Category Archives: academic

Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography


I gave two papers on Katharine Susannah Prichard in July. The first was on 9 July at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Canberra and was called “History of a troubled autobiography: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane”. I’m hoping to develop it further into a chapter of the critical section of my thesis and also as a standalone publication. It was a little scary presenting my paper to an audience of Australian literature academics, but they were generous in their responses and I think it went well. I have been encouraged toward some further reading in mid-century Marxist responses to auto/biography and Freudian thought.

My second paper was at the Limina postgraduate humanities conference at UWA on 29 July. The conference theme was “beyond boundaries,” and so I wrote a paper on the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in Katharine’s 1906 serial, “A City Girl in Central Australia.” I’d been looking at this serial for chapter six of my biography (“Outback: Tarella Station, 1905”), and it fitted neatly with some of the thinking I’d been doing for the paper on Child of the Hurricane. It’s pitched toward a general audience and I’m not reworking it for scholarly publication, so I present it here on my blog. Continue reading

The childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard in the new Westerly

Source: Westerly 60:2 – Westerly

My biography of the early years of Katharine Susannah Prichard is a couple of years from completion, but a modified version of chapter two has just been published in Westerly 60.2. My essay is called “‘The memory of a storm’: The Wild Oats of Han and the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1887 to 1895.” Continue reading

Finding “critical utility” for literary biography: a summary and initial response to Philip Holden

This post, I warn you, is a response to an academic journal article. If you find it boring or incomprehensible, please do come again another time – you’re likely to encounter something of broader appeal.

Philip Holden’s “Literary Biography as a Critical Form” Biography 37.4 (Fall 2014) is a lifeline thrown out to literary biography, the “Cinderella” of literary studies. Holden takes as his point of departure Michael Benton’s monograph Literary Biography: An Introduction (2009). In my reading of Benton’s work (which I found an excellent account of the state of the genre and challenges and issues within it for the biographer and reader), he is content to retain literary biography’s estrangement – or at least distinctiveness – from literary theory and literary criticism and proceed with giving an account of the genre on its own terms. Holden, in contrast, wants to achieve a rapprochement. Continue reading

From white-washing to uncovering secrets: this week’s research quest for the history of biography

My research quest this week has been to try to better explain the shift from respectful, white-washed biographies of the Victorian-era to the biographical preoccupation by the late-twentieth century with uncovering secrets. (It’s a question I have already addressed in my MA thesis, but I’m revisiting it as I revise a section of the thesis for publication.) As an example, Charles Dickens’ original 1870s biography by his friend John Forster did not mention Dickens’ long affair with the actor, Nelly Ternan. The secret was long out when the definitive story of Nelly was written in the 1990s, Claire Tomalin’s Invisible Woman. For some time now, the reading public has expected biographies to “tell the truth” about a person’s life, and not leave secrets out. My essay connects this shift to the rise of biographical quest fiction, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).

Not that much has been written on the history of biography. Those accounts which do trace its development over the twentieth century inevitably point to New Biography as the turning point – the triumvirate of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicholson. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared a few months before Armistice in 1918 and set about debunking the heroes of the Victorian age, and forging a new style of biography. While most scholars are perhaps too quick to label most biography since as post-Stracheyean, Robert Skidelsky (1988) makes a compelling contrarian case that contemporary biography does not resemble Strachey’s project at all. “What chiefly distinguishes the contemporary from the Victorian biography (apart from its greater professionalism) is its greater degree of explicitness about private life and its greater psychological penetration; neither of which, I think, were important aspects of Strachey’s original programme.” (9) Strachey himself wrote only from published sources, avoiding the problems of dealing with literary estates or the hard work of research. He called for brevity in biography, a few telling incidents, not the numbing accumulation of detail. A biography without archival research and of only a hundred or two hundred pages is not a common sight in today’s literary landscape. If Skidelsky is right, who can we look to in order to explain the biographical turn?

Freud is one candidate, but he was not someone for unearthing secret papers from the archives either. Long before The Da Vinci Code was Freud’s biography of Da Vinci, and it did not involve lost letters or diaries, but Freud re-intrepreting Da Vinci’s dreams and character. However, the mainstreaming of Freudian thought, of concepts like repression, is surely another piece of the puzzle.

Other candidates:

  • The rise of celebrity culture, and the expectation that we will know their private lives. The gossip pages spill over into even serious biographies.
  • Related to this, Skidelsky talks of a shift in motivation for writing biography – “not because they achieved great or unusual things, but because they led interesting or unusual lives.” (13).
  • A melding of Strachey’s interest in debunking heroes and other developments in culture and biography – the professionalisation (and increasing scholarliness) of biography; a return to the long biographies of the nineteenth century after a flirtation with Strachey’s brevity; the general tendency toward revisionism and suspicion.

It’s a pity Skidelsky pulled down Strachey as the model for contemporary biography so effectively without naming a replacement. But this is where I come in. Perhaps a clearer answer will emerge.

Skidelsky, Robert. “Only Connect: Biography and Truth.” In The Troubled Face of Biography, edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley, 1–16. London: Macmillan, 1988.