Australian literary biography in 2017

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It’s nearing the end of 2017 and I’ve only noticed three Australian literary biographies published. I counted five last year, and thought that a low number; perhaps it was actually a bumper crop. The three I’ve noticed are Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text); Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson (UQP); and Janelle McCulloch Beyond the Rock: the Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Echo). What have I missed?

I haven’t read any of these yet but even at only three titles, they represent a good spread of Australian literature. Lawson must be the most covered biographical subject of any Australian writer, but Davies’ focus on Bertha is a new angle and apparently an innovative approach. The biography of Joan Lindsay gives us a solidly twentieth century writer; the title suggests the challenge of approaching (and marketing) a writer remembered for one book. And then Brennan’s biography is of a contemporary writer and sounds from the reviews as a work of biographical criticism, making it more possible to write while the subject is well and truly alive.

 

Detective, Historian, Storyteller: biography workshop in March

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I had some good news today – Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre let me know my biography workshop will be a part of their 2018 program. It’ll be on Saturday 17 March, 1:30pm – 4:30pm. If you know anyone in Perth working on a biography, please let them know. I’ve got the feeling that developing and running this workshop will be a valuable experience for my own practice.

Detective, Historian, Storyteller: The Arts of the Biographer
A biographer needs many hats – detective, unearthing sources that reveal a life more fully; historian, analysing and putting these sources into context; and storyteller, weaving it all into a compelling narrative. This workshop introduces these roles of the biographer and gives practical tips and exercises to help you develop your skills.

Research trip to Northam

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I’ve been writing about Hugo Throssell’s infamous speech at Northam in July 1919 so I needed to visit the town. Newly married to Katharine Susannah Prichard, Hugo, a Victoria Cross winner, returned to his hometown as the guest of honour for the local celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. After the afternoon parade, he was one of five speakers in the evening and 1200 people witnessed him announce that the war had turned him into a socialist. There would keep being wars, he said, until we stopped people profiting from them.

I took my two-year-old son, Thomas. There were lots of diggers, buses, and trucks along the way to keep him interested until he suddenly fell asleep, just as I was going to call into the Greenmount Liquor Store on the way to talk about what I’d unearthed of the history of their shop. (It’s the last remnant of the Wandu Estate, where Katharine and Hugo first lived in WA.) So we kept driving without a stop, an hour and a half east of the city and into the Wheatbelt.

I’ve only visited Northam twice before but it’s familiar, reminding me of the town I grew up in, Collie. I stumbled on the Hugo Throssell statue and memorial before I even had my phone out to look for the Avon Street Mall, an unfinished space in the centre of town. It was hard to imagine 1200 people crowding in. The platform Hugo spoke from was meant to be outside the Fitzgerald Hotel, formerly Tattersall’s. The historical bin on the street gave a spiel on it, but the hotel was nowhere to be seen. Then I realised it’d been demolished a few years ago; the patch of green grass marked its spot. The statue was striking, oversized as statues need to be to have gravitas. It’s not a great likeness, but the ambiguous look of distress and determination on his face is appropriate for a veteran who was to suffer so much. He’s clutching his Victoria Cross. I’m glad the statue stands on the site he gave his speech; it means owning a difficult history.

It was an overcast day and as I walked Thomas up the hill from the statue occasional drops of rain came down in the moderate heat. I was amazed by several mansions along the way; I learned soon after that part of Northam was nicknamed ‘Nob Hill’. We came to the school built around the old Throssell mansion, Fermoy. Thomas was complaining by then and the rain seemed to be threatening heavier, and so being a less intrepid biographer than I should be, I took a photo from a distance which would not upset the security guard and turned around. I imagined Hugo taking Katharine up the hill and pointing out where he grew up; in 1919 it had been a hospital for a few years.

Near where I parked the car was a sun-faded train fort. This, for a toddler whose patience was at an end, was the highlight of Northam.

Quote: “A man of feeling…”

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My father was a man of feeling who always wanted his family to show their feelings for each other too. That was why he started a sociable little custom we observed every morning without fail. We always shook hands at breakfast. None of your half-hearted shakes neither, but firm grasps to show how glad we were to see one another again after a good night’s sleep… “I don’t hold with reserve. Reserve is for Scandinavians,” my father said. “If we can’t express the emotions God give us then we don’t deserve them. We’re only on loan to one another, so let’s show our feelings while we can.”

-Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben (1964), 1.

Biographer pride

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Today, in an act of biographer pride, I brought together all my biographies from around the house onto one shelf, displacing a random selection that had been occupying this hall shelf unhappily for a couple of years. I had more important things to do, but I don’t regret it at all. I’m going to look at this diverse collection of biographies many times each day as I pass and it’s going to inspire me. My arrangement of books – the double-stacked shelf of fiction in another prominent place – will no longer reinforce the hierarchy the literary community tries to impose. Continue reading

Wandu, the lost manor in Greenmount

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wandu

There was a grand old house in Greenmount called ‘Wandu’. A teenage girl accidentally shot the surveyor-general there in 1915. Katharine Susannah Prichard rented it in 1919. Then, for decades, it was a guest-house and social hub for the district. I wrote a piece on it for my monthly KSP Writers’ Centre column; I’d love to uncover a photo of it.

UPDATE 11 OCTOBER 2017

I’ve uncovered a photograph, under the alternative spelling ‘Wandoo’. It’s not quite as grand looking as I imagined, but here’s a 1931 ad for the house Katharine and Hugo lived in when they first moved to Perth.

http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article38528565

1931-10-08 Wandoo tea rooms Greenmount - full text

Link: Bill’s interview with a biographer

Over at “The Australian Legend”, Bill has an interesting interview with biographer Sarah Goldman, author of Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force. I started out my biography in fear someone else would publish one on my subject before me; that actually happened to Goldman, and it was still okay, as she explains in answer to one of Bill’s questions.

Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force by Sarah Goldman is the recently released biography of one of the most interesting and influential women in Australia’s early history. My review copy arrived with a letter suggesting Sarah would be happy to be interviewed, so I sent her some questions to which she has been kind enough to give extensive answers. I didn’t let on, but this is my first interview.

via Author Interview, Sarah Goldman — theaustralianlegend

Jane Grant’s Kylie Tennant: A Life and the art of short biography

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Kylie-Tennant

What a character Kylie Tennant was. Her strength and distinctiveness leap out from the pages of Jane Grant’s biography, right from the opening where she walks 500 miles at age twenty during the Depression to visit her university friend Lewis Rodd. Impulsively, they marry.  Continue reading