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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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 posts: Robert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016), Raimond Gaita (2017) and Richard Fidler (2018).
Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
1 September 2022