Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
ISBN: 9780712262975

Jane Sinclair, Shy love smiles and acid drops (#BookReview)

Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, is an unusual book. Covering around two years in her parents’ life, this book comprises, mostly, letters sent between her parents between April 1960 and July 1962 when Sinclair and her mother were in England while her father remained in Australia. Between the letters (and some entries from her mother’s journal), Sinclair adds explanatory information, which ensures the narrative flow.

Sinclair was 5 to 7 years old when these letters were written. Being so young, her memory of that time is scattered, but she has clearly thought much about her parents in her adult life. Also, she remembers family stories of those times told to her later, and she did discuss her parents’ relationship with them, though, as is the way with such things, not as much as she wishes she had. The book was inspired by her finding the letters that underpin this book.

What makes this book particularly interesting is who her parents are, the artist Jean Langley and music critic John Sinclair. You may or may not have heard of them, but these two were part of mid-twentieth century Melbourne’s arts and music scene. In particular, they had close connections with the Heide artistic community, which inspired Emily Bitto’s award-winning novel, The strays (my review), and which was created by two art-lovers and philanthropists, John and Sunday Reed. This community was famous for two things, the art produced there and the complicated personal relationships amongst its members.

Some of Australia’s best-regarded modernist artists were associated with Heide, people like Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, and Joy Hester, all of whom appear in this book. Artist Arthur Boyd was also close to these people, though not part of the community. However, Heide was just as well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, for “the intertwined personal and professional lives of the people involved”. Sunday Reed herself had affairs with several in the community, with her husband’s knowledge. This art history is what primarily attracted me to the book, but it was the background rather than the focus that I’d hoped. Instead, Shy love smiles and acid drops is exactly what it says it is, the story of “a difficult marriage”. As we are told on the back cover

when Jane Sinclair was five her mother Jean Langley followed her lover, Arthur Boyd, to London and took Jane with her. This book covers the two years they live there before returning to Australia in 1962, by which time her mother is three months pregnant to an Englishman.

“Your letter makes me cross” (Jeannie)

The letters are difficult reading because of the emotional pain and distress they contain. There are some fascinating insights into London and England at a time when many Australians saw it as a mecca for arts and culture. Indeed, while Jean Langley was there, living near the Boyds, so were their friends, Barry Humphries and his wife.

In her introduction, Sinclair speaks of how the letters caused her to “seriously question” her mother’s “version of herself as the aggrieved, wronged wife that she had cultivated and genuinely believe to be true”. Sinclair was also sorry that she had never allowed her father, who died twenty-five years before her mother, to tell his side of the story. This is understandable given when he died, she had probably not reached that age of (hopefully) wise reflection many of us do later in our lives, that age when we start to really see our parents as human beings, rather than seeing them through the prism of their relationship with us. I think this is so, in even the best of parent-child relationships?

Anyhow, Sinclair tells us that her parents’ relationship was “intense and difficult” from the start. They separated many times, but “there remained an irresistible attraction that kept them returning to each other”. Eleven years of age separated her mother and father, but it seems that personality difference (“not compatible emotionally”) was the essential problem. John Sinclair apparently tended to melancholy and depression, while Jean Langley was a romantic. “She could create sparkle and shine” and “wanted the world to be a beautiful place of happy endings”. All this comes through the letters. John expresses his sadness, his missing his wife and daughter, while Jeannie expresses her frustration with him, and her increasing disappointment with life and human beings, as things become more and more complicated. The England she adored at the beginning of her trip is not so great when it becomes cold and grey, and as the reality of never having enough money sets in.

“a riddle, muddle, fiddle, diddle” (Jeannie)

But what comes through even more is miscommunication, and particularly what seems to be Jeannie’s wilful misreading of John’s letters. When he invites her to return home on her terms – meaning she can live separately from him if she wishes – Jeannie seems to misread that wilfully, insisting again and again that she can’t be his wife, she won’t sleep with him, and so on. Readers wonder where she reads this, because we don’t.

At times, I put my feminist hat on and wondered whether there was something about John that we don’t know. Should I be supporting my down-trodden sister, I started to wonder? But, while there are, naturally, gender issues to do with women’s place in the mid-twentieth century, I don’t read a woman wronged by her husband here. I read a woman who, due to her own personality, and upbringing perhaps, regularly let emotion cloud her ability to reason – to her own detriment as well as those around her. She falls in and out of love twice during this English sojourn – besides the apparently abiding love for Arthur Boyd – and admits in June 1962 that, “I seem to have made a mess of my emotions”.

As the narrative progresses, daughter Jean notes that her mother, who liked to see herself as truthful, strayed often from it:

My mother believed in her emotional truth, and unfortunately for my father, it was sometimes very far from reality.

Reading this, I think I would say more than “sometimes”. I have known people like Jeannie, people who have such a zest for life but who wear their emotions so close to the surface that they can’t reason through what is really happening. They can be both joyful and draining to be around, and this is how Jeannie comes across.

This is not my usual review, because, in a sense, it’s hard to review such a personal book. Indeed it’s so personal that it’s worth thinking about its target. There’s some interesting social history here – life in the 60s, the experience of Aussie artistic expats in London, the challenges of communication in those pre-electronic communications days. There’s also a little about the the art world, the odd reference to a Boyd or Nolan exhibition, to the Blackmans, and to Brett Whiteley whom Jeannie calls “a shocking little upstart”. But, overall, this is a nicely presented but intense story of a “difficult marriage”, and it will appeal mostly to those interested in human relationships.

Read for #ReadIndies month (kaggsysbookishramblings and Lizzy’s Literary Life). Hybrid is a Melbourne-based independent publisher, with a special but not exclusive interest in Judaica. I have reviewed many of their books over the years.

Jane Sinclair
Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
Cover art: from oil painting by Jane Sinclair
ISBN: 9781925736588

(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)

Cindy Solonec, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (#BookReview)

Cindy Solonec’s Debesa is one of those curious hybrid biography-memoirs that are appearing on the scene. Its subtitle describes it as The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, implying biography, but in fact, Frank and Katie are Solonec’s parents and so the book also incorporates some of her own story as part of the family. I’ll return to this later, but will start with the main content, the biography.

Debesa spans four generations of the family, starting in the 1880s with Solonec’s maternal great-grandparents, but it centres, as the Media Release says, “on the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” north of Broome. The Release also explains that Debesa is a rewriting of Solonec’s 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s”. What Solonec does in the book, then, is to turn her thesis into a readable history and a family memoir, a combination that is becoming an increasingly acceptable approach to historical writing.

There is some contention about this tree’s prison use, but not about its cultural significance.

I was keen to read Debesa for a few reasons, not least being that I’ve been to the Kimberleys (east and west) and am intrigued by this beautiful region and its complicated history. I grew up being aware of its pastoral history, particularly regarding the Durack family and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and I came to understand some of its colonial past when I saw such “sights” as the Boab Prison tree in Derby during my visits there. As Solonec’s family story is contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century Duracks and the Ord River scheme, it was enlightening to see this world from a smaller and more marginalised perspective. I say “smaller” because Frank and Katie’s property, the titular Debesa, was a small pastoral holding, and “marginalised” because Katie’s “mixed descent” Indigenous (Nigena) background meant the family was always on the outer.

Solonec sets the scene in her Introduction by providing a brief history of the Kimberley’s colonial history, one founded on “the ideology that everyone must live like white people. Speak their language. Adapt to the ways. And marry lighter skinned people …”. It’s the same story that we’ve read before – people dispossessed, country spoiled, and children stolen. In her early chapters, Solonec documents the family’s story from the time of her maternal great-grandparents, Indian immigrant Jimmy Casim/Nygumi and his Nigena wife, Muninga. Their daughter, Solonec’s grandmother Jira, was born in 1900 and stolen with her cousin in 1909. Designated as orphans and renamed Phillipena and Francesca, they were taken to Beagle Bay Mission, leaving their mothers distraught.

Alongside the stealing of children was the stealing of the land:

On stations along Mardoowarra [lower Fitzroy River], land was fundamental to Nigena existence. They knew every part of that country intimately. Their neighbours and the broader Australian post people’s concept of ‘country’, their religious attachment, their awareness of food sources, was inherent to their way of life. They knew the call, cry, track of every living creature. Everything that breathed, every hill, every creek, crevice and outcrop and night sky with its myriad of galaxies, they knew by name. The seasons dictated their movements and their care for country within pliable boundaries. No-one ever got lost.

But, the Nigena had to watch, Solonec writes, as their land was taken for pastoralism and their sacred sites destroyed and/or renamed. Her extended family, “like refugees in their own country, lived in bush camps near the homesteads” and the women were preyed upon by “lecherous, irresponsible guide menfolk”. There is nothing new here, but Solonec puts flesh on the bone by telling it through the prism of her own family.

In chapter 3, we meet Solonec’s parents, Frank, who migrated from Galicia, Spain, in 1937, and Katie, whose parents were the stolen Phillipena and Fulgentious, a Nigena man with a white stockman father. Together they forge a life, drawing on their deep and shared commitment to Catholicism. They take work where and when they can, Frank as a trusted builder and Katie a respected cook and station-worker. They raise and educate their four children, acquire their own land, and slowly build a home and establish a small pastoral business, Debesa. Theirs was a partnership in every sense of the word. Solonec makes the interesting observation that Aboriginal cultures and European peasant cultures, from which Frank had come, have much in common, including a “strong sense of kin”. And, of course, Frank as a non-English migrant, had his own experience of bigotry and prejudice.

Biography? Memoir?

There’s excellent historical research here about life in the Kimberley, with illuminating “short histories” of subjects like mustering and wage disparity, and discussion of issues like the divisive and destructive “exemptions” from the Native Administration Act. (Tony Birch addresses similar exemptions in his novel, The white girl.)

To write this book, academic Solonec drew, rightly, on a large body of secondary sources and other life-writing about the region – all of which is documented in the thorough bibliography at the end – but she also had her father’s diaries, which provided the book’s “chronological framework”, and the stories of her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately:

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

(I suspect she means “intelligence” in both meanings here.)

As I opened this post, though, the book is a curious mix. The first half reads like a traditional biography while the second half slips more into memoir. This is heralded in the Introduction where Solonec describes her aim as

wanting to leave a documented account for posterity about the way marginalised peoples lived in the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) region during the middle of the twentieth century. A social history as experienced by my families. I wanted to leave an account of ordinary people’s everyday lives that would not otherwise be recorded. An account based on my parents’ joint biography.

This is perfectly valid, and she achieves what she set out to do. Her approach does, however, raise some questions, particularly towards the end, where there’s a risk of the subjective blurring the objective, making the truth potentially hard to discern. Solonec is justly proud of her parents’ achievements, and certainly they had much to contend with, but there’s a sense that all the problems they had were external, which seems unrealistic. I don’t believe, however, that this invalidates the critical historical truths contained here. In fact, the warmth of the story makes Debesa an approachable history which, given the significance of its subject, is a good thing.

Lisa also reviewed this book, engendering some good discussion.

Cindy Solonec
Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Broome: Magabala Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925936001

(Review copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Erik Jensen, On Kate Jennings (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

It took Kate Jennings’ death for me to finally pick up one of Black Inc’s Writers on writers books, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings. The series, says Black Inc, involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. It continues, “Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.” Let’s see how Erik Jensen goes!

But, who is Erik Jensen? Most of the series’ writers are well-known, such as Alice Pung, Stan Grant, Michelle de Kretser and Nam Le, but a couple are less so. Jensen is a Walkley award-winning Australian journalist and author. He’s probably best known for being a founder, and still editor, of The Saturday Paper. However, in 2014, he also wrote a biography, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen. It won a NIB Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Literary Awards’ Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction. As you’d expect for this series, then, he has some cred.

However, his writing seems to be primarily non-fiction, so why Kate Jennings? Fortunately, he answers that in the opening paragraphs:

I had looked up Kate because I was a fan of her essays – pieces about her life, mostly, ruthless in their precision.

In the next paragraph, he launches without warning into describing the opening of Snake (my review), Jennings’ autobiographical novel. You have to be familiar with Jennings and Snake to get what’s going on here, but it’s unlikely you’d be reading this, I think, if you weren’t. What follows is an introduction to Kate Jennings, realised through interweaving the content and trajectory of this novel with his interviews and communications with Jennings and, occasionally, others.

I was moved by the insights, and impressed by the richness of the portrait Jensen achieves in around 100 small-book pages. He is clearly very fond of Jennings. Indeed, he concludes his essay with

This essay is for Kate Jennings. It is a love letter to her work and to the life that produced it. As a friend and a writer, I am grateful for both. More than anything, I want to thank Kate for the generosity she has shown – in agreeing to this essay, in being so open with the material, and in how with her own work she has shown me what to do.

However, Snake is a tough book. It portrays a dysfunctional family, with a difficult and self-centred mother. Jennings tells Jensen, “I was so very lonely. And at the mercy of my mother.” To his credit, Jensen also talks to Jennings’ brother, Dare, whose perspective on the family is very different. Dare, writes Jensen, “remembers the same mother Kate does, although he remembers her differently. They had a very different relationship. It was warm, close.” Dare supports Kate, but his experience of the family was different. He was the adored son.

This brings me to that whole issue of autobiographical fiction, which is Jennings’ forte (much like her friend, Helen Garner’s.) Jensen writes that “Kate writes close to life. Not completely close, she says. She does make up things. ‘I round the corners,’ she says, ‘and make the really ghastly stuff a little better.’” She writes to work out what she thinks. She also says that “the emotions were autobiographical but not necessarily the story“. This is a significant distinction, and serves as a reminder that fiction needs to be “true” but should not be read as “factual”.

Much of this wasn’t particularly new to me, given I’ve read both Snake and her fragmented biography, Trouble. However, Jensen value adds. For example, he writes that he sees Snake as “the Great Australian novel”. He gives it to people inscribing it as such. One recipient was Ian Donaldson, a former professor of English at Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. Jensen shares Donaldson’s reaction:

‘The great Australian novel?’ he writes the next morning. ‘Yes, I’d agree, it certainly warrants that sort of ranking, though that phrase as conventionally used conjures up a kind of laborious realism which Snake so spectacularly lacks. I loved its spareness, its brevity, its ability – like the creature it mimics – to strike without warning then vanish without trace.’

You can see why I like Snake too – its spareness! I was interested in Johnson’s comment that a GAN “conventionally … conjures up a kind of laborious realism”. Do you agree? Anyhow, Snake, “a poet’s novel” as Jensen calls it, is not that.

After spending some time on the content of the novel, Jensen also discusses its path to publication (including the rejections) and its reception. Australian reviewer Elizabeth Riddell was not particularly impressed, but in North America, Carol Shields (in The New York Times) and the Publisher’s Weekly, were highly positive. Yet, the novel was soon “lost”, or, as Jennings put it, “pretty well ignored”, largely she felt due to the feminists who “couldn’t accept the treatment she gave her mother”. Seven years later, however, it was re-released, with the Age describing it as “probably the most accomplished, realistic novel about bush life to be produced in the past decade”.

Jennings shares much of her life with Jensen, including her challenges with alcohol and depression, and her loving marriage to Bob Cato. The result is a picture of someone who was both “obstinate and fragile”, as Jensen writes in his The Saturday Paper obituary (8 May 2021), who had great successes but also faced tough challenges, and who was, above all, an uncompromising and stylish writer.

In other words, through exploring Snake, from multiple perspectives, supported by critical truths about Jennings’ life, Jensen does meet Black Inc’s stated aims. It’s intelligent and compelling. I have now bought another in the series.

Erik Jensen,
On Kate Jennings: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2017
ISBN: 9781925435818

Desley Deacon, Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen historian Desley Deacon offered me her biography of Dame Judith Anderson for review, I was a little reticent because my review copies were getting out of hand. Little did I know then what was in store for me, and just how much more behind I would become. However, finally, its turn came, and here I am with my review.

First though, I must say something about the publication itself, particularly given our recent discussion here about Print on Demand books. Deacon’s Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage is available as an e-Book or a PoD one. I read the PoD edition, and it is beautiful. The cover is gorgeous, and the book’s overall design is stylish, with an art deco look reflecting the style of Anderson’s early life and career. The book is big and heavy, but the binding is strong allowing the book to open well for reading. And, the icing on the cake is that it is gorgeously illustrated with quality reproductions of images from the full range of Deacon’s life. These illustrations are beautifully interspersed throughout the book, rather than concentrated, as is more common, into a couple of glossy photographic sections.

But, of course, the important thing is the content. There are, broadly, two main types of biography, those written in the narrative or creative fiction style, like, for example, Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review), and those traditional, scholarly, cradle-to-grave ones, like Philip Butterss’ An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (my review). These latter tend to be closely referenced and well-indexed. Judith Anderson is one of these.

“she has a way with her” (critic)

So now, Judith Anderson. Like many of my generation, my first introduction to her was as the terrifying Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1939 (no I wasn’t alive then!) Rebecca. But, Judith Anderson had been around a long time before that. Born in Adelaide in 1897, she (as Francee Anderson) went to the USA in 1918, and this is where she both established her career and made her home for the rest of her life. It wasn’t easy – is an actor’s life ever? – but eventually Anderson began to get roles. Deacon chronicles the trajectory of her career meticulously, from these early days to her final performances when she was in her eighties. It was a long, and distinguished career which, while centred on the stage, also included film, television, radio and the college speaking circuit. Anderson, unlike some actors, was not averse to working in forms – like television, like, even, television soaps – scorned by others. Regarding this latter, Anderson is quoted as saying “there is no indignity in earning $5,000 per week”. No, indeed, particularly when you never knew where your next pay check was coming from, and when you were providing significant support to other family members.

Various themes run through this story of Anderson’s life. One is the frequency with which critics praised the brilliance of her acting but bemoaned the silliness or inappropriateness of the vehicle. Indeed, this issue was the main reason for the long time it took for her to have her breakthrough. However, Anderson, always a hardworker, kept at it, and eventually her vehicle came, the play Come of age, by Clemence Dane. It was 1934, and she’d been treading the boards in America for 16 years! English playwright Keith Winter saw the play and wrote:

There are in the English speaking world, three actors who have genius of a quite staggering order – Charles Laughton, Edith Evans, and Judith Anderson. Perhaps Laurence Olivier.

No small praise. In the end, though, besides the aforementioned Mrs Danvers, the two roles for which Anderson was most known, was as Euripides’ Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Character and strong women roles did seem to be her forte.

“same old muddling” (Anderson)

While the biography’s focus is Anderson’s work life, largely because that was her life, Deacon also includes something of her personal life, including, in particular, her two short disastrous marriages. It was a sadness for Anderson that she never managed to have her own family and children. This brings me to another theme that runs through the biography: she had, as Deacon describes it, a “hectic personality” or, as Anderson herself said, “I have not myself a very serene temperament”.

Australian arts administrator, Robert Quentin, said during her 1955 tour in Australia, that she was “more than living up to her reputation as being the most troublesome actress in the world.” Deacon is not one of those biographers who psychoanalyses her subject. Her approach is more straight – that is, she presents what is on record, using the occasional “may” or “could” when some fact or other is not known. However, I’d like to suggest that, while this apparent difficult behaviour of Anderson’s was probably partly her temperament, it may also have stemmed from ongoing frustration with the acting life, with the challenge of getting work, with being messed around, with having to accept what she felt were less than ideal plays or co-players, and so on. In 1935, for example, she was being sussed out for a play, but there was the usual to-ing and fro-ing as backers, producers, and/or agents negotiated and fiddled around. She writes, “when I left Wed afternoon it was definite – but now the same old muddling.” You can feel the frustration.

“near perfection in the dramatic art” (Variety)

Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage is clearly, like Deacon’s friend Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin, a passion project that was years in the making. Thoroughly researched, and written in a formal but accessible style, it is a positive but non-hagiographical story of an actor who was once described by Variety as achieving “near perfection in the dramatic art”. Dame Judith Anderson is too little remembered today, but her struggle to fulfil her creative self is timeless. For this reason, if no other, her biography is well worth reading.

Challenge logoDesley Deacon
Judith Anderson: Australian star, First Lady of the American stage
Melbourne: Kerr, 2019
ISBN: 9781875703067 (PoD)

(Review copy courtesy the author.)

Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

Book coverHybrid memoir-biographies take many forms. For a start, some are weighted more to biography while others more to memoir. As I wrote in my post on Jessica White’s conversation with Inga Simpson, most of those I’ve read “have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935)”. However, Bill (The Australian Legend) responded in the comments that “I’m pretty sure Hearing Maud is another mother/ daughter memoir. On two levels”. In a sense he’s right.

I say “in a sense” because Maud is not White’s mother. However, two mother-daughter threads do run through the book, Maud and her author mother Rosa, and Jessica and her mother. But, unlike those more direct mother-daughter memoirs in which the daughter focuses on the mother’s story while also throwing some light on her own life, in White’s book the two mother-daughter stories work in some way as foils for each other, but, more significantly, the focus is on the two daughters’ lives. As with most memoirs – hybrid or otherwise – there is a larger intent behind Hearing Maud than simply telling the story of a life or lives. It involves exploring deafness.

As I reported in the conversation post, White talked about “coming out” as a deaf person. I wrote how “living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness”. This resulted in her growing up as “a hearing person” albeit a “bad” one! It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she started to think about herself as deaf, and to understand its impact on her life, particularly in her longstanding sense of loneliness and isolation.

Before, however, you start suspecting that this is going to be another misery memoir, let me get to the book. It starts with a Prologue, in which White tells us how she lost most of her hearing around the age of four, due to meningitis (or, more accurately, the treatment for it.) She then says, and it is this idea that underpins her story:

My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure.

She goes on to say that the way the pendulum swings, between these two, depends on the time and culture in which the deaf person lives. For Maud, deafness was “a bane”. It led to her being committed to an asylum at the age of 28 and being left there until she died 39 years later. For White, on the other hand, it led to her becoming a reader and then a writer, because these “assuaged my persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose”. What White goes on to do in her book is provide a mini-history of attitudes to deafness and deaf people over the last century and a half, exploring the ways in which both personal (including family) circumstances and social attitudes and policies can deeply affect the course of a deaf person’s life. Of course, life is a lottery for all of us – we are all affected by time and place, family and culture – but for those with a disability, there are additional layers that further reduce their control over their outcomes. (Interestingly, probably because of when she was born, White doesn’t discuss the whole nomenclature issue. In the early 1980s, for example, it was not acceptable to call people “deaf”, they were “hearing impaired”.)

Now though, I want to talk a bit about the writing. Hearing Maud is White’s third book (I’ve reviewed her second, Entitlement), and it shows. It shows in the novelistic language that brings life to the story. It’s never overdone, but there are scattered images that beautifully convey her feelings, such as this comment after her first real conversation with another deaf person, when she was 32:

Once again I have the sense of something settling into place, like a bird alighting in a tree, its wings relaxing. When I say goodbye and walk back past the sandstone buildings to the bus stop by the lakes, my step is buoyant.

You can feel the emotional release, can’t you.

It also shows in the confident handling of the multiple storylines – hers, and Maud and her mother Rosa’s stories. The stories are told generally chronologically but are interwoven with each other, so we start with White’s childhood ending a little before this book is completed, and similarly we move through Maud’s life. However, there are some backwards movements when something in the life of one raises an issue in the life of another. It does require some concentration from the reader, but the segues are natural and clear. Describing her childhood, for example, White tells of the times she spent in the bush, and how “the solitude was a balm”, enabling her to daydream about the boy on whom she had a crush. This leads her directly to  Rosa Praed – “Whenever I read Rosa’s novels, I reconnect with this heady mix of romance and the bush” – and a discussion of Rosa’s focus on the bush in many of her novels. Similarly, a discussion of the importance of letter-writing to her – being an “unthreatening way … to make connections” – leads to an extended discussion of Maud’s letters, and from that to Maud’s education and the history of deaf education in Europe in the late nineteenth century. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s so well integrated into the narrative that you learn almost despite yourself!

Finally, White’s skill shows in her control of tone. This is not a dry non-fiction work, despite the amount of information it contains, but a story about real people. White’s tone balances the formal (grammatical sentences, endnotes, and so on) with the informal (first person voice, and expressions like “I imagine Maud walking to the museum”). She also conveys her passion for her subject, and sometimes her frustration and anger, but doesn’t let it flow over into diatribe. However, she’s very clear about her intention for the book, as she tells her sister:

‘I’m tired of being taken for granted. I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice [hearing Maud!] and to know that, although things are much better, deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people. I want them to see how difficult it still is, when it shouldn’t be…’

I hear you Jess, loud and clear!

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) have also reviewed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJessica White
Hearing Maud
Crawley: UWAP, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800383

Sue Ingleton, Making trouble: Tongued with fire (#BookReview)

Book coverIn 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.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeSue Ingleton
Making trouble: Tongued with fire: An imagined history of Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C. Moon
North Geelong: Spinifex, 2019
ISBN: 9781925581713

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Deborah Hopkinson, Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen (#BookReview)

Deborah Hopkinson, Ordinary, extraordinary Jane AustenWriting biographies for young children – like, for example, Deborah Hopkinson and Qin Leng’s Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen – is an interesting concept. Interesting, but not new. So, when I was given this gorgeous Jane Austen one for Christmas, I decided to research the topic – and what I discovered is that the picture book biography is a well-recognised genre. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, given the number I bought for the young Gums way back when.

Still, it got me thinking. A quick search of the ‘net retrieved a few interesting articles (mostly including lists of recommended books). In 2016, The Guardian writer Amy Coles wrote how “picture book biographies peel back history and bring to life the true stories of iconic figures for a younger generation of readers”. An obvious aim, I suppose, but there’s more to it than just knowing these people’s stories, as Coles continues:

there is a lot to be learnt from the trailblazing achievements of history’s most renowned and respected figures. But how did these inspirational figures reach their goals and what prompted them to act the ways they did?

Coles provides a list of ten books that cross “nationalities, careers and cultures”, books about well-known people like the inspiring young Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandela, and lesser-known ones (to me, anyhow) like Wangari Maathai, who is “credited with planting over 30 million trees in Kenya”.

I love the idea of these non-fiction picture books, but how popular are they, really? Well, it just so happens that they have quite a wide readership.

Writers Rumpus is the website and blog of a group of children’s book writers and illustrators from the Boston area. Their blog began with “a lively, opinionated, humongous rumpus of a critique group” that (still I gather) meets monthly in a library. Back in May last year, they wrote this (as an introduction to a list of new releases from the previous year):

We live in a most exciting time, one of abundant picture book biographies! At my library, patrons of all ages check out these books. One adult recently told me he found it an excellent way to learn about famous people—past and present—without spending precious time reading a full biography on each person. With their lavish illustrations and informative back matter, this is no surprise. Authors and illustrators of picture book biographies put in a lot of research time to make sure their facts are correct, recorded, and shared in an entertaining manner.

The list is appealing – and includes books about the composer Bach, the “father of children’s literature” John Newbery whose name now graces a significant American children’s literature award, the black woman ex-slave-cum-anti-slavery-activist Harriet Tubman, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, not to mention a whole raft of scientists, sports people and creators of all sorts.

Julie Just, writing in The New York Times last November, also praised picture-book biographies, stating that modern publishers are producing

beautifully illustrated and closely researched nonfiction books about unsung heroes as well as heroes we can’t read enough about. Best of all, if you like true stories, they include superbly detailed endnotes and suggestions for further reading.

And this brings me to the Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen, which is just such a book. The front cover flap describes the book as a “gorgeous tribute to an independent thinker who turned ordinary life into extraordinary stories”.

The book’s epigraph from Pride and prejudice – “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in return” – will probably not make sense to its 4 to 8-year-old intended audience, but should give its adult readers a wry laugh. The book proper opens – not totally originally (!) – with

It is a truth universally acknowledged
that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.
But it might surprise you to know that
Jane lived a simple life.
She wasn’t rich
or even very famous in her time.

This would, I think, push the young reader a bit. How many would even have heard of Jane Austen to wonder whether she was rich or famous? Still, from the opening page they learn some basic facts about her. This first-page text is accompanied by a lovely sketch-illustration of our Jane writing at her famous little round writing table. The book goes on to provide the important facts of her biography. It gives a sense of Austen’s personality, including her love of humour, particularly at the “foolish things people sometimes did and said”. It tells us about the life of her times, including how people entertained themselves, which of course would interest children. It also explains how Austen wanted to write more realistic stories about the ordinary world, representing a significant break from the popular novels of the time – adventures and romances. Its conclusion, suggesting that Austen may have stood in her father’s library one day and thought to herself, “I can do this”, is nicely aspirational (as Coles suggests these books can be.)

The book concludes, as Julie Just notes many such books do, with some useful end matter: a basic but detailed enough timeline; a description of each of her novels including when it was published, and some “famous quotes”; some Internet sources to research; and a few books about Austen that the author used in her research.

You won’t be surprised to learn that this book didn’t teach me anything new, but as the friends who gave it to me know, I love adding to my Jane Austen collection of books, videos, CDs and other merch!

Do you have any favourite picture book biographies?

PS I should note that the annual Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards includes the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books, which would include picture-book biographies in its purview.

Deborah Hopkinson
illus. Qin Leng
Ordinary, extraordinary Jane Austen: The story of six novels, three notebooks, a writing box and one clever girl
New York: Balzer + Bray, 2018
ISBN: 9780062373304

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (#BookReview)

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksIn her extensive acknowledgements at the end of her book, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot thanks “Heather at The Book Store, who tracked down every good novel she could find with a disjointed structure, all of which I devoured while trying to figure out the structure of this book.” Interesting that she looked at novels, particularly given our recent discussion regarding non-fiction that reads like fiction, but more on that later …

Many of you will have heard of the book, or, if not, of Henrietta Lacks, or of her HeLa cells? It’s a sort of hybrid biography-cum-science book about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951, and the immortal HeLa cell line that was and continues to be cultured from her cervical cancer cells. As Skloot writes, “these cells have transformed modern medicine.” The book was published in the USA in 2010. It won multiple awards, including, says Wikipedia, the National Academies Communication Award for “best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine”. In addition, the paperback edition was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks.

I’ve described the book as hybrid, because the story (or biography) of Henrietta Lacks is just one of its threads. It also interrogates the complex intersection between race, class and ethics in medical research as well as broader ethical ramifications of issues like “informed consent” and the commercialisation of human tissue. Skloot, herself, says early in the book,

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then, this book is another example of those non-fiction books that I like so much in which authors author takes us on their journey of discovery, in this case to understand the people and the science, the ethics and the law, behind this astonishing story. Skloot wasn’t the first so tell it, however – something she makes clear during our journey. Earlier stories include Michael Rogers’ 1976 article in Rolling Stone, and the 1997 BBC documentary, The way of all flesh, which you can watch on YouTube. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story of the cells, so if you want to know about them – read the book and/or watch this video.

Skloot explains her own fascination with Henrietta, from being introduced to her cells in high school, through those HeLa cells being “omnipresent” throughout her biology degree, to when she was in graduate school studying writing “and became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story”. It’s not surprising then that this book has been extensively researched – as evidenced by the Notes and Acknowledgements. (These two chapters make great reading in themselves.) It took around 10 years to write, not just because of this extensive research. A major issue which Skloot had to confront was the understandable suspicion and anger of the Lacks’ family, whose help she needed if she were to tell this story properly and with integrity. Their story is bound up in a long invidious history of research carried out on African-Americans, which is also detailed in the book.

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!”

So, the structure. The book is divided into three parts – Life, Death, Immortality. In the first two parts, the story is told in two roughly alternating, chronological threads – one telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family, from 1920 to 1973; the other tracking the early days of Skloot’s research from 1999 to 2000. In the third part, the two tracks coalesce into one chronological thread, starting from 1973 when the late Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, discovers quite accidentally via a friend’s brother-in-law, that Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research and had been since 1951. Until that point, no-one in the family had known that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive” and being used in research all over the world:

“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What you mean you got her cells in your lab?”

He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”

She is, to put it mildly, horrified – and rushes to tell her husband and thence the family.

Here, though, I’m going to return to the issue of writing non-fiction like fiction. There’s the use of narrative structure, of plot lines, to create some sort of tension for the reader – in this case it largely revolves around the lives and reactions of the family, particularly Deborah – while we are also learning drier “stuff” about the history and ethics of cell culture and medical research. The dialogue I’ve just shared is part of the main plot line concerning the family’s discovery of what had been happening to Henrietta’s cells.

Then there’s the use of evocative, descriptive language. Skloot doesn’t overdo this, staying, in the main, direct and focused – but there are enough little flourishes to keep the writing interesting, like “HeLa grew like crabgrass” or “tufts of hair like overgrown cotton sprouted from his head”. The imagery draws from the area in which it is set. And, there’s the use of dialogue. Skloot did carry out a lot of interviews over her decade-long research and often makes clear when she’s quoting from those – but not all dialogue comes from that research. Some is imagined – or what critics call “representative”. No-one, for example, would have recorded Henrietta’s exact words when she visited her gynecologist, but Skloot writes:

“I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look”.

How much more interesting that is to read than, say, “Henrietta visited her gynaecologist, telling the receptionist that she had pain in her womb that needed to be investigated.” I know what I’d rather read. Not only is dialogue more engaging, but if the writer gets the voice right it enhances our understanding of the character. One of the delights of this book, in fact, is our getting to “know” members of Henrietta’s family, and the dialogue plays a significant role in this. Not non-fiction readers, however, approve of this approach.

As I’ve already said, I’m not going to write a lot about the content of this book, fascinating though it is. It has been written about extensively; there are interviews with Skloot on the web; and for background there’s that BBC documentary. The book is now nearly a decade old. Cell research has moved on, but the story of the intersection of race and class with science and ethics is still relevant. Moreover, this is a book of history – the history of medicine. Close to home for me, for example, was learning that HeLa cells were involved in identifying the connection between the HPV virus and cervical cancer, and thence the development of the vaccine with which my reading group’s daughters were among the first in the world to be vaccinated.

All this makes the book well worth reading. There were, admittedly, times when the cell science got the better of me (and other non-scientific members of my reading group) but not enough to turn us off. Skloot’s courage, warmth and empathy with people out of her ken, the trust those initially fearful, angry people came to place in her, and her ability to tread the fine line between judgement and analysis when discussing actions of the past make this a special read. No-one in my reading group regretted this choice for our schedule. A fine way to end the year.

Rebecca Skloot
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN: 9781742626260 (ePub)

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother’s daughter: A memoir (#BookReview)

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn 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.

Defining moments

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.

AWW Badge 2018Nadia Wheatley
Her mother’s daughter: A memoir
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603491