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Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill of The Australian Legend

July 10, 2017

It’s been two years since I last published a Guest Post, for no any other reason than that the idea slipped off the radar as other busy-ness took over. However, during a recent email correspondence with (relatively new) blogger Bill, the idea re-popped into my head, and so I asked him, as he explains below.

First though, a quick intro. Bill appeared on the Australian lit-blog scene just over two years ago with quite a bang. Well, that’s a bit overly dramatic perhaps. What I mean is that he launched himself as a serious player in the lit-blogosphere, and one with a very particular agenda – to write about independent women, particularly independent women writers. Well, of course, I was interested in that and have enjoyed some good discussions here and on his blog ever since. If you’re likewise interested, I suggest you start with his About page and move on from there.  Meanwhile, let’s give the floor to Bill …

*****

Apart from my friend Michelle at Adventures in Biography who got me started on Lit.Blogging, Sue here at Whispering Gums was the first blogger I followed and who followed me. So I owe her a great debt, and feel guilty each time I think of the imaginary detective story where the private eye’s principal informant is the toothless derelict … Whispering Gums. (The real, and much nicer, origin of her name is here.)

It is a matter of great pride to me to be invited to do a guest post, and I’m only sorry that it is under false pretences. I was discussing (by email) with Sue some reviews I had put up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site and I asked her in passing what she thought of biographies of women writers by men. My intended question was did she think the AWWC site should list them. Sue however thought I was asking her opinion of the biographies themselves, and promptly put it back onto me!

Do you remember the old BBC Radio show Just A Minute which was often used as a filler on Radio National? Well I feel like (the late) Derek Nimmo leaning in to the microphone to speak for 60 seconds on the life cycle of newts. But here goes, 1000 words on Biographies of Women Writers by Men, starting now.

Colin Roderick, Miles FranklinI have reviewed two such biographies, Brian Mathews on Louisa Lawson and Colin Roderick on Miles Franklin. The former is a good example of a man being able to write sympathetically and insightfully about a woman, and the latter is not.

Walking up and down my own shelves I see I have numerous biographies by women. Three – Roe, Barnard and Coleman – on Miles Franklin, Barbara Baynton by Penne Hackforth Jones, Christina Stead by Chris Williams, two by Sylvia Martin – Aileen Palmer and Passionate Friends, ‘collected’ lives by Drusilla Modjeska, and by Dale Spender, Tomalin’s Jane Austen and Gaskell’s Charlotte Bronte; and I also have two more by men, Brian Dibble on Elizabeth Jolley (Doing Life which I really ought to have reviewed by now) and Ric Throssell on his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Of course, as you may know, I am an old white guy and so I am probably the very last person to be attempting to answer the implied question: does it matter? Well, in the case of Colin Roderick (1911-2000), one of the most influential figures in the Aust.Lit industry in the middle of the last century, his gender matters a great deal. He runs Franklin down both as a writer and as a woman:

[her] unshakeable conviction of physical inferiority and lack of physical attraction… converted her into a skittish coquette stringing two or three men along simultaneously and a synthetic man-hater… It forced her to become a defensively bellicose propagandist for feminist causes.

He routinely misstates her commitment to feminism, and writes that a determined suitor might have cured her flirtatiousness with a spanking. In the comments to my piece on Roderick, author Jess White, taking comfort from my description of him, describes Roderick’s biography of Rosa Praed, In Mortal Bondage, as “bizarre & bordering on fiction in places.”

The Roe biography of Franklin I would describe as asexual, but the earlier (in fact the first) biography, by Marjorie Barnard, which I haven’t read for a long time, does seem to me to reflect the fact that it is written by a woman. It starts (stereotypically!) by describing how Franklin dressed and how she looked: “her smile. Radiant, quick and gay, it transformed her. It was irresistible and in her old age still charming and youthful.” And ends with an analysis of love: “[Miles] held in her heart an impossible ideal of human relationships and when she found it unrealizable, not so much for herself as in the lives of others, she was bitterly hurt and disappointed”, which I have never been able to express half so well.

Unlike Roderick, Matthews takes Lawson’s feminism seriously and gives a good account of it. In fact, he takes Lawson seriously as poet, businesswoman, leading figure in the women’s movement at the turn of the century, and as a mother (with four difficult adult children!) Whether he adequately emphasizes with her, perhaps only a woman could tell. Unfortunately for Matthews there was very little evidence to say how Louisa spent her private life after leaving her husband – although we’re pretty sure she didn’t want to get pregnant again.

Marianne van Velzen in her account of Ernestine Hill turned to fiction to round out those areas where evidence was lacking, an approach which Matthews discusses and dismisses, and which I think detracts greatly from the usefulness of those autobiographies which resort to it.

At this point in my writing I went away for a couple of days, and by sitting, driving, with the radio off, was able to refine my ideas. We have seen that biographies may be ‘factual’ or ‘fictionalized’. Then, from a ‘gender studies’ point of view we may also categorise them as: Neutral, Masculinist, and Feminist. The problem of course with ‘Neutral’ is that old, conservative, white men regard their own point of view as neutral and all others as radical. But let us say for argument’s sake that ‘neutral’ is the gathering and presentation of historical material without (much) gender analysis, and that Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin is an example of this. Colin Roderick’s biographies of Franklin and Praed are clearly ‘masculinist’, in that he devalues the opinions of the women he is writing about and ascribes to them motives which he wouldn’t ascribe to men. An example of a ‘feminist’ biographer might be Sylvia Martin who is exploring the space between spinsterism and lesbianism by looking into the lives of single women writers like Mary Fullerton.

A further division is suggested by Nathan Hobby who is both a blogger and PhD student writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. At the end of 2015 he wrote, “The best biographies, in my opinion, are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject.”  So then we also have ‘serious’ biographers and the ‘simply passionates’. The latter definition clearly captures rellos such as Ric Throssell and journalists like Marrianne van Velzen.

If you are thinking I have drifted a bit far from the topic, I guess the questions I am trying to get to are: How many Australian women writers have been the subject of biographies by ‘serious’ men? And, assuming only Roderick actually attacks his subjects, how many of those biographies were sympathetic, and how many missed the point?

Now, all you Whispering Gum-nuts out there, it’s down to you. I’ve listed the four that I have. How many have I missed?

Thanks Bill for taking up my invitation – and for presenting some different angles for us all to think about regarding biographers and their biographies.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2017 6:12 pm

    Very interesting post. I do worry about this question and am sure some reviewers will have opinions on it should my KSP biography see the light of day. I think sensitivity and awareness across gender lines is essential for biographers but obviously I do think it should be attempted! Claire Tomalin has written splendid biographies of Dickens and Hardy going the other way.

    • July 11, 2017 12:21 am

      Good point Nathan re Tomalin. I agree with you really. It’s all about finding the right mix of sensitivity and that tricky word objectivity, I think. Something that Roderick seems to have missed.

  2. July 10, 2017 6:44 pm

    In terms of other Australian literary biographies to add, I have one which only partly qualifies: Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players on Hilda and Louis Esson. Hilda was many other things besides her contributions to drama, and obviously half of it is on Louis. But I think he does justice to them both. And then there’s Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson biography – dense but good, from memory.

    • July 11, 2017 12:24 am

      Oh good, Nathan, I hadn’t heard of either of those. But you are probably well up on Aussie literary biographies!

      • July 11, 2017 12:26 am

        A manageable genre to keep my eye on – only five last year!

        • July 12, 2017 2:49 am

          Yes, that’s pretty amazing I think. More than they’re used to be? Which could be good for you as it may suggest an appetite for them – worn publishers and readers?

    • July 25, 2017 12:15 pm

      Hi Nathan. I have to disagree about the Ackland biography. He hectors Richardson unmercifully. I had to review it years ago and wanted to throw it at the wall at some points!. I am looking forward to yours. Well researched, yes, but overbearing and judgemental.

      • July 25, 2017 12:16 pm

        Sorry, Nathan. I mean Ackland’s is overbearing and judgemental. I am sure yours will not be.

      • July 26, 2017 12:20 am

        Thanks Sylvie. It’s always great to hear a different opinion about a book.

      • July 26, 2017 8:43 am

        I’ll have to find your review! I recently realised it was your review of Jill Roe’s Miles Franklin I found so helpful early in my PhD reading.

        • July 26, 2017 9:22 am

          I’m glad you found that review helpful, Nathan. Sadly, Jill didn’t like it, which was a shame as she was very helpful to me in my writing and I admired her enormously.

        • July 26, 2017 9:45 am

          Oh no! It was a generous review even in the way you raised possible problems in her approach.

        • July 26, 2017 10:05 am

          I’ll have to read the review, though I’ve not read the book yet. I know, tsk tsk.

        • July 26, 2017 10:04 am

          Oh, that’s a shame Sylvie. Must have have been a bit if a downer for you.

  3. July 10, 2017 10:10 pm

    Yes, I’ve got the Ackland bio of HHR too, but I haven’t read it yet. Going the other way, I have a bio of Xavier Herbert by Frances de Groen, and of course there is Brenda Niall’s brilliant bio of the Boyd family.
    I’m with Nathan on this one. Bios written a good while ago reflect their times… they are bound to have sins of racism and sexism, maybe imperialism and colonialism too because that’s how the world was. But I think modern biographers of any worth will have the “sensitivity and awareness across gender lines” that Nathan talks about … I don’t think they’d get past the gatekeepers in the publishing industry if they didn’t.

    • July 11, 2017 12:28 am

      Ah yes Niall on the Boyd’s. Good one Lisa. Thanks.

      My JA group discussed Austen biographies at our June meeting, and one of our conclusions was that biographies tend to reflect the times they were written, both in terms of values and focus, and in style. I guess we can’t avoid that!

  4. July 12, 2017 7:33 am

    Interesting quote making a distinction between biographers enamoured with their subject (who presumably are considered not as objective) and those who are passionate about the genre. Anyone think of examples of the latter? I’ve certainly come across some of the former kinds of writers who believed their readers would be as fascinated by the minutae as they are…

    • July 12, 2017 9:15 am

      Good question Karen. I’d say Biographers like the late Hazel Rowley (Aus) or your Claire Tomalin would be passionate about the genre, and therefore understand what is expected, where to draw the line, how to change the style/approach/structure to suit the subject.

      You make a good point re those too enamoured with their subject to know when to cut to the chase.

    • July 12, 2017 1:55 pm

      Nathan’s PhD is half writing a biography and half a dissertation about writing biography so he’s ideally placed to distinguish between writers who are good at their craft and those who are merely passionate about their subject. Matthews is an interesting example, as Louisa is almost as much about biography writing as it is about Louisa Lawson.

  5. Meg permalink
    July 12, 2017 2:56 pm

    I can think of two immediately written by women. Gough Whitlam – Two Volumes by Jenny Hocking (deep), and the best one I have read is Thea Astley: Inventing her Own Weather by Karen Lamb. Sorry, blank at the moment on female authors written by men.

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