Inside Story

Nine lives

For one of Australia’s foremost biographers, the impulse to tell life stories has never gone away

Brenda Niall 23 June 2020 2457 words

Group shot: Arthur Boyd’s studio at Open Country, c. 1945, from left: Matcham Skipper, Myra Skipper, Joy Hester, Yvonne Lennie, Arthur Boyd and David Boyd. Photo: Albert Tucker. Bundanon Trust Archive

I didn’t set out to become a biographer. Towards the end of my time in the English department at Monash University I tried out the genre with a biography of the novelist Martin Boyd. When it succeeded beyond expectation I thought I would write one more before retirement. That was Georgiana, the story of the colonial painter Georgiana McCrae. Retirement in 1995 brought more time for writing. When a neighbour remarked, “You’ve had a really interesting life, haven’t you,” I didn’t quite like the past tense, so I replied rather tersely, “I am still having it.”

Now, in 2020, I find that I’ve published nine biographies. Nine lives: that should make an occasion to look back and reflect.

The impulse for a biography can come from anywhere. There’s the wish to celebrate a life well lived, and there’s the contrary impulse to bring out uncomfortable truths. Extremes of idealisation and denigration are self-defeating. Trying to understand is the better way.

Often the biographical impulse comes from the cult of celebrities. Lives of famous men or women have a ready market. There have been more than 200 lives of Lord Byron and seventy-five of Jane Austen. Australian biography doesn’t offer the same rewards. People tend to buy stories of “big names” and so, apart from Ned Kelly, Don Bradman and some politicians, big sales are rare and mainly confined to the local market. That’s why Hazel Rowley, the brilliant biographer of Australian novelist Christina Stead, moved to the United States where, for her lives of James Baldwin and the Roosevelts, she had both critical acclaim and financial rewards. Her early death cut short a remarkable career.

Biographies wouldn’t flourish as they do if they were just matters of fact or cases that could be regarded as closed. New views keep coming, even when no new facts have appeared. To take an example of competing interpretations: two biographies of Jane Austen appeared almost simultaneously in 1997, both of them asking questions about a period in Austen’s life when she wasn’t writing. One biographer, Claire Tomalin, interpreted the silence as Austen’s depression at being removed from her quiet home in a country village. The other, David Noakes, suggested that she was having too good a time in the sociable centre of Bath.

The question was the same — why were there no novels in this period? — but the interpretations were diametrically opposed. No new facts of any consequence had emerged to support either reading.

That sort of thing makes nonsense of the idea that the life can be buttoned up and tidied away forever. Different times, different authors, different interpretations will take you from a placid, cosy Aunt Jane Austen all the way to an edgy, repressed and depressed misfit — or a social being who couldn’t resist a party. Of course, the facts we have must be respected, but interpretation, tone, style and structure will be different, depending on what the biographer brings to the subject.

Probably the first question I’m asked as a biographer is something like this: what did you find out about him or her? This suggests that biography is a matter of detection or even investigative journalism. And it is true that a lot of the interest of writing in this form comes from puzzling over bits of evidence, trying to make sense of a jigsaw that will never be complete.

A more useful question would be: “How do you see your subject?” or “How are you planning to shape that life?” In fact, biographers face most of the problems of style and structure, tone of voice and point of view that a novelist has to deal with.

What we get from a subject depends on the questions we ask. The justification for a new biography of someone whose story has been told before may be that a new fact has come to light. But with the famous, whose lives have been examined as closely as any corpse under the attention of those forensic pathologists in Silent Witness, what is wanted is a new way of seeing, or a question no one else has thought to ask.

The kind of questions we ask will depend on our own viewpoint — where we are coming from, what we bring to biography. The answers will often modify or radically alter a preconceived view. The idea of the subject won’t be fixed at the start; and there will be much to learn. An overconfident ending of here-it-is, all neat and tidy, is an affront to human complexity.

I’ve always had a leaning towards group biography. It’s a way of looking at life from different angles. A big, single-focus biography can be magnificent, but it can also get lost in unconsidered details.

My first group study was The Boyds: A Family Biography (2002). Its time span of more than a century, and its cast of sixteen main characters, was daunting until I thought of shaping it around a series of houses, built, lived in, lost, held in memory and often reclaimed from the past by Boyd family members. That way, I thought, I could tell the family story and in doing so explore the enduring passion for creativity within these artists’ houses in England and Australia. As a structural device and a way of illuminating character, the house-by-house progression gave me what I wanted.

My most recent book, Friends and Rivals, looks at four Australian female writers of the period from the 1890s to the 1920s: Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer. They don’t make a group in the usual sense but they have in common their single-minded ambitions as writers in a period that didn’t easily yield space to creative women. Their personal connections with one another were puzzling, and finally revealing.

I can trace Friends and Rivals from a moment of surprise when I first read Turner’s diaries as part of the research for an earlier book. In a brief entry, Turner wrote about a shopping expedition in Sydney with Barbara Baynton. They weren’t looking for new hats; they were choosing diamonds for an anniversary gift from Turner’s husband.

The success of Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) and other books for children had made her financially independent and locally famous in her twenties. By the time of the diamond-shopping expedition she was a sedate Mosman matron, wife of a future judge, mother of two, and a prolific writer for her London publisher. Baynton, a rich, sharp-tongued widow of well-hidden origins, was author of Bush Studies (1902), a set of brutally frank stories of outback life. It wasn’t easy to see what brought these two women together.

In exploring the histories of Turner and Baynton, I found one bond. They both felt strongly about society’s treatment of unmarried mothers, and they worked together for an institution that enabled these mothers to keep their babies without the shame that was common at the time. The source of their dedication to that unpopular cause was my most important find in Friends and Rivals. It’s always worth looking into a subject’s childhood. Turner and Baynton both rearranged their life stories according to the notions of respectability that ruled their worlds. Turner was discreet about her parentage; Baynton invented hers.

Henry Handel Richardson is the best known as well as the most gifted member of my quartet. Reading her letters, I was interested to trace her edgy friendship with the critic Nettie Palmer, whose generous promotion, after a shaky start, included putting Richardson up for the Nobel prize. But there was always an obstacle to friendship between the two women. Nettie was an adoring and self-effacing wife to novelist Vance Palmer, and she could never get more than a few polite words about his novels from Richardson, who found them boring and almost unreadable.

Palmer’s critical writings favoured works with a strong national flavour. Richardson wasn’t interested in literary nationalism; she felt that she wrote in the European tradition.

Richardson’s version of her first meeting with Palmer, written for private consumption, is sharp, witty and unkind. Palmer’s description of the same scene, written for public readership, is bland. The accounts gave me a vivid visual image of the two women, facing one another, but at a distance. Richardson’s face is in shadow. Palmer faces the light.

Looking back at the nine lives, the most recent published this year, it seems a good time to ask why I chose those subjects from all other possibilities, and what they have in common.

After my life of Martin Boyd in 1988 and Georgiana McCrae in 1995, I went back to the Boyds for the group study. Next came my life of the Hungarian-Jewish painter Judy Cassab, who was still living and painting in Sydney at the age of eighty-seven. Cassab’s biography was my first full-length study of a living subject. In a disconcerting reversal of the usual relationship, I found my own name in Cassab’s diary, with her account of the interviews I did with her. While I was writing about her, she was writing about me. Whose life was it anyway?

Two lives of Irish churchmen followed the Cassab story. The exiled nationalist Jesuit William Hackett came first in The Riddle of Father Hackett (2009). It gave a new perspective on the formidable archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, also an exile and a radical Irish nationalist (Mannix, 2016).

Between the two men, the Durack sisters’ story, True North (2012), opened up the appalling record of white appropriation in the north and northwest of Australia. Granddaughters of a much-admired pastoralist, writer Mary Durack and her painter sister Elizabeth had to face the damage and deprivation that Durack and other pastoralists had caused. Having grown up believing the Kimberley region was their home, theirs is an innocence-to-experience story, incomplete but enlightening as far as it went. It’s also another story of exile, but the theme of displacement belongs to the Indigenous people.

Although I didn’t intend it, all my biographies raise the question of home. Perhaps that’s the great Australian theme. Even Can You Hear the Sea? (2017), my memoir of my Liverpool-born grandmother, centres on her hard choice between life as a widow on an isolated NSW country property and a return to her family in England. She decided that home had to be the place where her children belonged: she wouldn’t uproot them.

I’ve always seen my subjects visually, hoping to catch a mood or image that will suggest an individual. My first image of the novelist Martin Boyd came from his grandmother’s diary. She wrote of Martin as a small child lying on the floor, playing with some dominoes but listening intently to the talk of adults in the room. It was a way of introducing family history, which became Boyd’s passion, through the perspective of the quietly listening child. That image kept Martin in focus while the family history unfolded.

Looking for a starting point for my biography of Judy Cassab, I thought of her in her last years as an old woman in Sydney, lighting candles for the dead, as she did every Friday night, remembering her mother and others who were killed in Auschwitz. These images helped me find a way into the narrative, moving back to Hungary and the young Judy, then to the Holocaust and her experience as a refugee in 1950s Sydney.

The impulse for the Cassab biography took time to work out. After we met as speakers at a National Library conference on biography and portrait painting, Judy asked me to sit for her. As we talked during our sittings in Sydney a few months later, she said of the Vietnamese refugees, “They’re the new Jews, no one wants them.” Later, at the time of the Tampa crisis, when the “boat people” were turned away as part of John Howard’s political ploy, I remembered Judy’s words and phoned her to ask if she would “sit” for a biography in which we would talk about being one of the unwanted.

Most biographies have a photo or portrait on the jacket. And usually it’s an image of the older, more mature-looking person, not the child or the young adult. Sometimes it’s the last known picture — the image of old age. It may represent what the subject has made of a near-completed life, or what life has done to them.

I broke that convention with Martin Boyd. I didn’t choose the cover image from any of the photos I had collected, though of course I used them in the text. I didn’t want to fix the reader on any one of Boyd’s images of himself. There was the young man about town, complete with monocle, from his fashionable London years. Or the young officer in the first world war, or the tweedy middle-aged squire in rural Cambridgeshire. Or the forlorn but indomitable old man on the Spanish Steps in Rome in a threadbare dark suit made by a London tailor in more affluent days.

I think my unwillingness to choose a dominant image for the jacket told me something about point of view, and about the many-sided personality of my subject. Instead of a photo, we used an image of place that had special meaning for Martin Boyd: Arthur Boyd’s painting of the road to Harkaway and the house that was home to Martin in childhood. It was his “land of lost delight.” I don’t know whether it was a good choice, but it did come from awareness that the notion of an essential “self” is a slippery one.

With so many qualifications about the provisional nature of biography — if the self is unknowable, and mysteries insoluble — you might well ask, why bother? Well, yes, I know all that. But to give up trying to understand other people and to make sense of the world we inhabit — that, it seems to me, is to give up on life itself. As that wonderful biographer Richard Holmes has said, “Empathy is the most powerful, the most necessary and the most deceptive of all human emotions.” As in life, so in life writing. That’s what I believe.

From cave paintings to comic strips, from hefty Victorian tributes to virtue to postmodern games, the impulse to tell stories about one another doesn’t go away. We’re living in a golden age of biography, in which any number of life writings can happily coexist and challenge one another. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.