Visible and invisible biographers: a quick response to David Marr

Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”

I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests.  Continue reading


Windlestraws: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s forgotten novel

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This year is the centenary of the publication of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s second – and possibly worst – novel, Windlestraws. Continue reading


Two years in: an update on my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography

The two-year anniversary of the official start of my PhD passed by on 21 August. I had 20,000 words of the biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard written a year ago; I now have 40,000, which is a neat piece of symmetry. I’m imagining it’s going to be 80,000 words, but only if I can start reining myself in – I feared there wouldn’t be enough to say, but there’s always too much. I recently deleted a paragraph about the feud – which spilled into the local paper – between Katharine’s favourite teacher at Armadale State School and the bad-tempered headmaster. It represented several hours of research (some of it precious time in an interstate archive), but it really had to go. Other details are harder to let go of.  Continue reading


Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

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I gave two papers on Katharine Susannah Prichard in July. The first was on 9 July at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Canberra and was called “History of a troubled autobiography: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane”. I’m hoping to develop it further into a chapter of the critical section of my thesis and also as a standalone publication. It was a little scary presenting my paper to an audience of Australian literature academics, but they were generous in their responses and I think it went well. I have been encouraged toward some further reading in mid-century Marxist responses to auto/biography and Freudian thought.

My second paper was at the Limina postgraduate humanities conference at UWA on 29 July. The conference theme was “beyond boundaries,” and so I wrote a paper on the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in Katharine’s 1906 serial, “A City Girl in Central Australia.” I’d been looking at this serial for chapter six of my biography (“Outback: Tarella Station, 1905”), and it fitted neatly with some of the thinking I’d been doing for the paper on Child of the Hurricane. It’s pitched toward a general audience and I’m not reworking it for scholarly publication, so I present it here on my blog. Continue reading


My Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

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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.

Source: A Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

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.


An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis by Philip Butterss

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One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents  would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.

I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.

Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.

C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.

  • Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
  • While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
  • Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald. 20160115_125644
  • Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.

I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.

I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.

 


Link: Katharine Susannah votes!

Just in time for the election, my column over on KSP Writers’ Centre website:

Those who find themselves sick of politics during this election campaign would have been wise to not admit it if they were visiting Katharine Susannah Prichard. Katharine’s old journalist friend, Freda Sternberg, was visiting in 1944 and said, “I’m not interested in politics.” Katharine snapped back, “No sane person is entitled to say that.” (KSP to Ric Throssell, 18 Sept. 1944)

Source: Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home | Single Post