In my recent post on Jessica White talking about her hybrid memoir-biography Hearing Maud, I commented that I’m intrigued by the ways in which biography is being rethought in contemporary literature. When I wrote that, I not only had White’s book in mind, but Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble. You can probably guess why from its sub-sub-title: “an imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon”.
“An imagined history”? And yet, it is classified on the accompanying media release as “Non-fiction (biography, history, crime)”. What does all this mean? Making trouble is about two English women, Harriet Elphinstone Dick (1852-1902) and Alice C. Moon (1855-1894), who, in 1875, left England for Australia. As the media release says, they were champion swimmers at a time when women did not swim in the sea; they refused to wear the corsets that women had been told were necessary to hold themselves up; and they were in love at a time when – well, you know the story. The problem, however, is that there is not enough documentary evidence for a traditional, formal biography. Ingleton writes in her Prologue that there were
no letters, no direct descendants both women being childless, no personal communications, only some newspaper stories, advertisements and sections of a thesis written in 1985.
In other words, their achievements are primarily documented in newspapers (“may the gods bless TROVE”, Ingleton writes): through ads for gymnasiums and physical education lessons, articles on talks and lectures, and death notices. Ingleton also had access to a master’s thesis by Lois Young titled Feminism and the physical sex sex education, physical education and dress reform in Victoria, 1880-1930).
To flesh out their lives, to give sense to these determined, influential women, Ingleton fills in the gaps using her imagination and her understanding of the history of the time. Describing herself as a “detective in time”, she had no choice, she writes, but to call this book “an imagined history” or, what is defined elsewhere, “speculative biography.” There is, in fact, a growing awareness, perhaps even acceptance, of this speculative approach to biography, but it’s tricky. At what point does such a work tip over into historical fiction?
Writing on the Australian Women’s History Network about her imaginative book The convict’s daughter, historian Keira Lindsey shares the contradictory responses she received to her requests for endorsement. One historian said she had “fearlessly carved a new path between history and fiction,” while another was “infuriated that she had gone “beyond the historian’s remit”. Clearly then, it partly depends on the reader. Some of us have more tolerance for straying from fact than others. But the writer’s approach and style also affects how readers respond.
Lindsey, for example, did not footnote, but she referenced the sources “with an index and bibliography”. She also provided “chapter notes at the end of the book for those wanting to know which portions of the book were fact and which were not” and she explained her approach in an Afterword.
Ingleton took a different approach. She writes a Prologue and provides endnotes. I haven’t read The convict’s daughter so can’t comment on how Lindsey’s approach worked, but I did like Ingleton’s Prologue, albeit she argues that there are three components to her work – the Fact line, the Fiction line, and the Spirit world which, she says, can result in the revelation of “hidden facts” or “invisible truths”. This takes us into somewhat strange territory for a biography, speculative or otherwise, but in fact it doesn’t intrude too disconcertingly into the narrative proper.
“a barely documented history” (Ingleton)
So, to tell the story of her two women, Ingleton interweaves more formal writing, which conveys the facts as she knows them, with a narrative style that is much closer to historical fiction. It generally works well, by which I mean you can usually tell which is fact, or draws on fact, and which is invented or imagined. While I’m happy to accept the use of imagination to fill in gaps, I did feel some of the imagined sections went a little too far into the historical romance fiction vein. I understand why, though. Ingleton is, among other things, an actor, director and stand-up comedian, and so is drawn to dramatic action. She also wanted to convey the love and romance between these two who dared to be different. How to do that in the absence of letters, was her challenge.
Now then, to the women, and why they’re worth reading about. Have you heard of them? Probably not, which is not unusual for women’s stories. Dick and Moon were, says Ingleton,
early pioneers* of physiotherapy, healthy diet, gymnastics and swimming for women and girls, biodynamic farming, journalism, breaking the barriers of women creating their own businesses and most importantly they were lesbians living together – the final bastion against the Patriarchy.
They also fearlessly advocated for sensible women’s attire, that didn’t cripple them physically and mentally. It’s an amazing story really. We follow them from England, to Australia, back to England when Moon’s father falls ill, and back to Australia. We see them build their gymnasium business in Melbourne, develop a teaching practice in schools, and establish a farm at Beaconsfield. Then we see Moon, devastatingly for Dick, cut loose and move to Sydney where she builds a career in journalism, only to die, before she’s 40, in seemingly mysterious circumstances, circumstances for which Ingleton believes she has an answer and builds a fair case.
All this is set against the backdrop of the burgeoning women’s movement in Australia – it was the time of the New Woman and the suffrage movement. Although Dick and Moon “were never deeply connected to the suffrage movement”, they did move in some of the circles mentioned by Clare Wright in her You daughters of freedom (my review), and “certainly were outspoken in the area of women’s rights over their own bodies and minds”.
Making trouble is an unusual book, but Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon are two women who played a significant role in promoting women’s rights and proving, by their achievements, that women are as capable of living independently as men. They should be better known. Ingleton has done us a service in bringing them to our attention with such passion and flair.
* Not long after, another woman, Marie Bjelke Petersen (1874-1969) also pioneered physical culture for women, and was accused of dressing mannishly.
Making trouble: Tongued with fire: An imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)