Monthly Archives: December 2014

Emails and Paper Trails

Great post at Historians Are Past Caring on the effect of hacking on the archive of the present. I’m going to trust in people continuing to leave revealing traces in every medium.

Historians are Past Caring

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? A similar example happened recently at the University of Sydney, where Barry Spurr, a professor of poetry, had his racist, sexist, obese-ist and generally nasty and stupid emails revealed by the press. He resigned this week.

One of my favourite email stories comes from the 1980s, when news about a secret deal between America and Iran – the Iran-Contra scandal – was…

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From white-washing to uncovering secrets: this week’s research quest for the history of biography

My research quest this week has been to try to better explain the shift from respectful, white-washed biographies of the Victorian-era to the biographical preoccupation by the late-twentieth century with uncovering secrets. (It’s a question I have already addressed in my MA thesis, but I’m revisiting it as I revise a section of the thesis for publication.) As an example, Charles Dickens’ original 1870s biography by his friend John Forster did not mention Dickens’ long affair with the actor, Nelly Ternan. The secret was long out when the definitive story of Nelly was written in the 1990s, Claire Tomalin’s Invisible Woman. For some time now, the reading public has expected biographies to “tell the truth” about a person’s life, and not leave secrets out. My essay connects this shift to the rise of biographical quest fiction, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).

Not that much has been written on the history of biography. Those accounts which do trace its development over the twentieth century inevitably point to New Biography as the turning point – the triumvirate of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicholson. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared a few months before Armistice in 1918 and set about debunking the heroes of the Victorian age, and forging a new style of biography. While most scholars are perhaps too quick to label most biography since as post-Stracheyean, Robert Skidelsky (1988) makes a compelling contrarian case that contemporary biography does not resemble Strachey’s project at all. “What chiefly distinguishes the contemporary from the Victorian biography (apart from its greater professionalism) is its greater degree of explicitness about private life and its greater psychological penetration; neither of which, I think, were important aspects of Strachey’s original programme.” (9) Strachey himself wrote only from published sources, avoiding the problems of dealing with literary estates or the hard work of research. He called for brevity in biography, a few telling incidents, not the numbing accumulation of detail. A biography without archival research and of only a hundred or two hundred pages is not a common sight in today’s literary landscape. If Skidelsky is right, who can we look to in order to explain the biographical turn?

Freud is one candidate, but he was not someone for unearthing secret papers from the archives either. Long before The Da Vinci Code was Freud’s biography of Da Vinci, and it did not involve lost letters or diaries, but Freud re-intrepreting Da Vinci’s dreams and character. However, the mainstreaming of Freudian thought, of concepts like repression, is surely another piece of the puzzle.

Other candidates:

  • The rise of celebrity culture, and the expectation that we will know their private lives. The gossip pages spill over into even serious biographies.
  • Related to this, Skidelsky talks of a shift in motivation for writing biography – “not because they achieved great or unusual things, but because they led interesting or unusual lives.” (13).
  • A melding of Strachey’s interest in debunking heroes and other developments in culture and biography – the professionalisation (and increasing scholarliness) of biography; a return to the long biographies of the nineteenth century after a flirtation with Strachey’s brevity; the general tendency toward revisionism and suspicion.

It’s a pity Skidelsky pulled down Strachey as the model for contemporary biography so effectively without naming a replacement. But this is where I come in. Perhaps a clearer answer will emerge.

Skidelsky, Robert. “Only Connect: Biography and Truth.” In The Troubled Face of Biography, edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley, 1–16. London: Macmillan, 1988.

The goldfields during the Great War and the aftermath: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Golden Miles


Golden Miles (1946), the second in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, spans 1914 to 1927 in the Western Australian goldfields, from the eve of World War One to the eve of the Great Depression. Sally Gough is the central character even more clearly than in The Roaring Nineties, and the rather untidy narrative takes her through a series of trials, with Paddy Cavan the nemesis lurking close to many of her misfortunes. At the beginning of the novel, she kicks him out of her boarding house for his gold stealing racket. He promises she will pay a high price; in one sense, the rest of the novel proves him true, even if he is only minimally directly responsible. The other way to sum up the disparate happenings of the novel is as the tales of the fate of Sally’s four sons coming to adulthood, each representing a different way of living in the world. All of this is against a bigger backdrop, as Sally’s son, Tom, reflects: “There were those sinister forces outside Sally, her home and her sons, always threatening the security of the small fort she had built for herself. No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.” (99)

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I am the stranger: reading through the letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard


I’m reading through twenty-six years of weekly letters from Katharine Susannah to her son, Ric Throssell. There’s thousands of pages of handwriting to decipher, and if I did nothing else for a whole day’s work, it would take two days to get through one year. I have made it from 1943 to the end of 1947 in the first few weeks of the endeavour. With so much of her correspondence lost or destroyed, these letters are Katharine at her most revealing. Continue reading

Katharine Susannah’s 131st birthday: in colour at Random Phoughts

I missed Katharine Susannah’s 131st birthday yesterday, although I did spend several hours of it in her company, deciphering her handwriting in her letters to her son, and feeling I was in her company. Thankfully Loredana at Random Phoughts marked it by selecting KSP for her remarkable daily colourisation project. Here is KSP, in colour! (It’s interesting what a distancing effect black and white photographs have. They make me so conscious of the gulf of time that separates me and the subject. Colour reminds us that the people of the past were as alive as we are.)

Random Phoughts

Day 211 of Colourisation Project – December 4

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, 4 December in 1883, Katharine Susannah Prichard was an Australian author, journalist, political activist and co-founding member of the Communist Party of Australia (1920) as well as one of Australia’s greatest novelists and literary figures.

Photographer: May Moore – Katharine Susannah Prichard c1927 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

In spite of the strong anti-communist sentiment pervading Australian politics and society before and after the second world war, Prichard remained a committed member of the Communist Party up until her death in 1969. She worked tirelessly organising unemployed workers and writing speeches and articles on behalf of the party. She delivered many public addresses on world peace and socialism, always working tirelessly for the cause.  She founded left-wing women’s groups, and during the 1930s…

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Louis and Hilda: Some thoughts on biographical method in Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players


Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.

Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading