Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

9781400069880

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.

 

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Happy 133rd birthday, Katharine Susannah

1915-ksp-appreciation-by-sumner-locke-everyladys-journal

It’s Katharine Susannah’s birthday today. She’d be 133 years-old, were she alive. To me, she’s currently 27, as I’m in January 1911 with her. (She has aged ten biographical years since her last birthday.) I’m in this silent period of her life. I know of various things which happened to her, but there’s no primary personal material from the time itself. Her state of mind in October 1910 will remain a mystery to me. She left Melbourne for a “brief holiday” in Sydney, but ended up sailing to the USA, staying a few months, and then onto London, not returning home for five years. I have some theories, but I have to be rather tentative about it all. In celebration of her birthday, here’s a photo from 1915, low resolution, poor quality, but one which I only recently unearthed and which gives a different angle on the young Katharine Susannah Prichard. She’s carrying lavender; she had been cultivating an association with lavender for some years since playing the role of Sweet Lavender in a play in Yarram in 1904. The photo comes from “an appreciation by one of her friends,” Sumner Locke, in Everylady’s Journal, April 1915. Sumner Locke was the vibrant  young novelist who died in childbirth a couple of years later. It’s one of December’s tasks to uncover and tell of their friendship as two aspiring writers in pre-war London.


Toyo by Lily Chan

toyo

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

unknown-judith-wright

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

darknight

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!

 


Dirk Hartog’s plate and the Christ Church Grammar centenary: myth-making and official “history”

The Dodgy Perth team loves a good conspiracy. So we were delighted to find one about the upcoming 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s trip to Western Australia, and the famous Hartog Plate which wil…

Source: Is the Hartog Plate a hoax? – Dodgy Perth

Today marks 400 years since the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog was meant to have left a plate behind on an island off the coast of Western Australia. I was intrigued to read Dodgy Perth’s post a while back asking questions about the truth of the event – questions I did not hear asked on the radio coverage today as WA puts on a celebration.

Of course, outside the academy, anniversaries are an exercise in myth-making, not a chance to critically consider the original event. This is the irony of the state and institutional use of “history”.

Gallipoli is an obvious example, but on a much smaller scale, I’m reminded of Christ Church Grammar School in South Yarra, Melbourne. Katharine Susannah Prichard taught there in 1906 or 1907. An intriguing appendix to Colin Holden’s history, Crossing Divides, discusses the confusion around the foundation year of the school. The historical record clearly shows it was 1898, and yet in 1957:

A parish paper states that Christ Church Grammar School originated in an earlier school that functioned between 1859 and 1872, but gives no details and does not identify any historical source to back this claim. Then in 1976 the school treated that year as its centenary. Once again, no historical source was indicated to back up this identification.

I have this rather funny image of hundreds of schoolkids in 1976 dutifully engaging in “historical” busywork and ceremonies to celebrate the centenary, when it seems to have been completely made up. The past needs celebrating (or commiserating) and anniversaries should be marked, but all of it should be based on good history.

(And, by the way, if anyone connected to Christ Church is reading this, no-one’s answered the two emails I’ve sent to your school about Katharine Susannah Prichard. You should be excited to be connected to such a major writer!)