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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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

6 responses to “Details

  • residentjudge

    It’s quite discouraging, isn’t it, how long you can spend on a small detail that possibly, under pressure of a word count, doesn’t even make the cut- or if it does, is dismissed in a sentence or two.

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  • judy powell

    Excellent points. One of the problems is that as well as an obligation to the story you’re telling, there is an obligation to the sources. When you’re writing a biography of an important but relatively minor person – eg my biography of Jim and Eve Stewart (http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1114) – you know that no one else will write about them – for years, possible forever – so you feel some obligation to future researchers to include everything. Of course you can’t. But I think blogs are a great compromise. You’ve made me think about blogging about my (much delayed) work on the life of Ernestine Hill. Thanks!

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Yes, you put that nicely. I was consultant editor on a biography several years ago and recommended big cuts to make it more readable – and the author’s response was that it needed to be included for posterity. Your biography looks very interesting and Ernestine Hill project also. Do you have a blog?

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      • JPP

        I’m hoping to!! Have to finalize getting my mother into aged care. And learn WordPress. But will keep in touch. There are some letters between Ernestine and KSP of course. sone are in the Fryer collection I’m looking at.

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