True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method

true-north

The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Mary (1913-1994), the writer, and Elizabeth (1915-2000), the painter, were the daughters of a pastoral patriarch, and despite largely growing up in Perth, the time they spent on the stations in the Kimberley were definitive for their art and life – at least in Niall’s account. There are some great reviews of True North, engaging both with the contested legacy of the Duracks (especially Elizabeth and the Eddie Burrup saga) and, pleasingly, with Niall’s biographical method – including my blogging colleagues, Stumbling Through the Past and Whispering Gums. (These two along with ANZ Litlovers have already read everything I will read over the next decade.) I want to add some further thoughts on biographical method.

  • Niall tells the entire lives of two octogenarians in three hundred pages. It’s a challenge; and in an uncharitable but bracing review, David Marr writes, “she doesn’t take us deep into this difficult subject or the imaginations of Mary and Elizabeth.We skate. We skate all through their lives.”  There needs to be a place for the short biography. I liked the length of this book; it was a much more digestible read than the brick length comprehensive biographies. But Marr might have a point. Perhaps the issue is the constant summary. What if Niall slowed down at just some certain points and gave us some scenes from their lives, as she does right at the beginning in the family going through the office of Michael Patrick Durack, their father, just after he died?
  • True North is reticent about sex, mentioning it in retrospect. Thus we meet Tom Naughton on page 48 and read a breezy two page account of his love affair with Elizabeth, only to read once it’s over that “Bet had concealed her sexual relationship with Tom” from Elizabeth. It was concealed from us, too, and couldn’t be assumed when the subject is a former convent girl in the 1930s. Later, Bet’s hard-partying Darwin days are referred to retrospectively as a “sexual wasteland” (75), something not evident in the actual narration. Similarly, her extra-marital affairs are mentioned after the fact in relation to her view of her brother-in-law. I’m not expecting salaciousness, but just a greater directness. (My blogging colleague, Yvonne, has a contrary perspective: “I appreciated Niall’s handling of Elizabeth’s sexual liaisons.  She did not shy from mentioning them, but she did not place much weight on them, giving what I felt was a balanced and fair account.”)
  • The cover looks great with the photo of Elizabeth and Mary as young women in the north, but I was a little shocked to see the unedited version in the inserts, revealing that there are two men with them who’ve been cut out of the picture. I’m left pondering whether it was okay to do this.
  • Only directly quoted works are referenced. There are a lot of things it would be nice to know the source for! I wish non-academic publishers were more open to copious footnotes. Surely there’s lots of readers who find them interesting.
  • Niall is very defensive of Elizabeth’s late Eddie Burrup phrase when she painted and exhibited as an Aboriginal man. She tries various comparisons to assess which fits best, from Ern Malley to the pseudonym of “Henry Handel Richardson.” She doesn’t deal enough with the ethnic issues involved, though, and the most relevant parallel is surely the Helen Demidenko affair which had just happened in 1995. In that case, too, a creative work was associated with a minority identity by a privileged white woman. There is a defensiveness to the whole book, trying to prove the Duracks did not enjoy the wealth everyone assumed they did. Stance is a difficult issue for the biographer, and objectivity is illusory. But I often find the tone not working when the biographer is determined to prove a particular interpretation of their subject.
  • This issue also goes to the orientation of the whole book to “true north.” Niall argues that the call and draw of the Kimberley is central to understanding the Duracks. It works, and is quite convincing – but it surely also distorts, with material selected to reinforce the argument. Can anyone be adequately explained by one element? Maybe, but probably not. Yet a biography can only do so much, anyway. The pressure’s just increased when a book is the only one about a particular subject. Not such a problem to pursue one theme with Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens.

Despite my criticisms (many of which are more questions), I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a fascinating portrait of two remarkable women, and of Western Australia in a different era.

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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

4 responses to “True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method

  • whisperinggums

    I enjoyed reading this Nathan (and thanks for the link). Whenever I think of this book it is with mixed feelings. I did enjoy it a lot, in the end, but it does give me pause too, partly related to some of the issues you raise above.

    I must say I agree with Yvonne regarding the handling of sexuality. I felt she covered enough for us to understand without becoming salacious or invasive. I do think the Eddie Burrup section is discomforting and I’m not sure I agree with Niall’s handling of it.

    Your query about the cropping of the photo on the cover – is your concern moral, ethical, legal, philosophical? I remember noticing that it wasn’t the full picture but I don’t recollect being more than surprised.

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Good question about the photo. I think my question over it is philosophical. The two figures cut out were central to the photo, it was a group shot not just the two of them. It seems a distortion of the source. But I’m in two minds – it’s a great cover, and maybe it was the best solution, if the Duracks didn’t conveniently pose up north with just the two of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • whisperinggums

        Yes, philosophically it’s a good question. Moral rights would say you can’t do that – without permission. But, presumably they got that. It changes the meaning of the photo, but if the owners don’t mind then it’s a repurposed art form? All worth thinking about I agree.

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  • Wrap-up of a year’s reading in biography | A Biographer in Perth

    […] rougher in others. Brenda Niall is one of the few professional biographers in Australia, and her True North was a stimulating read, as was Drusjilla Modjeska’s Second Half […]

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