In Her mother’s daughter: A memoir, Australian writer Nadia Wheatley has written the sort of hybrid biography-memoir that I’ve reviewed a few times in this blog. All of them, as I mentioned in my recent Meet the Author post, have been mother-daughter stories, Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. It’s this hybrid form that I’d particularly like to explore in this post.
And the hybrid I’m talking about is one where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.) This is the more common form of hybrid biography-memoir, though my research did turn up others, such as Room to dream by Kristine McKenna and David Lynch in which McKenna’s biographical chapters on Lynch are followed by Lynch’s responses to those.
The biographer’s question
There are, of course, many memoirs by people who, in order to tell their own story, need to figure out their relationships with others, particularly their parents. However, these books remain primarily about the writer. Hybrid biography-memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be as much, if not more, about the other person as the writer. The end result might be the writer understanding themselves more, but the focus tends to be the other. This was clearly Wheatley’s intention. Indeed she told us that her biographer’s question was “Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?”
So, her book’s main focus, then is her mother. Nina (Neen) Wheatley, nee Watkin, was born in northern New South Wales in 1906, and died in Sydney in 1958. She lost her own mother when she was five years old. She and her siblings were separated when her father remarried, with Nina and her younger sister Boo staying with their father and his new wife. It became clear that the family expected Nina to be the parents’ carer in their old age. However, Nina managed to train as a nurse, and go overseas during the war as an enlisted nurse with the 6th AGH (Australian General Hospital), where she worked in Greece and Palestine. She returned to Europe after the war to work with UNRRA and then IRO, caring for Displaced Persons. It was during this time that she met the man – English doctor, John Wheatley – she ended up marrying. It was a bad decision: he was a womaniser, possessive and controlling, and, according to Wheatley, sadistic. Indeed, it’s very likely that, had he – and the medical fraternity more broadly – taken women’s health seriously, Nina would not have died when she did. After her mother’s death when Wheatley was 9 years old, she, an only child, lived with a local family known to her (and chosen by her mother before her death.) This was, for Wheatley, a problematic situation – but this part of the story occupies just the last 20 or so pages of the book, and, while it’s important to the overall memoir, I do want to move onto other points.
So, back to the form. Unlike Wheatley, those other three biographers-cum-memoirsts, Varga, Blay and Rubin, were able, as adults, to question their mothers. They could bring an adult’s eye to their mothers, and ask the sorts of questions an adult might ask. They all tape-recorded their mothers. Wheatley’s mother, however, died when Wheatley was nine, so concocting her mother’s story was a very different challenge. Fortunately – and how prescient of her – she realised that her memories wouldn’t last so, at 10 years old, she started writing down her memories of the happy times she spent with her mother and also the stories her mother had told her about her life. At times I wondered how she could possibly have remembered as much detail as she does. However, given Wheatley was clearly a writer from the start and given what she experienced was so powerful, it wasn’t hard to trust her authenticity. It’s these stories and memories, together with letters, journals and interviews with family members and friends, and official records, that provide the facts for her mother’s biography.
Step one, then, is the research, but next comes how to marshall it all into a narrative. Varga and Rubin, like Wheatley, take us on a journey of discovery. As Wheatley said during the conversation with Halligan, she wanted to take the reader on the quest with her. She wanted to share the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story, and not just present the evidence. Varga and Rubin do something similar, but they tell their story first person, sharing when their mother is reticent, when they, as daughters, are challenged, and so on. Varga makes it clear to her mother – and us – that this means “it won’t be her life story, not properly” but would be “filtered” through her “reactions and thoughts”, her “second generation eyes.”
Blay, however, is more formal, presenting her mother Hela and aunt Janka’s stories in their words as transcribed from her interviews with them. She intersperses these with her own perspective in italics. The three voices are thus distinct.
Wheatley, though, uses a different approach again. She tells her mother’s story third person, but, intermittently, will suddenly switch to first person to present her own role in the research or the story, removing us from Nina’s chronology to her own time-frame. Chapter 9, which relates her mother’s life immediately postwar, is a good example. The first 10 pages read like a standard biography, describing what Nina was doing, quoting from letters and journals to support the information, then, suddenly, after a reference to Nina’s father’s death, she flashes to nine years after Nina’s own death (and over twenty years after the time we’ve been in.) Nadia is dining with her Auntie Boo, and casually asks if she knows where Nina’s wedding ring is. Her aunt bursts into tears, saying:
‘Daddy’s will was so unfair! To leave everything to Neen! Not just Glenorie, but everything in it!’ As my aunt moved on in her attack, it turned out that I too was guilty as charged: ‘All those things that Nina and you had in that house at Strathfield, you had no right to them.’
Now, Nina’s father had left “other real estate to his other children” but leaving the family home to Nina rankled so much, writes Nadia, that “some of her siblings would never get over it.” After a page on all this, we are returned to Nina’s life, and the third person voice.
This approach ensures that as well as travelling the journey with Nadia, we also see the impact on her, and her sense of guilt, as she is growing up. There are many insertions like this, including one later in the book when Nadia remembers a time with her father when she was three years old. With this approach, Nina’s story is told chronologically, but Nadia’s is disjointed until after Nadia is born when her story is gradually folded in to the main narrative. It’s a tricky approach, but Wheatley, an experienced novelist and biographer, makes it work, resulting in something that provides both a coherent biography of her mother, and the impact on her. It doesn’t necessarily work if you are expecting a detailed memoir of Wheatley’s life, but that wasn’t Wheatley’s goal.
Interesting as all this is, however, the main joy in reading Her mother’s daughter lies in its social history of the first half of the twentieth century. Wheatley’s story of her mother’s experience as an active participant in World War 2 is vivid, and makes a significant contribution to a less covered aspect of that war. Her story of her mother’s life in Sydney during 1950s is significant too – but terribly so.
Nina’s War “story” was fascinating. Her reports of her early experience are cheerful, full of a sense of adventure and camaraderie, but that soon changes as her real war experience starts. She sees the impact of bombing on civilians in Greece, and she nurses casualties of the Syrian campaigns including El Alamein. She already cared about social justice before going to war, but her desire to help others firmed afterwards. Her experience of forced repatriations, of seeing “Poles packed like cattle in trucks” during her work with UNRRA, was “a defining moment” writes Wheatley. Nina wrote in her journal that “This experience will have an intense influence on all my life.”
Wheatley’s description of her mother’s work with Displaced Persons is inspiring, showing Nina to be a resourceful and empathetic woman who managed to create harmony in extremely difficult circumstances. However, her marriage to Dr Wheatley saw this confident, warm woman brought undone. Her husband’s cruel, self-centred behaviour soon soured all Nina’s hopes of a happy marriage of equals. Nadia writes that he either “provoked arguments” with her mother, or set up “elaborate games in which I was the pawn he used to take the queen.” That – and his womanising – were bad enough but, when in 1956 Nina started feeling unwell, the situation became dire because Nina fell prey to a male-dominated medical system, actively supported by her doctor husband. The belief that the ills women of Nina’s now middle-age felt were all “in the mind” resulted in her eventual destruction. It’s devastating for Nina (of course) and for Nadia from whom so much, before and after, was kept secret – but, for anyone who knows or lived through the 50s, it’s only too believable.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, not all the defining moments of Nina’s life were positive ones.
Now, once again, I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I’ll conclude by saying that Her mother’s daughter is a great read for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a thoughtful, authentic – sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing – social history of the times. And secondly, with Wheatley’s ability to write engaging narratives, it makes for engrossing, moving, provocative reading. I do recommend it.