I really like Nettie and Vance Palmer, the Australian literary power couple of the first half of the twentieth century. (And lifelong friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard.) Last year I read both volumes of their published letters – a tiny fraction of the massive archive in the National Library. I was too busy to review the first (old) collection but my review of the new collection of love letters, edited by Deborah Jordan, is now up on the Westerly website.
I have a two-page memoir called “Archaeologist” in the new special issue of Westerly. It’s a free download in pdf or epub from https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/westerly-crossings/.
Editors Amy Hilhorst (UWA) and Owen Bullock (University of Canberra) write in the introduction:
This special issue of Westerly is a collaboration between the creative writing students of the University of Western Australia (UWA), and those from the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI), based at the University of Canberra (UC). It aims to showcase and celebrate the creative and critical work conducted by current or recent postgraduates, and undergraduates, at these two institutions. Reaching across the Nullarbor from west to east, this issue offers a snapshot of some of the best writing from the respective corners of Australia. In curating this material together, we aim to foreground the connections and contrasts in the stories of our students. These short stories, novel excerpts, essays and poems have been commissioned by co-editors who are also completing postgraduate study. It is, then, an issue for students and by students, and aims to give readers an insight into the exceptional standard of work being written in the postgrad study rooms, shared offices and library carrels of UWA and UC.
I’m looking forward to reading the other contributions. Many of the UWA writers are part of the Words and Thoughts postgrad creative writing group with me.
I wrote my piece just after my son was born in 2015. I was suddenly taken with a desire to remember my childhood. I was originally imagining an entire book-length memoir of occupations I have dreamed of / abandoned / actually done, including not just archaeologist, but the Phantom, lawyer, pastor, novelist, counterhand, librarian, and biographer. But I only wrote the first one; its another book that I’m not going to write just yet.
Mick fits very much at the ‘documentary biography’ end of the spectrum. It is a restrained, detailed biography, avoiding not just speculation but also, largely, interpretation, instead collating and arranging sources into a chronological account.
If I start to feel I’ve not done enough this year at the halfway point, I can at least remind myself that I have read and reviewed Suzanne Falkiner’s 900 page biography of Randolph Stow – and now you can click the link above to see my review on the Westerly website! The actually amazing feat is that Falkiner wrote it in four years. (At least that’s what I wrote down from her speech at the beginning of the year.)
Probably every Western Australian whose ancestors arrived in the nineteenth century can claim a connection to Stow. I discovered a new one from reading the biography which did not make it into the review: he and I are from the same clan. My paternal grandmother was a Sewell, and so was his mother, both descended from the two Sewell brothers who came out from England in the 1830s. I think Stow and my grandmother were fourth cousins. She wouldn’t have liked his books; she may well have been aware of the connection, as she knew more family history than she told.
On the other side of my family, as I’ve mentioned before, his grandmother boarded with my maternal grandmother’s family in Subiaco around the time of World War Two. I asked my (still living) Granny what she remembered of Stow’s grandmother, and she said that Mrs Stow would keep feeding the chickens rhubarb leaves, which really upset my Granny’s mother. (Oh, that’s getting confusing.) I’m afraid that’s the closest to a literary anecdote I can offer.
My colleague Heather Delfs responded to my tweet about my review of this 900 page book with “I hope the gist is ‘just no’. 900 pages seems excessive.” I’m torn on this issue. Stow is interesting and important enough to warrant 900 pages of the right kind, though 900 page biographies are enough to put me off, too. My KSP biography will run to 900 pages if I get to the end of her life. Crucially, I want to see it published in three volumes of about 300 pages, each with their own narrative trajectory. It’s the way I would prefer to read long biographies.
Sylvia Martin’s new biography of Palmer reveals, unsurprisingly, a woman who lived in the shadow of her parents, Nettie and Vance Palmer, Australia’s literary power-couple of the first half of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the biography, Martin quotes the verdict of David Martin (presumably no relation) on Palmer’s life: ‘Her attempt to write from within the Palmer constellation, her failure to escape. Chain-smoking her life away in Sunbury mental hospital, felled by her sexuality. Aileen was the poet’ (246). Sylvia Martin’s accomplished biography largely confirms this verdict while adding the important dimension of her political activism and war service.
My review of this recent biography has just been published on the Westerly blog. Aileen Palmer is a fascinating subject and Martin is an elegant biographer. She achieves a balance of narrative and research I’m striving for in my own biography. Reviewing it was a fruitful exercise for my own thinking about the art of biography.
Bill also reviewed this book last month – https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/ink-in-her-veins-sylvia-martin/
Source: Westerly 60:2 – Westerly
My biography of the early years of Katharine Susannah Prichard is a couple of years from completion, but a modified version of chapter two has just been published in Westerly 60.2. My essay is called “‘The memory of a storm’: The Wild Oats of Han and the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1887 to 1895.” Continue reading