Tag Archives: 19th century

Louisa: the limits of biography

Louisa_Lawson_Stamp

Brian Matthews, Louisa (Melbourne: McPhee, 1987)

Louisa is both an anguished reflection on biography and its problems and the story of the life of Louisa Lawson, mother of the more famous Henry, but a significant Australian literary figure herself, as editor of a woman’s journal, Dawn, and as poet and suffragette.

Frustrated not only by the gaps in the record but also by the inherent limits of biography as a genre, Matthews interrupts what is often a conventional (but good) biographical narrative with an alternative text, the reflections of ‘Owen Stevens’, Matthews’ alternative self:

Owen Stevens, the biographer’s untrammelled self, will say, do, essay and gainsay all those things that formal scholarship cannot condone and which life, unrounded by a style-sheet, uncompleted and unexplained by footnotes, is teeming.

The ‘alternative text’ also contains experiments in form, such as a short story imagining a woman from the 1970s returning to Louisa’s past, and a music-hall drama to convey Louisa in ways conventional biography would not allow.

I have no doubt Matthews expected or even courted controversy, and he did get it. The book sits as the new far end of a spectrum. It has not been taken up as the new way of writing biography, nor was it expected to. But it does demand fruitful reflection from biographers, scholars and readers on just what is permissible and what is desirable in biography.

In a sense, it is a book which wears its postmodernism loudly and, although it has aged well, it still feels to belong to the milieu when the postmodern was still shiny, exciting and the way forward. Today, nearly thirty years on, my feeling is that the biographer is able to wear the influence of postmodern more quietly. Some of the question and objections ‘Owen Stevens’ raises, some of his speculations, could be integrated with the primary narrative – they don’t need to be exiled and, by extension, highlighted.

The relegation of consideration of sources to some brief notes at the end is a strange move. Surely the whole point of the alternative text is to draw some attention to the scaffolding, to the process of arriving at the settled narrative of a biography. Footnotes are a good place to provide the reader with some awareness of the process.

In How to do Biography (Harvard University Press, 2008), Nigel Hamilton argues that it is only when there is an authoritative biography of a subject already published that a biographer is free to be experimental. Louisa Lawson did not have such a biography in 1987, as far as I know, and no doubt this added to some of the criticism Matthews received. On the other hand, the biography was praised as well, and for good reasons.


Australia’s greatest temperance novelist: Matilda Jane Evans, aka Maud Jeanne Franc

matilda-evans

Matilda Evans caught my attention when I was reading a history of Baptists in Australia. A brief profile talked of her significance as the first woman to have a novel published in South Australia (1859). In all, she published fourteen novels. She was a deaconness and married to a Baptist minister. I discovered a full-length biography of her had been published in 1994 – Our Own Matilda by Barbara Wall (Wakefield Press).

Alas, Matilda is a difficult biographical subject. Despite extensive research, Wall was only able to uncover a few letters written by her, and just one photograph. If she kept a diary, we do not have it. But even if she had kept one, I doubt Matilda could ever become a compelling biographical subject: Wall does her best to redeem her and the conventionality by which she lived and wrote, but can only do so much. A number of Matilda’s novels were temperance novels; all of them were favourites for Sunday School prizes, safe novels which inspired piety and respectable living. Of course, I’m missing Wall’s main point here: she takes to task the generations of male critics who have ignored or trivialised Matilda’s writing for these reasons. Wall insists – rightly – that the novels are fascinating social documents, providing insight into South Australian colonial life and the attitudes of her time. Yet from her own argument, Matilda’s writing will be of more interest to the historian than the literary critic.

The book is of interest to me for its insights into biographical method. What is the biographer to do when the subject does not reveal themselves? Wall attempts to fill the gaps by speculating on the basis of Matilda’s novels, drawing parallels to places and incidents to reconstruct Matilda’s likely experiences, fleshing out the bare facts provided by education records, obituaries and newspaper ads. It is a dangerous method, likely to be dismissed as invalid by some critics, but it seems fruitful and her suggestions reasonable.

Yet somehow, the analysis never quite brings Matilda and her world alive. As an example – and I probably place too much weight on death scenes – but for me they should usually be one of the stronger moments of the biography; there should be a way to convey some of the significance of a person’s life in their death, or at least to show how their death fitted their life. The death in this biography only shows the ordinariness of Matilda’s life and the lack of information about her:

She died on Friday, 22 October 1886, of peritonitis, and was buried on the following Sunday…

I’m sure the historical record can yield no more than this, so what more can I ask of the biographer? I’m not sure. But perhaps it could be juxtaposed with an analysis of how Matilda saw death in her novels. Perhaps something of the place of death in Victorian-era Australia. Perhaps some background on death by peritonitis at that time. Perhaps even some more speculation about the circumstances of her death, drawing on social histories of death. Perhaps none of this would work; I’m only trying to anticipate method when I come to write a biography of my own.

Matilda Evans is perhaps not so neglected as Wall fears – there is another book looking at her literature; a thesis written on her and two other S.A. women writers, and an entry for her in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Abebooks reveals that her books (which remained in print right up until the 1930s) are worth hundreds of dollars. Our Matilda itself is an excellent piece of research, and a good analysis of her life and literature, aware of the shortcomings of Matilda’s writings while open to their significance.