I’ve been so sad today after hearing that Noel Vose has died at 94. I’ve come to know him while working for eight years at the seminary named after him; he’s also been curiously tied up for me with my biographical quest.
I was brought up a Baptist and Noel was Australia’s most internationally renowned Baptist leader, a pastor, a founding principal of the Western Australian theological college, and president of the Baptist World Alliance in the late 1980s. He was a rare type of Baptist. In strong opposition to fundamentalism, he wanted Baptists to be academically credible, when many of them saw the academy with disdain. He wanted Baptists to be in conversation not just with other Christians (radical enough) but with the wider world.
The obituaries and celebration of Noel will tend to gloss over the fact that while he was opposed to fundamentalism, he was also opposed to its current Baptist alternative – the corporate megachurch. This pragmatic approach eschews Baptist distinctives like the members’ meeting which Noel was willing to die in the trenches for.
I first came to know Noel when I was one of the organisers of a radical Anabaptist church in my early twenties. He had become interested in the Anabaptist tradition as a graduate student in the 1950s and saw it as a source of renewal for the Baptists. I don’t know what he made of our generally far-left politics, pacifism, and the dreadlocks of some of the other members, but he had us all over for dinner at his house out in the hills, and it was a memorably surreal evening.
After that, I started in 2008 as the library manager of the Baptist Theological College of WA – of which he’d been founding principal – just was it was renamed Vose Seminary in his honour. He had a heart for the library; his sister, Val Wild, had previously been the librarian for over twenty years. I think he was thrilled an Anabaptist had taken the reins. He’d often visit, or later phone, to tell me of a book he had to add to the collection, or to ask me about one he wanted to borrow.
In 2009 I helped edit Richard Moore’s biography of Noel, which was published the following year. I’d previously edited corporate histories, and found them quite interesting from a writerly perspective; biography was an even more interesting genre. Richard sought my narrative insights; my suggestion was cutting a good percentage of the manuscript, just like I would a novel. His response stayed with me, and introduced me to one of the dilemmas of biography. He said he wanted to keep as much of the material in there as possible, because otherwise it would be lost to history. I completely sympathise with this sentiment, even as I condemn many minor facts and anecdotes about Katharine Susannah Prichard’s life to the dustbin of history, or at least confine them to my research notes.
Noel talked to me a few times about a manuscript he’d written. It was a biography of Mena Weld, wife of one of WA’s early governors, and he’d written it from the detailed notes his wife, the historian Heather Vose, had left at her sudden death in 1990. He was horrified that when he sent it to one publisher, they apparently wanted him to speculate on the sex life of Mena, the devout Catholic. Yet after a long gap, he took it up again and, incredibly, he debuted as a biographer at the age of 91 when it was published by UWAP in 2013. It was an amazing launch at Government House, with a speech by Noel’s friend, the historian Geoffrey Bolton. It was a celebration of Noel himself at what we knew was probably near the end of his life.
His book, Mena: Daughter of Obedience, came out just as I had decided I wanted to write a biography for my PhD. I’d started blogging about the art of biography but I didn’t review it, because I was aware I was sharpening all of my own ideas about biography as I read it. It’s an admirable work, well-paced and full of interesting insight into life in the nineteenth-century. It avoids interiority and speculation, those things I think central to biography, even if they’re extremely dangerous items in the biographer’s hands.
A year ago this month when I was writer-in-residence at KSP Writers’ Centre, I ran into Noel at Coles. He lived nearby and I’d been meaning to ring him. He was thrilled to see me – he was an extrovert who had a way of making everyone feel special – and he insisted I come around for lunch. I came to his big, isolated house out in the hills once a week through May. He would cook chops in oil with a great sizzle, reminding me of my late grandmother’s cooking. One of the times he asked me to look at a new book while he cooked, the biography of the former governor-general Paul Hasluck by Geoffrey Bolton. I sat reading a couple of chapters on a gloomy May day. Since then, Bolton died, I’ve got to know Hasluck’s grandson at uni, and now Noel himself has died. He played me some of his favourite LPs on his record player and showed me the paintings he’d accrued over the years.
We talked a lot about my PhD – my biography – over those lunches. He seemed a little worried for me. The question he kept coming back to, which he put in the most polite way, was whether my subject was interesting enough. What did this Katharine Susannah Prichard do? Did she ever do anything adventurous? Mena Weld rode a horse from Albany to Perth before there was a decent road; did I have anything of that kind of interest for the reader? There was, of course, a big gap between our conceptions of biography, but it was a stimulating conversation to have.
I gave him a chapter to read, and was so happy when he told me I’d convinced him – there was a lot to this Prichard woman, she was worth a biography. I lent him her most famous novel, Coonardoo, as he said he was interested. I told him not to worry about getting it back to me – I had a few copies. I also had a baby coming, and I wasn’t sure when I would get out to the hills to visit him again. He told he hoped I’d bring my baby out to meet him, and I’ve been meaning all year to arrange that. But I didn’t and now he’s gone.