One year in: the story of my biography so far

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I started my PhD one year ago today. I’m sad a whole year is gone, because I don’t want this to end; I don’t think my career is going to get any better than being paid to research a biography for three years. 

It’d been a whole year before that in August 2013 reading Claire Tomalin and others on buses in Europe that I decided I definitely wanted to write a biography of some kind. And then six months after that, I had decided it was Katharine Susannah Prichard who was to be my subject. So the first stage in my enrollment was to decide on the scope and form of the biography. I’d gone in determined to cover the whole of Katharine’s long life. I think there should be more biographies under 300 pages and less door-stoppers, so it seemed quite reasonable to fit the whole of her life into an 80,000 word thesis. I spent some time researching biographies written at this length; they do exist and some have been successful – Alexandra Harris’s book on Viriginia Woolf, for example. Yet my supervisors were skeptical. One factor working against covering Katharine’s whole life in 80,000 words is that there is yet to be a comprehensive biography written of her. Mine would have been of a similar length to the existing one written by her son forty years ago. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, has been covered rather exhaustively and there was room for a short version of her life.

I was also bothered by the tension between a chronological and topical approach to the subject. Initially, I suspected a topical approach would be better, even though it’s not the norm. Back in September, I argued for a “relational biography” approach which told the life of Katharine through thirteen significant relationships:

 In addition to family relationships, Prichard had significant friendships, romances and professional relationships which reveal her many different sides and cut across a range of historical and cultural contexts in Australia as well as, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. Prichard’s associates will be selected for a number of different reasons. Some because of their foundational significance in her life. Some because their relationship with Prichard illuminates a particular sphere or period of her life. Some because the associate is intriguing or famous or left behind a particularly interesting trace of their association with her.

This form of biography takes seriously the fact that, in the absence of a detailed journal, much of what we can discover about a deceased biographical subject is through their interactions with other people in the form of letters, other people’s journals, and oral history. It also acknowledges how significant relationships are to a person’s life, and that relationships of different kinds can be used as a series of lenses with which to reveal different perspectives on a subject.

Each chapter would stretch the span of the relationship – and so the chapter on her father would go from her birth (and before) to his death in 1907, and finish with his continuing legacy in her life and work. The next chapter might take us to her best friend, Hilda Bull, spanning from their teenage friendship to Hilda’s death in the 1950s.

I can’t really remember why I didn’t go with this model. I had some doubts, and I sensed my supervisors weren’t completely convinced. I was also bothered by how much it would miss out. There is more to a person than their relationships.

I decided, instead, I would write only a portion of her life and do it relatively chronologically and comprehensively. The question became which portion. Parochially, I’d wanted so much to write about Western Australia, and so it was a little painful to decide to cover her early years, 1883 to 1919, stopping with her marriage to Hugo Throssell just before she moves to Western Australia. Yet the early years made sense – how could I write about her middle or late years without a deep understanding of her beginnings? I was also intrigued by the amount of material I was discovering about these supposedly unrecoverable early years. There were so many newspaper articles and an autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, which had never been studied closely. And one more factor: a chance to write about Katharine before the biomyths which now define her, before she was a communist, before she was married to Hugo.

So I have thirty-five years to cover, from 4 December 1883 to 28 January 1919. One year in, I’m up to January 1903. Katharine has just turned nineteen and finished high-school. I’ve completed four chapters adding up to 20,000 words. Two years of my life to cover the next sixteen years of hers doesn’t seem too arduous – but of course these coming years will be covered in more detail than her childhood.

Chapter one took me to Fiji where she was born. I became quite obsessed with tracking the movements of Katharine’s father, Tom, given the huge impact he had on her life and the fact she knew so little of his early life. It’s easy to lose perspective – I could spend months more on him, and even if I discovered his exact movements through the goldfields of Victoria in the 1860s before he got to Fiji, it wouldn’t actually add that much to the biography.

Chapter two narrates Katharine’s childhood from three to eleven, and has at its centre her account of these years in the memoir / children’s novel, The Wild Oats of Han. The digitised newspaper database, Trove, has revealed much of the background to the Prichards’ time in Launceston and the key event of the auctioning off of the family furniture when things went bad in 1895. A version of this chapter will appear in Westerly journal in November.

Chapters three and four deal with Katharine’s school years at Armadale State School and South Melbourne College. Again, I’ve been so pleased with the small discoveries which have added up to a fuller picture of these years. I’ve joined the dots, for example, on the Prichards’ involvement with a circle of now-forgotten Melbourne artists including Frank Brooke-Smith and Vincent Brun, who painted her father.

More important than any of this, I feel a story is emerging of the formative influences on her life and writing. It’s a story not inconsistent with her own account in Child of the Hurricane, but latent within it. As in any life, it’s a combination of family circumstance, personality, and social conditions. Yet the particularities of it seem so very fascinating to me.

At the moment, Katharine’s life is on hold for a couple of months as I work on a dissertation chapter. I’ve chosen to present my biography as a creative writing PhD because my focus is as much on the form of the biography as the ideas and arguments. This means writing an accompanying 20,000 word dissertation, but also the chance to write a more creative biography, as researched and footnoted as it will be. I’m examining Hazel Rowely’s superb Christina Stead: A Biography as a model for writing biography, including in its use of narrative techniques borrowed from fiction. The late and great Rowley, along with Claire Tomalin, offer a quieter alternative to the more experimental works of biography which receive all the scholarly attention, and yet one just as aware of the limitations and paradoxes of biography and more aware of the genre’s potential to tell beautiful, meaningful stories of people’s lives.

It’s been an amazing year, one of the best of my life. I’ve loved working with the archives, digital and physical and writing from the traces left behind rather than purely from my imagination. I’ve been to Melbourne and Canberra and stayed at Katharine’s old house in Greenmount (the photo is from her writing cabin). I’ve met so many interesting and generous people who have helped me on my way. That includes the online community which I’ve connected to through this blog – the band of fellow readers, writers, and historians with an interest in creative non-fiction, Australian literature, and history. Thank you for reading and commenting – it means so much to me!

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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

2 responses to “One year in: the story of my biography so far

  • residentjudge

    And thank YOU for sharing your work and growth along the way. I really enjoyed this post as it encapsulates for me what your project is and the approach that you’re taking. It’s interesting to reflect on ‘roads not travelled’ in your research, either to think “well, I’m glad I didn’t go on with THAT” or as a niggling “what if I had?” when you get to the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  • MST

    Thanks from me too. Great post, enjoy your blog and am looking forward to reading your biography. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

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