Both Bill and Lisa have written helpful reviews of a new biography, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins. Both reviews touch on the two concerns of this blog brought up by the biography – Katharine Susannah Prichard and the art of biography. I look forward to seeing how Hopkins has treated the conjectural relationship between Prichard and Holman, a WA Labor parliamentarian. I can’t offer an especially informed opinion on whether they would have known each other – my current biography stops at 1919 just before Prichard arrives in WA! The 1920s and 1930s are the most “silent” period of Prichard’s life for biographers. The weekly letters to her son Ric (covering 1944-1969) have not yet started; and Prichard’s own account of her early life in Child of the Hurricane basically stops at 1919, with a chapter postscript about the 1920s to 1930s written at the editor’s request (I discovered in the archives) and focused on her horse, when the rest of life was too painful to examine. I feel honoured to be quoted by both Bill and Lisa on what makes for good biography from one of my recent posts. As they mention, I wasn’t referring to the Holman biography when I made that observation; I’m yet to read it.
A review of The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins.
Mary Alice (May) Holman was born in 1893 in Broken Hill, NSW to miner and unionist Jack Holman and his (very) new wife, the 17 yo Katherine. Jack had problems in Broken Hill as the mining companies attempted, successfully, to reduce workers’ pay and conditions during the recession, and moved to the goldfields around Cue in Western Australia, settling at Nannine – a thriving centre then, but these days not even a ghost town – where he was joined by his wife and daughter a couple of years later. Katherine returned to Broken Hill for the birth of their second daughter and when she came back her mother came too and lived with the family for the rest of her life.
Hopkins has Katherine travelling by coach between Nannine and Yalgoo (southwest…
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Lisa Hill said:
Hi Nathan, Happy New Year! I’m not an historian as you know, and my own efforts at writing a memoir of my piano teacher have stalled, well, firstly because she died and I just didn’t feel like it, and secondly because I had got to the retirement years and it just wasn’t so interesting any more. But I have come across this problem of the silent years and/or the unacknowledged/silent people in my reading of bios quite a bit and I reckon there’s a PhD just in looking at how different biographers tackle it. The first one that I remember noticing really irritated me: it was Evelyn Juer’s House of Exile – if you read my review you can see that I say she has embroidered a life for Nelly Mann because so little was known about her. In the Holman bio a meeting is invented for Prichard and Holman presumably because it’s considered so important but there are more questions raised than answered by the scanty treatment of Holman’s mother, and the silence about any lovers is even louder than the speculations about the strange marriage.
And of course, here in Australia, especially in bios situated in the era of domestic help and/or on the frontier, there are always the invisible Aborigines who are part of the life but rarely acknowledged and problematically so if they are.
Lisa Hill said:
PS I’ve just remember another biography that might interest you, it’s The Profilist by Adrian Mitchell and it’s a fictionalised bio based on the paintings of S T Gill. (My review is at http://anzlitlovers.com/2015/04/19/the-profilist-by-adrian-mitchell/)
Nathan Hobby said:
Happy new year to you too Lisa! Thanks for your interesting reflections. These questions are so central to my own theory and practice of biography. I do consider myself well-warned with these examples you bring up and others I know of where speculation and particularly invented scenes raise the ire of reviewers and readers more generally. In what I’ve written so far, I certainly do speculate, but suggestively and hopefully responsibly. Each particular subject probably requires their own approach, and there are some approaches which just don’t work well. Also some aspects of people’s lives (and some entire lives) which are unrecoverable, perhaps unwriteable.
Lisa Hill said:
I don’t mind invention or speculation as long as it’s well-signalled.