Category Archives: research

Details

A trap for biographers is to think others will care about the details as much as they do. Don’t get me wrong – people really care when biographers are sloppy in their research and gets the details wrong. But I think of Alister McGrath’s 2013 biography of C. S. Lewis and how he devotes so very many pages to his great discovery that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity needs to be redated by a year from Lewis’s own account. The redating is somewhat significant, the conversion being a defining event of his life, and no doubt it affects some other things – but it doesn’t actually change the story of his life, which I think is what matters most to readers and even to our sense of history. To put it another way, I’m not sure most readers share McGrath’s sense of triumph, even if they’re glad he’s corrected the historical record.

I’m having many Alister McGrath moments in my Katharine Susannah research, redating and revising details of her childhood. I feel like such a clever detective as I edit my spreadsheet. But in the end, much of this will not even make it into the biography.

Several such moments today. Try to share my excitement, will you?

I’ve long been stumped by just when the Prichards left Fiji, and in my last post I said I wasn’t sure if it was 1888 or 1889 when they arrived in Melbourne. Yet it turns out there was a good reason they weren’t appearing in the shipping records for either of those years – Katharine Susannah arrived with her mother and two little brothers on 15 January 1887 as a three year old. She was in Melbourne not only for the great centennial exhibition of 1888, but also for Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations of 1887. She was so young she may not have had any memory of them later, but the spirit of those years must have affected her.

The movements of Katharine’s father, Thomas Henry, are curious. He stayed behind in Fiji for another eight months, before leading a delegation to Melbourne to urge the annexation of Fiji by Victoria. Leading such a delegation doesn’t seem the action of someone about to leave the colony, with his family already in Australia – yet it seems likely he resigned as editor of the Fiji Times (or was sacked) at about this same time, when the newspaper itself was moving from Levuka to Suva. There is no record of him returning to Fiji, and the next sighting of him is on a ship to Launceston, Tasmania in May 1888.

Here’s where a source I’d dismissed proved to be true. Because he was the deputy-editor of Launceston’s Daily Telegraph from 1893 to 1895, I assumed the Cyclopedia of Tasmania was simply wrong when it said he was the editor in 1888. But it was correct – he did spend a stint as editor at this time, possibly leaving due to ill-health, eventually taking up the position of editor of Melbourne’s The Sun around August 1889.

Two lessons for me – firstly, not to dismiss the piece of the puzzle which wasn’t fitting. It actually was a fact I wasn’t ready to accept. Secondly, the truth is rarely neat, and a challenge in narrating all this will be to sum up all these comings and goings in an engaging way. (If I was writing a novel, I would not be making such a messy series of events, with THP going back and forward so many times.)

For two and a half years, Katharine would not have seen her father much at all. It wouldn’t have been an unusual situation, but it must have been difficult, such a long time for a child, and she doesn’t mention it in her autobiography. It accounts for just how significant the big network of aunts and uncles are in her own account of her childhood. Getting the dates right – the details, if you will – has revealed something which wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. So details do matter, but more for how they change the story than for their own sake.

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I am the stranger: reading through the letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard

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I’m reading through twenty-six years of weekly letters from Katharine Susannah to her son, Ric Throssell. There’s thousands of pages of handwriting to decipher, and if I did nothing else for a whole day’s work, it would take two days to get through one year. I have made it from 1943 to the end of 1947 in the first few weeks of the endeavour. With so much of her correspondence lost or destroyed, these letters are Katharine at her most revealing. Continue reading


The other Thomas Prichard: letting go of co-incidences

I find a startling revelation about someone with my subject’s name. It’s the right time, it’s the right place, and it’s in line with certain things I know about the subject, but it’s shocking enough to entirely change the story of that person.

There are only two possibilities. This discovery is full of meaning. Or it has no meaning at all, because it’s not the right person. But if it’s not the right person, and it has no meaning at all, it feels like it should.

*

I’ve been researching Kattie’s father, Thomas Henry Prichard (1845-1907). He’s a fascinating figure, viewed next to his daughter – so very conservative, strongly opposed, for example, to a minimum wage, and a writer of modest talent compared to Kattie. He set out to make his fortune in Fiji around 1870, which was eventually where Kattie was born.

I was looking for something else about him when a “Thomas Prichard” suddenly came up in a brief discussion of the Daphne case in one book – he was the co-owner of an Australian ship which kidnapped one hundred islanders for the plantations of Fiji in 1869. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but led to new legislation specifically outlawing the practice. Was this how Prichard spent his youth? Was this one of the stories he avoided telling his daughter? It would make such a sensational story!

If it was true, which it wasn’t. The book in question led me back through so some dubious sources, the chain going back to a Pacific Island enthusiast’s website. All the best sources I could find, including contemporary newspaper reports, started it was William D. Pritchard, not a Thomas H. Prichard, who had been co-owner of that boat. Tom had nothing to do with it. It isn’t even particularly a co-incidence, although it is a sloppy mistake by the scholar.

But it still feels like it should have meaning. If it was a novel, finding out there was another character with the same name in such close proximity would mean much. Either a long lost relative in the 19th century, or a novel driven by the very randomness of the occurrence in the 1990s.

Perhaps one could write a new kind of history composed of co-incidences, near misses, and associations, a tangle of footnotes. I’m not sure what the point would be. It would really be a writer insisting, “this co-incidence is too amazing for me to have to admit it means nothing. I’m making it mean something by writing about it.”

I use this example, but it’s happening all the time, these plot developments that belong to a different story, a character not actually in my book, even if their namesake is. I have to let them go, all the co-incidences and near misses of history.


The biographer as professional burglar: Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman

In her landmark book in the field of biography, The Silent Woman (1993), Janet Malcolm investigates the biographers of Sylvia Plath. It is the reaction to a particular account of Plath’s life, Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, that sparks her quest. Stevenson was pilloried in reviews for being too close to Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband, or at least his ‘camp’.

Malcolm starts out with fighting words about biography:

The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. (Kindle loc. 145-152)

Yet despite this polemic opening, Malcolm shows considerable empathy for all sides – including the biographers – in the ongoing dispute over Plath’s death and life. Her claims about biography are shown to be true in the case of some of Plath’s biographers, yet clearly not in others. What’s more, the case of Sylvia Plath would seem to me to be such an extreme test case in the ethics of biography that it shouldn’t be used to generalise about the whole. As much as the attentions of a biographer are a mixed blessing, most writers (in the case of literary biography) have sought public recognition for their writings, and for many this is partly a case of wanting readers to understand them, or at least some part of them. Whatever its crimes, biography also brings recognition to forgotten writers. When they are not writing about a sensational figure like Plath, they are often benefactors; I think of John Burbidge working for years on the life story of Gerald Glaskin, a Perth writer whose novels have been largely forgotten (Dare Me! 2014). He did it because he was interested in the man, and thought him worth remembering.

In Malcolm’s eyes, Stevenson’s “crime” was to ‘hesitate before the keyhole’ – to dare to question the entire biographical enterprise, by writing in her (Stevenson’s) preface of the need to be sensitive to Plath’s family. In the course of the narrative, Malcolm goes on to elucidate the terrible, suffocating effect Ted’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, had on Stevenson’s book. (While being, in theory, on the Hughes’s ‘side’.) This emerges as the true reason for the problems with Stevenson’s book; in the meantime, it seems Malcolm is not quite aware enough of the irony of her own judgements and depictions of various living people.

This all said, I think this is a superb book that deserves its status as a landmark in the history of biography. Even when Malcolm generalises and exaggerates, she does so in such a beautiful and provokingly important way. The ambiguities and questions she leaves us with are the treasures. I would hope the effect of the book is not to make writers shy away from the prospect of becoming biographers, but of doing so with a renewed appreciation of their responsibilities.


Looking through the archive of JSB

I finally worked up the courage to look through the archive of one of my prospective biographees yesterday. It felt a little like they were bringing his body out, two boxes of his remains. (Biographer Martin Thomas makes this comparison in The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews, the weight of his papers about Mathews roughly equal to that of a corpse.)

JSB’s archive was quite sterile. I was reminded of a fictional biographer’s comments:

Scientists often think differently from the rest of us as to what constitutes a good biography; a dry as dust account of the subject’s work and a few bald details as to dates of birth, marriage and death, suits them best. That this was Henry’s opinion soon emerges from an examination of those chests’ contents. They include a published copy of each one of his learned tomes, as well as papers from other haematologists… – Barbara Vine, The Blood Doctor p. 23.

The first document in the box was a defence of freemasonry. This was a major preoccupation of his. Much of the box was taken up by his typescripts of radio broadcasts on various general knowledge topics. The only letters were from after his death,  relating to his estate.

There was a list of everyone who attended his funeral in 1954. This could be a lead, come to think of it. There would surely be a couple of them alive still, people who might be able to provide memories of the man. There was also a list of each floral tribute received; it was a long list – the funeral must have been awash with flowers.