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A kind of biography

25 October 2012

Three books recover forgotten lives in very different ways, writes Richard Johnstone


A few short years: Olive King standing beside the Alda Motor Ambulance she supplied and drove for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, 1915–16, in Champagne-Ardenne, France. Australian War Memorial

A few short years: Olive King standing beside the Alda Motor Ambulance she supplied and drove for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, 1915–16, in Champagne-Ardenne, France. Australian War Memorial

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
By Peter Englund | Translated by Peter Graves | Profile | $49.99

Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation
By Ross McMullin | Scribe | $45.00

The Daughters of Mars
By Tom Keneally | Vintage | $32.95

THE primary biographical interest of certain lives derives from the way they overlap with great events, so great and so overwhelming in their nature that they can best be understood through the eyes of the participants. That is one of the assumptions behind the Swedish historian Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow, first published in its English edition late last year and shortly to be released in paperback. “I didn’t want to write a book following the standard format,” Englund has said, “with an over-arching grand narrative that contains snippets of individual experiences.” The over-arching grand narrative is sacrificed in favour of a mosaic of individual perspectives – twenty in all – that taken together give a sense of what it was actually like to be there, wherever “there” might be: the Western Front, the Balkans or Palestine, viewed from the land or the sea or, as is the case with the Belgian pilot Willy Coppens, from the air. Coppens ends the war with his leg amputated, his chest covered in medals and, in common with many other survivors, his mind “beset with anxiety about the future.”

With its varying points of focus, Englund’s book is part of a noticeable trend in biographical writing, in which our understanding of individual lives is enhanced by seeing them in the context of other lives. These lives share the spotlight both with one another and with the events they witness, rather than conceding that spotlight to one central narrative. “My cast of characters,” Englund says in a note to the reader, adopting the tones of a novelist or a dramatist, “has been chosen with a view to providing an all-round picture of the first world war, both as an event and as an experience.”

The pattern of such lives – the kind where all the drama and the excitement and the primary sources are packed into a few short years, leaving the decades on either side visible only in outline – can present particular problems for a biographer. The outline of the life of Olive King, for example, one of Englund’s cast of twenty, has her born in 1885, the daughter of a wealthy Sydney entrepreneur who doted on her, as she did on him. Her schooling was completed in Germany – she would have acquired, among other things, the skill of painting on porcelain – and afterwards there followed what seems to have been a restless, peripatetic period of travel and chaperoned adventure. In a small vignette of those travels, routinely quoted when her name has been mentioned over the years, she was the third woman to climb Mount Popocatepetl, and the first to venture into its crater. There is something about being the third woman to climb Mount Popocatepetl that sums up another kind of biographical dilemma. It is an impressive feat, and gives some sense of King’s intrepidity and zest for life, but its main effect is to leave us wondering about the lives of the two women who got there before her. The fact that King was the first of them into the crater does not, somehow, compensate; nor does it satisfy the contemporary preference for outright winners.

In later years, when she had returned to Australia and settled back into Sydney, King, who remained unmarried, devoted herself to public service. She was assistant commissioner in the Girl Guides Association from 1932 to 1942. She wrote poetry and stories, largely for her own amusement, and, in a touching detail from her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, compiled by her much younger half-sister, the historian Hazel King, “she took up bookbinding in leather.” Olive King died in 1958. For the most part it was, as far as the evidence permits such conclusions, a good life, but the stuff neither of legend nor of biographical fizz. What makes the difference, and makes both her life and the complexities and contradictions of her character so fascinating, is the bare decade from the outbreak of the first world war to the early 1920s, a period in which she served as an ambulance driver, first with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in France and Serbia, and then as a driver and subsequently an officer with the exiled Serbian Army, based in Salonica in Greece. For her bravery and commitment under often appalling conditions, both during the war and in the immediate aftermath when she organised relief operations inside Serbia, King was twice decorated by the Serbian government. It was all rather a long way from bookbinding.

The sources for King’s life during those adventurous years are found in her correspondence and in the only one of her diaries, from the year 1917, to have survived. Of the letters she wrote, some seem never to have reached their destination; others to have vanished with the passing of time. Yet much remains. “I’m afraid you’re going to get very little tonight,” King says at the beginning of a letter to her father dated 29 August 1917, continuing on, with several stops and starts, to fill twenty-two pages. Selections from her surviving letters appeared in print in 1986, in a fascinating if rather under-annotated edition by Hazel King. As the editor acknowledged in her sympathetic preface, her half-sister was full of contradictions. She was a wanderer yet deeply attached to home and to her family; courageous and strong-minded on the one hand, frivolous and almost child-like (“credulous” says Hazel King) on the other; patriotic yet keen to distance herself from the kind of Australianness of which she disapproved. “Why can’t we send people who’ll be a good advertisement?” she asks after spotting a group of newly arrived Australian nurses in downtown Salonica and immediately dismissing them as “poisonously plain, in perfectly awful uniforms.”

Englund found himself with a wealth of lives and material to choose from. “Many different actors… could have played a part, for vast quantities of letters, journals and memoirs are preserved from the war years.” With each successive edition of The Beauty and the Sorrow – from the original version in Swedish, which appeared in 2008, to subsequent translations into English, French and German, and progressively into other languages – Englund has taken the opportunity to vary the cast slightly, deleting one perspective, and with it one biography, and substituting another, as if to emphasise the ranks of understudies who could be called upon to step up and play a role. “The book could have easily been ten times, or even a hundred times as thick,” he has said in an interview.

It is this sense – of biographies lying behind biographies, perspectives behind perspectives – that gives The Beauty and the Sorrow its remarkable qualities of humanity and depth and makes it so much more than a collection of extracts from diaries and letters. Indeed, direct quotation takes up a relatively small proportion of the overall text, which consists far more of Englund’s own summaries of the testimony of his chosen witnesses, through which he conveys a sense not only of what they saw but also of who they were. In the twenty or so pages, all up, that are devoted to the perceptions and experiences of Olive King, for example, he manages to convey a great deal about her personality, her strengths and weaknesses of character, and her complex motivations – to provide, in short, a kind of biography.

Englund is impressively well-organised. In a long series of date-stamped entries – 227 in all – beginning on 2 August 1914 and ending on 13 November 1918, we briefly and successively enter the world of a Belgian pilot or a French civil servant or an Australian ambulance driver, and see it from their point of view. The effect, compounded by his use of the present tense throughout, is both fragmentary and connected, delivering immediacy and impact while reinforcing the truism, which Englund notes in his prefatory remarks, that “to be right in the middle of events is no guarantee of being able to understand them.” By following a conventional chronology but eschewing conventional notions of what was strategically important to the course of the war and what was not, Englund uses his largely secondary sources to build up what he calls “a collective diary.” Among the twenty voices are Laura de Turczynowicz, the American wife of a Polish aristocrat; Elfriede Kuhr, a German schoolgirl; the extraordinary Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army; Alfred Pollard, a British infantryman; and William Henry Dawkins, an Australian army engineer who is the first to leave the stage, killed by shrapnel at Gallipoli on Wednesday 12 May 1915, at the age of twenty-one.

By drawing his cast from both sides of the conflict, Englund emphasises their common humanity, and the way that other, pettier conflicts – often at the local level, among supposed allies, where personalities and cultures clashed – can assume as much, if not more, importance in the daily lives of his subjects as those defined by the meta-narrative of the origins and progress of the war. Sometimes Englund is almost diffident in introducing references to the wider context, as though wary of shifting the focus too far away from his main subjects. On the day that William Henry Dawkins is “sitting by the Pyramids, writing to his mother,” Englund adds in a footnote that “it is perhaps worth a mention that on this day three of the men involved in the assassination at Sarajevo at the end of June 1914 were hanged.”

Collective biography is a balancing act. The common theme that holds the joint biographical subjects together – family connections, a shared background or education or cause, a life-changing experience – must be strong enough to justify the enterprise, while not so strong as to obscure altogether individuality and difference. In the case of The Beauty and the Sorrow, the unifying factor, the common theme, is the Great War, one so broad in scope that it is capable of accommodating a cast of millions, most of whom are destined to remain largely unknown and unknowable. What further unites Englund’s chosen twenty, beyond the fact that they were there at the time and wrote about what they saw and so have, in that sense, survived, is how they are refracted through Englund’s presentation of them and their points of view, lending a consistent tone even when the individual experiences are so different.

Englund will often conclude his summary of a particular character’s particular day – Saturday 1 May 1915, for instance, when Florence Farmborough, an English nurse in the Russian army, “hears the breaking of the front at Gorlice” – with an after-image of an isolated figure caught up in the frightening and the incomprehensible. As Farmborough joins the retreat from Gorlice, a wounded patient, too ill to travel and desperate at the prospect of being left behind, clutches at her skirt. Florence Farmborough “twists the hand loose and disappears down the uneven road along with the others.” Meanwhile, “the oil tanks outside the town have started burning and the air is filled with oily black smoke.” It’s a vision of an actor making her way off-stage, unsure of where she is heading, and without benefit of visible markers or recognisable props.

WHAT we learn about Englund’s cast of characters is largely a function of their wartime experiences. Their pasts and their futures – seventeen of the twenty live on, many into old age – figure only in so far as they provide a necessary context. Even for those seventeen survivors, it is as if their lives – their biographies – end with the war. In Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People, this is literally the case, in that all of his ten subjects are killed in action. McMullin focuses on telling – “retrieving” is the word he uses – the stories of these ten men who served in the Australian forces during the first world war and whose biographies, full of promise, were suddenly cut short.

Like Englund, McMullin contrasts his approach with other, broader narratives of war, narratives of the kind in which “the emphasis has usually been on the collective effect of the numbing number of losses” and the details of individual lives have been deployed simply to illuminate the larger picture. The lives he retrieves are all of men whose futures stretched invitingly before them – the youngest to die is twenty-two, the eldest thirty-five – and in the eyes of friends and family and colleagues those lives are full of foreshadowed achievements in the worlds of politics, sport, business, science. And again like Englund, McMullin sees these ten lives as both unique and representative of other life stories that could, in cases where the evidence survives, just as fruitfully be told. Indeed, as he indicates in his introduction, McMullin is already at work on a second volume.

William Henry Dawkins, the young Australian engineer who is one of the twenty “dramatis personae” (Englund’s own term) in The Beauty and the Sorrow, has a small part in Farewell, Dear People. McMullin notes that Dawkins died while “gallantly attending to his primary task, the provision of water for the landing force” at Gallipoli. He contrasts this fate with that of a fellow officer, a malingerer who “seems to have masqueraded as a ‘brave Anzac’ while minimising his time at Anzac” and who, McMullin notes drily, lived to be almost one hundred years old. Although he doesn’t figure prominently in the narrative, Dawkins fits squarely into McMullin’s “lost generation,” a group of the talented and energetic and committed whose deaths proved “a calamity for the nation.” In the meantime, others, less talented, less selfless, survived.

This is a stark contrast, perhaps too stark to be really effective. To emphasise the lives that these clever young men might have lived is an attempt to give their biographies what they can never have, a middle and an end. McMullin’s more telling point is that we need to understand in detail the years they did have if we are to comprehend what was lost. As personal connections with the war fade and disappear, the names on honour rolls come to mean less and less, triggering few memories even in their descendants. “Posterity has ignored Tom Elliott,” McMullin laments of one of his biographical subjects, a man of many gifts who seemed destined for a distinguished military career. “His story has never been told until now.”

In telling these ten life stories, McMullin is also telling other stories by proxy. Another of his subjects, Geoff McCrae – his niece’s distinguishing memory is of “the most handsome man she ever saw” – died on 19 July 1916 at the Battle of Fromelles on the Western Front, one of more than 1800 casualties from his brigade alone during a span of twenty-four hours. McCrae’s death was witnessed and documented. “His body,” wrote his brigadier Pompey Elliott to McCrae’s father, “was recovered in the face of much difficulty and danger.” Many bodies were not individually retrieved or identified, however, and were instead subject to common burial.

In 2009, under the auspices of the inter-governmental Fromelles Project, the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers were recovered from six recently located burial pits. With the benefit of modern DNA techniques and the participation of descendants, the identities of many of these soldiers have been progressively established. In July this year, at a ceremony at the Fromelles Cemetery at Pheasant Wood, headstones were dedicated to the nine most recently identified Australians, bringing the total thus far to 119. In many, probably most of these cases, further biographical information, other than what is already available, will not be forthcoming. The record of these men’s lives is likely to remain elusive and fragmentary.

The significance of the Fromelles Project lies in confirming their identity as individuals by identifying their remains; they are no longer, in that sense, “unknown soldiers.” But to understand more about them, about what they experienced and how they thought, we must rely on the recovered stories of those for whom the evidence does survive. In the case of Geoff McCrae, a cache of letters home, addressed for the most part to his devoted father and his wider family, provides insights into his development and personality, from which we can infer those aspects that might apply more widely, to other lives.

One of the hazards of group biography is that the similarities in the lives of the subjects and the experiences they share can be so close that they blur into one another, making them hard to distinguish. This is particularly so when the shared experience is of the magnitude of the Great War, and when the conventions of the time – and, in the case of letters home, the fact of censorship – placed so many constraints on what could be said. Geoff McCrae prays to “come through alright,” but if things don’t go well, he writes in his final letter home to his family, “I will at least have laid down my life for you and my country, which is the greatest privilege one can ask for.”

In its patriotism and its emphasis on honour, the line represents a (if not necessarily the) collective voice of the time, together with an understanding on McCrae’s part of what his audience expected and needed to hear. But it can be hard to get beyond that, to the individuality underneath. The sentence that follows, and from which the book’s title is taken – “farewell, dear people, the hour approacheth” – with its touch of the mock-heroic, hints at a more complex attitude, to himself and to the events he is caught up in. Earlier, McMullin quotes McCrae lamenting the life he could have lived, were it not for the war. “My hopes of becoming an architect are daily becoming fainter. I am tired of things military.” These kinds of reminders – of other, alternative biographies – recur throughout Farewell, Dear People, lending an even greater poignancy and force to the lives McMullin has retrieved.

THE process of retrieval, of how far it is possible to recover an individual life from the chaos of war, is at the heart of Tom Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars, his fictionalised account of the role of Australian nurses in the first world war. The Durance girls, Naomi and Sally, sisters from the Macleay Valley, volunteer as nurses and serve, in differing capacities, in Egypt, on the island of Lemnos, and in France. “It was said around the valley,” we are told in the opening paragraph, “that the two Durance girls went off but just one bothered to come back. People could not have said which one… There was confusion even in the local paper.” By exercising the novelist’s privilege of access to innermost thoughts, Keneally establishes the individual characters of the two nurses, and to a lesser extent of some of their friends and colleagues, but he never lets go of this theme of confusion – of the difficulty of distinguishing one participant from the other – for long. In the aftermath of the sinking in the Aegean of the Archimedes, a troopship on which Naomi and Sally and their fellow nurses are being transported, along with soldiers and munitions and horses and mules, it is difficult to tell who is who among the immediate survivors as they struggle and drift in the water. People simply disappear from view. A soldier or sailor clinging to a life raft “would let go as if he had seen a better prospect nearby.” Sally and Naomi and their “clique” do survive, but many of their colleagues – the ones who belong to other cliques, who are little more than names to them – do not. “In novels,” Sally thinks, “it’s the ones the writer does not let you know well who perish first.”

The sinking of the Archimedes has its historical counterpart in the fate of the Marquette, which was struck by a torpedo on 23 October 1915, resulting in the loss of thirty-two lives, including those of ten New Zealand nurses. In Peter Rees’s evocative The Other Anzacs: Nurses at War 1914–1918 (2008), which is listed among Keneally’s sources at the end of The Daughters of Mars, there is a brief image, culled from the report of the enquiry into the sinking of the Marquette, of a nurse clinging to the neck of a mule. “Sucked under when the ship went down, she caught hold of the animal and rose with it to the surface.” Keneally takes this startling image and turns it into a metaphor of emerging identity. A woman suddenly appears out of the watery chaos, holding on to the mane of a horse. Sally recognises her fellow nurse, who strikes her for the first time as an individual. Her face “no longer looked an indefinite thing as it had in Egypt and Archimedes’ wards.”

In recovering singular lives from the chaos of great events, it is difficult to say which approach works best – the historical or the fictional. Individuals, grouped together under a set of common experiences to form a group biography, have a way of merging, however hard the writer works to keep them distinctive and apart. Perhaps this is inevitable. Keneally, who is both an historian and a novelist, seems to think so. In The Daughters of Mars, the lives of Naomi and Sally are given alternative and interchangeable endings, as if to emphasise, by this blurring of their ultimate fates, how representative they are. •

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Photo: © Committee of the Regions/ Wim Daneels

Brussels-based journalists question EU officials during European Week of Cities and Regions.
Photo: © Committee of the Regions/ Wim Daneels