In thinking what I might write next, I’m weighing up biography as a literary form at the moment. I’m not sure how to do that. The danger is that each biography I read has me judging the whole form by its merits.
Today I finished Ann Galbally’s Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian (Melbourne University Press, 1995). Barry (1813-1880) emigrated to Australia as a young man, and was a towering figure in Melbourne’s early years as a judge, university chancellor, library-founder, cultural emissary. Yet he’s probably best remembered for sentencing Ned Kelly to death and dying himself days after Kelly. Gallaby treats Ned Kelly’s trial in four pages. Given it was only a couple of weeks in a whole life, perhaps it’s a logical decision. Yet I would have given it many more pages, because of its dramatic potential and the place of Kelly in Australian cultural memory.
I suspect I’m interested by things which are not the focus of conventional biographies. One example: I’m fascinated by the memorialisation and legacy of a biographee – what shadow do they cast over the world after their death? There is some of this in Barry. A funny anecdote told about him in The Age sixty years after his death; words attributed to him in folklore; that fact that today there remains his coat of arms that he himself had placed in an unobtrusive spot above a hall he helped get built. But I wanted more.
I don’t yet know if the fact that this biography didn’t grip me was due to the limits of the genre itself, or the shortcomings of this particular biography. I felt that as a narrative it was flat, and far too bound by maintaining a steady rhythm of chronology. Barry spent this year in this way, and then the next one in this way. There was not enough narrative shaping of his life, not enough sense of the heights and lows, not enough drama created.
Perhaps I carry the baggage of my background in fiction. The biography should not be in too much debt too the novel. And then there is the problem of the expectations of biography after Freud: that it reveal the biographee’s secrets and their sex life. Barry does both, which is why I’m surprised I didn’t find it more engaging, despite it being well-researched, both sympathetic and critical, and the prose having an unobtrusive appropriateness. (I remember cringing right through the overwritten prose of Belle Costa Greene’s biography, An Illuminated Life.) Barry had an affair with a married woman on the ship over to Australia, and the whole ship became aware of it, including the husband. Remarkably, Barry himself records some of the details. This is the sort of insight I thought the 19th century historical record would generally completely lack. And yet it is made less interesting than it could have been.
I also felt as I read that the sort of biography I would want to write would illuminate the particular events of the biographee’s life by far more explanation of social and cultural norms of the time. Where we couldn’t get particular insight into the biographee’s life, we would gain general insight. How common was it for a respectable church-going judge to keep a consort he would not marry and have children with her? How does it fit into Victorianism? It would make for a far-bigger book, and it could get boring; it would need to be done well.
I must make clear that as history and probably even as biography, this is a good book. It just happens to be the particular instance of my initial interrogation of the genre.
Barry turned 200 this year, and a panel called “Redmond Barry: Visionary or Scoundrel” was held at the State Library of Victoria.