Monthly Archives: October 2014

Fellow travellers: two blogs a little like this one

There are not that many biographers’ blogs in the world, and I’ve been glad to come across two from Australia, both with interesting insights into the research process and the discipline of biography.

Adventures in Biography follows Michelle Scott Tucker as she writes a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur – in her spare time. Earlier this year, she had a chance to visit Elizabeth’s birth place and experience that strange sense of walking in the footsteps of your subject. There’s some great posts discussing books about biography and biographies themselves; I discovered today that “Bombay Anna” (fictionalised as the governess in The King and I) actually lived in Perth for a time.

The Resident Judge of Port Phillip follows PhD student Janine Rizzetti as she researches Justice John Walpole Willis through the nineteenth century from Melbourne to Upper Canada to British Guiana. I’ve had the uncanny sense of reading in Janine’s footsteps several times, as I check out what other people are writing about a book I’m reading, only to discover Resident Judge to be one of the top Google results. Her blog offers some great news and views on developments and conferences in the discipline of history, too. (I’m working out of English, yet biography is always in the overlap between the two disciplines.)

I have started a blogroll of links to these and other similar blogs on the sidebar.

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Singer girls dreaming big: Violet in The Roaring Nineties

Given my biography is confined to Prichard’s early years (1883-1919), I am contemplating if any light can be shone on her early years from The Roaring Nineties (1946). One potential illumination is in the depiction of a minor character, the young Violet, who appears as a bartender in Chapter 30. She has put on hold her ambitions to be a singer to support her family; her father is a drunk who does not provide. This is not too far removed from Prichard’s situation at the end of school, when she gave up going to university to look after her sick mother, and then later provided for her family during her father’s bouts of depression. Sally is worried for Violet – is she destined to be ground down by the hard life of the goldfields and not shine like she’s meant to? Prichard does let Violet escape to pursue her dream and receive singing lessons in Melbourne, only to shatter it cruelly in Chapter 65, when Violet’s mother pretends to be ill to summon her back. Sally wonders what will become of her:

Nothing touched the core of Violet’s being, Sally imagined. It was wrapped in her dream of being a singer. She had maintained herself apart from the demoralizing influences about her because of it. The tragedy was that she should have been forced back among them… Sally had a presentiment of the doom hanging over the girl. She would be caught in the hungry life force surging beneath the surface of this race-course crowd. But Violet – her spirit would always demand something more than ephemeral excitement. (439)

Prichard would sing to her father in his final illness, she tells us in her autobiography, but the song went out of her soul after his death. The next year (1908) she would meet with the famous singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi, who demanded she stay and receive singing lessons; she didn’t, perhaps something she always regretted. The young woman on the cusp of maturity with much potential but at risk of being dragged down by other forces recurs throughout her work, Sophie the singer in Black Opal being particularly close to Violet’s character here. Sophie had a happy ending; we wait to see what will befall Violet in the next two volumes.


Gold Fever: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties

The Roaring Nineties (1946) is the first volume of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s magnum opus, her goldfields trilogy. She spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). The trilogy is an epic telling the story of the Western Australian goldfields from the discovery of gold and spanning the decades which followed.

The novel is haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aborigines, and begins with a short, violent story of an abduction of two Aboriginal women by prospectors before gold had even been discovered. It is Prichard at her finest, writing in spare and evocative prose. It is a remarkable reorientation of her novel, throwing off-balance this story of whites and their gold; today it would almost be expected, but in 1946 it shows historical insight ahead of its time. From here, the novel tells of the initial gold rush in the 1890s and the establishment of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie Boulder. Prichard brings the dust, tents, excitement, and desperation alive in a way that historical studies cannot do. She researched this novel thoroughly and it shows; sometimes to the detriment of narrative, but mostly to help her create an authentic story. The historical background is never far from the story, forming a spine which moves the story along through a series of incidents, with a large cast of characters moving on and off the stage. It is Sally Gough who is closest to a protagonist, as she makes a living running a boarding house to compensate for her ineffectual aristocratic gambler of a husband, Morrie. The struggle between them is an ongoing aspect of the plot, as he gradually accepts her egalitarian ethos, both in class and gender terms. Sally’s insistence that she and Morrie should not elevate themselves above the others contrasts with Alf and Laura’s move up the class rankings, as mining becomes commercialised and Alf betrays his prospector roots to become a mine manager. The class struggle of the alluvial prospectors against the mining companies and the political establishment occupies much of the last third of book, and is the least engaging, often losing sight of the characters.

The novel is, rather loosely, a frame narrative, with the whole novel presented as the yarns of prospector Dinny Quinn about the early days of the goldfields. This device is used frequently in the early chapters, peters out, and is then revived toward the end of the book. Dinny is rarely central to the action, more an observer who knows all the characters.

Having read about some of the reception history of The Roaring Nineties, and the critical preoccupation of the time with rating it against and comparing it with her earlier work, what surprised me most about the novel is how very typically Prichardian it is. This novel has elements of almost all of her previous novels; it seems far less of a departure than Coonardoo or Intimate Strangers were. The foundation and growth of a community echoes The Pioneers. The depiction of the prospectors with their strong code of ethics (such as “roll ups” where disputes are settled) and their struggle against big companies is similar to the concerns of Black Opal. The mistreatment of Aboriginal women as temporary sexual partners brings Coonardoo to mind. The struggle of Sally Gough for her right to earn money and define herself apart from her husband echoes Haxby’s Circus and Intimate Strangers.


Advice to new biographers: interview with a biographer part 4

 

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(This is the fourth and final in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)

Biographer-in-Perth: Any advice for a biographer starting out on the journey you’ve just taken?

John Burbidge: A few miscellaneous thoughts-

  • Try to secure a publisher and agent up front. I succeeded in neither, but not without trying. I had twelve rejections from publishers, including two from the same company but under different managements, before I struck gold. Finally, it was someone whom I had contacted in the course of my research who was interested in Glaskin and who had read my manuscript who introduced me to his publisher, who then became mine also. Lesson: Never underestimate the value of friends, associates and others who can open doors for you. Sometimes, you just need to ask them. Such people have been pivotal in my having two books published.
  • Try to secure funding up front or have some way of supporting yourself. Biographies can take years of work (this one took 13 off and on) and sometimes much travel (poor Nicholas Shakespeare went everywhere in the world that the peripatetic Chatwin did!). Again, I tried but didn’t succeed in getting any grants but I did have a partner who was a flight attendant so managed to get discounted air fares to cut costs, which helped a lot, especially with international travel.
  • Spread out your research as widely as possible, mixing interviews with a broad cross-section of people who knew your subject in various capacities, with library research, online research, etc. Don’t discount anything you come across but also don’t feel obliged to use it all either. There are always other places (other books, articles, interviews, etc.) where some fascinating tidbit might come in handy.
  • Once you’ve embarked on your literary biography, if you discover someone else is doing exactly the same, don’t be disenchanted. This happened to me and I nearly gave up on the whole enterprise. But others convinced me to stay with it. No two writers, even if they used the exact same material, will come up with the same biography.
  • Get feedback on your work as it progresses to help you fine tune it as much as you can. I did this several times with different people before I had manuscript ready to send to a publisher, and even after I did. Some people I paid and some did it gratis.
  • Try to have someone with some influence write a foreword, especially if you don’t have a very high profile. I was lucky in getting Robert Dessaix to play this role for me. My relationship with him was built over a number of years but once he read the manuscript and was excited about it, he was quite willing to do this, and more.
  • Get interviewees to sign releases at the time of the interviews or soon after. It is often difficult to go back later and secure these, especially if the interviewee has died!

Biographer-in-Perth: It’s been interesting and valuable for me to learn about John’s journey as a biographer. Thank you so much to John for sharing his thoughts. I know they will be of value to other biographers, as well as offering fascinating insights into a biographer’s work for readers of literary biography.


The works and the life: interview with a biographer part 3

 

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(This is the third of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)

Biographer-in-Perth: What was your experience dealing with that perpetual dilemma of the literary biographer: deciding how to relate your subject’s writing to their life?

John Burbidge: Actually, it was not so difficult to relate his writing to his life because so much of it is quite autobiographical. He tended to write his fiction based on real-life experiences and locate his stories in places in which lived (Henrietta Drake-Brockman admonished him as a young boy for not doing this in his early short stories, and he never forgot it.). No End to the Way is perhaps the classic example of this, but it is also true of books like A Lion in the Sun, The Beach of Passionate Love, The Man Who Didn’t Count, A Bird in my Hands and others.

I decided to let theme guide me and tried to relate particular books to certain themes. When I did this, some works fell more easily into certain chapters than others, e.g. his trilogy on lucid dreaming clearly belonged in the chapter on dreams and Glaskin’s fascination with the paranormal. Of course, reading all his published and unpublished works was a prerequisite for this and took some time (Glaskin had more than 100 short stories published, as well as 20 books and a number of unpublished manuscripts as well.)

To help me manage this complex task, I created a chart that was a cross between a timeline and a matrix. Across the top of the page I listed all the chapters (as they emerged) that roughly corresponded to a chronology of his life. The side categories were Opening Quotation, Basic Premise, Key Elements and Related Books. Naturally, I moved things around a bit, merged columns, deleted others, and so on. Although it might appear to be a highly structured way of coming at a biography, I found it to be a useful framework that allowed for a lot of fluidity and kept me from drowning in the sea of data, opinions and ideas that swamp you when tackling another’s life and work.

I also created a life timeline for Glaskin to which I kept adding information as I came across it. Across the top, by year, was his age and place of residence and down the side were Events, People, Books Written, Books Published, and Other. It allowed me to keep the big picture in front of me as the details kept adding.

 Part 4 tomorrow: Advice for New Biographers.


Dealing with ‘Glaskinitis’: interview with a biographer part 2

 

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(This is the second of four in an interview series with John Burbidge, author of Dare Me! The Life and Work of Gerald Glaskin.)

Biographer-in-Perth: I felt I could perceive your struggle to know what to do with the anger and bitterness in Gerald Glaskin’s personality. Did you find it difficult trying to keep on the right side of all the people you’d interviewed, and their varying opinions of him?

John Burbidge: I sometimes wonder if I gave undue emphasis to Glaskin’s more negative traits, but having talked with dozens of people and read hundreds of letters (his and others), I found it was something that came through very strongly and repeatedly, so I couldn’t ignore it.

One early reader of the manuscript and a close friend of Glaskin’s thought I had overplayed this aspect of his personality, at the expense of his more endearing and positive qualities. I took this advice to heart and tried to ensure that I presented a fair and balanced appraisal of the man. (I later deleted an entire chapter because it was essentially just another example of his belligerent nature, so it seemed redundant.) At the same time, I did not wish to downplay something that seemed to be a critical factor in answering a primary question of this biography, namely, what contributed to Glaskin’s poor reception as a writer in his home country?

During interviews, naturally I tried to remain impartial and let people say what they wanted, regardless of whether it was pro or con Glaskin. I had no axe to grind or theory to prove, but was simply trying to paint the most honest and comprehensive portrait of the man and his work that I could. One way I attempted to do this was to reach out to a broad cross-section of people who knew him in various capacities and at different times in his life, then put together the pieces of the puzzle as they revealed themselves. Most people came across as honest and upfront, but I sensed a few held back from revealing aspects of Glaskin’s life they didn’t wish me to know about. I accepted that as one of the limitations of interviewing and trusted that further research would help fill in the blanks, which it usually did.

When I came across the paradigm of ‘Glaskinitis’, I felt it was a breakthrough because it not only confirmed what I had perceived from many other sources but it put Glaskin’s more antagonistic traits in the wider context of a family behavioural pattern.

 Part 3 tomorrow: The Works and the Life.