, and that my next review will be for a literary biography, it seemed high time that I devoted a Monday Musings to the form, don’t you think?

Brenda Niall's True North

Brenda Niall’s True North: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Biographies make up a pretty small proportion of my reading diet, and when I do read them I tend to prefer literary biographies – for obvious reasons. I can, though, be persuaded to read others if the subject is really of interest to me and/or the biographer is one I admire. An example of such a book I’ve reviewed here is Hazel Rowley’s wonderful Franklin and Eleanor.

Do you read biographies? If so, why do you read them? I have, at times, worried that my interest is voyeuristic. I have felt uncertain about whether I’d be better to focus my attention on reading more of authors’ works than biographies about them? And yet, biography is, I think, a serious literary form in its own right. Indeed, at the Australian National University, there is the National Centre of Biography, about which I’ve written before. Its role, to summarise greatly, is to foster and encourage expert and innovative biographical writing in Australia. This, together with the fact that significant institutions like the National Library of Australia with its Seymour Biography Lecture and the State Library of New South Wales with its National Biography Award, suggests that I should worry no more.

What makes a good literary biography? Well, I know what I look for: well-researched (with foot-notes/end-notes), an intelligent but readable style, honest rather than hagiographic (or its opposite!) tone, and an analytical approach to the writer’s work situating it within the writer’s life and times. I also like it when the biographer engages the reader in the form of the biography, in the challenges they may have confronted, in how and why they chose the approach they did.

So, here I’ll list a few Australian literary biographies, that I’ve read or would like to, in alphabetical order, as libraries do it, by the subject. Inclusion here does not mean they are all the best of the form, but simply that they represent a variety in style and subject.

  • Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A literary journey (2013). A recent addition to my TBR, I’m very keen to read this biography of the not-so-well-known Australian-born writer, Elizabeth von Arnim. I’ve read several of her works – fiction and non-fiction – and love her writing. (As an aside, given recent discussions on this blog regarding memoirs, she’s another author who has played with the memoir form in her writing.)
  • Karen Lamb’s Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (2015). This is the book I am just finishing now and will review in the next few days.
  • Philip Butterss’ An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of CJ Dennis (2014) (my review). This year’s National Biography Award winner. The judges wrote that it’s “meticulously researched”, “fluent in style”, and that it “provides an illuminating analysis of the oeuvre, and its spinoffs, for which Dennis was famous and, briefly, rich”.
  • Brenda Niall’s True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (2012) (my review). This is, really, more than a traditional literary biography. Elizabeth was an artist, and the two were daughters of a pioneering cattle family. I enjoyed it, but it suffered, perhaps, from the breadth of its focus.
  • Jill Roe’e Stella Miles Franklin: A biography (2008). This is a biography that I should read, given the importance of its subject to Australian literature and given the reputation of the biography itself. I can, though, suggest you check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review.
  • Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (2013). (my review). St John is not regarded as “high” Australian literature – nor is Mary Durack, for that matter – but she was the first female Australian writer to be nominated for the Booker Prize and, like the Duracks, came from a family which had a public profile.
  • Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: A life (1993). Rowley was regarded as one of Australia’s best biographers until she died too young, in her 60th year, in 2011. Her subjects included the French couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and American writer, Richard Wright. Her biography of Stead was universally praised, with, for example, critic Michael Upchurch at the New York Review of Books describing it as “everything a literary biography should be”. He wrote: “It’s a model of clarity. Ms. Rowley’s shrewd selectivity and handling of anecdote makes the book compellingly readable”.
  • David Marr’s Patrick White: A life (1991). Another biography I should read, but it’s a big tome, so will need time. Well-reviewed when it came out, it’s still the authoritative biography of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in literature.

In 2010, journalist Gideon Haigh wrote an article titled “Sleaze-hounds and artist on oath: The state of Australian biography” in Kill Your Darlings. He bemoaned the scarcity of Australian biography “of quality”. I’d certainly agree that we’d like more good biographies. He suggested various reasons for the dearth, including that it “could be as simple as that there are easier ways to earn a living, and that living in the shadow of a subject for the years required to craft something really worthwhile involves a determination and a humility no longer common among those with writing aspirations”. I’m not sure I like the dig about “humility” but it is clear to me that writing a comprehensive, thoughtful biography is a huge task, one that takes not months but years, and that requires extensive research that must be expensive (even in today’s more digitally accessible world). I don’t know how well supported the endeavour is.

Do you have any thoughts or preferences about biographies?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2015 11:10 pm

    Biographies about authors are my favourite kind! Very excited today to receive a review copy of Interestingly Enough, the Life of Tom Keneally because he is such an interesting writer and one of the few to make a successful career out of writing literary fiction. I’m really looking forward to reading it.
    Thanks for the mention re the Miles Franklin bio, it is a standout IMO, one of the best bios I’ve ever read. But *blush, no I haven’t read David Marr’s bio of Patrick white either, each year I mean to and then other things get in the way!

    • September 21, 2015 11:27 pm

      Oh yes, Lisa, terrible of us re White, eh? Even my Dad has read it and I haven’t. Shame on me.

      Keneally is a great character (by that I mean person!) who’s had such a wonderful and varied writing life.

  2. September 21, 2015 11:58 pm

    For some reason biographies of certain people will suddenly appeal and it has nothing to do with fame etc–sometimes it’s just the arc that the life under scrutiny had a particularly interesting arc. I don’t worry about being voyeuristic.
    I just finished one about Hammett but it wasn’t a biography. Rather it was a study in how his past as a pinkerton detective shaped his writing, and for its very narrow focus it worked.

    • September 22, 2015 7:46 am

      The Hammett sounds like a memoir-style biography, Guy! In that it focuses on a specific aspect of the subject’s life. I’m not sure there is a name for it but I’ve read a few books like that. Biographies like autobiographies tend to be whole-of-life, I’d say, but there are, also, a lot of those end of career ones, like sportspeople … Sometimes the person writes it themselves but other times someone else does it. I find it hard to call a book about a 30-year-old a biography unless they’re James Dean and they’re dead!

  3. September 22, 2015 6:52 am

    I love a good literary biography of the Hermione Lee sort! I like them because the often provide interesting insight into an author’s work. I know we aren’t so supposed to analyze an author’s life to understand their fiction but there is an undeniable connection in my opinion and a good bio can help sort that all out. Plus, I get to be a highbrow fan girl 🙂

    • September 22, 2015 7:59 am

      Haha Stefanie. I don’t think agree that we’re not supposed to look at an author’s works through his or her life. I reckon that was just one particular critical theory. Being the MOR/moderate sort of person I am, I reckon you use your commonsense, as you clearly do. Sometimes the life is significantly related to the work, sometimes less so. The text itself is obviously the important thing, and I’d hate to think we HAD to consider the life – that wouldn’t be right! – but it never hurts to know more, does it?

  4. September 22, 2015 7:55 am

    I like to read biographies on people who have caught my attention, and they are not always authors. I want to get into their minds and understand them. If it is a biography on an author I do want to analyze their writing. That is why I bought Karen Lamb’s book on Thea Astley. It is one of the most intelligent and well researched biographies I have ever read. I was surprised by some of the personal traits of Thea Astley and her way of life.

    • September 22, 2015 10:13 am

      Yes, I’m with you, Meg, which is why I was very happy to read Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor. Such significant people, and such an interesting relationship. I agree with you re Lamb’s bio of Astley. I’m writing my review now, and hope to post it by tomorrow.

  5. September 22, 2015 8:38 am

    I often read biographies as an easy way in to a particular historical subject or period. For example I recently finished The Strangest Family: The private lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. Much more enjoyable than a standard textbook history about the reign of George III, perhaps because people interest me more than events or political maneuvers. Although obviously any well-written history is enjoyable.

    • September 22, 2015 10:15 am

      Oh yes, you’re right, Michelle. I loved Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I don’t remember all the details now of course, but what a read.

  6. September 22, 2015 10:58 am

    I’m not a biography person except to better understand the fiction I’m reading. Looking round my shelves I have biographies of Steele Rudd, Barbara Baynton, four on Miles Franklin, one by Miles Franklin (Joseph Furphy), one partly about Miles Franklin – Passionate Friends which I will review soon, one about KSP although it’s by her son so it’s partly a memoir and of course Marr’s Patrick White which I have read (sorry!) and will one day read again, section by section, in conjunction with White’s novels. And down near the bottom, sorry Jane, Tomalin’s excellent Jane Austen.

    • September 22, 2015 12:21 pm

      That’s a lot for someone who’s not a biography person! I have Throssel’s one on his mum, KSP, in my sights to read one day. And of course I have a few biographies of Austen, including the Tomalin one, plus an interesting one by the novelist Carol Shields.

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