Now on Westerly blog – my review of Sylvia Martin’s Ink in her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer

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Sylvia Martin’s new biography of Palmer reveals, unsurprisingly, a woman who lived in the shadow of her parents, Nettie and Vance Palmer, Australia’s literary power-couple of the first half of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the biography, Martin quotes the verdict of David Martin (presumably no relation) on Palmer’s life: ‘Her attempt to write from within the Palmer constellation, her failure to escape. Chain-smoking her life away in Sunbury mental hospital, felled by her sexuality. Aileen was the poet’ (246). Sylvia Martin’s accomplished biography largely confirms this verdict while adding the important dimension of her political activism and war service.

Source: A Review of Sylvia Martin’s ‘Ink in her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer – Westerly

My review of this recent biography has just been published on the Westerly blog. Aileen Palmer is a fascinating subject and Martin is an elegant biographer. She achieves a balance of narrative and research I’m striving for in my own biography. Reviewing it was a fruitful exercise for my own thinking about the art of biography.

Bill also reviewed this book last month – https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/ink-in-her-veins-sylvia-martin/

 

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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

10 responses to “Now on Westerly blog – my review of Sylvia Martin’s Ink in her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer

  • Lisa Hill

    Terrific review, Nathan, I like the way you’ve attended to the biographer’s craft but also looked at it from the PoV of a general reader.

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  • wadholloway

    Yes, I agree with Lisa. It is very interesting to have your perspective as a biographer, a lot of Martin’s craft went straight over my head. As for readership, Aileen Palmer led an interesting life, particularly in the war years, but it is difficult to imagine buyers of this book extending much beyond those people already interested in Nettie and Vance.

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Thanks Bill. Perhaps I’m being optimistic about the readership, but I would like to imagine a body of readers out there who seek out well-written biography, even when it’s about someone they had no previous interest in. BTW, I have a couple of interesting posts by you to catch up on!

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  • sylvie2449

    Hi Nathan and Bill, Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful review of my book, Nathan, as was Bill’s earlier one. I was speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival last week and there were several people in the book signing queue who told me they had never heard of Aileen or the Palmers but couldn’t wait to read the book. I have had women whose mothers were institutionalised and given ECT in the 1950s who are keen to read it as well as women who were taught by ‘Miss Palmer’ (Helen) at Fort Street Girls High School in Sydney. I was an invited speaker at the annual International Brigades Memorial Trust conference in Manchester in March and, of course, that audience was particularly interested in Aileen’s involvement in The Spanish Civil War. (Unlike you, Nathan, they didn’t find these chapters monotonous, but the heart and soul of the book. I think it depends where one is coming from.) I also gave a talk to literature students at the University of Barcelona studying ‘Literature and Conflict’, talking about Aileen’s poetry. A very receptive audience of twenty-somethings, born since the death of Franco and amazed to find out that people like Aileen Palmer volunteered to fight in a foreign war because of their convictions. So, you see I am finding quite a readership for the book which reaches far beyond people who are interested in Vance and Nettie and Australian literature. I have an essay in Southerly 75:3 (theme issue on War and Peace) which is just out and which is an expanded version of the talks I gave in Barcelona and Manchester.
    I ‘d also like to talk about the troubled issue of footnotes/endnotes for a bit. You both seem to think I am pandering to ‘the lowest common denominator’ among readers (which is maybe is a bit elitist?). I’m not. My other biographies have endnotes with numbers in the text but for this one, about a family of writers who left rich archives, I wanted to use their voices, their actual writing, as much as possible in the text, sometimes almost like a conversation. Consequently, there are many, usually short, quotes in a page and the reader would have been confronted with a forest of numbers! A bit off-putting, don’t you agree? And the sources are all there, just a little harder to find.
    Quibbles aside, I really am delighted with your interest and pleased to have the opportunity to reply. All the best for your biography of KSP, Nathan, and I look forward to reading it.

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    • wadholloway

      Hey Nathan, I think we’ve been outgunned on the footnotes issue, might be time to retire gracefully!
      Sylvia, thanks for taking trouble to write to us – I would have told Nathan off about ‘the monotony of war’ next time he bought me a drink.

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Hi Sylvia,
      I’m honoured to have you visit and continue the conversation. I really like your book; it’s one of those rarer biographies in Australia which cares about the genre and shows a writer with flair. I’m so glad to hear of the widespread interest the book’s receiving – it’s well deserved.
      Re: monotony – it was as much a passing comment on the difficulty of conveying the experience of war. I think you handled the material well, and I agree my response reflects where I’m coming from.
      Re: referencing – my comments on this were genuinely ambivalent. Indeed, I was half-convinced by your book that it could be the way to go, despite my personal preference for footnotes (because I’m curious about sources, I’m a little distracted when there’s no footnotes). After talking to a biographer who was required by a publisher to reference the same way you had, I assumed it was reflecting a perception among publishers that a general audience doesn’t like them. I can see what you’re saying.
      What are your thoughts on the later years of Aileen’s life? I can understand you putting the emphasis on the parts of her life you did, and the overall length was just right for a readable biography – but do you think it would be possible to make a longer yet still interesting story out of her years in institutions? (It’s a question which occured to me as I read – half specific to Aileen, and half as a general question of biography.)
      Also, are you able to reveal what your next biography will be?
      Congratulations on Ink in her Veins, and I hope it continues to receive attention and acclaim. You should be a strong contender for the National Biography Award!

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  • sylvie2449

    Hi Nathan,
    Sorry to be so long answering but I have been away. Re making the later part of Aileen’s life longer, I made the decision after a lot of agonising about structure that the short, almost fragmented chapters that make up the 3rd section of the book were as much as readers could take about the sadness of that period (and as much as I could bring myself to write about it). My biography is an attempt to reclaim a life that has been overwhelmed in the minds of people who remember the Palmers by her ‘madness’; my emphasis was on early promise and the enormous amount she did achieve in spite of her later psychiatric illness. Thanks again for your interest and perceptive comments. No big biographical subject coming up for me. I am concentrating on personal writing. I am being interviewed by Philip Adams for Late Night Live tomorrow – pre-record so not sure of broadcast date but it will be available as a podcast from the ABC soon.

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