Category Archives: biographical quests

Dark Night by Martin Edmond: a review


Dark Night: Walking with McCahon Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011)

Dark Night is a profound work of creative non-fiction. Edmond retraces – quite literally – the steps of the New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon, following the route he took as he had a breakdown and went missing in Sydney for a day and a night. It has elements of a biography of the late artist and criticism of his work; an autobiography of Edmonds; a narrative of Edmond’s observations of the streets and haunts of Sydney; and reflections on religion, art, history, and the authentic life. It is not a biographical quest in the archival sense I’m used to using the term; but it is a biographical quest of a different kind. The life of McCahon becomes a lens for Edmond to examine the world. He writes well, observing acutely while never over-writing, and with genuine insight into the questions of existence.

Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Source: Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard | Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home

One of the most interesting things to happen in my research this year has been the discovery of “lost” letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard and new insight into the circumstances of Cyril Cook’s 1950 thesis on Katharine. It was my AS Byatt’s Possession moment, and I wrote about it for the KSP Writers Centre newsletter; read about it on the KSPWC website!


Visible and invisible biographers: a quick response to David Marr

Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”

I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests.  Continue reading

Link: Following Katharine to Yarram

Source: Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home | Your KS #9: Following Katharine to Yarram

KSP Writers’ Centre – based in Katharine’s old home in Greenmount – has a great new website, including a blog. I’ve been writing a monthly column for the KSP newsletter, and these columns are now up on the blog. Here’s a link to the most recent one, first appearing in March’s newsletter.

Some notes on Who’s Been Sleeping In My House?


With Who’s Been Sleeping In My House? showing on ABC and Who Do You Think You Are? on SBS, biographical quest television is having its moment, and I’m so glad. Each week on My House, presenter Adam Ford researches the past of an Australian house. This season has gone from a former hotel in country Victoria, to a flat in Sydney, to Adelaide, to north Queensland, and most recently to Mt Lawley, an inner-city suburb in Perth.

Continue reading

Certain Admissions: true crime as biography


Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body and a Lifetime of Secrets by Gideon Haigh (Penguin, 2015)

Certain Admissions is a gripping narrative of the murder of Beth Williams, her body found on a Melbourne beach in December 1949, and its aftermath. It becomes a biography of John Bryan Kerr, the young man convicted of the crime on the basis of a disputed confession, as well as an account of Haigh’s archival quest and an investigation of the many byways related to the case. It was the highest profile case of its time, perhaps due to Kerr’s charm and the salacious details of the crime. Continue reading

Link: The remarkable ongoing case of Richard Greener’s papers, salvaged from a condemned house


Years ago, researching eccentric libraries for my novel The Remains, I stumbled across the remarkable story of Belle da Costa Greene (1879 or 1883-1950), the African-American woman “passing” as white who became the glamorous librarian to the wealthy Pierpont Morgan. Continue reading

James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A fictional biographer on the trail of J. M. W. Turner’s secrets


Spoiler alert

In James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001), Walter Hartright and his sister-in-law, Marian Halcombe, set out to investigate the life of the British painter J. M. W. Turner a couple of decades after his death. Walter has been informally commissioned by Lady Eastlake, supposedly to provide a more acceptable account of Turner’s life than a muck-raking biographer named Thornbury, who we never actually meet. With its subject and setting in London at the height of Victorianism, as well as borrowing its protagonists from a Wilkie Collins’ novel, it is a deeply Victorian novel concerned with respectability and repression. Walter sets about interviewing people who remember Turner, and learns contradictory things about the painter. Marian tries to unearth Turner’s early life through letters and journals. They are led toward dark secrets in Turner’s life, only to begin to suspect they are actually being used for other people’s agenda. The mania Walter finds in Turner’s life infects his own, as he unleashes his repressed sexuality and becomes, a little unconvincingly, something of a sex fiend.

It is an intriguing premise, and seems well-researched. However, its epistolary narration works against it, and the whole novel feels as if it is relating events at too far a remove as characters diarise or correspond about things which have happened to them. The most engaging scenes are those which shake off the pretence of being letters or diaries and just directly narrate.

I was drawn to it as an example of the biographical quest novel made famous by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). Many bioquest novels are set in the present with biographers unearthing the secrets of past ages, particularly the Victorian or Edwardian ages. Yet The Dark Clue has an intra-Victorian setting – the mid-Victorian era interrogating the early-Victorian era. The passages most typical of the bioquest are the ones in which Marian uncovers archival secrets. The novel has the quest structure, yet resists the romance conventions of the genre – it has a darker heart, with the quest leading not to personal redemption for Walter and Marian but near-destruction and misery.

The biographical project itself is left quite unresolved, abandoned because of the effect on the biographers. Walter and Marian end up fearing they are being tricked into producing a biography which condemns Turner as a paedophile and murderer in order to get around a stipulation in his will requiring that a gallery dedicated to his work be built if the nation wished to retain ownership of the paintings. This central premise seems slippery to me. Firstly, isn’t the rival biographer, Thornbury, supposed to be the muck-raker? Secondly, and more importantly, Victorian biography avoided scandal. Would there have even been muck-rakers like Thornbury, let alone a gentleman like Walter publishing shocking allegations about a well-known painter? The biographer Froude was heavily criticised in the period for merely suggesting Thomas Carlyle was impotent. The abandonment of the project, at least, is realistic for the period if such discoveries were made. Interestingly, it echoes another bioquest from the same year, Barbara Vine’s The Blood Doctor, in which the secret is too shocking for the present-day biographer (the subject’s descendant) to continue.

I haven’t yet seen the recent film, Mr Turner, so I can’t make the obvious comparison to it, but I do half intend to watch it.

Link: Review of The Quest for Corvo

Fellow biographer Laura Sewell Matter has been reading one of my favourite biographies, A. J. A. Symon’s Quest for Corvo. Her post intertwines a review of the book with reflections on writing biography. I identify with her thoughts on the personal relationship between the biographer and subject, and particularly like this:

Others have admired Rolfe’s work, but only Symons knows it comprehensively. There is, almost, possessiveness in this. Consider two meanings of “subject”: 1. the person or thing being described, 2. one placed under the authority or control of another, as a vassal. If Rolfe was Symons’ subject in the latter sense as well as the former–and arguably a writer is always in control of their subject–at least Symons was a benevolent ruler, who cast his subject in the most favorable light possible, given the life in question.

I hadn’t thought of the second meaning of “subject” in connection to biography, but it does shed light on one of the impulses in the relationship.

I, for one, am really looking forward to reading Laura’s biography of Charles Fisk one day.

Katharine Susannah and the “fifteenth-rate” writer, Charles Garvice


Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.

The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he could claim to be the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. It seems that to have him judge a literary competition was a little like inviting Danielle Steel or Dan Brown to do so today. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.

I would love to know Katharine Susannah’s opinion of Garvice’s work, and the complicated feelings she would have felt at being awarded the prize by him. I think she would have been biting her tongue, and a little uneasy amidst the jubilation.


Garvice has fascinated at least two writers in recent years. In her fine essay “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”, Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. She flies to London to read one of only two copies held by libraries in the world. It is a classic biographical quest, the genre I researched for my MA, the quest for Garvice tied up to Laura’s quest to find herself. You can download the essay from her website. Steve of Bear-Alley blog wrote a post on Garvice in 2010, tracking down some biographical details for Garvice, as well as a long (and still incomplete!) bibliography of Garvice’s works.