Monthly Archives: January 2015

Details

A trap for biographers is to think others will care about the details as much as they do. Don’t get me wrong – people really care when biographers are sloppy in their research and gets the details wrong. But I think of Alister McGrath’s 2013 biography of C. S. Lewis and how he devotes so very many pages to his great discovery that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity needs to be redated by a year from Lewis’s own account. The redating is somewhat significant, the conversion being a defining event of his life, and no doubt it affects some other things – but it doesn’t actually change the story of his life, which I think is what matters most to readers and even to our sense of history. To put it another way, I’m not sure most readers share McGrath’s sense of triumph, even if they’re glad he’s corrected the historical record.

I’m having many Alister McGrath moments in my Katharine Susannah research, redating and revising details of her childhood. I feel like such a clever detective as I edit my spreadsheet. But in the end, much of this will not even make it into the biography.

Several such moments today. Try to share my excitement, will you?

I’ve long been stumped by just when the Prichards left Fiji, and in my last post I said I wasn’t sure if it was 1888 or 1889 when they arrived in Melbourne. Yet it turns out there was a good reason they weren’t appearing in the shipping records for either of those years – Katharine Susannah arrived with her mother and two little brothers on 15 January 1887 as a three year old. She was in Melbourne not only for the great centennial exhibition of 1888, but also for Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations of 1887. She was so young she may not have had any memory of them later, but the spirit of those years must have affected her.

The movements of Katharine’s father, Thomas Henry, are curious. He stayed behind in Fiji for another eight months, before leading a delegation to Melbourne to urge the annexation of Fiji by Victoria. Leading such a delegation doesn’t seem the action of someone about to leave the colony, with his family already in Australia – yet it seems likely he resigned as editor of the Fiji Times (or was sacked) at about this same time, when the newspaper itself was moving from Levuka to Suva. There is no record of him returning to Fiji, and the next sighting of him is on a ship to Launceston, Tasmania in May 1888.

Here’s where a source I’d dismissed proved to be true. Because he was the deputy-editor of Launceston’s Daily Telegraph from 1893 to 1895, I assumed the Cyclopedia of Tasmania was simply wrong when it said he was the editor in 1888. But it was correct – he did spend a stint as editor at this time, possibly leaving due to ill-health, eventually taking up the position of editor of Melbourne’s The Sun around August 1889.

Two lessons for me – firstly, not to dismiss the piece of the puzzle which wasn’t fitting. It actually was a fact I wasn’t ready to accept. Secondly, the truth is rarely neat, and a challenge in narrating all this will be to sum up all these comings and goings in an engaging way. (If I was writing a novel, I would not be making such a messy series of events, with THP going back and forward so many times.)

For two and a half years, Katharine would not have seen her father much at all. It wouldn’t have been an unusual situation, but it must have been difficult, such a long time for a child, and she doesn’t mention it in her autobiography. It accounts for just how significant the big network of aunts and uncles are in her own account of her childhood. Getting the dates right – the details, if you will – has revealed something which wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. So details do matter, but more for how they change the story than for their own sake.

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Australia Day reflections: the 1888 centenary

Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived with her family in Melbourne as a small child in 1888 or 1889 – I’m yet to pinpoint the date. I do hope it was 1888, as it is a symbolic year – the centenary of white settlement. I’ve been reading about the centenary celebrations this week, and they reveal much about Australian sense of identity at that point. Australia was wrestling with its still recent (in some places) convict past; ignoring the white displacement of Aborigines, and still very excited about gold.

It had been Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations the previous year, and that had exhausted much of the money that might have gone into celebrating the centenary in New South Wales. The richer and newer “little sister” to the south – Melbourne – offered to take the lead, putting on a great exhibition that ran from August 1888 to March 1889, with two million people passing through. If the Prichards had reached Melbourne by then, they were surely among that number. In Social Sketches of Australia, Humphrey McQueen notes “Melbourne’s leading role in the centenary celebrations confirmed that it was recent wealth and not early beginnings which was being reviewed, though not scrutinised.” (2) Richard Waterhouse notes that “when those commemorating 1788 referred to the colony’s founder it was Captain Cook the discoverer of New South Wales who was valorised, not Arthur Phillip the founder of a convict colony.” (“Commemoration, Celebration, and ‘the Crossing'”). This suggests the long confused association of James Cook with 26 January 1788 is not simply a recent mistake of the ignorant.

The references to Aborigines in 1888 in the two contemporary sources I’ve read both call attention to their failure to “use the land” productively, a convenient myth which is still being corrected today. One of these sources is “A Centenary Review”, which appeared in The Argus at the opening of the exhibition. It’s a little tedious when it’s not being outrageous by today’s understandings, but in between it is also quite fascinating, offering a history of the nation as it was perceived in 1888.

The article looks toward the hope of federation, and Katharine Susannah Prichard was truly to be a writer of the new nation which would formally begin a few weeks after her seventeenth birthday. Growing up in Melbourne and Launceston, living for fifty years in Perth with a stint in Sydney and regular visits to Canberra, she cared about the whole nation and depicted so many phases of its life – from miners to station workers to Aboriginals and even to the comfortable suburbanites most of us have become.


Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Winged Seeds: A Review

1934-slnsw

Spoiler Alert

The third novel in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, Winged Seeds (1950) sees her writing about a war which was only just over. It begins brightly in 1936, with vivacious twins turning up on the doorstep of the trilogy’s hero, the aging Sally Gough. Pat and Pam are twenty years old and the stepdaughters of Sally’s arch-enemy, Sir Paddy Cavan. Their visit gives Prichard an opportunity to show us the state of the goldfields at the time. Their flirtatious ways set tongues wagging in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and a barometer of the sexual mores of the time. Yet the twins are not as easy as they seem; Pam is faithful to her fiancee fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Pat is in love with Sally’s grandson, Bill. They are fiercely anti-fascist, but cannot reveal their true sympathies until they turn twenty-one and inherit their father’s fortune, currently held by their wicked stepfather. Bill is the communist hero of this installment, taking on the mantle from his uncle, Tom, who dies early in the novel, his lungs destroyed by the mine. Bill is torn between his dedication to the cause and his desire for the “siren” Pat.

With various other subplots, there is already plenty enough to sustain an interesting narrative, but as in several other novels of Prichard’s, she unpicks her own set up. The twins leave suddenly; Bill goes off to fight World War Two. The protagonists of the first half only put in guest appearances for the rest of the novel, as the focus returns to Sally, as she struggles with what to make of World War Two, swayed and confused by debates around it, as well as re-living the grief of the Great War in which she lost one son and a second from its after-effects. Bill returns home from Greece injured, only to recover and be sent to New Guinea, where he goes missing, presumed killed by the Japanese. Pat drifts away from her commitment to progressive politics, marrying an American officer.  What was the novel building toward in its first half if not for Bill and the twins to do something extraordinary for the cause of communism? There is poignancy, though, in Sally trying to make sense of Bill’s death, and to find transcendence in the midst of death and disappointment.

The trilogy finishes wearily, with the two survivors, Sally and Dinny, burying Kargoola, the Aboriginal woman who they have known from the beginning, and finding hope in the winged seeds blown out from the kargooluh plant. Sally’s sons were dead, her grandson Billy was dead, but the ideas they lived for were immortal:

The life force strives towards perfection. What other imperative is there in living? The struggle had gone on through the ages. The vital germ in a seed attained its fine flowering and full fruit. How then could the great ideas and ideals of human progress be denied and annihilated? They could not. That was what Bill had believed , and what he tried to make people understand. (379)

Sandra Burchill comments that “… the optimistic vision for the future is not supported by any event in the novel and exists as a contradiction of what the trilogy has defined as a worsening situation both locally and internationally…” (364) The Cold War was a difficult period for Prichard to be writing in. She was a survivor like Sally, and had lived long enough to see more deaths and disappointments than most could bear.

At times the novel shimmers with the intensity and beauty of Prichard at her best. The scene in which Sally confronts her cheating lover, Frisco Jo, is particularly vivid. However, these passages are surrounded by long sections of “reportage”, the broader picture of the conditions of the goldfields conveyed through a session of “yarning” in which characters become mouthpieces for the information (Burchill, 313-314). It is a bold attempt to achieve a bigger canvas, but it is a significant reason why the trilogy was not as well regarded as Prichard hoped.

It is in print with Allen and Unwin, including in digital form; you can also pick up a secondhand first edition for not much more.

Work Cited

Burchill, Sandra. “Katharine Susannah Prichard: Romance, Romanticism and Politics.” PhD diss., UNSW (Australian Defence Force Academy), 1988.

Link: Review of The Quest for Corvo

Fellow biographer Laura Sewell Matter has been reading one of my favourite biographies, A. J. A. Symon’s Quest for Corvo. Her post intertwines a review of the book with reflections on writing biography. I identify with her thoughts on the personal relationship between the biographer and subject, and particularly like this:

Others have admired Rolfe’s work, but only Symons knows it comprehensively. There is, almost, possessiveness in this. Consider two meanings of “subject”: 1. the person or thing being described, 2. one placed under the authority or control of another, as a vassal. If Rolfe was Symons’ subject in the latter sense as well as the former–and arguably a writer is always in control of their subject–at least Symons was a benevolent ruler, who cast his subject in the most favorable light possible, given the life in question.

I hadn’t thought of the second meaning of “subject” in connection to biography, but it does shed light on one of the impulses in the relationship.

I, for one, am really looking forward to reading Laura’s biography of Charles Fisk one day.


Lessons from biopics: reflections on biography and The Imitation Game

imitation-game

The Imitation Game adapts a 768 page biography, Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983). It does it very well, focusing on the years Turing spent at Bletchley Park in World War Two breaking the German Enigma code but intertwining it with a past and future strand – his doomed love for a fellow-boarder, Christopher, as a young teenager; and his arrest for indecency in the 1950s. In two hours we gain some sense of the span of his life, and the film succeeds as both a thrilling war drama and a biopic. Lytton Strachey would approve. When he set out to change biography, he believed that biography could be art by virtue of selection, the artfully arranged, representative scenes of a life. Today, “biopics” (think Iron Lady, Walk the Line) attempt this, and biographies, seeking to be comprehensive, generally do not.

Biopics have much to offer the biographer in methodological possibility. Surely there are other readers like me who want to read biography for interest, but not generally the comprehensive brick. We should look to biopics for inspiration for a form of biography which is not simply a condensed brick, but a more Stracheyean form. Perhaps a central drama in a subject’s life, intertwined with subplots from past and future points. There would be a suggestion of the whole, without the detail of the whole. It would be the length of a shortish novel, two to three hundred pages. It need not take on the biopic’s creative sins – the amalgamated characters, the invented dialogue – but rely on the best tradition of biographical storytelling without being shackled by comprehensiveness. It would not replace the comprehensive biography, which needs to be written, but it would supplement it so well, perhaps revitalise biography as a readers’ genre and as an art form.

(I say this, and yet my first comment coming out of the cinema was that there was so much to Imitation Game that really it required a long-form drama, a series of ten to twenty hours. The problem of scope and detail is a significant one in biography. Yet perhaps my point stands, because far more detail fits within a two hundred page book than a two hour film – it could be enough to tell the kind of representative story I have in mind.)

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Speaking of the biopics’ “creative sins”, it’s actually a curious thing that biographies are adapted as biopics rather than documentaries. Biographies are not generally written in scenes (although this is something I want to attempt as much as possible, in a modified way), and biographers who invent dialogue are often heavily criticised. Biopics are given far more leeway – it’s usually acceptable to amalgamate characters or create them and to simplify chronology and turning points. Of course, there’s still pushback, with many viewers and critics expecting a high degree of historical accuracy; Imitation Game’s Wikipedia article currently has a lengthy section dedicated to perceived inaccuracies. A documentary would actually recreate the approach of a biography much more closely on film – a narrator takes the place of the author. Actors read portions of documents. Re-enactments have a certain tenuousness to them – it’s a mood or a setting rather than a full scene. Interviews are used. These conventions are able to convey the limits of the historical record, like biography does.