Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

National Biography Award Talk   –    2010

30 November 2010, Mitchell Library

Podcasts available:

Hilary McPhee, writer and former publisher, presents the 2010 National Biography Award lecture.

In recent years she has been living in Jordan and Italy writing a book and articles about the region. Here she discusses biography in both Australia and the Middle East.

Click to view the video

There was a time when some of us feared that literary biography and autobiography were endangered species, that they were being drowned out by the memoirs of 26 year old sportspersons whose lives, or so they seemed to me, had barely begun, but whose books sold in astonishingly large quantities. Publishers were convinced they were on to something and they were.  Celebrity publishing was born.

In the mid nineties, this National Biography Award was created, with the admirable intention of encouraging the highest standards of writing in a genre that was rapidly expanding. And looking at the list of past winners and the shortlists of the last few of years, one cannot but be struck by the range and the originality of the works that have been published since then.

Ideas for books don’t arise because an award exists, of course, and publishers don’t make publishing decisions in the hope of them – but awards like this are a crucial form of acknowledgement to everyone involved that there is some kind of best practice, a standard for research and writing that all the other myriad forms of life writing, the bio-pics and documentary making and collaborating across art forms, can learn from and utilize.

We in Australia seem addicted to them, but they are starting to pour forth everywhere in all kinds of media. President Obama has just appointed someone called a videographer to document life in the White House and his rather fine autobiographies will surely feed that process.

Jill Rowe’s splendid and wonderfully comprehensive biography of Stella Miles Franklin, on this years’ shortlist, is a reminder, if we need one, of the power of awards to map and eventually shape the culture – as I believe this one is already doing.

In an academic climate where writing time is at a premium, the message that historical and literary research work is significant can get very muted. Conveying to authors that such research is worth persevering with – often over many years, is worth doing.

The awards in recent years have celebrated a number of highly original works that have taken the form in directions it has never before been taken. I think especially of Evelyn Juers’ A House of Exile , Barry Hill’s Broken Song, Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Jacob Rosenberg’s ­East of Time, and this year’s winner, of course, Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark, A Life.

Australian writing from life has come a long way. Back in the days when I was a baby editor, books like these would never have happened.

I find it useful to remember the rather low base we’ve come from in this country.

In fact, we encouraged the writing of very few memoirs or autobiographies or substantial biographies until the 1980s. The odd diplomat and headmaster, politicians without spin doctors to plead their case, reminiscences of bush life, mainly by women, most very gentle, if not genteel, and Miles Franklin and Allan Marshall apart, none cut very deep into the culture.

We imported a lot of mainly British biographies and memoirs and published a few rather stodgy, conventionally written works in hardcovers for the library market – of iconic figures – explorers, heroes, aviators.

Those subjects who were still alive were published somewhat dutifully, or so it seemed to me. The old and the distinguished, almost all men, liked to set the chronology of their public lives and thoughts and deeds firmly within the history of their times – their voices were reserved, their revelations for public scrutiny suitably seemly. This befitted the hero’s journey into the dark. The books were perhaps a form of eulogy, epitaph and last judgment rolled into one. Maybe because they imagined themselves dead, they wanted no one to speak ill of them.

By the eighties, some publishers were trying to commission and suggest, but it wasn’t easy. The sorts of people that might have a book in them were the least inclined to write one. You were expected to do them the courtesy of waiting until they thought of it themselves, or risk the huffy response I’m far too young, I’m not finished yet.

So you waited, and usually something watery and disappointing was delivered too late.

I recall family members sometimes bringing in exercise books filled with the grandparents copperplate handwriting giving glimpses of extraordinary childhoods ‘up bush’, or in homes for wayward girls. There were packets of love-letters from young men who went to war, but almost inevitably most were fragments of memories that were fading fast. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life was a spectacular exception, of course, and fortunate indeed to have found its way to a publishing house prepared to give it the skilled editing it needed.

Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas. (more…)

Timid Minds

CAL / Meanjin Essay

‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable.

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing. [1]

But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible and the anticipation of rejection must have guaranteed it. A.A.Phillips’ recognition of the tendency to tag along dutifully behind England instead of doing our own thing may have been a bit too close to the bone and the psychological insight uncomfortable. He knew what Australian intellectuals were up against, not only within the institutions of the day but also inside their own heads, and he named the crippling lack of self esteem which yearned for Australia’s meaty individualism to be appreciated. But by the early 1950s there were signs of real change. Returned soldiers and artists and writers among the refugees and ‘New Australians’ were making intellectual life here more complex. Debates in the pubs and at the university seem to have been increasingly about our place in our region and the distinctive shape of Australian culture. [2]

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips did not fit the mould. He was an Australian Jew whose bookish family had been here since the 1820s, after a short time spent in London’s Whitechapel. His father had been a president of the Australian Natives’ Association, his mother wrote pieces for the weekly papers and a novel. Except for a pre-war stint at Oxford, Arthur spent very little time in Britain and did not enjoy it much. His tastes were European, his reading wide and his eye on an emerging Australian culture perceptive and acerbic. His critical writings about the Bulletin School of the 1890s as the beginnings of an Australian tradition meant that he was typecast, somewhat reluctantly, for the rest of his life as one of Australian literature’s foremost advocates and interpreters through his regular reviews and critical essays. But first and foremost he was a schoolmaster and for over forty-five years at Wesley College generations of schoolboys were taught to comprehend that ‘finely responsive reading is primarily an act of surrender, and only secondarily an act of judgment’.

Australian poetry and fiction were always part of his curriculum, and the anthologies he produced with Ian Maxwell, from as early as 1932, meant that some Australian writing was included in the syllabus of the English Department at Melbourne University. The Australian Tradition, published by Cheshire in 1958, was an attempt to counter-balance The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, which had already defined the ground for the canon, and English Departments around the world had fallen into line.


Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

When nineteen year old Stella Miles Franklin sent Henry Lawson the manuscript of My Brilliant Career, he recognized ‘a big thing’ – an Australian Story of an African Farm, he told George Robertson of Angus and Robertson. Olive Schreiner’s autobiographical novel had been an international sensation nearly twenty years earlier, and the Australian publisher still hoped for a home grown version. But Robertson procrastinated, preferring more ‘happy sentimentality’ in his native literature. My Brilliant Career was anything but sentimental. The story of a girl growing up on a failed selection in an imaginary Possum Gully near Goulburn, NSW, Sybylla chooses a career over marriage to an eminently suitable man who loves her and she him, in her Miles Franklin-ish way.

Blackwood of Edinburgh published the book in 1901 but cut the ‘anti-imperial sentiments’, without the permission of its ‘little firebrand author’ or of Lawson, who was keeping an eye on his protégée and on publication. British reviews were enthusiastic as if a hitherto unknown species of platypus had been sighted, but The Times was ‘incredulous that a girl in Sybylla’s circumstances could turn her back on wealth and happiness’. Australian reaction was slow and carping, the boundaries between autobiography and fiction too blurred for comfort, the author reprimanded for biting off more than she could chew. But A.G. Stephens of the Bulletin’s Red Page recognized the book’s authentic voice, declaring it the very first genuine Australian novel, full of sunlight. Stella Miles Franklin must have thought she was on her way, wherever that might lead.

But thirty years on it was still tough going and the way unclear. At a 1931 exhibition of Australian books in London, Miles Franklin spotted an old copy of My Brilliant Career, providing atmosphere like a bunch of gumnuts, in the display case of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson’s celebrated trilogy. Her chagrin can be imagined, but, typically, Miles Franklin kept her irritation to herself.

My Brilliant Career had been out of print for many years. Richardson had just been awarded the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal for the Best Australian Novel and British and American book clubs had taken the trilogy up in unheard of quantities. The last volume, Ultima Thule, had been proclaimed a work of genius by the London Observer.

Miles Franklin disagreed profoundly, finding Richardson’s trilogy ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’. Henry Handel Richardson did not care for Miles Franklin’s work either – recognizing the symptoms of a writer chasing fashionable genres. Both women were writing historical fiction centred on Australia, but under very different conditions. Richardson had few close friends and an intense dislike of public life. She was economically secure with a devoted husband who sharpened her pencils. ‘To write is her joy’, said critic Nettie Palmer who admired them both. Miles Franklin had no husband, probably no lovers, but a great talent for friendship as her a massive correspondence attests. She worried about money always. Only in later life did rents on a couple of shops left her by her mother supplement her meagre royalty cheques.

Writing was rarely a joy for Miles Franklin. Perhaps it was when the little bush girl was dashing off her stories in the local vernacular. Maybe occasionally during her nine years of feminist activism at the Chicago Branch of the National Women’s Trade Union League of America when her articles were regularly appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald. But her diaries record dark times and deep despair as she struggled to write stories set in Chicago. She then moved to London where she would live for the next sixteen years, mixing with the liberal intelligentsia and expatriate writers, working for the dreary National Housing and Town Planning Council. Outlets for her journalism dried up but always Miles Franklin kept writing her novels and plays, revising and resubmitting, rejected again and again by the theatre and publishing worlds only cautiously emerging from the aftermath of war and depression.

Miles Franklin, taught not to whine, picked herself up and got on with it, ‘donning armour to cope with life’s disappointments’. This may partly explain her decision, in the mid 1920s, to put on the mask of Brent of Bin Bin, an amiable older man, a pseudonym revealed only to Mary Fullerton, a close friend. Read in England in 1924, Fullerton’s Bark House Days, her reminiscences of a Gippsland childhood, were a revelation for Miles Franklin, the catalyst, Jill Roe suggests, for her later formulation of an Australian national literature. ‘Can it mean so much to outsiders as it does to us whose mother tongue is in every syllable?’

Depressed and unwell in her late forties, Miles Franklin resigned her job and bought herself ‘a nice little Corona typewriter’ and began work on an epic novel. But now she was writing in the well-modulated but Australian voice of a squatter who declared himself interested in making ‘a record of the lives of people in an unworked part of the globe, units of a master race in our day, units of a great Empire’. Up the Country, finished in seven months, was knocked back several times before Blackwood agreed to publish what would become an historical sequence of six novels, ‘distinctively Australian’. Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga may have been the model. From then on, Miles Franklin seems to have regarded publication under her own name as secondary to the greater task, the imperial project she set herself as Brent as Bin Bin, her ‘most important literary endeavour since My Brilliant Career’. Keeping the secret of Brent’s identity required elaborate postal and secretarial arrangements and the deception of close friends, but it gave Miles Franklin considerable freedoms and presumably satisfaction – and seems to have become as much a persona as pseudonym.

As Brent, she wrote to Sir Otto Neimeyer, the Bank of England’s adviser to the Australian government, sending him the recently published Back to Bool Bool hoping that it would help in a study of ‘the cross-currents at work in our Empire’. As Brent, she brought the book to the attention of Lord Beaverbrook as a potent force for drawing the Empire together. She had no qualms about comparing Brent’s work favourably with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Miles Franklin, social activist and writer, may have found a mask which liberated her.

Roe chooses not to probe the Brent persona too deeply, and Miles Franklin, who suspected psychologising, would have approved. She was even more scathing about the ‘new sexology’, the ‘great phallic renaissance’ for which she blamed Freud and his ‘dull and badly written’ studies. By urging women to behave like men instead of vice versa, the pre-war feminist challenge to the double standard was fatally undermined, she believed. Chastity was now mocked, and any hope of releasing women from the drudgery and danger of too many pregnancies was set back decades. Roe is illuminating on Miles Franklin’ attitudes to sex and intimacy with men, documenting but not speculating, backing off where Miles Franklin would have drawn the line.

Roe also chooses not to analyse the eugenically-based social and racial theories Miles Franklin’ seems to have absorbed and which informed her prescriptions for the New World. Her attitudes were those of the vast majority of the pioneer generation and remained common in Australia before Nuremberg, framing what Miles Franklin saw on her return to Sydney in 1933. After nearly a quarter of a century away, she at first hated ‘all the horrible old places and their aboriginal lack of progress’ but soon the beauty of the landscape moved her and she knew herself to be ‘indelibly, dyed in the wool ineradicably Australian’.

But in 1940, in a letter to anti-fascist Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin gives vent to her feelings of isolation and despair over the war, ‘quibbling’, she tells Palmer, ‘about rich Jews and being sick of the paranoid slaughter of all the blue-eyed, fair-haired youth, German or British, and of the Islamic and Mongol hordes breeding and breeding.’ Her Liberal imperial mission was opposed to war, emphasised mutual aid between the women of the Empire and prided itself as being free of class prejudice – but it was also founded in a conviction that a White Australia was essential, as, presumably, were her notions of a native literature. Even European migration after world war two, from countries with high birth rates, was regarded by Miles Franklin as undesirable.

Jill Roe’s mighty biography of a woman who was pivotal to the culture during a formative period of Australian literary life is meticulous and welcome. Future researchers will bless her for the clarity of her narration and the copious documentation of the vast Franklin archive. A labour of love, it must have been, requiring such empathy and scholarship, that the biographer’s voice is at times as reticent as Miles Franklin’ own. Occasionally they are indistinguishable. Both describe time writing at the desk as ‘pottering’ – a Franklin-ish understatement for what often makes painful reading. ‘I can’t go on indefinitely without fruition,’ Miles Franklin wrote in her diary after another round of disappointments, but always she did, buttressed first by elderly patrons and then by beloved friends who encouraged and praised her.

She seems to have had no professional advice when she most needed it, no one to find a way to tell her the truth – that her plays were pedestrian and fiction uneven, creaking under the strain of being forced into the popular moulds which were then selling. Soon after My Brilliant Career was published she worked incognito as a maid in Melbourne then studied the ‘servant problem’ for a while in Chicago planning to write exposės. In a later era, Miles Franklin may have found a niche as a journalist or social critic.

As she aged, Miles Franklin believed that her life had been a failure, her writing not good enough. Perhaps if she had written less and published under her own name her fiction might have lasted – but her real legacy is to the culture. Miles Franklin worked prodigiously to refine the institutions needed to sustain an authentic literature, to nourish writing which presented Australia to the world from the inside out.

Australian literary life then was provincial and often malicious. Publishing was riddled with black-holes, constrained by the fixed positions of Empire and traditional copyright arrangements. She tolerated the tedium of committee work, mediating where she could the ideologically riven Fellowship of Australian Writers. She felt patronised by the emerging scholarly establishment in Australian literature, knowing herself to be under-educated. But, not trusting their ability to spot ‘the real thing’, she applied herself to broadcasting, lecturing and lobbying to establish the meaning, as she saw it, of a native-grown literature. While her harsh and undermining mother was alive, the modest house in Grey Street, Carlton, NSW had been a place from which she had to escape. But for the last sixteen years of her life, her ‘homestead in the suburbs’, with its vegetable garden and its chooks, its waratah cup for special guests, its piles of manuscripts and drawers full of letters, was her refuge and a place of pilgrimage for several generations of writers. Here, she began, again in secret, to salt away what would become a substantial legacy for fellow writers. Who knew better the restraints and frustrations of an underdeveloped literary culture, or that writers’ prizes make a difference?

Miles Franklin was a vain old bird who loved hats and longed to be painted for the Archibald by William Dargie but worried she’d be given a scraggy neck like the portrait of artist Joshua Smith. She turned down an OBE in 1937 at least partly because fellow writer Mary Gilmore had been made a Dame. She knew she was a national icon and would have been gratified that the prize which bore her name became Australia’s foremost literary award and the only one noticed abroad. The furious disputes which make headlines from time to time about the terms of her will would have been music to her ears, her definition of ‘authentically Australian’ always a work in progress.

Other People’s Words

The cover of Other People's Words

Chapter 4 – making books – as .pdf, available for viewing here.