A key moment in the history of Australian literary biography was a panel on biography at the 1988 Adelaide Writers’ Week. On the panel were Australians Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska and Britons Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion. Glendinning was already an established traditional literary biographer; Matthews had just published the postmodern Louisa and Modjeska was about to publish the hybrid fiction/biography of her mother, Poppy. In 1996 Graeme Turner used the panel as a starting point for exploring the state of Australian literary biography in his essay “Reviving the Author”. The Southern Review collected the papers in one of the more substantial statements on biography in Australia. Now Drusilla Modjeska has returned to that panel and her dislike of Glendinning’s approach to biography in her memoir (out last month), Second Half First. At the time, Modjeska made the comment the Australian biographers (well, particularly her and Matthews) were interested in exploring the lives of those not usually considered worthy subjects for a biography. “How extraordinary,” Glendinning said, apparently condescendingly.
Modjeska discusses her objections to Glendinning’s biography of Rebecca West twice in the book:
In article she wrote in 1925… Rebecca West proclaimed that the conjugal life was useful only for ‘riveting the fact of paternity in the male mind.’ This distaste for marriage, according to Glendinning, was also not true. …West had hoped for a ‘conspicuous’ marriage to Lord Beaverbrook… What was Victoria Glendinning doing, catching her out? Was that the role of biographer? … I loathed the biographical distance that assumed a very English form of superiority… Okay, so Rebecca West said one thing in one place, another in another; is there not more that can be said about this than proof of the contradiction between public and private in her attitude to love and marriage? (58-59)
How psychotherapy words, that shedding of tears, that talking cure in a room with a closed door is as mysterious to me as how a book gets written: some small accrual of understanding, maybe, an expanding of a personal repertoire, a plunge into the darkness we harbour inside ourselves. Maybe shedding the history of our tears isn’t so much about rewriting, or righting, a narrative that has gone awry, getting over obstacles, as about changing the angle of vision, rearranging the shapes, the fragments into other patterns. Which is why diaries can be so unreliable, and also memoirs, as a source of information about this thing we call life… And why Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Rebecca West annoyed me so, catching West out in a contradiction, everything hammered into place, as if there should be one story, one history, one attitude to something as difficult and contradictory as marriage… (171)
I haven’t read Glendinning’s biography, but perhaps she seemed too intent on a “gotcha” moment. There are different ways to approach the contradictions in a subject’s life – and there always will be contradictions and tensions. I never want to be pedantic in my biography, and I feel that some biographers are. There’s a fine line between attention to detail and reveling in detail or between a fruitful skepticism (coupled with empathy) about the subject and outright antagonism.
I wasn’t a witness to the 1988 exchange between Modjeska and Glendinning (w-a-a-a-y too young, cough cough) but I wonder if Modjeska was being overly sensitive. A decade or more ago I participated in a one-day biography writing workshop led by Glendinning and I found her self-effacing, a bit shy, supportive and basically very nice. Perhaps her ever so English “How extraordinary” wasn’t meant condescendingly but just sounded so to an Australian ear? As to the gotcha moments, in Glendinning’s biography of Stamford Raffles she directly addresses the issue of him saying one thing over here and another over there, noting in a kind way that all of us are inconsistent but only the subjects of biography get caught at it (I don’t have the text to hand so I’m paraphrasing – sorry!).
I don’t really have a strong feeling either way but I do think Modjeska isn’t acknowledging her own subjectivity and that she is assuming an awful lot about what Glendinning may or not think. That said, Second Half First sounds like it’s definitely worth reading.
Nathan Hobby said:
Thanks Michelle, wise reflections. I agree Modjeska could have taken it the wrong way – especially given she was starting with a low opinion of Glendinning’s approach to biography. (I have changed “obviously condescendingly” to “perhaps”) What an experience to attend a workshop with Glendinning! I have her biography of Leonard Woolf on my shelf, and will be better able to judge her approach when I’ve read it.
I reckon the Woolf biography could have been much shorter! I’ll look forward to reading what you have to say about it.
Of these biographies I’ve only read Louisa, which I loved. Although I’ve read Modjeska’s Exiles at Home and generally admire her work. I must do a review of Louisa one day. What do you think of Matthews’ post modern style? with all the workings showing, so to speak.
Nathan Hobby said:
I liked Louisa too – not the right form for every biography, but probably this one. https://biographerinperth.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/louisa-the-limits-of-biography/