Betty McLellan, Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography (#BookReview)

BettyMcLellanAnnHannahBetty McLellan’s Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography disconcerted me at first. I’d never heard of a psychological biography (which, I presume, is the same as psychobiography) so I was intrigued by McLellan’s discussion in the Introduction of her decision to use this approach. I did feel, for a chapter or two that she was drawing a long bow, but I persevered and it was worth the effort.

McLellan commences her Introduction by telling us a little about who Ann Hannah Stickley was and why she decided to write the book. As you’ll have gathered from the title, Ann Hannah was her grandmother. Born in 1881, and emigrating to Australia with four children when she was 40, Ann Hannah was, writes McLellan, “an unremarkable woman who lived an unremarkable life and died an unremarkable death” (albeit at the, I’d say, remarkable age of 97!) However, McLellan came to realise, long after Ann Hannah had died, that this grandmother, who was already living with her family when she was born and who was still there when she left home at nineteen, was worth investigating. She sensed that her grandmother had had a “remarkable resilience” and wanted to know how she’d done it. But how was she to explore this, given her grandmother had been dead for nearly 40 years?

The problem was that she knew relatively little about this quiet, practical, hardworking woman, and that there was no one left who might have known more. So what, she questioned, “would be the best literary device to use to record her story, explore my own reactions to it and analyse it in terms of its relevance for other women?” A straight biography would not work, for the reasons already given. Consequently, she turned to this new-to-me genre of psychological biography which “seeks to discover a subject through analysis of their political pronouncements, decisions, writing, behaviour or art”. Ann Hannah, being a private, “ordinary”, person had none of those, but she did have a number of sayings – didn’t all our grandmothers? It is through these that McLellan decided to analyse Ann Hannah, “with a view to uncovering the deeper meaning behind her words” and in so doing to not only understand her grandmother more, but, among other things, “to present her as a representative of many women born in her time and circumstance”. It’s a big ask …

McLellan, a psychotherapist and feminist activist who has written other books, does this by taking each saying, explaining its meaning and how her grandmother had used it, and then exploring its wider implications or connotations. What exactly she explores is largely driven by the saying. The saying in Chapter 2, for example, is “I’m a Londoner”, and so McLellan explores – through historical and sociopolitical lenses – what life was like in the parts of London where Ann Hannah had lived until her migration to Australia in 1921.  She was uneducated, and part of “the working poor”. But, this was also the time of the women’s suffrage movement, which McLellan describes in some detail. Ann Hannah, she says, had never indicated she was aware of the “political machinations” going on around her, so in one sense we could question McLellan’s inclusion of the history here. However, McLellan concludes the chapter by saying her grandmother had lived her life as a “strong, determined woman”. It could be argued that this was in part made possible by the sociopolitical environments she found herself in.

By contrast, Chapter 4’s saying is “‘e was a wickid man” [ “wickid” being spelt that way to capture Ann Hannah’s pronunciation]. It deals with Ann Hannah’s second husband’s violence and sexual abuse of his step-daughter, as well as of Ann Hannah, herself, and one of their daughters. Here, not surprisingly, McLellan looks more at psychiatry, psychology and the law, than history and politics. She describes the lack of recourse women had during the time Ann Hannah lived, and concludes that her grandmother’s only choice, really, was to “accept her lot” and get on with it, which is exactly what she did. (Not surprisingly, Ann Hannah said it was “the ‘appiest day of my life when ‘e died”!)

These are just two of the six chapters exploring Ann Hannah’s sayings. Two others deal with the experience of migration and of the loss of a child, both of which particularly engaged my interest.

Overall, the approach makes for a somewhat disjointed book, skipping as it does around different fields of human knowledge and experience. Nonetheless, it all works reasonably well because there are unifying threads to which McLellan returns, one being Ann Hannah herself, and the other McLellan’s feminist perspective. I say “reasonably” well because there were times when, due I’m sure to lack of information, Ann Hannah seemed to slip though my fingers. I wanted, I suppose, a more traditional biography! Given that McLellan explained why she couldn’t produce that, it’s unreasonable of me to criticise the book for what it’s not, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it’s what I would have liked!

The real question is, then, does McLellan’s decision to write a psychological biography of her grandmother work? Does it provide, in other words, some useful insights into women’s lived experience, as McLellan intended? I think it does – and does so in a way that not only illuminates the past, but also contributes to our understanding of the present and why things are the way they are today. A different but interesting read.

aww2017 badgeBetty McLellan
Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925581287

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

10 thoughts on “Betty McLellan, Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography (#BookReview)

  1. It would be interesting to com pare this book with Brenda Niall’s just-released biography of HER grandmother, ‘Can you hear the sea? My grandmother’s story’. In Brenda’s case she had plenty of archival material – letters, diaries, etc – to work from, but in the end she, too, has to imaginatively reconstruct her grandmother’s life and person. It’s a lovely book – a good Christmas present!

    • Thanks Teresa. Yes, it would. I’ve recently given that book to someone for a birthday and my Mum gave it to another person for a birthday. I reckon I’d love to read it too. (I had a quick look at it when I bought it and thought it looked like something I’d love to read.) Of course Niall is the consummate biographer.

  2. Hmm… I took a careful, open-minded look at this book and ended up abandoning it. (Which is why it isn’t reviewed on my blog). Although I think there are all kinds of non-traditional biographies that do work, I don’t think this approach works at all, to try to recreate a person from the sayings she had. The researched social history bits are very dry, and yes, Ann Hannah does slip through the fingers because she’s never brought to life.
    But it isn’t just the writing style. I mean, if you used the same technique with my parents, using just selectively curated ‘sayings’, you would get a ridiculously false and caricatured portrait of who they were and what they cared about. And my grandmother (from the same era as Ann Hannah) was an infinitely more complex being than my memories suggest, as I learned in the latter years of my parents’ lives.
    But the other problem with this approach is the temptation to recast such subjects in the mould of one’s own agenda, and I think that McLellan is looking for affirmation of her own feminism: to me it looks as if she wants her ‘strong, determined’ grandmother to be a working-class version of a first-wave feminist. That section about the suffragette movement was excessive given that there was, as she admits, no evidence that her grandmother took any interest in it, or knew anything about it, or ever had any opinions about women’s rights. It’s drawing a long bow IMO to suggest that Ann Hannah became a ‘strong, determined’ woman because of it… would we ever suggest that there were no ‘strong, determined’ women prior to the suffragette era?

    • Thanks for this Lisa. You make some fair points. However, I was intrigued by the whole idea of a psychological biography, which I hadn’t heard of before, and by the idea of applying that to an “ordinary” person. (I love discovering new “forms” of writing.) I didn’t get the impression that she saw her grandmother as a working class version of a first-wave feminist – so if I’ve implied that, I’m sorry. What I meant was that you could possibly argue that, in a time when women were on the hustings, the impact “could” be felt by all. An analogy could be the 1970s, say, when there were only a few feminist activists, relatively speaking, but the results of their work – the provision of child care, the relaxation of abortion laws, etc, etc – was enjoyed by all women (including those who were adamant they were not feminists). I certainly wouldn’t argue that there were not strong women before – there patently were – but I’m suggesting that the consciousness-raising created by feminist action could very well have made it easier for more women to be strong. (The more the zeitgeist is with you, etc etc.) McLellan doesn’t specifically argue that it was cause and effect for her grandmother. She simply says that Ann Hannah lived during this time of feminist upheaval, she wonders how much of it Ann Hannah was aware of, and concludes that regardless of what Ann Hannah knew she did live her life as “a strong determined woman”.

      McLellan’s overriding point, as I read it, is that this women, whom McLellan, as a young woman growing up had seen as a quiet person and almost just part of the furniture, was a woman who was stronger and more resilient than she’d realised and who had had some experiences that illuminate aspects of women’s lives. She doesn’t claim to provide a full portrait of Ann Hannah’s life, so I don’t think we can criticise this work as a caricature. We could do so, perhaps, if she claimed to be writing a biography, but in her introduction she makes very clear that she couldn’t do this because “I didn’t know enough about the experiences that shaped Ann Hannah’s life to write a meaningful biography”.

      The writing IS fairly dry, but it’s clear, well-structured, and is not full of jargon or academic lingo. It’s also, at 150pp, pretty tight. So, I didn’t find it at all a boring read. But, horses for courses, eh?

  3. Thank you for this post, WG. I have never heard of such a genre. Looks like the author had to put in a lot of speculative writing.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one Deepika! In some ways I don’t think she did put in a lot of speculative writing. Instead, she explored ideas around the issue, and wondered about the degree to which they illuminated her grandmother. She rarely speculates on what her grandmother actually felt, though she draws some conclusions by applying her research to her grandmother’s observable behaviour. That’s probably the strength of what she’s done here. The long bow I felt she might be drawing at the beginning, felt less so by the time I got to the end!

  4. Oops, this post slipped back to page 2 of pending emails and from there might easily have been lost. I think all our grandmothers were, if not stronger than we realised, then at least faced difficulties of which we are only dimly aware. My own grandparents were all a generation younger than Ann Hannah (and all Australian born). My mother’s parents in particular I knew quite well, but if they had favourite sayings I’m blowed if I remember them. Mum’ll be over here soon, I’ll ask her. And as Lisa says I’m not sure anyway their sayings would be representative of their lives.

    • Glad you found it Bill! Every now and then I sort my emails by sender to make sure I’ve not missed posts from you, Lisa, and several other bloggers I don’t want to miss.

      I agree that the sayings may not be representative of their lives, which would be a problem if she were trying to write a traditional biography. As it is, I think she decided to focus on what made her grandmother resilient – and the sayings did help her research and suss out that. But, as you say, most women were strong because they had to face so much as you say. One of my grandmothers – the one whose main saying I have written about – was born in 1893 (died 1986) and the other was born in 1902 and died 1982. I don’t remember so many of this one’s specific sayings but I do remember that many of them had to do with luck and superstition. But that would certainly misrepresent her character and achievements. But, do ask your Mum, I’d love to know.

      I remember nothing really, about my grandfathers’ sayings though I remember them themselves pretty well. I was 14 when I lost my first grandparent and in my 30s for the other three so I knew them all reasonably well.

    • Oh, I’m glad I’m not the only one, Stefanie, though given the Wikipedia article it is clearly “a thing”. Her grandmother lived with her family for 40 years, including the first 19 years of the author’s life before she left home, so she’d heard them all from her grandmother. What she hadn’t done, though, was take a lot of interest in her grandmother’s life at that time. Her grandmother was someone who quietly worked away helping around the house while the author, as young people do, got on with her own life which, to a young person, tends to be far more interesting than that of an old lady! I have a book here on family history titled “We should have asked grandma”. It’s clearly a common failure!

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