Betty 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.
(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)