Monthly Archives: September 2014

Capturing life: interview with a biographer part 1



At the Perth Writers’ Festival in February, I discovered John Burbidge’s Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin,  the biography of a significant Perth writer often overlooked in his home country. I had the chance to introduce myself to John at the book-signing and he has generously agreed to answer my questions about literary biography to share on this blog. John’s answers – a series of four over the next four days – are splendid reflections on the theory and praxis of writing a biography. You can find more about Dare Me! on John’s website about Glaskin; find out about John’s other work as an editor and writer at, including a page on his memoir, The Boatman, to be published in Australia later this year.


Biographer-in-Perth: I was struck by the way you opened with a thematic treatment of the beach in Glaskin’s life as a way of introducing him – a good choice, I believe. (Did you mention you borrowed the technique from Nicholas Shakespeare?) I think it an approach with much to commend it, but obviously has its challenges, too, in separating events in the subject’s life which were actually close together. In my reading of your book, there is a loose chronology, but each chapter covers a theme across the whole of his life. What persuaded you to make the choice of this over a more conventional chronology?

John Burbidge: A life is such a sprawling, complicated, messy thing to try to capture in the few pages of a book that I felt it would be helpful if I could find something that could be a metaphor or sustaining symbol around which I could weave the narrative, to give the reader something to hold onto and return to. My model for this was Nicholas Shakespeare in his magnificent biography of Bruce Chatwin, in which he chose a cabinet in Chatwin’s grandmother’s house to play this kind of role in his book, as it did in Chatwin’s life. I found this a useful technique and when I tried to emulate it for Glaskin, I came up with his love of the beach, and one particular beach, Cottesloe, that played such a pivotal part in his life. I decided to start my biography there and return to it at the end, to give the story a sense of completion.

Regarding my approach, it is a blend of the chronological and thematic. I’m not sure how conscious a decision this when I started writing, but it emerged as I went along. With a biography, readers like to know how a person grows, absorbs from those influences around him, and responds to life’s challenges as they present themselves, which calls for a certain degree of chronology. In addition, with a writer, there will no doubt be a progression from his early works to his later ones, so this feeds that approach. But as I did my research (over a number of years), I found certain themes began to emerge and demand attention, so I decided to focus my chapters around those, while maintaining a basic chronological progression. It was a balancing and weaving act, with a few changes and false starts along the way.

Perhaps what cemented my choice to use this two-pronged approach was the fact that as I researched Glaskin’s life, I began to see threads that ran through it and I wanted to see if I could connect the dots over time. For example, his encounters with Aboriginal Australians and Asians from an very early age laid the groundwork for his later experiences with them as an adult and the inclusion of them as characters (usually heroes) in his novels. Or his knee-jerk reaction to threats, which exhibited themselves in his early run-ins with authority at Catholic schools and reappeared throughout his life in his aggressive behaviour whenever he felt poorly done by.

Finally, a biography is a story and needs to hold the reader’s interest like any good tale. Highly chronological biographies run the risk of becoming tedious. I decided to focus primarily on those aspects of Glaskin’s life that really grabbed me, and to mine those, on the assumption that readers, too, would be similarly affected by them.

Part 2 tomorrow – ‘Dealing with Glaskinitis’

Link: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s typewriter

I had a pleasant surprise finding a blog post – with photographs – of Prichard’s typewriter, currently being restored by Robert Messenger of Oz Typewriter. He has posted an overview of her life and work too. Robert’s enthusiasm for typewriters is rather infectious; I’m glad to see people caring for and celebrating this aspect of the past. I doubt there’ll be photos of Tim Winton or Peter Carey’s restored laptops in a century.

Ancestry and mythology in Child of the Hurricane

Often in biographies and autobiographies, ancestry is dealt with all at once, in a sometimes unpalatable dose at the beginning of the book. Sometimes an ancestor with some connection, some parallel to the subject is highlighted, their life story summarised. Some biographers are disdainful of this, thinking it based on a rather silly theory of hereditary genius, but I think they’re too quick to be dismissive. Humans have always looked to their ancestors to explain themselves. In the case of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane, her ancestry forms a constellation of stories, myths and anecdotes around her entire childhood, and the book doesn’t throw these off until nine chapters in. It feels like Prichard is remembering for her own sake, not as a writer, but as if she were writing the family history as some people are wont to do in their retirement. She is descended from two inter-married clans who both came to Australia on the El Dorado in 1852, and the stories keep coming: the Prichards might be descended from the fifteenth century Princess Katharine, who makes an appearance in the play Henry V; her great-uncle who built the William Wallace monument in Scotland (true) was on his way to see his sister in Australia when he died at sea (not true); her father was shipwrecked – at some time, she doesn’t when – and swam ashore with a sea-chest and his dog; her mother’s godfather was shipwrecked also, and flagged down a ship with his shirt and it became known as Shirt Island – or so she was told. The mythology of her family was rich and romantic.

Yet for all the family tales, Prichard seems to have sympathy with her aunt’s verdict that ‘She did not regret not knowing more about her antecedents, or think it important to remember them.’ (56) Prichard’s concern with her ancestry seems more a fascination with the mythology itself than a desire to truly unpick and uncover the truth. She wouldn’t have necessarily liked being on the Who Do You Think You Are? show and have the myths critically examined – although, if she were alive today, perhaps her thinking would have shifted, just as the rest of society’s has.

Anguished Portrait of Marriage: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers


When Katharine Susannah Prichard set off from Perth for London and then a tour of the Soviet Union in May 1933, she left the manuscript of Intimate Strangers behind. It is the story of the troubled marriage of Elodie and Greg Blackwood, set in Perth during the Depression. The manuscript she left behind finished with the suicide of Greg after he has gambled their house away, and presumably before Elodie even has a chance to tell him she’s leaving him for the adventurous Jerome Hartog. While Prichard was somewhere in Sibera, war-damaged Hugo Throssell shot himself, having piled up huge debts from a failed ‘dude ranch’ venture at their home. She later expressed niggling doubt to her son, Ric, that perhaps part of his state of mind had been caused by reading the ending of the novel. Before publication in 1937, she altered the ending to set up a reconciliation between Greg and Elodie. The novel and the suicide will always be associated, and the issue has resurfaced often in the years since, including when the novel was turned into an ABC mini-series in 1981 and a magazine ran a sensationalised headline. In the introduction to the 1990 edition, Ric acknowledged parallels between Greg and Elodie and Katharine and Hugo, but emphasised the differences and the creative alchemy that amalgamates and transforms people and events beyond simple equivalencies; ‘the unknowable truth remains unknown.’

Intimate Strangers is a portrait of marriage as a concept and institution more than a portrait of a particular marriage. Elodie and Greg’s problems in their marriage of fifteen years are set against the troubled relationships of those around them, especially virginal tomboy, Dirk, who holds a line of suitors in her sway, not wanting to marry any of them, but eventually yielding to one for money. On the beaches of Calatta and then back in the suburbs of Perth, Elodie contemplates running away with Jerome as Greg continues his dalliances and fails as a provider. Over and over, the novel circles around the questions of finding sexual and personal fulfillment in marriage and out of it, with sexual attraction pulling people away from commitment. There is no clear message; the appeal and the problems of adultery are both presented. The resolution has Elodie and Greg recommit themselves to each other at the same time as they applaud Dirk’s escape from her marriage. In the moral world of the novel, Dirk’s escape is permissible because the marriage’s oppression mirrored that of the capitalist oppression of workers; as part of that, her husband Ted was violent, leaving her bruised. Greg is not as bad as Ted, but by today’s standards at least, he rapes Elodie in Chapter 6.

Intimate Strangers is distinct among Prichard’s novels. Most of her novels are researched, taking place among a particular occupation group – opal miners, timber workers, circus workers, station workers. Intimate Strangers is closer to the middle-class, urban world Prichard moved in. The urban setting is unusual for her, although as Throssell points out in the introduction, two of her lesser-known works, Windlestraws (1916) and Subtle Flame (1967) are also set in cities. Her other novels are also much more plotted; more than any other her other works, Intimate Strangers occurs within the characters’ consciousness, their inner conversations and impressions. However, just in case you were in doubt that you were really reading Prichard, in chapter 19 Dirk and Elodie turn up to a rally of unemployed workers in Fremantle to hear Tony speak, and the speeches of a number of the unemployed are reported. The tumult of the Great Depression is not foregrounded, but intrudes most here and when Greg loses his job in the downturn.

The novel is drenched in seawater and sand, lovingly evoking Perth beaches in the amalgam place of Calatta, part Rockingham, part Cottesloe. The characters begin on holiday there for the first half of the book, and return a couple of times, including for the final resolution. All the characters live to swim or sunbake or walk along the beach or fish. It is a valuable picture of Western Australian beach culture in the 1930s, sitting alongside J. M. Harcourt’s descriptions in Upsurge! (1934).

The novel enjoyed a brief renaissance in July 1981 with the broadcast of the two part mini-series adaptation. A review for the mini-series by Cul Cullen in The Women’s Weekly is one of the most hyperbolic hatchet jobs I’ve come across, describing it as ‘the silliest thing to flicker, unwatched, across our screens’; ‘aimless, stitled and utterly without relevance to a contemporary audience.’ Surely it couldn’t have been that bad; but the only way to know today is to watch the only copy I can see listed in the world at the National Archives. (In his introduction, Ric Throssell writes that it was also The Women’s Weekly which published the article at this time blaming the novel for his father’s suicide. However, The Women’s Weekly is now fully digitized for that year, and there is no trace of the article. It may have been a different magazine.)

While avoiding simplistic autobiographical readings of Intimate Strangers, it is an anguished book from an anguished period in Prichard’s life. The characters’ ponderings on how to find happiness and satisfaction in life and particularly marriage are themes which resonate today as well, even if the novel reads as a product of its age. It is not the Prichard novel I’d recommend readers start with, but it is a significant work in her corpus, demonstrating her versatility, and shedding light on its context.

Amalgam Places: The Puzzle of ‘Calatta’ in Prichard’s Intimate Strangers

If a writer sets a novel in a world without any familiar reference points, it might be described as surreal, or placed in the fantasy or alternative reality genre – Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things comes to mind. Other times, familiar places are given new names and also possibly amalgamated, while within that reality other larger places remain the same (Australia is still Australia). In Tim Winton’s work, is Angelus simply Albany renamed? One could go mad trying to tie down the suburb of Cloudstreet; it’s West Leederville, but it’s also Subiaco, and other western suburbs. And this is surely the point: renaming a familiar place loosens the constraints on the novelist. The novelist can construct their own place like building Lego, taking bits which go together. The railway line can be closer to the river. In the same way that time is manipulated, memories from different stages brought together, place can be manipulated.

So if I’m aware of this, why does my mind keep trying to crack the ‘code’ of Calatta, the beach setting in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers (1937)? Perhaps it’s because of Ric Throssell’s warning in the introduction:

The setting for the story was the familiar seaside scene of the Western Australian beaches. Anyone could tell that. ‘Calatta’ was Rockingham, or Cottesloe, or was it Point Peron? Or the Basin at Rottnest, perhaps? In Prichard’s lovingly evocative language the places and people seemed real. And yet, as in all works of fiction, reality and imagination are woven together in Intimate Strangers in new lives, new people, new events that exist only in the mind of their creator and the words in which their existence is evoked.

Throssell uses Calatta as a good example of how direct parallels can’t be drawn between fiction and life, a point which becomes important, biographically, when it comes to reading the novel as a portrait of Prichard’s marriage. Yet like the kid in class who ignores the point and goes off on their own tangent, I can’t help trying to put Calatta on the map as I read. In Chapter Four, the surf clubs compete, with Calatta going up against North Cottesloe, Cottesloe, City Beach and South Beach; later, it’s mentioned that Calatta’s ‘a few miles’ from Fremantle. It has holiday shacks, and a limestone main-street; cliffs; a view of an island. Just like Throssell warned, Calatta’s an amalgam and the point is to enter fully the novel’s world which is like my world, but also not like it – especially separated by eighty years.

In thinking through the function of ‘amalgam places’ for this post, I have a new appreciation of them. But James Joyce claimed Dublin could be rebuilt from his descriptions of it in Ulysses, and I’m quite fond of writers being very specific in evoking a place, using real names – if it’s done well. (I confused one reader in my current novel-in-progress is by writing about an alternative Perth where a ten story library sits on Heirisson Island, but still calling it ‘Perth’, and indeed calling everything by its real name. This objection is connected to all of this.) What do you think? Do you have a preference for fictionalised, amalgam places or not?

The other Winston Churchill


I’m collecting in my head all the intriguing figures I would possibly like to write a biography about. I nominate to myself the Other Winston Churchill (1871-1947), the American writer. He was better known at the turn of the twentieth century than his namesake (who is three years younger), such that he apparently requested that the British Churchill use the ‘S’ between his names. He was one of the world’s best selling novelists, but according to William C. Chase ‘a crisis of faith and values causes Churchill to abandon his pursuit of popular success and influence and devote himself to self-understanding. One result will ultimately be the appearance two decades later of The Uncharted Way, a meditation on religion…Churchill desires no popular acclaim, and receives none.’

Introducing an online reader of Chase’s works, Chase mentions that ‘sentimental moral drama cum juvenile romance’ was ‘typical of most of Churchill’s novels, helped him achieve “best seller” status in the early twentieth century, and accounts for the collapse of his reputation after 1920.’ It’s ironic that the same thing that would make someone so very popular would also make them so quickly forgotten – but it rings true of much mediocre or middlebrow literature, film and music. Not just sentimentality or moralising but sticking to the expectations and limits of a genre and an audience.

Of course, a biography has already been written of this Churchill – Robert W. Schneider, Novelist to a Generation: The Life and Thought of Winston Churchill (1976); one may well be enough, and perhaps we do not have the space to remember him further. But in the right hands, I suspect his life could make a fascinating book.

Review of a Forgotten Novel: Thomas Henry Prichard’s Retaliation

‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1891). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah. Continue reading

A Long Trudge: Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens

There is, perhaps, little new to say about Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens (1990). Heavily promoted on release (along the lines of the ‘the great living novelist on the great novelist’), it was widely reviewed and polarising. It is often referenced as a landmark in biography, and yet it is now out of print. Or the original 1200 page volume is out of print; more recently Ackroyd released a new, abridged edition, as well as other books on Dickens. The original serves as the source of some streams still flowing out to us today.

As many lengthy tomes have done, the book took me through the gamut of reading experiences, from moments of insight and exhilaration to long trudges of boredom. That almost seems par for the course for biography, which in conveying the scope of a life, can’t help but bring in some of the drudgery – would be neglectful not to, perhaps. James Kincaid, reviewing it for the New York Times, writes, ‘Worst of all is that he won’t go away, droning on for so long that the reader may start to root for death to come to Dickens just to get it over with.’

The biography begins with a prologue describing Dickens’ corpse and the reaction to his death, but for the rest is conventionally chronological, taking us through each year and, indeed, most months of Dickens’ life, including the circumstances of the writing of all his novels and the ways the themes interacted with and reflected his life. Perhaps the harshest and most thorough critique of Ackroyd’s take on Dickens, that of John Sutherland in the London Review of Books, takes the issue of the opening of biographies as a fruitful point of contrast between Ackroyd’s approach and that of ‘real’ literary biographers—that is to say, academics. Kaplan’s biography of Dickens opens with Dickens burning all his letters, a scene which helps us realise that, ‘We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.’ Ackroyd’s mistake or hubris, according to Sutherland, is to ignore that fence and claim to know Dickens as one genius to another. Sutherland finds some key examples of Ackroyd overreaching and doing just this, as well as a telling passage in which Ackroyd is disparaging of academic conventions like footnotes. Ironically, Ackroyd is hardly speculative by the standard of popular biography, with its psychologising and mind-reading. It is also a well-researched biography by comparison to these. Ackroyd seems to have made two mistakes—writing a biography that resembles academic biography enough to invite judgement by academic standards (Kincaid writes that ‘the work seems unsure of its audience’); and to have overreached with some Dickensian flourishes (such as the descriptions in the prologue as well as the quaint interludes), when the substance of the book is not as ‘hubristic’ as these flourishes might suggest.

Ackroyd chose to eschew not only subheadings but chapter titles, only numbering chapters. Perhaps the desired effect is to make the biography appear more like a novel. The irony is that novelists, when writing anything approaching a fictional biography, will tend to at least borrow this apparatus from biographers and give the chapters titles. Biography is more difficult to give form to than a novel—it’s less focused, is far less plotted. With all its inevitable detours and somewhat loose ends, chapter titles and subheadings give readers some structure to make better sense of their reading experience. The details and chapters blur into one another so much more without this, and I think it a significant shortcoming for this biography—especially considering Ackroyd seems clear in his own mind about which period and topics each chapter covers. It is a very closely structured work, and yet Ackroyd doesn’t wish to give too much away by letting readers see the map of the long journey he is taking them on. (On a similar note, Kincaid’s review mentions how infrequently Ackroyd even informs us which year he is talking about.)

The seven fictional interludes are notorious and receive a lot of critical attention. Dickens appears as a fictional character in these short passages, talking to the biographer or to other literary figures. Perhaps they seemed transgressive or innovative in their time; they speak, of course, of the limits of the conventional biography form and the biographer’s attempt to bridge the gaps into the past. Yet for me, there are not enough of them to make the technique feel whole-hearted as part of the project.

This biography has its great fans and great detractors. I am neither. While seeing some of its merit, I’m disappointed by it as literature; for me, it didn’t soar or enchant.