Category Archives: Biography

‘Bolivar: The Epic Life of the Man Who Liberated South America’ by Marie Arana

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2013, 603 p.

One of my favourite podcasts is Revolutionspodcast.com. The presenter, Mike Duncan, is working his way through various revolutions in the world and I’ve gone along for the ride: The English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and most recently for me, the Bolivaran Revolution in South America. (He’s since moved on to the 1848 Revolution but I haven’t caught up with that yet).

My interest in reading this book was piqued by the podcasts – what a fascinating, complex, tragic man Bolívar was – but it was also a way of compensating for some of the limitations of the podcast genre.  When you’re waiting for the weekly podcast, you can forget things from one week to the next, and I suspect that the weekly production scheme nudges the writer/presenter into looking at hour-long, self-contained episodes.  As a historian, I am very fond of the episode as an organizing device, used fruitfully and frequently by the so-called Melbourne School of Historians, but it does have its drawbacks too.  I found that, while I relished each episode as a historiographical ‘episode’,  I didn’t really have a big picture and lost all sense of time. Worse still, I had no sense of place either. Although Duncan does have maps on his website, I was listening to these podcasts as auditory input only. I’m not very familiar with South America as a continent, and I had no idea where the places he mentioned (in his rather poor Spanish accent that even I can detect)  were , or the distances involved.  Hence, when I saw this book on the library shelves, I snapped it up.

It’s written by a novelist and journalist, but I need have had no fear of that as a historian. There are copious footnotes (although they are not signalled in the text) and she has obviously immersed herself in the various historigraphical debates about Simon Bolívar. I have often been critical of Australian historians who parse debates under the anondyne label of “some historians” but I now realize how much my discomfort springs from being an insider and knowing who those historians are. In reading as a general reader about South American and Simón Bolívar, all these arguments fly completely over my head, just as the Australian references to “some historians” for a general reader would too.  It’s been a sobering little lesson.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so critical of the practice.

And if you’re not sure about who Simón Bolívar is, you could check here and here.

This is a long book at 468 pages of smallish text. It is told completely chronologically, following Bolívar’s life from his wealthy upbringing as in a Creole (white, South American born) family, his education in Europe, his multiple failed attempts to foment the overthrow of the Spanish colonial powers, his eventual success in multiple places all over South America over a period of just eleven years, and his inability to harness the ambitions or treachery of the officials and soldiers left in command while he hared around the country (they didn’t call him ‘Iron-Ass’ for nothing).

It has a map, and I found myself turning to it frequently.  As might be expected, most of the action took place in what is now Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Equador, Peru and Bolivia, as it was in these countries that Bolívar sought to create a pan-South-American federation, powerful enough to have influence on the world stage. He would fight the battles, appoint one of his generals and then move on to the next challenge. He was often appointed as President and dictator, preaching equality and liberty and declaiming all the time that he didn’t want to be a politician. He accepted the positions nonetheless.  His armies included soldiers from all over the continent, and members of the British Legion from across the British Empire. But he ended his life embittered and impotent as violence spread over the new states he had helped establish.

Nearly every reference to Simon Bolívar that I have read his ended up using Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ title for his book The General in his Labyrinth. But it certainly seems that his long drawn-out death was probably the worst way for a revolutionary hero to die: enfeebled and disillusioned, with people wondering when he would eventually die.

I’m really pleased that I read this book, because it helped to contextualize the podcasts that I’d spent so many enjoyable hours listening to. I just wish I’d read it before listening to the podcasts, instead of after!

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7.5

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‘A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson’ by Kerrie Davies

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2017, 225p

David Marr, the celebrated biographer, has proclaimed for himself the rule that “biographers should stay out of sight”. I suspect that he would be ‘tut-tutting’ the whole way through this book, because the biographer/author Kerrie Davies is very much on-stage, using her own early 21st century experience as a lens through which to examine and reflect on the marriage and separation of Bertha and Henry Lawson.  The book both starts and finishes with Davies’ own reflections on single parenthood and she shuttles back and forth between her own memoir and a biographical examination of Bertha and Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson, as most (I hope!) Australian readers would know, is one of Australia’s best known writers, with his short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’  forming one of the staples of school anthologies in the last century.  He wrote in the 1890s and early 1900s at a time when ‘Australianness’ was being explored in writing through the pages of The Bulletin and through the works of the Australian impressionists – Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton et al. He is a much-biographied subject, as Davies found, with biographers falling into two camps: those who blamed his wife Bertha for pursuing child support payments and hounding him to imprisonment, and those who saw Bertha as the long-suffering, separated wife bringing up her children alone.

Davies falls very much into the second category. She, too, has brought her daughter up alone when her marriage to her musician husband fell apart through his incessant travelling, and this sense of identification with Bertha permeates the book. I’m not sure that it makes good biography, but I don’t know if a ‘pure’ biography was ever her intention. Certainly she draws on primary documents, including court files, letters, memoirs, secondary sources and Henry’s own writings, reproducing important paragraphs in the text itself, and footnoting the sources at the rear of the book.  In this way she has certainly given Bertha an identity and agency. She has carefully researched the legislation governing divorce at the turn of the twentieth century, and beautifully integrates Henry, in particular, into the bohemian and literary milieu of the day.  However, as a journalist, she makes no claim to be a historian, and in describing the Darlinghurst gaol in which Henry was imprisoned, she turns us over directly to the hands of the archivist at the gaol, Deborah Beck, in a manner reminiscent of meeting-the-historian in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. In fact, that same sense of anachronistic identification that permeates ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ is evident in this book as well, and it means that as reader, you’re taken along for the story in the present just as much for the history.

Although a very different sort of endeavour, this book evoked for me Jennifer Gall’s Looking for Rose Paterson. There’s a symmetry in that both researchers are drawing an otherwise unseen woman (a mother, a wife) out from the background of these two writers – A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson- who are together synonymous with colonial nationalistic turn-of-the-century writing.  But Bertha Lawson was not unseen: she wrote her own memoir, her correspondence is found amongst Henry’s works, people knew her and she looms large in his lifestory as the force that he resisted and railed against, and which eventually- in the eyes of his champions- brought him undone.  The subtitle of the book is “The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson”, and Davies has succeeded in telling this untold story.  “No one is more pleased to see you yourself again than I am” Bertha wrote to Henry (p 185) during one of his recurrent phases of sobriety before lapsing into alcoholism again. In seeing Bertha, and the cycles of alcoholism and cruelty, unsuccessful reconciliations, legal maneuverings, emotional bargaining, justifications and accusation, we see  Henry ‘himself’ also.

The author’s paper to the 2015 Australasian Association of Writing Programs conference discussing her writing decisions can be found here.  (What a fantastic site! they have all the papers from decades of conferences).

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘The Boyds: a family biography’ by Brenda Niall

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2002, 387p.

In this book we are in the hands of a master biographer.  Not many biographers would have the courage to take on a whole family as a unit, but Brenda Niall does here. The sprawling, artistic Boyd family has representatives in nearly every branch of the arts (literature, painting, architecture, sculpture) and its family tree is studded with seemingly endless iterations of ‘Boyd’ and ‘a’Beckett’ in their names.   Only an experienced biographer would even attempt such a complex group biography across five generations and nearly two centuries,  and she   handles it with consummate ease.

She owes much of her success to the very careful structuring that she has used to organize this unwieldy and voluminous information. She starts with four men: the emancipist-entrepreneur brewer John Mills; the wealthy pastoralist Robert Martin (of ‘Viewbank’ and ‘Banyule’ fame); William a’Beckett the Chief Justice of Victoria; and Captain Thomas Boyd, career militarist and settler. Even though the first section of the book is called ‘The Matriarch’ (referring to Emma Mills, later a’Beckett), Niall firmly embeds these four patriarchs as the founding fathers, so to speak, of the Boyd dynasty.  She takes forty pages to do so in her opening chapter, and she returns to them as touchstones throughout the book. The tainted convict source of the money that Emma a Beckett (nee Mills) brought to the family was a secret, but it  bestowed on its members the time and space to explore their artistic passions across multiple generations.

The second thematic device she uses is that of the house.  Houses were important to the Boyds. Emma’s husband W. A. C. Beckett had the ‘a Beckett coat of arms emblazoned on two houses: the first was The Grange in Berwick (since demolished for a quarry), the second was the lost manor Penleigh House in Wiltshire, England (later sold out of the family). Above the front door of the Grange he placed a stained glass window with the motto “Immemor Sepulchri Struis Domo” (Forgetful of the Tomb, You Build Houses).  Niall uses the house as an organizing device for her narrative, but it was one suggested through the family’s actions rather than the biographer’s imagination.  It works well, both as a means of organizing such an unruly venture, but also in highlighting the paradox that the Boyd family, so embedded and synonymous within Australian cultural life, were also drawn ‘home’ to an earlier ancestral myth of gentry glory. There is a string of Boyd Houses: the light-filled Grange so beautifully captured in Emma Minnie Boyd’s paintings,  the tatty, faded grand Penleigh in UK, Tralee in Sandringham, the architect’s home in Walsh St South Yarra; Open Country in Murrumbeena and Bundanong in Nowra NSW.

The focus is firmly on the Boyds, but it is just as much an exploration of Australian, and especially Melbourne, cultural life as well.  There are connections with other artists and their colonies, architectural commissions for major cultural figures, and networks branching across Melbourne society. At the same time, there is that siren call of “overseas”. Women are certainly present, even if they sometimes subjugated their role as muse behind that of wife and mother.

This is a marvellously complex but disciplined biography. This is how a group biography is done!

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge  site.

The 2015 Hazel Rowley Lecture, Adelaide Writers Week

I’ve been very much enjoying catching up on the podcasts from the 2015 Adelaide Writers Week. What a terrific site!

The 2015 Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture was delivered by David Marr.   Unlike Rowley, who wrote from historical sources after her subjects had died, Marr comes to writing biography through journalism, particularly through the genre of the long form political profile of 5000-10,000 words- a length rarely encouraged in our sound-bite, tablet-friendly, swipe-driven media landscape.

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marr2Marr particularly embraces The Quarterly Essay format, which at 30,000 words, is a form that provides scope for a slim biography of subjects who are still alive, still dangerous and where there is still time to warn.  I’ll certainly be dusting off his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott after recent events, and his latest one on Bill Shorten landed in my letterbox this week.

Marr recounted being tackled by a psychiatrist on Q&A who derided his qualification to make assessments of character, claiming it as a skill that psychiatrists took years of training to master.  However, as Marr pointed out, biographers are in the “business” of character too. In the maelstrom of politics, character, he argues, is fixed.  In both political and literary biography, the approach is the same: to discover the character, paint the world, follow the life and rate the work.

The winner of the 2015 Hazel Rowley fellowship was announced: Caroline Baum. She will write on Lucy Dreyfus, the wife of Alfred Dreyfus.  She delivered what sounds to have been an unexpectedly emotional acceptance speech which, like Marr’s presentation, honoured Rowley as a biographer in a fitting tribute.

‘Sir William a’Beckett’ by J. M. Bennett

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Sir William a’Beckett J.M. Bennett, Federation Press, 2001.

This blog is called ‘The Resident Judge of Port Phillip’ as a tribute to the first resident judge, John Walpole Willis, but there were in fact four Resident Judges of Port Phillip. William a’Beckett, the fourth and final one, is an interesting man. His main claim to fame is that he was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, after having served as Resident Judge in Melbourne since 1846.

As proud Victorians, it suits us to forget that until July 1851 the area that we now know as Victoria was instead just the “Port Phillip District” of New South Wales.  La Trobe was a mere ‘Superintendent’; the Legislative Council sat in Sydney where Port Phillip affairs were an afterthought, and all administrative functions were directed from Sydney.  The court was part of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and while the Resident Judge in Melbourne had some degree of autonomy, appeals went automatically to the full Bench in Sydney.  The Resident Judge was still a member of the full court, but distance ensured that in a practical sense he was sidelined from the activities of his brother judges in Sydney.

William a’Beckett was Resident Judge when the Supreme Court of Victoria was finally established under the Supreme Court (Administration) Act 1852. This act brought to an end a rather ambiguous seven-month hiatus where it was assumed, but not definitely stated, that  a’Beckett would continue in his position until Letters Patent were issued by the Queen or colonial legislation would be passed to make him Chief Justice of the new court.  The Colonial Office made it clear that it wasn’t going to issue the Letters Patent or any new Charter, so it was up to the new Victorian legislature to pass the necessary legislation. It eventually did so, and a’Beckett was sworn in as Chief Justice on 24th January 1852, with Redmond Barry (the former Solicitor-General) as first puisne (or assistant) judge, joined by Edward Eyre Williams in July 1852. Continue reading

‘Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason’ by Norman S. Poser

When I look at the header that runs across the top of this little blog, with its picture of the first Supreme Court building here in Melbourne,  Crocodile Dundee comes to mind.  “Call that a court? Call the man hidden away inside that humble little building a judge?”

Now this is a judge!

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Lord Mansfield was born William Murray at Scone Palace in Scotland in 1705 and he was Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in England for 32 years.  His long life (1705-1793) spanned most of the eighteenth century, and he was related to varying degrees with many of the momentous occasions of that time: the Jacobite uprising, the age of Enlightenment, the coffee house culture, the American Revolution, the Wilkes and Gordon riots and most famously for us today (although somewhat incorrectly), the question of slavery.  He is remembered as the father of commercial law. Continue reading

The Seymour Biography Lecture: Ray Monk

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“How Can I be a Logician before I’m a Human Being?” The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals, Seymour Biography Lecture, 22 September 2014

“I don’t even know who this guy is….” I thought while RSVPing for the Seymour Biography lecture in Melbourne, held last night.  When I looked the books he’s written, I understand why.  While I’ve read many historical and literary biographies, I must confess to not being overly attracted to biographies of philosophers and scientists.  However, in my own work on Judge Willis, I share the problem of working on a man who has a body of work in the intellectual realm (in my own case, an accumulation of addresses to a jury and written judgements) which, while abstract and de-personalized (in a way that, perhaps, a fiction oeuvre for a writer is not), is also integral to his own identity.

Ray Monk is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, coming from a background in the philosophy of mathematics. Although his four works are based on philosophers and, more recently, a scientist, he does not believe that biography necessarily contributes to an understanding of all philosophers and moreover, that you can’t evaluate the philosophy in terms of the life of its proponent.   However, he was attracted to write about Wittgenstein after reading two very different appraisals of Wittgenstein’s work and concluding that, if these writers had understood Wittgenstein as a man, they would not have developed particular misunderstands in their analysis.

In a very academic-y way, he investigated the methodology of biography writing before embarking on his biography of Wittgenstein.   In effect, he followed Biography 101, commencing with classical biographies,  Samuel Johnson and Boswell, Virginia Woolf, and ending up with Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde and Andrew Hodge’s Turing: The Enigma as exemplars for his own work.

In his presentation, he focussed on Johnson’s own reflections on biography that he expressed through two articles ‘Biography’ in The Rambler in 1750 and ‘On Biography’ in The Idler 1759.  He addressed five questions from Johnson:

1. What is the relation between biography of other genres, most particularly history and fiction?  His answer- there’s an overlap.

2. Who deserves a biography? Many philosophers don’t live sufficiently interesting lives to warrant a biography, he said.

3. What details to include? He mentioned that there were facts that he had omitted from his two-volume work on Russell – a publication that he seemed oddly apologetic about.  He explained that had he included them, they would have completely skewed the response to the book, and so he omitted them.

4. What are the moral responsibilities of the biographer? He identified three- to the subject; to the public and to the truth. Although he nominated the ultimate responsibility to the truth, he noted that surviving relatives often have a stake as well.

5. Can one know the inner life?  Johnson believed that this was not possible: “By conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments”. Monk disputed this very 18th century view, giving examples in his books where he had looked to action as a window on the inner life.

There is a particular challenge, I think, in writing biographies of intellectuals, as opposed to biographies of politicians or literary figures.  There is the content of their philosophy, as well as their own life as part of a familial, historical and intellectual milieu.  Monk noted the tendency of academic biographers, in particular, to give a quote from the philosopher’s work then in the following paragraph to proceed to paraphrase and explain it. Just leave the quote alone, he advised.

He noted that a biography is not just a collection of facts: that the facts need to be shaped, and that the biographer has a point of view. He finished with a very Wittgensteinian idea that is particularly applicable to biography-writing “The understanding that exists in seeing connections”.

There’s a very good review from the Guardian (10/11/12) of his Oppenheimer book which also discusses Monk as a biographer. You’ll get a good taste of the lecture from this article.

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I’ve been frustrated in the past that the Seymour Biography Lecture has been delivered in Canberra and, as far as I’m aware, not in Melbourne as well. But I’ve just found podcasts or transcripts of recent lectures on the NLA site. Ah, isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?