“So let us put him in the thick of it”: reconstructing the unknown

Cook-tableau

I’ve just been to a Perth Writers’ Festival talk by two biographers, Hamish McDonald and Madonna King. The conversation around the process of biography was interesting. McDonald’s latest book, War of Words is the biography of a Japanese-raised European, Charles Bavier, born in 1888, while King’s is a biography of Australian politician, Joe Hockey. They are both journalists, but King’s book seemed particularly a work of journalism from the way she spoke about it. She interviewed three hundred people and wrote it intensively, seven days a week, over the course of a year. McDonald started his in 1982, when there were still were people alive who knew Bavier well, but it is inevitably a historical enterprise. Despite this, he said at one point that he wasn’t pretending his was a footnoted history. In the literal sense this is completely true – indeed it is not referenced at all (there is a bibliography), which seems a terrible lack to me. I may be an unusual reader, but footnotes reveal much about method, and can be fascinating to me. But he also meant it in another sense – his insertion of several scenes of reconstructions, where he imagines what Bavier was doing during historical events McDonald knew he experienced.

He begins a chapter about Bavier in the Yokohama earthquake of 1923 by writing:

The events of that first day in September 1923 in Yokohama and Tokyo are well documented. What Charles did is not. His manuscript does not give us information. But he was in Yokohama and survived. So let us put him in the thick of it. (Chapter 10)

The chapter which follows is a kind of researched historical fiction, within the boundaries of what McDonald knows about Bavier. SMH reviewer Paul Ham regards it as a “serious flaw”:

A serious flaw in the book is the author’s tendency to plug the gaps in Bavier’s life by imagining what might have been. At several points McDonald frames his narrative with, ‘Let us suppose’ or ‘Let us imagine this incident…’, to flesh out important events or, in one case, a year of Bavier’s life. Perhaps this works over a sentence of two, but pages of speculative narrative are less persuasive.

I am working on acceptable and unacceptable speculation and reconstruction in my own biography. I think it does depend on the style of biography and the quality of the writing itself. I’ve just drafted chapter two. Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived in Melbourne in January 1887. She doesn’t mention it – and probably couldn’t remember it – but I thought it significant that in all likelihood she would have viewed the centenary of colonisation exhibition in Melbourne in 1888. It gives a snapshot of the Australia she grew up in, and the ideas in the air. I originally tried to describe her gazing at the tableau of life-sized wax models of Captain James Cook, his party, and the watching Aboriginals. But in the end I kept it simple, a mere sentence of imagination after two paragraphs of description of the moment. Here it is in its first iteration. I guess it’s called “not putting her in the thick of it.”

(Postscript: I would like to know what happened to those wax figures. My wife thinks they would have melted in the Australian heat in a dingy store-room. I suspect she’s right. Just a black and white photograph in the SLV catalogue now.)

*

After the queen’s golden jubilee in 1887, the celebrations restarted in August 1888, as Melbourne, the flourishing “younger sister” to Sydney, took centre-stage for the centenary of colonisation.[1] There were ten thousand exhibitors from thirty-eight colonies and nations, displaying both cultural works and wonders of industry and technology. A life-sized tableau of Captain Cook’s landing commemorated the Australian colonies’ origins, rather than Captain Phillip and convicts.[2] Illuminated by the marvel of electric light, the visitors could see thousands of art works from around the world, including artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, and Arthur Streeton who would come to be known as the Heidelberg School.[3] Hailing the opening, an editorial in The Argus praised “the progress of art and general culture” since the 1880 exhibition, claiming:

In a nation’s history, intellectual and artistic culture comes last. First there is the stern necessity of manual work, then the adoption of every invention that renders labour more economical and more valuable, and in the end the production of a specific art and literature, and the cultivation of those things that conduce to the highest and most refined greatness of a people… [T]he nation must come to some maturity before it can develop an art or literature that is distinctively its own.[4]

The Argus looked forward to the emergence of “a poet who will draw his reflective words from the slow and winding rivers of a country whose physical characteristics are unique.” Although a writer of the wrong gender working in the wrong genre, three decades later Katharine was to make a strong case to be the one The Argus looked for in her distinctively Australian novels which, ironically, celebrate “the stern necessity of manual work” and make literature out of labour.

The great exhibition ran until March 1889, with two million people passing through, four times the city’s population. Katharine doesn’t record visiting the exhibition, but she surely would have. We can imagine her five year-old self brought into the busy grandeur on the train by her mother, excited and confused by the wonders of the world.

[1] Humphrey McQueen, Social Sketches of Australia (St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 2004), 2.

[2] “Melbourne Centennial Exhibition,” Launceston Examiner, August 14, 1888, 4.

[3] Dennis Dugan, “The Centennial of 1888: Victoria’s Largest Exhibition,” Royal Historical Society of Victoria Journal 54, no. 3 (1983): 6–9.

[4] Argus, August 2, 1888, 7.

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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

One response to ““So let us put him in the thick of it”: reconstructing the unknown

  • MST

    I’m not a fan of fiction inserted into biographies either. But it is inevitable for a biographer to wonder and to make educated guesses. I think your so-called ‘mere sentence’ is a well-balanced remedy.

    Liked by 1 person

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