Australian literary biography in 2018


At the moment I’m working on the 2018 bibliography of Australian literature for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature with my co-authors Van Ikin and Margaret Stevenson (previous year’s here – but alas it’s paywalled). It has led me to discover some Australian literary biographies I missed, including four from Australian Scholarly Publishing. Together with Monash University Publishing, they are holding up the genre! Generously defined, there were eight Australian literary biographies in 2018 by my count – up from previous years.  I feel very remiss for having only read one so far.

Banjo​ Grantlee Kieza 582pp ABC Books (Sydney) Hb $39.99.

Each year brings at least one Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson related biography, and mostly they are written for a popular audience, often thick, and often released just in time as a present for Dad for Christmas. (Nothing wrong with any of that, of course.)

Coasts of Dream: A Biography of E.J. Brady Sarah Mirams 190pp Australian Scholarly Publishing (Melbourne) Pb $39.95.

Here is a book I’ve put on my TBR. Katharine Susannah Prichard knew E.J. Brady; he was a true character, and I hope this book finds a wide readership. Here’s Katharine’s reminiscence of Brady, quoted in John Webb’s 1972 thesis biography of him:

“It was a glorious moment when I received a note from the editor of The Native Companion to say he liked the short story written by me, and could I call and see him about it.  I did call.  The magazine had just been published.  Brady was the most dazzling editor I’d ever imagined. Lank gingery gold hair falling over his forehead, and a golden beard cut to a point.  His eyes flashed green and blue lightnings as he talked, and his long legs sprawled under the office table.  I must have looked very demure and governessy in my early twenties, wearing a full-skirted dress, all black, in mourning for my father. But Brady’s charm and his compliments about the story made me feel a genius of the first water.”

Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall Gabrielle Carey 106pp Australian Scholarly Publishing Pb $29.95.

This work seems to be a combination memoir and biography, similar to Carey’s interesting book on Randolph Stow. Another for my TBR.

Germaine: The Life of Germaine Greer Elizabeth Kleinhenz 432pp Knopf (Sydney) Hb $39.99.

Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964 Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell 438pp Monash Univ (Melbourne) Pb $39.95.

A superb group biography of Australian writers George Johnston and Charmain Clift – my review here.

John Farrell: Poet, Journalist and Social Reformer 1851-1904 Paul Stenhouse 334pp Australian Scholarly Publishing (Melbourne) Pb $44.00.

Miles Franklin: A Short Biography Jill Roe 432pp HarperCollins (Sydney) Pb $32.99 [condensed version of 2008 edition]. 

I was surprised to find no preface or any other explanation of this posthumous condensation of Jill Roe’s landmark biography. Who condensed it – Roe or someone else? How did they condense it? I found Roe’s original biography too detailed and long to be a good read, so this seems the perfect solution – the shorter version for readers; the longer original for scholars.

A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett – Author, Educator, Activist for Indigenous Justice Sue Taffe 432pp Monash Univ (Melbourne) Pb $34.95.

This is why we can’t have nice things


Shorten conceding. He speaks in waves
And says the right words
Politicians have bigger selves than me
I’m only watching by accident
Having sworn off all politics a couple of hours ago
For years it’s taxed my time
And left me with a dry mouthful of shit


How many times do I learn the same lesson?
Salesmanship trumps substance

These are the things Australians choose:
Reality TV, franchise shopping, tabloid media, property speculation, the Liberal Party.

To be prime minister you need slogans and photo ops
You don’t need to answer questions
You don’t need policies
You don’t need to try to save the world
Let’s just carry on to hell as we were


Today I’ll turn off the news forever.
Today, tell me if you voted Liberal
So I can unfriend you and never speak to you again.
Today I’m retreating to aesthetics
I’ll look at paintings from long ago
And live for myself, it’s the Australian way now.
Today we’ll sell the house and go self-sufficient in Balingup.
Today we’ll gird our loins and replenish the armoury,
Planting seeds in the backyard with the kids
And saying you have to keep hoping no matter what.



The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas



James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)

I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past.  Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography. Continue reading

The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie


Kenneth (Seaforth) Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It is a beautiful prose-poem, a novel about adolescence which amazed me again and again with its evocation of states of mind and the experience of landscape. It tells of a year in the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, as he begins at a boarding school in Perth, with interludes at his mother’s farm in the South-West where he falls in love with a neighbour’s visiting niece. It’s shocking to read in 2019, with the sexual assault of Charlie by the other students as a hazing ritual in the novel’s opening and the grooming by a paedophile teacher presented as a normal part of school life. Continue reading

My poor fallow blog


My poor fallow blog, my poor neglected readers. I thought I was busy before child number two arrived at the end of winter. But since then, I have been busier, and exhausted with a tiredness that has settled in. (I was going to tell you her name in a previous post, because we still hadn’t chosen it – it’s Sarah, and she’s now six months old, and crawling the length and breadth of the house.) Today is my birthday, and I have a tradition of writing a blog post on my birthday – that and going to a movie, once a regular occurrence, but currently an annual one. I have no wisdom or wit about turning thirty-eight, I’m rather sad about it really. Well, and glad to still be here on Earth in reasonable health. Continue reading

The letters of Nettie and Vance Palmer


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I really like Nettie and Vance Palmer, the Australian literary power couple of the first half of the twentieth century. (And lifelong friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard.) Last year I read both volumes of their published letters – a tiny fraction of the massive archive in the National Library. I was too busy to review the first (old) collection but my review of the new collection of love letters, edited by Deborah Jordan, is now up on the Westerly website.

Katharine Susannah Prichard and David Helfgott: fundraiser this Friday



In March 1966, Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote to her son, ‘I had a wonderful night this week. My young friend, David Helfgott came to dinner – and played to me all the evening… To have so much glorious music – Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt all to myself. It was almost too much. I felt quite drunk with it. But the young man himself is so modest & simple, although well informed about literature & art – discusses with me all the questions of political importance in our time.’ Continue reading

Gold and Wildflowers




I had a good research day yesterday, after several grey ones.  This month I’ve jumped forward in my biography from 1933 (leaving Katharine’s trip to the Soviet Union unfinished) to 1941. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference is in Perth in July and I’ve been working on a paper to fit the theme of “Dirt” – “Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941”. I finally submitted the abstract yesterday: Continue reading