Jacqueline Kent’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Last Thursday night we went to our fifth Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. We missed the last one in 2019 because we were travelling. Little did we know then that it would be three years before another one could be held. The Seymour Biography Lecture, which is one of the highlights on the Library’s calendar, is an annual lecture devoted to life-writing. It was endowed by Dr John and Dr Heather Seymour AO in 2005, and provides eminent ‘life writers’ with an opportunity to explore the business and craft of biography, autobiography or memoir.

Jacqueline Kent, Sept 2022, National Library of Australia

This year’s speaker, Jacqueline Kent, was introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres. She has an impressive life-writing track record, including:

  • A certain style: Beatrice Davis, a literary life (2001): won National Biography Award and the Nita B. Kibble Award
  • An exacting heart: The story of Hephzibah Menuhin (2008): won the Nita B. Kibble Award 
  • The making of Julia Gillard (2009): written before Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister 
  • Take your best shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013): covers her Prime Ministership, and her story isn’t finished yet, said Kent.
  • Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook (2019): a memoir; shortlisted for National Biography Award (Lisa’s review)
  • Vida: A woman for our time (2020)

Kent, though, first came to my attention long before these, with one relevant to my work, Out of the bakelite box: The heyday in Australian radio (1983). She trained as a journalist and broadcaster, but has also been a book editor and reviewer, and has written fiction for young adults. She was, I have to say, one of the liveliest Seymour lecturers I’ve heard, and is also the first woman I’ve heard (though 2019’s lecture was also by a woman, Judith Brett).

Kent set the tone she was to take by saying that “biography” is such an important word that maybe she should start with the great biographers of the past, like Tacitus, or Boswell, or Lytton Strachey, but she wasn’t going to. Instead, she was going to “lower the tone” and go to Donald Rumsfeld, which of course brought a chuckle from the audience. You can probably guess what’s coming and you’re right; she was going, she said, to structure her discussion by using Rumfeld’s now famous statement that

there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

She said that this oft-maligned statement does contain some truths. (Yes, agree.) It also reminds her of a quote by Artemus Ward, that was loved by Abraham Lincoln: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that ain’t so.” For a biographer all these knowns and unknowns can be quite a challenge.

She would these ideas, she said, through what she knows best, her own work.

Known knowns

What you know, said Kent, usually provides the impetus for starting a biography. It’s some interesting fact, or some central mystery (what made them do it, what did they think they were doing) that makes you want to investigate them. You write about them because “they are worth memorialising”. You also want to like your subject because you spend a few years with them.

Her first full biography was of Angus and Robertson’s legendary editor, Beatrice Davis, for whom she had worked. Davis was the “grand dame” – in every sense of the word. She did not like the new writers coming up towards the end of her career, like Helen Garner and Kate Grenville! Kent said that many books about publishing focus on the challenges and problems, but she want to write about what fun it also is. She wanted to give her profession its due. Also, she said, these days a book can be produced without ever seeing paper – writing, editing, publishing, can all be digital – so she also wanted to create a record of an industry that was changing.

As for Hepzibah Menuhin, she and her brother Yehudi were “rock stars” of their time. Kent’s interest here was in people with precocious talent, and what happens to them. Having been nurtured and feted as a musician, Hepzibah suddenly married, at the age of 17, a Victorian grazier and pharmaceutical company heir, and pulled back on her career. Then, she suddenly left her husband and 9- and 11-year-old sons to return to Europe. What someone to do that? She hurt a lot of people, said Kent, but had no idea of this.

Julia Gillard was suggested to her as a subject. Her interest here were what drove Gillard and what were the steps she took along her way. The mystery was what led her, as an up-till-then loyal Deputy Prime Minister, to undermine Kevin Rudd. Kent felt that Gillard had enormous dignity post-parliamentary-career, particularly in not getting involved in Australian politics, unlike others. She was a challenging subject, however, because she was guarded.

Vida Goldstein was a much easier subject because she was dead and she had no family, so there were no descendants to worry about. She had previously been written about in a worshipful way.

Known unknowns

These, said Kent, are the things you know you have to find out, the things that illuminate a subject. Often friends will share things you already know, because they think they have been privileged to know them. But some information can be hard to unearth. With Hepzibah Menuhin, a critical question was her divorce, the events surrounding her divorce. In this case, out of the blue, she had a stroke of luck when, visiting Hepzibah’s niece, she was suddenly given a bunch of correspondence written between Hepzibah and her father around the time of the divorce. This enabled her to finish the book.

Unknown knowns

This was not in Rumsfeld’s list, Kent said, but it refers to the things you don’t realise you know. Regarding her memoir about her life with the author Kenneth Cook, who was her husband for a year and is best-known for the novel Wake in fright. As she wrote the book, she realised that despite its bleakness, it had a jocular tone. It also, in fact, tells the same story as They’re a weird mob, except that this letter was specifically played for laughs. She also realised that Cook’s novel, The wine of God’s anger, is also the same story. It’s not an unusual story – the arrival of a stranger in a place unfamiliar to them – but that Cook told this story more than once was telling.

(Interestingly, she suggested that The wine of God’s anger is “the only complete Australian anti-Vietnam novel”. However, I can think of Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal (my review). Any others?)

Unknown unknowns

These are the worst, said Kent. They can be the things you find out just when you are going into print, or, worse, when it’s too late.

She quoted American essayist Louis Menand who said there were two truths about historical research:

The first is that your knowledge of the past–apart from, occasionally, a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor–comes entirely from written documents.


The second realization that strikes you is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the more material you dredge up, the more elusive the subject becomes … One instinct you need in doing historical research is knowing when to keep dredging stuff up; another is knowing when to stop.

But, you can’t make stuff up she said, and she referenced the controversial case of Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris, which was intended to be a biography but ended up being more fiction than biography. It was “presented as a proper researched biography” but, she said, you have a contract with reader, which means you can speculate but you must flag it.

She also talked about how small incidents you discover in your research can turn out to be real “depth charges”. One example was discovering that Beatrice Davis, working at a time when women couldn’t work after marriage, had got married during lunch in a Registry Office, and went straight back to work as Miss Davis. Hepzibah’s wedding photo revealed a very strange outfit which Kent suddenly realised was Hepzibah emulating Little Bo-Peep. (She was marrying a grazier. This outfit gave insight into her expectations.)

Then there was working out Vida’s washing. Vida was always praised for her looks, not what she said. Who did her washing, to enable her to look so fresh when she was on speaking tours? Questions like this drive you mad, Kent said. Julia had always described how poor she’d grown up, but then her parents bought her a car to drive to Melbourne when she left Adelaide as a young woman. This gave insight into her family’s love and their closeness. Details like this bring your subject alive on the page.

To conclude, Kent, with a bit of a wink, went erudite, sharing a quote from the London Review of Books. She said “this is a bit pay-attention-class”! Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention, so missed the name of the writer she was quoting, and can’t find the full quote. It started something like, the “past is more unknown than known”. A cautionary point for biographers and historians.


There was a short Q&A, which included the following:

On biographer’s role: there’s what biographers know and the public doesn’t. Often the public has a caricatured view. The biographer’s job is to show a multifaceted person (but Edmund Morris couldn’t find one in Reagan!)

On getting family/descendants’ support: people find it flattering to have their relative the subject of a book, but problems arise when questions get close to the bone (as they did for Gabrielle Carey with the family of Randolph Stow, but she managed to get around the issue.) She struck problems with extended family in her biography of Hepzibah, and Kenneth Cook’s children were not happy with her memoir. Families are a minefield.

On whether knowing the techniques of psychology helps: no, she doesn’t find it so; it tends to be too generalised, and can lead to too many rabbit holes, which biography is full of anyhow!

That seems a good point on which close this report. It was an enjoyable and entertaining lecture, which took a fresh, practical approach to the subject.

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016), Raimond Gaita (2017) and Richard Fidler (2018).

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
1 September 2022

Monday musings on Australian literature: Political biography

With the US election going, going … but not quite gone it seems … and with a new biography of President-elect Joe Biden, Joe Biden: The life, the run, and what matters now by Evan Osnos, hitting the bookstands, I thought it might be apposite to consider the political biography in Australia. By “political biography”, I mean, not those multitudinous memoirs that seem to come out with mind-numbing regularity soon after a major leader leaves the stage, nor the more formal autobiographies, but those extensively researched, analytical, and hopefully objective presentations of politicians’ lives written not by themselves.

Researching this topic, I found a 2006 monograph documenting a workshop on political biography and administrative histories held at the ANU in May 2005. (This workshop, incidentally, included autobiographies and memoirs.) In the final chapter, it says of an informally generated list of “favourite” political biographies that:

all of them tell us about how we are governed, explain the thinking of past leaders, and contribute to political science by illustrating how personalities affect our political structures and policy. … all have contributed to a greater understanding of how politics works.

However, in the monograph’s preface, the writers recognise that political biography is a tricky beast, often being written by those who have sympathy for their chosen subject and who, therefore, tend to write favourable books. But, they argue,

biographies (and autobiographies) have much to offer the student of politics. Political biography is an alternative narrative of events — a personalised view stressing the familiar and the specific. It contributes the views of political actors — sometimes in a contemporary context, sometimes with the benefit of hindsight. It can reinforce existing accounts of events or produce new accounts. It can add new perspectives and insights to existing accounts. It provides a medium through which the personal ‘take’ on politics is able to be ‘written in’ to conventional accounts. Crucially, political biographies are often the most accessible and widely read form of political writing, attracting readerships beyond the purely scholarly interest or the political junkie market.

One of the most famous and authoritative political biographies of recent times is American Robert Caro’s five-volume The years of Lyndon Johnson, of which four have so far been published. Caro is now 85, which begs the obvious question, but you can read about his progress at the Wikipedia link I’ve provided.

Selected Australian political biographies

Book cover

Below is a very select, and somewhat randomly chosen, list of recent-ish Australian political biographies. They are listed chronologically by date of publication, although to follow tradition I should perhaps have listed them alphabetically by biographical subject, or, even more interestingly, chronologically by birthdate of subject! Not surprisingly, these are all about prime ministers.

  • Blanche d’Alpuget’s Robert J Hawke: A biography (1982). One of the rare political biographies I’ve read (because my biographical interest tends towards literary subjects), this biography was published the year before Hawke became Prime Minister. It won the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in 1983. D’Alpuget, who married Hawke in 1995, wrote a “complete biography” of Hawke, which was published in 2019, the year he died.
  • Allan Martin’s 2-volume Robert Menzies: A life (1993, 1999). I had to include this one, given Menzies was, in his time, and still remains, Australia’s longest-serving prime-minister.
  • Jenny Hocking’s 2-volume Gough Whitlam: The biography (2008, 2012). These volumes are just two of many biographies written about Whitlam, and just two of the several books written about him by Hocking. Hocking came to public notice recently for her successful court case to have the embargo lifted on secret correspondence [now dubbed the “palace letters”] between the then Governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen concerning the controversial dismissal of  Whitlam’s government.
  • Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin (2018). Deakin was Australia’s second prime minister, so Brett’s biography is certainly one of those able to “benefit from hindsight”. This book won the National Biography Award in 2018, with the judges calling it among “the very best political biographies written in Australia”.
  • Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon (2019). Having studied political biographies, Mullins wanted to write one, and McMahon – funnily enough – was there for the taking. So Mullins told the audience at last year’s Canberra Writers Festival. Good decision, because Mullins won two big awards with this – the National Biography Award and the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction. The NSW Premier’s Award judges commented that this was “an impressive work of political biography, an achievement all the greater for its unpromising, though fascinatingly complex, subject”. Poor Billy! 
Book cover er

And here I’m going to sneak in one I have reviewed here. The subjects are not Australian, but the biographer is. The book is Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage (2011) (my review).

A matter of definition

But here’s the interesting thing. While Franklin and Eleanor is about two consummate politicians, Rowley’s focus was their marriage. This made me think about who writes political biographies – in Australia anyhow. They tend not to be our “professional” biographers – people like Rowley, Brenda Niall and now, I’d say, Gabrielle Carey – but historians, like Judith Brett, Jenny Hocking and Allan Martin. Is the driver for writing political biographies a little different?

Journalists – like Blanche d’Alpuget, David Marr, Chris Masters – also tend to write biographies with a political bent, though sometimes their subjects are not politicians. Would we call Masters’ biography Jonestown: The power and myth of Alan Jones a political biography? Would we call David Marr’s books, Barwick on Australia’s longest-serving Chief Justice of Australia’s High Court, and The Prince about Cardinal George Pell, political biographies? Not technically, perhaps, but politics surely inspired and drove these books. Your thoughts?

And now the obvious question: Do you read political biographies? And, if so, would you care to share some favourites (or, even, not-so-favourites)?

National Biography Award Winners, 2020

I’ve not posted on many awards this year, but have decided to post on the 2020 National Biography Award, partly because I attended events last year involving each of the winners.

This Award was endowed in 1996 by Geoffrey Cains, and supported for many years by Michael Crouch, who died in 2018. It is now being supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation whose key objective is “to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with the diversity, complexity and richness of our cultural sector”. They increased the prize money for the shortlisted authors, and created a new prize to commemorate Michael Crouch, all of which started last year. The current prizes are:

  • $25,000 for the winner
  • $2,000 for each of six shortlisted authors
  • $5,000 Michael Crouch Award for a first published biography by an Australian writer

The shortlist for 2020 was announced on 9 July and comprised:

  • Chloe Higgins’ The girls: A memoir of family, grief and sexuality
  • Jacqueline Kent’s Beyond words: A year with Kenneth Cook (Lisa’s review)
  • Russell McGregor’s Idling in green places: A life of Alec Chisholm
  • Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon
  • Amra Pajalić’s Things nobody knows but me
  • Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review)

These were chosen from 89 entries, which, explained judge Margy Burn, ranged across classic biography, autobiography, intimate life writing and affectionate memoir. The subjects she said were equally diverse. The shortlist contains two biographies (those by McGregor and Mullins) and four works that are more autobiographical/personal life-writing in nature. This was similar to last year’s shortlist, and suggests a change – a loosening up – in our expectation and appreciation of biography and autobiography. Jessica White’s engaging Hearing Maud, for example, is what I’d call a hybrid biography-memoir.

This year’s judges were:

  • Margy Burn: librarian who has been responsible for Australian special collections at the National Library of Australia, and other state and university libraries; served on working parties for the Australian Dictionary of Biography; a foundation judge for the Kibble and Dobbie awards for life writing by a woman author and a National Biography Award judge in 2019.
  • MarkMcKenna: one of Australia’s leading historians, who has written several award-winning books, including From the edge: Australia’s Lost HistoriesAn eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark, and Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian history of place.
  • Richard White: retired Associate Professor in Australian history from the University of Sydney in 2013, who has written or edited many books including Inventing AustraliaThe Oxford book of Australian travel writingOn holidays: A history of getting away in Australia, Symbols of Australia; has judged the Premier’s Literary Awards and other history prizes, and been involved in Australian history associations and journals.

2020 Winners

Book coverThe overall winner, announced last night, 28 August, is Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon. I attended and posted on a panel at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival which included Patrick Mullins. He explained that he’d done his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon, he said, “was there for the taking” (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) In his acceptance speech for the Award, Mullins quoted historian Tom Griffiths who says that the great virtue of history is its willingness to acknowledge complexity – and McMahon, and his legacy, surely make for one complex history! The judges wrote:

Mullins’ biography demonstrates a command and surety of voice which sustains the reader’s interest. Political biography can be tedious reading. The author’s study of the genre, impressive research and masterful use of McMahon’s unpublished autobiography does much to recover McMahon’s achievements, despite his manifest flaws. This outstanding book shows there is still a place for classic biography.

Book coverThe winner of the Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work was Jessica White’s Hearing Maud, which I have reviewed here (see link above). In her acceptance speech, White talked about how no-one listened to Maud (daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed) while she was alive, and that in paralleling Maud’s experience of profound deafness with her own, a century later, she wanted to show that little had changed in terms of discrimination and “the expectations that we hide our deafness.” I attended and posted on a conversation with Jessica White on this book last year. The judges wrote:

The writing, unsentimental and unobtrusive, beautifully evokes White’s life: a sunny Australian farm childhood, miserable London winters, the challenges of her journey to understand Maud. There are shrewd insights into the history of deafness and its treatments, the ideological battles between signing and oralism and sign language’s relationship to the emergence of the telegraph and the fad of automatic writing. But we are also left with a sense of exhaustion: how gruellingly hard it is to be deaf, an often invisible disability in a hearing world. This is simultaneously a contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s lives, a revelatory study of deafness, and a fine work of Australian life writing.

You can listen to the awards announcement, with comments from judge Margy Burn and the two winners, on YouTube:

Congratulations to the winners and, of course, the shortlisted authors. A great achievement.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Indigenous Australian biographies

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2020 Indigenous Literature Week, and, as I have done for a few years now, I’ve decided to devote my Monday Musings to an Indigenous Australian literature topic. This year’s topic is Indigenous Australian biography.

I have previously written Monday Musings on Indigenous Australian autobiographies and memoirs. These have flourished in the last decade or so, particularly, it seems, memoirs from Indigenous Australian women. I’ve reviewed several on this blog. However, biographies are a different form altogether, and in researching for this post, I’ve struggled to find many. Readings bookshop, for example, provides a list of Australian First Nations Memoir and Biography but I struggled to find many biographies in their list. It is a positive thing that publishers and readers have embraced memoirs, but I can’t help feeling that the paucity of biography tells us something about the place of Indigenous Australians in Australian culture.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), self-described as “Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography”, aims to provide “informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of significant and representative persons in Australian history.” This suggests that biography has a formal role in telling the story of a nation. Consequently, the dearth of Indigenous Australian biographies – if my research is right – is surely a measure of the continuing marginalisation or exclusion of Indigenous Australian culture and lives from our national story.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the only one to have noticed this problem. In 2017, the National Centre of Biography launched a new project “to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography“. It’s being led by Shino Konishi who is of Indiengous descent from Broome. She is on the ADB’s Indigenous Working Party which was established in 2015, and which includes “leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars from each state and the territory”. The main aim of the project is to add 190 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biographies to the ADB which, they say, has published nearly 13,000 biographies since 1966, but “has tended to under-recognise the contribution of Indigenous people to the Australian story”. The end-result of the project will be a dedicated Indigenous ADB.

Alongside this, the National Centre of Biography, which publishes the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also hosts a site called Indigenous Australia which “brings together all entries on Indigenous Australians found in the NCB’s biographical websites–Australian Dictionary of Biography, Obituaries Australia, Labour Australia and Women Australia.” It also supports the Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive, which is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney. (However, it moves us away from my focus here on biography.)

Of course, the above is all very important, but the ADB is about biographical essays in a dictionary of biography. I’m also interested in full-length biographies. I didn’t find many, but, as always, I’m hoping you will tell me (or remind me of) others?

Alexis Wright, TrackerIndigenous Australian biography – a small selection

  • Max Bonnell’s How many more are coming?: the short life of Jack Marsh (2003): on athlete and first class cricketer, Jack Marsh, who died in 1916.
  • Kathie Cochrane’s Oodgeroo (1994): on poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
  • Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the past (1999): on Ginibi’s son, Nobby, who spent significant time in prison, and the systemic failures in handling Indigenous young.
  • Kevin Keeffe’s Paddy’s road: Life stories of Patrick Dodson (2003): on activist Patrick Dodson, and his family, and their commitment to reconciliation.
  • Marlene J. Norst’s Burnum Burnum: A warrior for peace (1999): on Burnum, Stolen Generations survivor, sportsperson and activist.
  • John Ramsland’s The rainbow beach man (2009): on Les Ridgeway, Worimi elder, who was a farm labourer, station manager and was eventually recruited by Charles Perkins to work in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A biography (2001): on activist, Freedom Ride participant and administrator, Charlie Perkins.
  • Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Janadamarra and the Bunuba Resistance (1995): on Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, and his resistance against invasion in the Kimberleys.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2017): on the charismatic ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth, activist, a book which is described by some as a “collective memoir” but which I’ve included here as an example of new forms of “biography”, particularly for Indigenous life-writing.

So, now, please add to this list …

Past ILW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings

Monday musings on Australian literature: National Biography Award, 2019

It’s been five years since I posted on the National Biography Award. Given that, and the fact that some changes have been made since last year, I figured it was worth reminding you (and me) of it.

First, a recap: The National Biography Award was endowed in 1996 by Geoffrey Cains, and supported for many years by Michael Crouch. Its aims were “to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography, and to promote public interest in these genres”. From 2013 to 2018, the prize was $25,000 for the winner, and $1,000 for the shortlisted authors.

However, Michael Crouch died in 2018, bringing about some changes, as the website explains. It is now being supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation whose key objective is, they say, “to foster innovative artistic and cultural expression, and to encourage greater engagement with the diversity, complexity and richness of our cultural sector”. Hence their taking on this Award. This change has resulted in an increase in prize money for the shortlisted authors, and a new prize to commemorate Michael Crouch. The new arrangement, starting in 2019, is:

  • $25,000 for the winner
  • $2,000 for each of six shortlisted authors
  • $5,000 Michael Crouch Award for a first published biography by an Australian writer

The shortlist for 2019 was:

  • Behrouz Boochani’s No friend by the mountains: Writings from Manus Prison (Memoir) (Bill’s The Australian Legend’s review): If you are Australian and haven’t heard of this book yet, you have probably been RipVanWinkling it, but for non-Australians, Boochani is a Kurdish asylum-seeker who has been detained on Manus Island for over six years. This is his story, and one I have written about before.
  • Danielle Clode’s The wasp and the orchid: The remarkable life of Australian naturalist Edith Coleman (Biography) (Theresa Smith’s review): Reclaiming the story of a once well-known but then forgotten early twentieth century Australian naturalist, this book seems to be one of those hybrid biography-memoirs as the author herself, a scientist, is also present in the book.
  • Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleanerSarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster (Biography) (my review): This book is about as well known in Australia as Boochani’s is; it’s a beautifully structured, moving story, about transgender woman Sandra Pankhurst’s life and her current occupation as a trauma cleaner.
  • Rozanna Lilley’s Do oysters get bored? A curious life (Memoir) (Amy Walters’ post on Capital Letters, and my post on a festival conversation with Lilley): A complex memoir exploring Lilley’s life with her autistic son, her caring for her father with dementia, and her own experience of the trauma of sexual abuse while living with her bohemian parents, Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley.
  • Rick Morton’s One hundred years of dirt (Memoir): A memoir about multigenerational trauma, about which the judges wrote “Not since George Orwell has the grinding, humiliating, life-sapping horror of working-class deprivation and inequality been better portrayed”.
  • Sofija Stefanovic’s Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: a coming of age memoir (Memoir) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers’ review): The story of a complex migration, which saw Sofija moving from a comfortable childhood in Belgrade to an unsettled life in Melbourne after the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, but then returning to Serbia, only to come back to Australia when war hit the region.

So, only two biographies and four memoirs, which is a bit of a shame I think, albeit I enjoy good memoirs. However, from my research and from what I’ve read myself, each book here offers something special in content and/or in the approach taken, which expands our understanding of the forms within which they are written, and which is what you’d expect from a shortlist.

The judges for 2019 were:

  • Dr Georgina Arnott: Research Associate at Monash University on Australian history projects; author of The unknown Judith Wright which was shortlisted for the National Biography Award in 2017; and a judge also in 2018.
  • Margy Burn: librarian who has been responsible for Australian special collections at the National Library of Australia, and other state and university libraries; served on working parties for the Australian Dictionary of Biography; and a foundation judge for the Kibble and Dobbie awards for life writing by a woman author.
  • Professor Iain McCalman: author of several books; former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; and currently co-director and co-founder of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney.

2019 Winners

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsThe overall winner, announced last Monday, 12 August, is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. The judges said that:

This is compelling storytelling in the samisdat tradition, written in Farsi as a series of text messages sent to his translator and collaborator Omid Tofighian. Collaboration has made this book, which demonstrates how innovative, experimental and creative the work of translation can be.

The winner of the inaugural Michael Crouch Award for a Debut Work was Sofija Stefanovic’s Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, which judges described as “finely observed and ambitious”, a “thoughtful and tender addition to the genre of migration stories”.

For the non-Australians, in particular, I’d love to know about any specifically biography awards in your countries … but am of course happy to hear from anyone.

Telling and writing the story: Richard Fidler’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler, NLA, 2018

On Friday night I went to my fourth consecutive Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. A highlight on the Library’s calendar, it’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005.

This year’s speaker, Richard Fidler, was, at first glance, a surprising pick – but a very popular one. He is well known to Australians, for several reasons, but particularly for hosting, since 2005, ABC Radio’s hour-long interview program, Conversations. He has also recently written two historical books, Ghost empire (2016) and Saga land (co-written with Kári Gíslason) (2017). These books, the lecture promo said, contain short biographies of historical figures from, respectively, Byzantium and mediaeval Iceland. So, he has not written a biography or memoir or autobiography, per se, but these books contain small biographies. Moreover, his Conversations program, it was suggested, comprises mini-autobiographies of the interviewees. Fidler then, as it turned out, was well able to talk about life-writing or, more broadly, telling life stories.

After being introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres, Fidler commenced by telling us that he’d titled his lecture, “Telling and writing the story”. The event’s promotion explained that this meant

outlining some of the tensions that come into play when bringing someone’s life story to a listening audience and comparing it to the freedoms and constraints involved in writing biography for a reader.

Fidler commenced with a little anecdote exemplifying the dangers of biography. Back in 1988, he had read, he said, Robert Caro’s The years of Lyndon Johnson: The path to power (1982). It’s volume 1 of a larger work. Caro has now published three more volumes (in 1990, 1992 and 2012) and has apparently announced that he will conclude with a fifth volume which, he said this year, could take from two to ten years. Caro is now 82. Fidler proposed that this story provides a warning for the biographer – as you go in, he said, have an eye on the exit! This issue has not – to date, anyhow – been a problem for Fidler whose biographical work has taken a very different, and much shorter path.

Radio versus print

As the lecture’s promotion promised, Fidler talked about both his written and radio work, reflecting as he went on the difference between the two. I love this sort of discussion, this exploration of different media, of different forms of writing and presentation, in order to tease out what is inherent to each. As a consumer and reviewer of media, I believe that knowing and understanding the form in hand is a critical starting point. I’m therefore going (to try) to marshal my report on this lecture to focus on these issues, rather than be a blow-by-blow summary.


Early in the lecture, Fidler said that written stories can take more liberties – the story can sprawl, for example, diving off on tangents at will. Radio, on the other hand, is more linear, it must keep moving forward in a direct path (though it does have the voice to guile you!) He likened radio to a shark driving ever forwards, while print is like a Portuguese man-of-war which can drag all sorts of bits-and-pieces along with it.

Richard Fidler, Kari Gislason, Saga LandHe exemplified this through the Saga land project, first explaining, for those of us who didn’t know, that Icelandic sagas – Saga land’s subject – are stories of real Vikings. Icelanders read these sagas, he said, the way we read Shakespeare. He also explained that in Old Norse, the word “saga” means “telling. He then read the beginning of the first saga about Gunnar, showing us how the narrative tension builds. (We’ll leave, here, the side issue of how much of the actual stories about these real people is fact, and how much fiction or hyperbole, as it’s irrelevant to my main thread. It’s an issue, he suggested, best left to saga scholars who still argue about it.)

He realised, he said, that these sagas would translate well to audio (to radio and podcast). Their first two chosen stories translated pretty easily to the audio form, but then he got to the story of Gisli which turned out to be much harder to transform into a linear form. How could he pour this sprawling story into the narrow form needed for a spoken narrative – a paradoxical problem, given the sagas originated in oral form. The “crush of family”, the multiple but confusing relationships, he said, are important to Gisli’s story. Eventually, though, he identified its core, and developed the narrative from there.

Fidler went on to talk about more stories from Saga Land, and talked a little about Ghost empire which he described as, essentially, the biography of a city, Constantinople. It reminded me of another “biography” of Constantinople, Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising Istanbul: Memories of a city. Anyhow, regarding writing Ghost empire, he mentioned in particular the mini-biography of Constantine XI and how writing about him involved “a strange act of sympathy.” In fact, he described biography as “a profound act of sympathy”, which means, for him, “sitting beside his subject” as he writes rather than observing from a distance.


Of course, many in the audience were keen to hear about Fidler’s hugely popular radio program, Conversations, and Fidler did spend some of his 45 minutes on it too. He started by saying that the program’s aim was to present the stories of unknown people although, as listeners know, he also interviews better known people like “astronauts, authors and scientists.”

Fidler talked about the challenge of creating coherent narratives out of his subjects’ lives, many of whom, unused to the media, struggle to tell their stories coherently. His producers spend a long time talking – often on the phone – with selected interviewees, teasing out a narrative. Life is messy, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom he said!

Moreover, how reliable is memory, he asked – and then told a pertinent personal story to prove just how unreliable it is! He quoted British poet, Lemn Sissay’s definition of a family:

“Family is memory disputed between a group of people over a lifetime.”

Love it. Anyhow, he said that, consequently, he asks his interviewees “What do you remember?” rather than “What happened?” This question can often result in wonderful reveries, ones that make him almost stop breathing in order to not break the momentum. He gave an example from his interview with Angela Lansbury who gave an evocative description of the London of her childhood. Fidler said that he could see that a movie of that time was playing before her eyes.

Overall, he said, producing Conversations required artful deception in order to create the narrative arc of an hour.

Why read or listen to biography?

This subject wasn’t – really – specifically addressed, but Fidler did say a few relevant things. Regarding the value of reading Icelandic sagas, he said our interest springs from a deep-seated human need to understand our own lives through those of our ancestors. The sagas, he says, may fall short in terms of biographical rigour but they do tell larger truths. They were enjoyed as escapism but they also offered a different way of being human. Apparently, the poets Auden and Borges loved Iceland’s sagas.

Somewhat related to this issue was his discussion about the overall value of radio. It’s more intimate than television. It’s also more “profoundly democratic because you can’t be seen” and therefore not judged by the markers of appearance. He saw this as “a noble nakedness.”  In addition, radio has, he believes, an “enormous didactic momentum”, one which can create a “commonwealth of shared sympathies”, a sense of shared humanity.

There was more, including a Q&A during which questions included how subjects are found for Conversations, what he would ask Constantine XI if given the chance, and his tips for new interviewers.

But, I’ll leave it here and conclude with Fidler’s impassioned concluding statement, made in the context of the week’s astonishing events in which the ABC lost both its Managing Director and Chairman of the Board. He said that the public trusts that the Board will support the ABC, and that it’s not the government which funds the ABC, but you (that is, us), the audience. That of course brought him resounding applause – and so, sadly, ended another excellent Seymour lecture.

Further reading and listening: Saga Land: The Book and Radio Series

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016) and Raimond Gaita (2017)

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
28 September 2018

Vale Jane Austen: on the 200th anniversary of her death

Jane Austen by sister Cassandra

Today, July 18, marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Unfortunately, because I am travelling I am unable to join my local Jane Austen group’s wake to commemorate her, but I had to do something of course, so I’ve decided to write a post on Austen biographies. I’m partly drawing from my group’s recent discussion of Austen biographies.

Now, if you are not an Austen aficionado and you’ve looked at my list below, you would probably be surprised to hear that very little, really, is known about Austen, and that what is known is not very exciting. Amazon’s entry on Spence’s book includes a quote from a Booklist review which says that “Jane Austen’s quiet life is not very rewarding biographical material.” And Tomalin, writer of probably the most authoritative biography, concludes that Austen “is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky”.

Yet, the biographies keep coming – and if you look (again) at my list below you will see that the number has increased in recent decades. Has any writer had as many biographies written about them than Austen? When my Austen group discussed them, we decided there were different types of biographies: the straightforward (chronological, womb-to-tomb style); those taking a more thematic approach (like Paula Byrne’s The real Jane Austen: A life in small things); and those wishing to explore specific perspectives/angles (like Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The secret radical).

Claire Tomalin, Jane AustenStill, we wondered how many of these biographies really have something new to say, or are most simply jumping on the Jane Austen bandwagon – because the fact is that there are many gaps in what is known about her. That’s largely why she’s so “elusive” as Tomalin says. And it’s why most biographies fill out with a lot of context. They either spend a lot of time on her books (some of which you would naturally expect in a literary biography), or they spend a lot of time talking about her times and/or the lives of members of her family. (And there are some dramatic stories there.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility of new information coming to light. Midorikawa and Sweeney’s work on the literary friendship between Austen and Anne Sharp that I reviewed recently, drew heavily on the unpublished diaries and letters of Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, which they said had not been seriously mined by scholars. They did admit though that they had to “read between the lines of Fanny’s childish scrawl to decipher the obscured truths”.

And if you expected all this life-of-Austen industry to be as meek and mild as many think Austen was, you’d better think again. Austenites (I’ll refrain from using the more loaded Janeite) can be fiery, as the recent contretemps over the new biography by Lucy Worsley and its alleged similarities to Paula Byrne’s 2013 one.

Who knows the real story here, but there is one truth we can universally acknowledge, and that’s that in this anniversary year of Austen’s death, more books will come out about her.

The not-quite-complete list

  • Amy, Helen. Jane Austen (2013)
  • Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen (2004)
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A memoir of Jane Austen (1869)
  • Byrne, Paula. The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Cecil, David. A portrait of Jane Austen (1979)
  • Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. Jane Austen, obstinate heart: A Biography (1997)
  • Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life (1987)
  • Jenkins, Elizabeth. Jane Austen: A biography (1938)
  • Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The secret radical (2016)
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen (British Library Writers’ Lives Series) (1998)
  • Lefroy, Helen. Jane Austen (1997)
  • Midorikawa, Emily and Emma Claire Sweeney. A secret sisterhood. Part 1: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp (2017)
  • Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A life (1998)
  • Shields, Carol. Jane Austen: A life (2001)
  • Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen (2007)
  • Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A life (1997)
  • Worsley, Lucy. Jane Austen at home: A biography (2017)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Bill of The Australian Legend

It’s been two years since I last published a Guest Post, for no any other reason than that the idea slipped off the radar as other busy-ness took over. However, during a recent email correspondence with (relatively new) blogger Bill, the idea re-popped into my head, and so I asked him, as he explains below.

First though, a quick intro. Bill appeared on the Australian lit-blog scene just over two years ago with quite a bang. Well, that’s a bit overly dramatic perhaps. What I mean is that he launched himself as a serious player in the lit-blogosphere, and one with a very particular agenda – to write about independent women, particularly independent women writers. Well, of course, I was interested in that and have enjoyed some good discussions here and on his blog ever since. If you’re likewise interested, I suggest you start with his About page and move on from there.  Meanwhile, let’s give the floor to Bill …


Apart from my friend Michelle at Adventures in Biography who got me started on Lit.Blogging, Sue here at Whispering Gums was the first blogger I followed and who followed me. So I owe her a great debt, and feel guilty each time I think of the imaginary detective story where the private eye’s principal informant is the toothless derelict … Whispering Gums. (The real, and much nicer, origin of her name is here.)

It is a matter of great pride to me to be invited to do a guest post, and I’m only sorry that it is under false pretences. I was discussing (by email) with Sue some reviews I had put up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site and I asked her in passing what she thought of biographies of women writers by men. My intended question was did she think the AWWC site should list them. Sue however thought I was asking her opinion of the biographies themselves, and promptly put it back onto me!

Do you remember the old BBC Radio show Just A Minute which was often used as a filler on Radio National? Well I feel like (the late) Derek Nimmo leaning in to the microphone to speak for 60 seconds on the life cycle of newts. But here goes, 1000 words on Biographies of Women Writers by Men, starting now.

Colin Roderick, Miles FranklinI have reviewed two such biographies, Brian Mathews on Louisa Lawson and Colin Roderick on Miles Franklin. The former is a good example of a man being able to write sympathetically and insightfully about a woman, and the latter is not.

Walking up and down my own shelves I see I have numerous biographies by women. Three – Roe, Barnard and Coleman – on Miles Franklin, Barbara Baynton by Penne Hackforth Jones, Christina Stead by Chris Williams, two by Sylvia Martin – Aileen Palmer and Passionate Friends, ‘collected’ lives by Drusilla Modjeska, and by Dale Spender, Tomalin’s Jane Austen and Gaskell’s Charlotte Bronte; and I also have two more by men, Brian Dibble on Elizabeth Jolley (Doing Life which I really ought to have reviewed by now) and Ric Throssell on his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard.

Of course, as you may know, I am an old white guy and so I am probably the very last person to be attempting to answer the implied question: does it matter? Well, in the case of Colin Roderick (1911-2000), one of the most influential figures in the Aust.Lit industry in the middle of the last century, his gender matters a great deal. He runs Franklin down both as a writer and as a woman:

[her] unshakeable conviction of physical inferiority and lack of physical attraction… converted her into a skittish coquette stringing two or three men along simultaneously and a synthetic man-hater… It forced her to become a defensively bellicose propagandist for feminist causes.

He routinely misstates her commitment to feminism, and writes that a determined suitor might have cured her flirtatiousness with a spanking. In the comments to my piece on Roderick, author Jess White, taking comfort from my description of him, describes Roderick’s biography of Rosa Praed, In Mortal Bondage, as “bizarre & bordering on fiction in places.”

The Roe biography of Franklin I would describe as asexual, but the earlier (in fact the first) biography, by Marjorie Barnard, which I haven’t read for a long time, does seem to me to reflect the fact that it is written by a woman. It starts (stereotypically!) by describing how Franklin dressed and how she looked: “her smile. Radiant, quick and gay, it transformed her. It was irresistible and in her old age still charming and youthful.” And ends with an analysis of love: “[Miles] held in her heart an impossible ideal of human relationships and when she found it unrealizable, not so much for herself as in the lives of others, she was bitterly hurt and disappointed”, which I have never been able to express half so well.

Unlike Roderick, Matthews takes Lawson’s feminism seriously and gives a good account of it. In fact, he takes Lawson seriously as poet, businesswoman, leading figure in the women’s movement at the turn of the century, and as a mother (with four difficult adult children!) Whether he adequately emphasizes with her, perhaps only a woman could tell. Unfortunately for Matthews there was very little evidence to say how Louisa spent her private life after leaving her husband – although we’re pretty sure she didn’t want to get pregnant again.

Marianne van Velzen in her account of Ernestine Hill turned to fiction to round out those areas where evidence was lacking, an approach which Matthews discusses and dismisses, and which I think detracts greatly from the usefulness of those autobiographies which resort to it.

At this point in my writing I went away for a couple of days, and by sitting, driving, with the radio off, was able to refine my ideas. We have seen that biographies may be ‘factual’ or ‘fictionalized’. Then, from a ‘gender studies’ point of view we may also categorise them as: Neutral, Masculinist, and Feminist. The problem of course with ‘Neutral’ is that old, conservative, white men regard their own point of view as neutral and all others as radical. But let us say for argument’s sake that ‘neutral’ is the gathering and presentation of historical material without (much) gender analysis, and that Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin is an example of this. Colin Roderick’s biographies of Franklin and Praed are clearly ‘masculinist’, in that he devalues the opinions of the women he is writing about and ascribes to them motives which he wouldn’t ascribe to men. An example of a ‘feminist’ biographer might be Sylvia Martin who is exploring the space between spinsterism and lesbianism by looking into the lives of single women writers like Mary Fullerton.

A further division is suggested by Nathan Hobby who is both a blogger and PhD student writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. At the end of 2015 he wrote, “The best biographies, in my opinion, are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject.”  So then we also have ‘serious’ biographers and the ‘simply passionates’. The latter definition clearly captures rellos such as Ric Throssell and journalists like Marrianne van Velzen.

If you are thinking I have drifted a bit far from the topic, I guess the questions I am trying to get to are: How many Australian women writers have been the subject of biographies by ‘serious’ men? And, assuming only Roderick actually attacks his subjects, how many of those biographies were sympathetic, and how many missed the point?

Now, all you Whispering Gum-nuts out there, it’s down to you. I’ve listed the four that I have. How many have I missed?

Thanks Bill for taking up my invitation – and for presenting some different angles for us all to think about regarding biographers and their biographies.

Here I stand: David Marr’s Seymour Biography Lecture

This week Mr Gums and I went to our second Seymour Biography Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to life-writing which was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. Our first, last year, was given by Robert Drewe who discussed memoir as a form of life-writing that is differentiated from but as valid as autobiography. It was a wonderful lecture, so we were keen to attend this year’s, and particularly when David Marr was announced as the speaker.

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, as you may know, is one of Australia’s most recognisable contemporary public intellectuals. He wrote a biography of controversial politician and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick (Barwick) and the multi-award-winning biography Patrick White: A life. In recent years he has written several biographical essays for the Quarterly Essay: on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012), George Pell (2013), and Bill Shorten (2015). The National Library of Australia’s Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich said, when introducing him, that these essays represent “a new form of biography”. That sounded interesting, but it turned out not to be the subject of his lecture. Oh well … a topic for another day, perhaps?

At this point David Marr got up to speak … I’ve seen him many times on television, but I greatly enjoyed seeing him in person. He has a lovely, natural speaking style – articulate, but informally formal if that makes sense. He started by saying how good it was to be giving a lecture in someone’s name, not in their memory but in their presence! (The Seymours were in the audience).

What’s the story?

Marr commenced by describing how he was called to Patrick White’s place in 1988 during one of White’s “near-death” experiences. When he got there, other family and friends were already there, waiting for the ambulance. Eventually, Wendy the ambo arrived, walked in, and asked, very appropriately Marr said, “What’s the story?” As it turned out White lived through more episodes like this, before dying in 1990. He told us all this, not so much because it was an interesting story, but to make the point that although he was present at these occasions, and although he wrote about them in his White biography, we will not find him there. That is, he did not put himself in the room with the others. In fact, he did not put himself in the book anywhere (although he admitted, slyly, that of course he is everywhere in the book – the words, the judgements, are his).

Marr then gave us his rules for biographers, but I’m afraid I only got four of the five down. They are:

  • The voice of the subject must be clear;
  • The biography must not “muck around with time”;
  • The biographer must spare the reader his/her “homework”; and
  • The biographer must stay out of the life.

This last “rule” would be the theme of his lecture …

Be an invisible biographer

Before exploring this, however, Marr said that it is the biographer’s truth that everybody’s life is open to writing about, that no-one owns his/her life. True, yes, he said, but “mighty obstacles can be put in your way”. Subjects can:

  • Stop their friends talking to you
  • Block access to their papers
  • Withhold copyright consent. He expanded here on family ownership of copyright, and the typical family view that “what’s hidden in life must be hidden in death”. (Hence, methought, sisters like Cassandra Austen destroy precious letters!)
  • Place a curse on their biographers. Here he mentioned Greek poet, Cavafy, who wrote “From all I did and all I said/Let no one try to find out who I was” (“Hidden things”). Cavafy also said that sometimes it is better to wait, that some things cannot be understood until time has passed.

Marr said he feared every one of these obstructions when he approached White – particularly the curses! But the timing was right for White, and Marr’s biography project was, amazingly, accepted. Marr described his aims as absolutely conventional: “I was  born in Pymble after all,” he said! They included finding out who White was, where his books came from, his impact on the world and world’s on him, and so on. But White – the irascible White – saw it quite differently. He saw it as his “last reckoning”, his last chance to see where all his life passions had ended up, his last chance to see which of his many and diverse arrows had hit their mark.

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers” and “they also bugger around with time”. For example, the biographer may write about being in Greece researching the subject’s life while simultaneously describing the subject’s life in that place in some time past. Biographers can also, inappropriately in Marr’s view, foreshadow aspects of the subject’s life, as in “that was the last time X ever went to Y”. He argued that it is the great drama of our lives that we don’t know what is going to happen. Great biographers make the future unknown, he said. Even though we usually know the fate of the subject, a good biographer can make it a surprise.

He gave examples of visible biographers that he doesn’t like, but admitted that rules can be broken. The “quest biography” is, for example, suitable for the life of a fraud. And there are cases where the biographer has “absolutely earned the right” to be in the biography, the perfect example being Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He spent twenty years talking, living, arguing with Johnson. Do the work, said Marr, put in the years, and deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell does!

David Marr, Power TripThen Marr admitted that he has broken his own rule – when there’s been a purpose for him to be there in the work. His Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is an example. He told of dining with Rudd who, late in the meal, asked Marr what his essay was about. When Marr told him, Rudd lost his temper, in a very controlled way. He was “astonishingly eloquent”, Marr said, speaking from his “angry heart” and Marr had to be there to be able to describe the experience.

So, there are no rules, but overall he’d like to see an end to biographers in the text. They should be in the shadows, “manipulating everything”, and saving their stories about themselves and their research for writers’ festivals and, when they’re old, for lectures!


We had about 15 to 20 minutes of Q&A but some of the questions, interesting though they were, ranged wider than the focus of Marr’s lecture, so I’ll keep this brief.

  • How do you choose who to write about? Marr chose White because he read something contradictory about White’s parents. White had always said that they did not want him to be a writer, but then Marr read somewhere that White’s parents had bankrolled a publishing project on the condition they published a book of White’s poems. He wrote his Barwick biography because he was enraged by what Barwick was getting away with. He’s an explainer he said, rather than a creator.
  • Do you as a biographer ever withhold information? Yes, said Marr. There are some private matters that have no place in biography. His deal with Patrick White, he hastened to say, was that it was his (i.e. Marr’) book and he would write what he wanted to write. Any information he withheld, then, was withheld because it was not, in his opinion, essential to our understanding of White. Legal issues, too, can sometimes result in information being omitted, as has happened with his various Quarterly Essays on contemporary politicians.

During the book signing at the end of the evening, Marr commented that his was “a craft lecture”, meaning I suppose that it wasn’t a theoretical or philosophical one on the form and its meaning. Well, “craft” it may have been but I enjoy hearing from writers about their craft and, anyhow, amongst the “craft”, as you can probably tell, we got a bit of theory and philosophy too. Another wonderful Seymour lecture, with another thoughtful, inspiring writer.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary biographies

Given that a literary biography won the National Biography Award this year, that I’ve recently posted Musings on literary autobiographies/memories, and that my next review will be for a literary biography, it seemed high time that I devoted a Monday Musings to the form, don’t you think?

Brenda Niall's True North

Brenda Niall’s True North: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Biographies make up a pretty small proportion of my reading diet, and when I do read them I tend to prefer literary biographies – for obvious reasons. I can, though, be persuaded to read others if the subject is really of interest to me and/or the biographer is one I admire. An example of such a book I’ve reviewed here is Hazel Rowley’s wonderful Franklin and Eleanor.

Do you read biographies? If so, why do you read them? I have, at times, worried that my interest is voyeuristic. I have felt uncertain about whether I’d be better to focus my attention on reading more of authors’ works than biographies about them? And yet, biography is, I think, a serious literary form in its own right. Indeed, at the Australian National University, there is the National Centre of Biography, about which I’ve written before. Its role, to summarise greatly, is to foster and encourage expert and innovative biographical writing in Australia. This, together with the fact that significant institutions like the National Library of Australia with its Seymour Biography Lecture and the State Library of New South Wales with its National Biography Award, suggests that I should worry no more.

What makes a good literary biography? Well, I know what I look for: well-researched (with foot-notes/end-notes), an intelligent but readable style, honest rather than hagiographic (or its opposite!) tone, and an analytical approach to the writer’s work situating it within the writer’s life and times. I also like it when the biographer engages the reader in the form of the biography, in the challenges they may have confronted, in how and why they chose the approach they did.

So, here I’ll list a few Australian literary biographies, that I’ve read or would like to, in alphabetical order, as libraries do it, by the subject. Inclusion here does not mean they are all the best of the form, but simply that they represent a variety in style and subject.

  • Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A literary journey (2013). A recent addition to my TBR, I’m very keen to read this biography of the not-so-well-known Australian-born writer, Elizabeth von Arnim. I’ve read several of her works – fiction and non-fiction – and love her writing. (As an aside, given recent discussions on this blog regarding memoirs, she’s another author who has played with the memoir form in her writing.)
  • Karen Lamb’s Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (2015). This is the book I am just finishing now and will review in the next few days.
  • Philip Butterss’ An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of CJ Dennis (2014) (my review). This year’s National Biography Award winner. The judges wrote that it’s “meticulously researched”, “fluent in style”, and that it “provides an illuminating analysis of the oeuvre, and its spinoffs, for which Dennis was famous and, briefly, rich”.
  • Brenda Niall’s True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (2012) (my review). This is, really, more than a traditional literary biography. Elizabeth was an artist, and the two were daughters of a pioneering cattle family. I enjoyed it, but it suffered, perhaps, from the breadth of its focus.
  • Jill Roe’e Stella Miles Franklin: A biography (2008). This is a biography that I should read, given the importance of its subject to Australian literature and given the reputation of the biography itself. I can, though, suggest you check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review.
  • Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (2013). (my review). St John is not regarded as “high” Australian literature – nor is Mary Durack, for that matter – but she was the first female Australian writer to be nominated for the Booker Prize and, like the Duracks, came from a family which had a public profile.
  • Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: A life (1993). Rowley was regarded as one of Australia’s best biographers until she died too young, in her 60th year, in 2011. Her subjects included the French couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and American writer, Richard Wright. Her biography of Stead was universally praised, with, for example, critic Michael Upchurch at the New York Review of Books describing it as “everything a literary biography should be”. He wrote: “It’s a model of clarity. Ms. Rowley’s shrewd selectivity and handling of anecdote makes the book compellingly readable”.
  • David Marr’s Patrick White: A life (1991). Another biography I should read, but it’s a big tome, so will need time. Well-reviewed when it came out, it’s still the authoritative biography of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate in literature.

In 2010, journalist Gideon Haigh wrote an article titled “Sleaze-hounds and artist on oath: The state of Australian biography” in Kill Your Darlings. He bemoaned the scarcity of Australian biography “of quality”. I’d certainly agree that we’d like more good biographies. He suggested various reasons for the dearth, including that it “could be as simple as that there are easier ways to earn a living, and that living in the shadow of a subject for the years required to craft something really worthwhile involves a determination and a humility no longer common among those with writing aspirations”. I’m not sure I like the dig about “humility” but it is clear to me that writing a comprehensive, thoughtful biography is a huge task, one that takes not months but years, and that requires extensive research that must be expensive (even in today’s more digitally accessible world). I don’t know how well supported the endeavour is.

Do you have any thoughts or preferences about biographies?