Category Archives: biographical method

‘The bits that have floated to the surface’: a quote about historical evidence

Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:

How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:

A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.

It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.

Notes on biographical method in The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell by David Marr


I’ve finished listening to the audio version of David Marr’s The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell during night-feeds of my nine-week old son, a slightly surreal and disturbing companion at 2:30am each morning. It’s the original Quarterly Essay edition of 2013; the print version of this edition is 124 pages, while the expanded 2014 edition is 210 pages. Continue reading

True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method


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. Continue reading

Some notes on Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self


Claire Tomalin is a master literary biographer who makes the genre more compelling and interesting than any other writer I know. I’m two-thirds through her 2002 book on the 17th century diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys. I offer some notes on her biographical method. Continue reading

“Dear Kattie, I hope you will allow me to be so familiar”: first-name terms in biography

The Guardian asks, “Should biographers be on first name terms with their subjects?” (hat-tip Tracy Ryan), which is very good timing, because it’s an ongoing question for me. Continue reading

“So let us put him in the thick of it”: reconstructing the unknown


I’ve just been to a Perth Writers’ Festival talk by two biographers, Hamish McDonald and Madonna King. The conversation around the process of biography was interesting. McDonald’s latest book, War of Words is the biography of a Japanese-raised European, Charles Bavier, born in 1888, while King’s is a biography of Australian politician, Joe Hockey. They are both journalists, but King’s book seemed particularly a work of journalism from the way she spoke about it. She interviewed three hundred people and wrote it intensively, seven days a week, over the course of a year. McDonald started his in 1982, when there were still were people alive who knew Bavier well, but it is inevitably a historical enterprise. Despite this, he said at one point that he wasn’t pretending his was a footnoted history. In the literal sense this is completely true – indeed it is not referenced at all (there is a bibliography), which seems a terrible lack to me. I may be an unusual reader, but footnotes reveal much about method, and can be fascinating to me. But he also meant it in another sense – his insertion of several scenes of reconstructions, where he imagines what Bavier was doing during historical events McDonald knew he experienced. Continue reading

Louis and Hilda: Some thoughts on biographical method in Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players


Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.

Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading