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…)


Cover of Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here .


a selection of recent Australian writing

I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase.

Australia feels a very long way off.

Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other side seemed less an implacable confrontation between Muslims and Christians and more a misreading of history, one still playing out.

There are few books published any more but the internet has taken their place. Story-telling sites and literary blogs are common, where writers critique each other’s work, and political satire manages to stay one step ahead of the government censors. Passionate conversations about books and writing still happen, as they always have, sometimes in surprising places. I love English literature, murmured a young man in an Amman hotel who was cutting my hair. He opened a drawer where a tattered copy of Middlemarch lay among the brushes and rollers.

The only Australian book I was ever asked about was Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love and then so often that I started to feel personally responsible for its distortions and errors. Khouri’s fake settings and her story of an honour killing in Jordan that didn’t happen was highly offensive. Women can and often do live modern lives, wearing the hijab and long coat perhaps only to visit their village. Repressive cultural practices still curtail the lives of many women but work is being done to support them. The members of the Women’s Commission, who quizzed me over lunch one day, were rightly outraged.

I expected to find it difficult to return but it was worse. All I could see was shocking affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin.  I felt adrift in the wrong place and getting my bearings back was essential. So the reading I was asked to do for the 2009 Melbourne Prize and the suggestion by Julia Taylor that I compile some annual anthologies of recent writing for Five Mile Press came when I most needed it. Wordlines is a selection from that reading time, idiosyncratic and personal, my biases and enthusiasms on display.

I started by seeking writing that that was international, engaged, political – and was not expecting to find very much of it. It didn’t take long to realise I was quite wrong.

There is a good deal of writing here now that is international. Some of it is political and all of it is engaged. There are new writers, of course, and books of great force and substance. Nam Le has an astonishing ability to take us into the heads of people in extremis all over the world so we share their moral universe. Evelyn Juers has taken biographical writing to a new level. And I was fortunate to read two powerful new novels in draft: Anna Funder is writing about the group of German anarchists around Ernst Toller and their frustrated attempts to alert the world to the rise of Nazism; and Drusilla Modjeska’s untitled novel about identity and race is set among the bureaucracy and corruption and complexities of contemporary Papua New Guinea. And with the quivering antennae peculiar to recent returnees, I fancied I caught more than a glimpse of a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility in writers such as Joan London and Cate Kennedy, and many others, some of whom were quite new to me, in a range of voices and styles unique to this place.

Perhaps, where distance from the rest of the world is a fact of life, it carries its own freedoms and allows our own kind of plain speaking to emerge. Immigrant cultures have long celebrated story and testimony and now a kind of deep texture to our literature is emerging. This is writing a world away from the mid nineties when genre fiction – often with rather thin exotic settings – was all the go, and being ‘Australian’ was reduced to simplistic categories to fit criteria for funding and prizes. The low point was reached when Grand Days, Frank Moorhouse’s first great League of Nations novel, was deemed ‘not sufficiently Australian’ for the Miles Franklin. The following year a sentimental multiculturalism caused judges of the Vogel, the Australian Literary Society and the Miles Franklin, as well as an assortment of critics to fall for Helen Demidenko’s fake ethnicity and to celebrate her clumsy racism as transgressive. Nowadays writers are drilling down deeper for their material within a literary environment where the restraints of convention and scholarly orthodoxies sit more lightly than they do in older cultures.

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile: the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann is an extraordinary collective biography about well-known refugees from fascism in the 30s and 40s. Juers slips back and forth in a kind of shimmering pointillism across the fine line between fiction and fact, her imagination refracted through a huge range of sources and cast of characters.

Sophie Cunningham, in a moving extract from her forthcoming novel about Leonard Woolf, has developed her own sure-footed form of biographical fiction. Leonard is Virginia’s mooring, here trying to feed her with trembling hands during one of her breakdowns, Virginia resisting this intrusiveness…. Both of them are locked in a marriage neither fully comprehend but would never give up.

Many writers are inhabiting uneasy places, where certainties tremble. In the opening chapter of Joan London’s The Good Parents, eighteen-year-old Maya, away from home for the first time, is seduced by her employer, one Maynard Flynn, on a mattress on the floor of his seedy Melbourne office. Maya falls in love. He can’t believe his luck. Her parents are about to arrive.

Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Bliss of Arrival’, is work-in-progress from her new novel about three generations in postcolonial PNG.  Jericho attempts to persuade his beloved Bili to leave her legal work for an environmental NGO and return with him to England where he feels less dislocated as a hapkaus Õmie man brought down from the mountain as a child than he does in Port Morseby. We are both. We could move between Jericho says, but he knows if you look too long into a woman’s eyes, she’ll take your soul.

Cate Kennedy seems to me to be getting better and better. In her story, ‘Tender’, she has perfected the art of straight-talking, taking things down to their essentials, the husband at the sink, awkward, loving, full of dread, the mother stilling her fear of the black shadow on the breast scan by toiling away late at night to make a magical world in a cardboard box for a child to take to school.

Rod Jones and Carmel Bird’s new stories were written for this collection. Jones doesn’t miss a beat in his glimpse of a marriage at the end of its tether, the dining-room set up for guests they’ll never have. Husband and wife are locked in their separate terrors – his of a comet crashing into Jupiter which he watches on television, hers that she no longer loves him.

Carmel Bird’s comic imagination is always finely poised, acerbic and slightly sinister. ‘No Thro’ Road’ signposts a well-connected cul-de-sac where boats aren’t rocked and the men and women who had mingled with each other in tree huts and at parties long ago now watch their children and grandchildren mingle pleasantly in Paris.

Alex Miller’s latest novel Love Song is deceptively simple and rich with allegory. In this extract, a beautiful Tunisian living in Paris, despairing that her husband cannot give her a child, resorts to the ancient solution of choosing another man to impregnate her – a man who falls to his knees and weeps afterwards.  Years later, her story will be related by her husband to Ken, an aging writer, in order that it be known.

These are writers looking from the inside out, engaging with the rest of the world and reflecting on their own with more sophistication than even just a decade ago.  What can be written ‘about’ here has altered. The easy recourse to foreign settings and interesting encounters seems to have been transformed into a rich connectedness and lightly worn shifting identities.

Tom Cho’s outlandish fictions about slithering between labels and meanings, are hilarious and adroit. There’s a grandmother who answers to the name of Bruce, an Uncle Wang who morphs into having a bi-directional interface between his central nervous system and his old computer, and Tom  himself who wants his Chinese name changed from I will skip and pick clover from lush fields to Marlon Brando.

Abigail Ulman, Paul Mitchell, Amra Pajaric and Tom Cho are writers I hadn’t read before and am very glad I have. Each is distinctive and utterly grounded. Ulman’s assured ‘Chagall’s Wife’ first caught my eye in Meanjin – a gripping story about a male schoolteacher caught in the headlights of a fourteen year old girl’s knowledge of her sexual power. For Mitchell the colloquial and the local provide the story’s texture and meaning – about loneliness, set in the bleak surrounds of a service station on the Hume Highway, where the trucks power south to where the girls are. Pajalic’s The Good Daughter was awarded the people’s choice in the Melbourne Prize, a sharp portrait of the Bosnian Muslim community through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Sabiya, seen in this extract dressed modestly in her mother’s clothes in an attempt to placate her orthodox grandfather.

In some ways, the trajectory of this selection and perhaps of contemporary Australian writing at this time is the long looping thread that runs from Gerald Murnane to Nam Le, two writers who recently won last year’s Melbourne Prizes for Literature. Le’s remarkable story ‘Cartagena’ takes place in the barrios of Medellín inside the head of a hit man who has fourteen years and two months and killed fourteen people for certain, perhaps another two. He is now sent to kill a man he knows, an almost friend, a man who is different, who does not think only of himself, who alone talks about happiness and honour – even about politics – about a future unconnected to money. There is no way back, they know, only a fantasy of a safe place, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where the sun comes up in a slow-motion explosion like in the movies… and where the girls are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things.

Murnane resists categories.  In prose pared to somewhere beneath the bone, he inhabits a universe entirely his own. ‘Australian’ is not the word for it even though a large part of the brilliance of this essay lies in it being centred in the small world of the 1940s – the Bendigo sleep-out, the altar boy chanting the Latin Nicene Creed for the rhythm which conjures in his mind’s eye images of horseracing, a rhythm which will lead inexorably to the man in this middle age teaching himself the Hungarian language in order to recite to members of the Hungarian community the great ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’ by Gyorgy Faludy. This is entirely fitting, even pre-destined, reality becomes metaphor, ordinariness becomes extraordinary.

How words work, how the best of them encapsulate our time and our place and our sense of ourselves in that space is subjective and too slippery to try to pin down – but for me, fully imagined writing creates threads of thought, wordlines that hold us, connect us, and bring us home.

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.