Tag Archives: autobiography

Ancestry and mythology in Child of the Hurricane

Often in biographies and autobiographies, ancestry is dealt with all at once, in a sometimes unpalatable dose at the beginning of the book. Sometimes an ancestor with some connection, some parallel to the subject is highlighted, their life story summarised. Some biographers are disdainful of this, thinking it based on a rather silly theory of hereditary genius, but I think they’re too quick to be dismissive. Humans have always looked to their ancestors to explain themselves. In the case of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane, her ancestry forms a constellation of stories, myths and anecdotes around her entire childhood, and the book doesn’t throw these off until nine chapters in. It feels like Prichard is remembering for her own sake, not as a writer, but as if she were writing the family history as some people are wont to do in their retirement. She is descended from two inter-married clans who both came to Australia on the El Dorado in 1852, and the stories keep coming: the Prichards might be descended from the fifteenth century Princess Katharine, who makes an appearance in the play Henry V; her great-uncle who built the William Wallace monument in Scotland (true) was on his way to see his sister in Australia when he died at sea (not true); her father was shipwrecked – at some time, she doesn’t when – and swam ashore with a sea-chest and his dog; her mother’s godfather was shipwrecked also, and flagged down a ship with his shirt and it became known as Shirt Island – or so she was told. The mythology of her family was rich and romantic.

Yet for all the family tales, Prichard seems to have sympathy with her aunt’s verdict that ‘She did not regret not knowing more about her antecedents, or think it important to remember them.’ (56) Prichard’s concern with her ancestry seems more a fascination with the mythology itself than a desire to truly unpick and uncover the truth. She wouldn’t have necessarily liked being on the Who Do You Think You Are? show and have the myths critically examined – although, if she were alive today, perhaps her thinking would have shifted, just as the rest of society’s has.

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The temptations of autobiography and biography: a quote

This is the temptation of the autobiographer: to put the past into the shape it should have taken; to make yourself cut the figure you should have cut. Likewise, the biographer, in relation to his subject, may behave as avenging angel, remorselessly straighening the record, or as a scourge, reducing the subject to insignificance or mediocrity. But it is less likely that the truth will lie so conveniently at one or other of those extremes than that it will be intricately ramified through the whole spectrum.

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, p. 103