Category Archives: book review

2016: My year’s reading in biography

Like many readers who are also writers and/or PhD candidates, my reading is driven by several imperatives. There’s things directly useful to the research, but they often don’t get read cover-to-cover. (“One of the joys,” writes Yvonne on Stumbling Through the Past, “after I finished my history degree was reading a book from cover to cover.”) There’s interesting books with some connection to my research, which make me feel I’m being slightly productive to read in my spare time. (And given I’m trying to master the art of biography, any accomplished biography could fit this category.) There’s books by friends and colleagues which I want to read after knowing them in person and seeing some of their creative or scholarly journey – and to encourage them! And then there’s books for fun. There’s actually a lot of overlap between the second, third, and fourth categories.

I was still in the midst of Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1997) when I summed up last year’s reading in biography. Lists are rather arbitrary; I had it at number three, but after finishing it in January and reflecting on it all year, I think it’s probably the best biography I’ve ever read.

I didn’t review Lives for Sale: Biographers’ Tales, edited by Michael Bostridge, but it was the most enjoyable book I read this year. The volume was released to celebrate the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography but that project is not a focus of the book. The thirty-three short tales reveal funny / sad / poignant / fascinating anecdotes about writing biography as well as reflections on the art and nature of the genre. Almost all the great British biographers are included, including two of my heroes, Claire Tomalin and Hermione Lee. Two contributions impressed me so much I looked up their biographies and both made it near the top of my favourites list for the year: Kate Summerscale and Frances Watson.

Somehow I didn’t review either of the two of Kate Summerscale’s books I read, even though I loved them. Both The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace are gripping narratives which combine biography, true crime, and cultural history into absorbing pictures of the Victorian era. In Mr Whicher, Summerscale tells the story of the original, quintessential detective and the most famous case of the age – the murder at Road Hill House. In Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace extraordinary extracts from an upper-class woman’s diary in the 1850s are preserved in trial records and form the core of a sad and vivid story of the hopes, angst and misery of a woman trapped in an unloving marriage. The breadth of both books is incredible; Summerscale gives the wider context of shifts in society and worldview. She shows a whole age better than a comprehensive history. And she does this with the narrative skill of good fiction. I still need to read That Wicked Boy, the book she actually published this year. She will be at the Perth Writers’ Festival in early 2017!

I reviewed three significant literary biographies from UWA Publishing this year.  Sylvia Martin’s Ink in Her Veins is the pick of them for me, a great biography uncovering the life of Aileen Palmer, who lived an obscure life paradoxically near the centre of Australian literature. (Bill of The Australian Legend picked it as his book of the year.) Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow is a landmark volume, comprehensive and significant for literary scholarship. Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright is a well-argued revision of Wright’s early life. Another important Australian literary biography I reviewed is Philip Butterss’s  An Unsentimental Bloke.

I read less fiction than ever this year (it used to be the main thing I read!), but one book stood out – Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (USA, 2010). I wrote on my general blog: “the novel gives a sense of the poignancy of all the remembered (and forgotten) people and events in any one’s life. It’s a novel which expands our appreciation of life, going beyond initial viewpoint characters and their present to reveal the past and future and inner lives of other characters.”

  1. Victoria / Julia Baird (Australia, 2016)
  2. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) / Kate Summerscale (UK)
  3. How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of Bruce Ismay / Frances Watson (UK, 2011)
  4. Ink in her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer / Sylvia Martin (Australia, 2016)
  5. Toyo: A Memoir / Lily Chan (Australia, 2012)
  6. Lives for Sale / edited by Michael Bostridge (UK, 2004)
  7. Dark Night: Walking with McCahon / Martin Edmond (NZ, 2011)
  8. Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales / Georgia Blain (Australia, 2008)
  9. The Complete Maus / Art Spiegelmann (USA, 1991)

Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

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We all have our notions of Queen Victoria, even as the Victorian age recedes further into the past. It’s an obscure song from Leonard Cohen which I’ve long associated with her:

Queen Victoria,
My father and all his tobacco loved you,
I love you too in all your forms,
The slim and lovely virgin floating among German beer,
The mean governess of the huge pink maps,
The solitary mourner of a prince.

Cohen was right: there are many Victorias, public and private, old and young. Few have lived a more documented or contested life, making her a formidable biographical subject. It didn’t stop ABC journalist Julia Baird taking on the challenge and after eight years of work, her Victoria: The Queen was published in November.

Victoria is a superb biography, the kind I aspire toward, compulsively readable and intelligent. The combination of journalist and historian – Baird has a PhD in the discipline –  is an ideal one for a biographer. She writes vividly, precisely, and wisely as she narrates the development of Victoria through life stages and how she became the different Victorias, some mythical, some misunderstandings, some true but in need of nuance. One of the surprises for me, for example, was to discover that Victoria began life as a Whig, opposed to the Tories; it was fascinating to see her political transformation as the politics of Britain changed over the century and she finished her life as the more expected ardent Tory, close to Disraeli and hating Gladstone. The “mean governess” is only part of the story, and a fun-loving, opinionated, passionate woman emerges in the biography. Some cautious biographers avoid interpretation let alone judgement; others are far too confident and dogmatic in their judgements. Baird is a courageous and wise interpreter of her subjects. “Victoria’s passionate fits came and went, but Albert’s anger was white, cold, and enduring. He was willing to inflict pain on his wife.” She captures the complexity of Victoria’s character, her goodness and her faults in an evenhanded way.

The biography is structurally accomplished in its combination of the chronological and thematic. Each chapter takes us forward a little in the span of Victoria’s long life, but has its own mini-narrative ranging over the span of a particular incident, theme, or relationship. It’s one of the difficult and essential things to get right in biographies; biographies which are too strictly chronological tend to fall apart as narratives, constantly broken up with the next development in the myriad of “subplots” that are developing in any subject’s life at any time.

Most chapters begin with a scene, a fraught process in biography as there is rarely enough sensory detail to build up a scene purely out of historically verifiable material. Thus in chapter 11, Victoria’s wedding, Victoria is lying in bed before the wedding. “She closed her eyes and thought of the preparations humming across the city.” The preparations she imagines are all historically sourced, although in this case the device feels a little clumsy to me. However, it’s probably more a question of what the reader finds permissible in biography than anything else. Some other scenes work perfectly and it’s part of the biography’s appeal that Baird has used the approach.

I am in admiration of Baird’s grasp of nineteenth century British (and wider) history. To read the biography is to be given an accessible primer in the period, as Victoria was involved in everything from the social upheaval resulting from industrialisation to the Crimean War to the emergence of a unified Germany. Baird shows great skill in narrating complex historical events in a way which is gripping but not simple.

The amount of research involved in any biography is immense, but this book must have involved more than most. The volume of primary and secondary material is huge. Despite redactions, burnings, and the losses of time, many of Victoria’s letters and diaries remain, and that is only the first layer of material. The biographer has to be on top of it all and then have the instincts for what is important and how their reconfigurations and reinterpretations will add something new. One of Baird’s great discoveries – found in a doctor’s diary – is an account of Victoria and her confidante, John Brown, peeking under each other’s clothes. The temptation is to trumpet the revelation, but Baird avoids this completely, narrating her breakthrough material in a straightforward way and letting it speak for itself. I admire that, and would have allowed her considerable more trumpeting.

I really enjoy Julia Baird’s hosting of  ABC TV’s the Drum, where she brings out the best from her guests and steers the conversation well. (I’ve often wondered at her politics, given she comes from Liberal Party royalty but doesn’t seem conservative in outlook; turns out her Twitter profile tells all, at least for those better-read than I was: she is a “Mugwump.”) It was interesting to hear her on Philip Adams’ Late Night Live in the guest chair, speaking passionately and articulately about her subject, showing a different side of her character. She spoke then of the challenge of accessing the royal archives and how it was only the intervention of the former governor-general which secured her access. But her obstacles were even greater than that: she wrote movingly last year about living in the shadow of death after a cancer diagnosis, only to come through. I hope she continues to write for the New York Times and host the Drum, but most of all I hope she continues as a biographer.

 


Toyo by Lily Chan

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In 2005 I met Lily Chan in a writing group in Perth and she shared some early chapters from her work-in-progress, Toyo. Like many books, it involved a long journey for Lily, but I was thrilled when it was published by Black Inc in late-2012 and won the 2013 Dobbie Literary Award. Four years late, I’m finally reviewing it. Continue reading


The Unknown Judith Wright

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Georgina Arnott The Unknown Judith Wright (UWAP, September 2016) Review copy provided by the publisher.

Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright examines the first twenty-one years of Wright’s life. It reveals crucial aspects of the Australian poet’s life which have been obscured or misrepresented, particularly in the one full-length biography of Wright – Veronica Brady’s South of My Days (1998)  – and in Wright’s memoir, Half a Lifetime (1999). The first half of the book focuses on Wright’s ancestry and childhood. The second half focuses on Wright’s university years and their formative influence, downplayed by Wright and Brady. “The thrust of the Judith Wright life narrative, told with small variation by the subject herself and Veronica Brady,” writes Arnott, “is so strong that aberrant details, counter winds and inconsistencies have had a way of being left out.” (149) Arnott gets the tone just right in approaching the previous auto/biographical work on Wright. Even though she offers a significant reinterpretation of Wright, she does so with an obvious respect for the poet and not in a spirit of attack but of patient scholarship. Continue reading


Dark Night by Martin Edmond: a review

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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.


A working writer: N’goola and Other Stories by Katharine Susannah Prichard

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Post #5 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

Katharine Susannah Prichard published two books in the 1950s – Winged Seeds, a goldfields novel, at the beginning of the decade in 1950, and N’goola and Other Stories at the end of the decade in 1959. It was a difficult decade for Katharine -she felt the sting of Cold War persecution as a Communist; her health was poor; her only son was living overseas and then interstate; and the writing projects she had envisaged in 1950 did not work out how she hoped. N’goola brings together this decade of troubled writing. There’s much in it which surprised and interested me. Continue reading


My Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

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Mick fits very much at the ‘documentary biography’ end of the spectrum. It is a restrained, detailed biography, avoiding not just speculation but also, largely, interpretation, instead collating and arranging sources into a chronological account.

Source: A Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

If I start to feel I’ve not done enough this year at the halfway point, I can at least remind myself that I have read and reviewed Suzanne Falkiner’s 900 page biography of Randolph Stow – and now you can click the link above to see my review on the Westerly website! The actually amazing feat is that Falkiner wrote it in four years. (At least that’s what I wrote down from her speech at the beginning of the year.)

Probably every Western Australian whose ancestors arrived in the nineteenth century can claim a connection to Stow. I discovered a new one from reading the biography which did not make it into the review: he and I are from the same clan. My paternal grandmother was a  Sewell, and so was his mother, both descended from the two Sewell brothers who came out from England in the 1830s. I think Stow and my grandmother were fourth cousins. She wouldn’t have liked his books; she may well have been aware of the connection, as she knew more family history than she told.

On the other side of my family, as I’ve mentioned before, his grandmother boarded with my maternal grandmother’s family in Subiaco around the time of World War Two. I asked my (still living) Granny what she remembered of Stow’s grandmother, and she said that Mrs Stow would keep feeding the chickens rhubarb leaves, which really upset my Granny’s mother. (Oh, that’s getting confusing.) I’m afraid that’s the closest to a literary anecdote I can offer.

My colleague Heather Delfs responded to my tweet about my review of this 900 page book with “I hope the gist is ‘just no’. 900 pages seems excessive.” I’m torn on this issue. Stow is interesting and important enough to warrant 900 pages of the right kind, though 900 page biographies are enough to put me off, too. My KSP biography will run to 900 pages if I get to the end of her life. Crucially, I want to see it published in three volumes of about 300 pages, each with their own narrative trajectory. It’s the way I would prefer to read long biographies.