Two recent biographies of Australian women

I love a good biography. During my career I have been fortunate to publish two award-winners: Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin and Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. Each was written by a trained historian, each involved a mountain of research, and each took over 20 years to write. They exemplify some of the difficulties of writing biography in Australia: to produce a work that is authoritative, carefully crafted and thoroughly researched takes a long time, and mostly publishers’ advances are modest and the writing has to be financed by other work.

The traditional biography unfolds in more or less chronological order as the biographer assembles facts about the subject and her times, weighing evidence, offering interpretations when they can, leaving open questions when they can’t.

Two recent books about Australian women upend this traditional model in different ways.

Grantlee Kieza’s Mrs Kelly: The astonishing life of Ned Kelly’s mother, in fact spends more of its 500-odd pages on Ned, his associates, the extended Kelly/Quinn/Lloyd families – and what feels like every moment of the often incompetent police pursuit of Ned and his gang during the Kelly Outbreak – than it does on Ellen Kelly. There are even sketches of the unedifying life of Ned Kelly’s hangman. Told in a lively present tense, for all its racy readability it nevertheless is not a book with Ellen Kelly at its centre.

To add insult to injury, Mrs Kelly’s raven hair (mentioned several times in the text) is rendered chestnut on the cover.

Perhaps the author began his book intending to write about Ellen Kelly, but too late discovered there was not enough material for one, or that while all the action was happening, his subject was in gaol. Or perhaps he really wanted to write a book about the Kelly Gang all along, and calling it Mrs Kelly was simply a way to promote a familiar story with a fresh angle.

Kerry Davies’s book A Wife’s Heart is subtitled The untold story of Bertha and Henry Lawson, and it paints a sad picture of the breakdown of the marriage of one of Australia’s most famous poets. Unlike Ellen Kelly, who was illiterate, Bertha left a trove of letters as well as writing her own account of the marriage, My Henry Lawson. One of the pleasures of the book is the way it makes use of the letters, and the insights they offer into Bertha’s personality.

Bertha Bredt was raised in a radical family. The month before she married Henry in April 1896, her younger sister married Jack Lang, who would go on to become premier of New South Wales. At one point Bertha seems to have had some literary ambition of her own, as there is a reference to her sending a story to the Bulletin which isn’t published

Many of her letters to Henry vividly convey both her affection and concern for him, as well as her frustration with his inability to provide. Bertha suffered a mental breakdown when the family went to England; whether this was the result of loneliness, postnatal depression, the strain of poverty or all three is unclear.

 The Lawson marriage was plagued by financial difficulties – Henry may have had fame, but money was always a problem. And then there was his drinking. The book opens with an affidavit Bertha filed in the Matrimonial Causes Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in April 1903 accusing Henry of ‘cruelty towards me’, including that he ‘struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bottle …’ This is followed by a letter from ‘Harry’ that begins ‘Girlie, Do try to forgive and forget.’

Henry Lawson had numerous spells in hospitals in an effort to stop drinking. Once the couple separated and his maintenance payments fell too far into arrears, he also had spells in Darlinghurst gaol, which he christened ‘Starvinghurst’.

However, the central theme of the book is single motherhood, and woven around Bertha’s experiences as a separated woman bringing up two children in the early 20th century are the author’s experiences of single parenthood in the 21st.

And for me this is where the book struggles. In the author’s account of her own experiences there is her supportive mother, there is paid employment, there are payments (albeit erratic) from her child’s father (who is not an alcoholic but an itinerant jazz musician), and she is living at a time when separation and single parenthood does not have the stigma that it did in Bertha’s day. This isn’t to say that single parenthood was easy for her – clearly it was not – but rather that the resonances one might expect from such a juxtaposition don’t seem to go much beyond the obvious: that marriage breakups are painful and raising a child/children alone is hard work.

Nevertheless, there is much fascinating material here. But I do wonder what is it about the Lawson women that invites authors to inject themselves into their stories. Brian Matthews’s biography of Bertha’s mother-in-law, Louisa Lawson, also features the biographer, who interrogates the anxieties of his lot as he attempts to piece together the life of his subject. When it was published in 1987, Louisa was acclaimed for revealing not only the life of Louisa Lawson but the art of biography itself.

Yet is it just a little unfair that these women, relegated to supporting roles in history – mother of the great man, wife of the great man – should have their lives examined not on their own terms but to illuminate their authors’ own concerns?

But then, don’t all biographies do that? All biographies pick and choose which episodes of a life to emphasise, which to elide, which to omit. We know the biographer chooses how the story is shaped. There are many ways to tell the story of a life. Perhaps in putting themselves into the work, these authors are exemplifying the obsession biography requires, and the result is more honest for it.

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