Monthly Archives: February 2014

The opening of Dare Me!

Just released this month is a biography of the neglected Western Australian writer, Gerald Glaskin; it’s called Dare Me!, written by John Burbidge and published by Monash. Glaskin wrote one of Australia’s first openly gay novels; he died in 2000 in his seventies.

I’ve just read the opening chapter ahead of hearing Burbidge speak at the Perth Writers Festival. It’s very good. Instead of more typical openings, Burbidge calls the chapter “My Beautiful Beach” and relates several incidents from Glaskin’s life relating to his beloved Perth beaches. He would see the pine trees of Cottesloe coming home from abroad; he would body surf there, only to suffer an accident which would mar the rest of his years; he was to be charged with exposing himself on a Scarborough Beach, an incident which revealed much about his forceful character and the Perth of the 1960s; his grandmother was to let him live in her Safety Bay cottage for six months, where he wrote his first novel, which went on to considerable success. It’s a bold move; in the opening chapter, we already have the contours of his entire life laid out; we know that he will not be able to match his early successes, we know of his bitterness and his charms, we know something of his death in March 2000. It works, and it is all the more remarkable that it’s the biographer’s first biography.

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Stella #2: Miles’ trips to the dentists

Miles Franklin evidently had very bad teeth. Trips to the dentist punctuate her biography. Perhaps I’ve reached the final one, though, because – now in her early forties – she’s just had all the teeth taken out and received false teeth. (The horror of having all of one’s teeth pulled filled me up, reading that last night before bed.)

The question for the biographer: how much to tell about trips to the dentists? In Miles’ case, the biographer is working off extensive, daily diaries, and I’m sure they are full of Miles’ dental agony, of which we are only fed the smallest amount. I wonder, though, if it falls in the category of worth mentioning early on, along with a brief sketch of dental conditions in Federation Australia (and why teeth might be such an obsession), and then not mentioning again until she gets them pulled out?

It is part of the dilemma of conveying a sense of someone’s life – what’s the balance between the everyday and the dramatic?


KSP’s The Wild Oats of Han

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I’m trying to read the fiction of Katharine Susannah Prichard at least roughly in order, but of course that’s never as straightforward as it sounds. The Wild Oats of Han wasn’t published until 1928, but it was actually written in 1908, meaning that perhaps I should have it read it first; I’m reading it second.

Its genre is complicated, too. It’s presented as a children’s novel, but (my 1968 edition at least) is introduced with a note from KSP saying it ‘is truly, really story’, an idiosyncratic way to say it really happened. It is perhaps a memoir of childhood written in the form of fiction. Regardless, it is beautiful.

In this book, KSP’s prose is lyrical and captures the mind of a child incredibly well. Han is a dreamy, rebellious girl, a fascinating character, a girl who ‘scarcely knew the world of the real from the world of the unreal: both were blended in the crystal of her mind.’ (16) A mentor figure, Sam the woodcutter, tells her that ‘wild oats is a crop most people sow when they live like children’. (56) (The meaning has surely narrowed over the years.) Han determinedly sows her oats, skipping school to glory in the beauty of the bush; enchanted by the circus; battling her nemesis, Miss Whittler; in love with the family and friends around her. It is episodic, each short chapter almost self-contained, with only a loose progression of the overall narrative. Things change in the last few chapters, as the circumstances of her parents (absent characters for most of the novel) impede on her idyllic life, and she must go ‘down into the great mysterious world they had talked so much of, to take her part in the joy and the labour and the sorrow of it.’ (160)

Jack Beasley comments that the novel ‘is more a story about children for adults, than for children themselves’ (A Gallop of Fire, 31), and I agree with him. Its achievement lies in its evocation of the enchanted world of a child’s mind, which is not necessarily something a child can appreciate – only adults in retrospect; it reminds me in this respect of Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea. Early in Wild Oats, Han comes across a cave which amazes her:

Han went to school the next day. But the smell of the hills was in her nose: it was like a taste in her mouth. Memory of the cave haunted her. She had a mind-picture of the great underground room, so vast and deep that, leaning over the edge, she could not see how far it went, only the bones glimmering on the floor in the darkness. (31)

A children’s novel would require that there really be a human skeleton to discover at the bottom of the cave, or at least that some great adventure occur there. Yet Wild Oats evokes the gap between our childhood expectations of adventure gained from stories, and the reality that adventure is more a state of mind.


Sheila Chisholm

The fascinating Strange Flowers blog reviews the new biography Sheila by Robert Wainwright (Allen and Unwin, 2014). She was an Australian who became a high society figure between the wars in Britain, after marrying a lord who was recovering from war wounds in a hospital bed next to her brother. The parallels to Katharine Susannah Prichard are interesting – another Australian of a similar age (and the same year of death) who met a husband in the hospitals of the Great War. Despite the glitz around Sheila, perhaps KSP’s life was more interesting; another review complains:

Overall, I found the book rather superficial, a list of fabulous social events and prominent people. I was interested, but wanted more depth, but I suspect there just weren’t enough sources available.

Beyond, in this case, a potential lack of depth in the subject herself, lack of sources is surely the thing which defeats or at least hinders many biographies.


Echoes of Genesis: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers

In some ways KSP’s first published novel, The Pioneers (1915), resembles the Book of Genesis. It begins with a couple – Donald and Mary Cameron (initially ‘the woman’) – coming to the end of an arduous journey and establishing a homestead in the bush, a homestead which is the foundation for what will become a town over the course of the novel. They are not so much Adam and Eve as Abraham and Sarah – the ambitious, inflexible patriarch and his resourceful wife working cunningly yet virtuously behind the scenes, including when it comes to matching their only son with a wife. A cleansing fire strikes the town early on, perhaps echoing the flood in Genesis. The characters feel, to an extent, archetypal.

Yet we shouldn’t push the comparison too far – I doubt it’s a conscious framework for KSP, and the novel resembles the work of Thomas Hardy as much as anything else, with the familiar plot of a struggle between suitors for the hand of the village’s most beautiful young woman, Deirdre, the novel’s second heroine. Furthermore, the novel changes tone, and the long middle is an involved, heavily plotted cattle-muster caper, not resembling Genesis at all. It is only in the final chapters, as Deirdre, resolves the long tussle between three suitors, that the novel recaptures the poignancy of its beginning. Mary’s final words in the novel reveal its vision:

“Oh God,” she whispered breathlessly, “we broke the earth, we sowed the seed. Let theirs be the harvest – the joy of life and the fullness thereof.” (316)

For a writer who was to be known for her sympathetic engagement with Aborigines, it is interesting to note that this early novel shows no evidence of what is to come. The minor Aboriginal character who accompanies the stockmen is not given a name, referred to instead as ‘the black boy.’

KSP was also to become a Communist; there is a degree of class consciousness in this novel, but only a degree. It centres mainly on the injustice of prejudice against former convicts, one of whom, the Schoolmaster, is an educated Irishman imprisoned for political reasons. In the epilogue, set fifteen years later, Dan, grandson of Mary, remembers her charge to him as he visits her grave:

“Then she told me about prisons here in the early days, mother, and terrible stories of how people lived in the old country. ‘They may talk about your birthstain by and by, Dan,’ she said, ‘but that will not trouble you, because it was not this country made the stain. This country has been the redeemer and blotted out all those old stains.'” (320)

It is an interesting, fast-moving story, still remarkably readable today, 99 years later, even if it feels a little sentimental and melodramatic. KSP’s prose is beautiful in places, and you can sense her determinedly evoking an Australia of a couple of generations earlier.

The book has been reprinted in recent years, but can also be found as an ebook through Project Gutenberg. I read it in PDF format on my tablet, so that the typesetting was exactly the same as the first edition, and even the pages were appropriately yellowed.


Biography in forty-five minutes: “The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet”

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In this 45 minute television documentary, actor David Suchet recounts the life of the author who created the detective (Poirot) who made him famous – Agatha Christie. It’s structured as a biographical quest, although there isn’t actually that much mystery around Christie beyond her famous disappearance in 1930, and unlike biographical quest fiction, there are no real discoveries or breakthroughs made. It is actually just an appropriate and convenient way to look at her life through the eyes of what the academic Jon Thiem might call an ‘epigone’, in the guise (undoubtedly basically true) of Suchet realising he has never really learned the life story of the woman behind his character.

There is only so much you can do in trying to convey an entire life in 45 minutes, and this documentary succeeds admirably, while showing clearly the limits of the form compared to a typical biography, which might be 800 pages long. There is little sense of competing interpretations of her life, despite the fact that Suchet moves between interviewing three different biographers of Christie for different periods of her life. It’s all very democratic, and each of them is interesting in their own way, but they surely have quite different understandings of their subject, and yet they’re stitched together as if they offer one seamless account.

In any biography, it is important to give some sense of the time and place, and documentary as a form offers the chance to use stock footage and the music of an era as a audiovisual shortcut, evoking viewers’ pre-existing understanding of the period. It’s done beautifully and skilfully in this example. It takes the place of the biographer’s challenge of giving a cultural and historical context in words, the balance between too much information and not enough; the trick of guessing just what knowledge one can assume on the reader’s part.

It seems to me the structure of the documentary is shaped a lot by who they could track down to interview about a particular time in the author’s life, and hence a strange detour of an interview with Tom Adams, who painted interesting covers for Christie’s paperbacks for years, only for him to reveal at the end of his segment that he never actually met her. It has an appropriateness, because neither did Suchet, and in a full scale biography, it might belong in some way in a chapter on the reception and presence of the subject in other artists’ lives – yet for a carefully timed documentary, it seems an unusual choice. Why not more time with her grandson, or her late daughter, or even with the archival interviews they have of Christie herself? Perhaps there’s nothing that’s visually interesting enough; every biographer is restricted by their sources, and the documentary biographer by the constraint of making something to watch and listen to.


Stella #1: The prologue

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[First in a series of reading reports, tracing my progress through Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (Pan McMillan, 2008)]

Jill Roe opens her massive biography of Stella Miles Franklin with a simple two page prologue which manages to carry much information lightly. She tells the story of Stella’s mother riding by horse to her own mother’s house to give birth in 1879. In doing so, she maps out the territory of southern NSW which one senses will be essential as the backdrop of Stella’s life. She gives a brief account of Stella’s ancestry by unpacking her name, covering details which could go on for boring pages in a less well crafted biography.

Surely acknowledging the limits of the archives well is a key part of a good biography, and in the prologue the gaps are noted: she took a different route ‘for reasons unknown, possibly to do with the weather’ and ‘it is not recorded whether she was accompanied’. Perhaps these signals can provoke the reader to imagining the scene better and to assuming some responsibility as co-re-creators of the life of the subject as they read.