Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.
Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through.
Louis Esson is famous for his attempt to create a distinctly Australian theatre as a playwright and founder of Pioneer Players. His attempts had only limited success, and he lived out much of his life unproductively stewing on his unsuccess and his misfortunes. Hilda was a doctor, an important public health officer, and a theatre producer in her own right, as well as the champion of Louis’s reputation.
Fitzpatrick covers the entire lives of both Essons in under four hundred pages, which inevitably makes for a brisk pace. That has its advantages and disadvantages; as a reader, I don’t have the stamina for too many six or seven hundred page books.
A dual biography creates an expectation of rough equality, I think. But biographers are often constrained by the evidence, and Fitzpatrick defends the greater focus on Louis by the fact that Louis left a better paper trail. This is one of the great questions of methodology for my project too, as I’m tackling the least documented part of Katharine’s life. Perhaps naively, I believe in the possibility of weaving an account from the fragments and from our knowledge of the times and places, allowing the biography to move further into the speculative and the inferential.
In her review in Australian Literary Studies, Veronica Kelly complains that
Esson proves a bit of a fizzer as a subject since he runs out of steam sometime in the twenties, to linger on as a kind of ghost amid the radical cultural activism of the new generations to whom he played kindly uncle. It’s hard not to get fed up with his chronic ineffectuality and pathetic reliance on Hilda. However Fitzpatrick’s scrupulous and generous interpretation of the evidence does evince one concealed and maybe determining factor; that Esson showed most of the symptoms of severe clinical depression (324-25), probably as a life-long condition.
I shared her frustration with Louis. It would have made it a difficult biography to write, especially writing with the co-operation of the Essons’ still living son, Hugh. Fitzpatrick treads carefully and lets the evidence speak for itself, rather than guiding the reader into an interpretation. I would be tempted as a biographer to recast the story more consciously as a kind of tragedy, being more willing to interpret Louis. The other aspect of that tragedy is Hilda’s drift into the arms of her boss, John Dale, who she was to marry after Louis died; Louis ends up exiling himself to Sydney, despite remaining close to Hilda. Fitzpatrick narrates this love triangle well.
I keep using the word “narrate” because it’s central to my own approach to biography. With my background as a novelist, I keep thinking in scenes, and wishing biographers would do the same. As in many biographies, in Pioneer Players, significant events such as deaths and marriages often seem to be noted rather than narrated. However, some of the reviews note that Fitzpatrick uses novelistic devices more than most biographers, and perhaps it’s the fact he goes some of the way toward what I want to do that leaves me wanting more.
Fitzpatrick shares some of my preoccupations and fascinations within biography. I was thrilled by the section in which he presents a piece of evidence which just doesn’t fit – a photograph of Louis’s mysterious father, stamped with an address of a photographer in Melbourne, when he was never meant to be in Australia and the other side of the family was keen to forget him. Fitzpatrick offers the possible explanations, acknowledging that none of them are entirely satisfactory, and lets us sit as readers with the mystery of the archives.
Another example – he ends the biography by revisiting the significant places and their fate over the decades since, concluding beautifully that
The traces of Louis and Hilda that remain are mostly words. It is remarkable how durable they can be, long after the sets and the players have left the stage. Louis, who sought immortality but thought he had lost his chance, and Hilda, who valued the moment too much to care particularly what happened to her life after she ceased living it, have become a part of the text after all. (363)
Fitzpatrick went on to win the National Biography Award in 2013 for another dual biography – The Two Frank Thrings. It will be an interesting comparison to see how his biographical approach has developed in the newer work.