Monthly Archives: January 2016

Biography and wisdom: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf #1


It’s rather unfashionable to look to biographies to influence how we live. It’s the sort of impulse behind nineteenth century hagiographies, for one thing. But reading through a friend’s proposal for her work in progress, she spoke about the hope for her biography to be stimulate the reader into thinking about their life choices and what made for a good life. And she was right – biography can and sometimes should do this. I found Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996) doing it to me, whether that was Lee’s intention or not. (I finally finished this 920 page tome last week, many months after beginning it.)

Woolf’s seriousness about reading was the most definable thing which comes to mind. “Reading, quite as much as writing, is her life’s pleasure and her life’s work. It is separated from the rest of her activities by its solitude and withdrawal, but she is always comparing it to other forms of behaviour and experience – relationships, walking, travelling, dreaming; desire, memory, illness.” (loc 9223) She lived to read, it meant as much to her as anything. People sometimes joke about how much books mean to me, yet I’m not nearly as serious a reader as Woolf. Reading Lee’s excellent account of Woolf’s reading (she has a thematic chapter on it) provoked me to think about the role of reading in my own life, and gave me permission to allow it to be meaningful without feeling apologetic.

There were many other ways this biography had me thinking about my own life in areas like decisions, friendships, home. Wise biographies can be instructional in a subtle way . I’m sure it’s one of the pleasures of biography, but it bears no resemblance to the didacticism of nineteenth century biography. And this is one of the wisest biographies I’ve read; perhaps I can add “wisdom” to my checklist of requirements of the great biographer. It’s not the most obvious thing to say about this book, but for some reason it’s where I’ll start.

May Holman

Both Bill and Lisa have written helpful reviews of a new biography, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins. Both reviews touch on the two concerns of this blog brought up by the biography – Katharine Susannah Prichard and the art of biography. I look forward to seeing how Hopkins has treated the conjectural relationship between Prichard and Holman, a WA Labor parliamentarian. I can’t offer an especially informed opinion on whether they would have known each other – my current biography stops at 1919 just before Prichard arrives in WA! The 1920s and 1930s are the most “silent” period of Prichard’s life for biographers. The weekly letters to her son Ric (covering 1944-1969) have not yet started; and Prichard’s own account of her early life in Child of the Hurricane basically stops at 1919, with a chapter postscript about the 1920s to 1930s written at the editor’s request (I discovered in the archives) and focused on her horse, when the rest of life was too painful to examine. I feel honoured to be quoted by both Bill and Lisa on what makes for good biography from one of my recent posts. As they mention, I wasn’t referring to the Holman biography when I made that observation; I’m yet to read it.


The Australian Legend


A review of The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins.

Mary Alice (May) Holman was born in 1893 in Broken Hill, NSW to miner and unionist Jack Holman and his (very) new wife, the 17 yo Katherine. Jack had problems in Broken Hill as the mining companies attempted, successfully, to reduce workers’ pay and conditions during the recession, and moved to the goldfields around Cue in Western Australia, settling at Nannine – a thriving centre then, but these days not even a ghost town – where he was joined by his wife and daughter a couple of years later. Katherine returned to Broken Hill for the birth of their second daughter and when she came back her mother came too and lived with the family for the rest of her life.

Hopkins has Katherine travelling by coach between Nannine and Yalgoo (southwest…

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