Documenting a Life

The Trunk in the Attic: The Biographer and the Bundle of Letters / Brenda Niall

It must often be an uneasy relationship between the writer of a biography and the subject; and if the subject is dead and can not have a say nor a right of veto on publication, then there are others with rights - family and friends, or for that matter enemies - all those who make up part of the context of a life.

Whether they are central, or have a small walk-on part in a life that has been found worth writing about, all these people may find themselves in conflict with a biographer. And one of the obvious sites of contest is the bundle of letters. Whether these letters are central or not, each one involves at least two people - the writer and the recipient - and may involve others. If the letter happens to be scandalous, or even just embarrassing, it may be a third party who is most threatened by its being published as part of a biography.

In fiction at least, some writers are fighting back, and the biographer appears as the villain in some contemporary novels. Perhaps they always have fought back. Henry James's story The Aspern Papers is an early example of a piece of fiction in which the villain will go to almost any lengths - masquerade, fraud, attempted burglary - in order to get the love letters of a poet whose memory he says he reveres. In the process of trying to steal letters, he more or less brings about the death of the woman to whom the letters were written.

More recently, in William Golding's novel The Paper Men, an elderly novelist is awakened at night by a noise which he thinks must be a badger rummaging in his dustbin for leftovers. It is not a badger, nor a rat (not literally anyway). It is his biographer, a guest in the writer's house, who has got out of bed and is rummaging in the dustbin in the hope of finding some discarded manuscripts.

That is just the start of the story. The biographer and the novelist engage in a kind of duel to the death over the novelist's private papers, and one kills the other. I think you can guess which one is the killer - it has to be the biographer.

In one slightly less extreme case, A.S. Byatt's novel Possessionfeatures a predatory American scholar on the track of a letter - just one crucial letter - which was buried with the Victorian poet to whom it was written. In a dramatic scene the biographer is caught in a graveyard, breaking open the coffin to get his crucial piece of evidence.

So, in fiction at least, these are some of the avenues down which the quest for letters and papers can take a biographer - all the way from sifting through household rubbish to burglary, grave robbery and murder. However, in reality it is not always so exciting. I hope that by choosing the title 'The Trunk in the Attic: The Biographer and the Bundle of Letters' I have not raised any expectation of melodrama. I have written two biographies in which letters have been important. In fact if I had not had letters and diaries to work with, the biographies would not have been written. Without the first-person voice, biography is a bit thin and unsatisfying.

I have had a quite peaceful time: no bodies, no midnight rummaging, no coffins broken open. So this is not confession time. But even with the biographies I wrote - those of novelist Martin Boyd, and of Georgiana McCrae, pioneer and painter - there were moments of suspense and excitement: trunks full of papers were opened up for me, and some unexpected thing were unpacked.

In a seminar where everyone is focused on the process of writing a life, there is probably reasonable excuse for me to be somewhat autobiographical. I thought that rather than reflect in a general way on the importance of letters to a biographer, and on some of the problems of interpreting them, I might look back ten years or so and remember how I used letters in writing the life of Martin Boyd and then, more recently, the place of letters in my biography of Georgiana McCrae. These were two very different experiences, partly of course because the two subjects, Boyd and McCrae, are so widely separated in time.

Martin Boyd - born in 1893 and the novelist member of the Boyd family of painters - grew up in Melbourne, served in the First World War, lived for most of his adult life as a restless expatriate in England and Italy, and died in Rome in 1972. Georgiana McCrae, born in London in 1804, came to Melbourne in 1841 and died there in 1890 having spent most of her adult life in what she called her 'exile'.

The lives almost touch in time, Boyd's life beginning not long after Georgiana McCrae's came to an end. They have Melbourne in common, and they were both displaced people, though with the difference that Georgiana did not choose expatriation. As the wife of an unsuccessful settler and the mother of eight children, she never had the freedom to live where she pleased. Boyd was a loner, though a sociable one, and he moved house so often that I lost count of his addresses.

Boyd was a good correspondent; so was McCrae. And because they wrote amusingly, people tended to keep their letters, and so a reasonable number could be found to give a sense of voice and personality. One obvious difference was that because many of Boyd's correspondents were still living I could interview them and get some kind of insight into the relationship between the correspondents, filling in some of the contextual gaps. Although McCrae left many letters too, there were no living memories of her, and it was much harder to get a sense of the relationship expressed in the letters.

Also the conventions of letter writing differed widely. The beginnings and endings of letters from someone brought up in the very early 19th century, as Georgiana was, were much more formal and less individualised than the way Boyd would greet his family and friends and the way he would sign off. There is an obvious contrast between the codes of each period.

Georgiana in mid-19th century style signed her letters to all her children in the same way: 'Your affectionate mother, G. McCrae'. And she was addressed by someone she detested, and who detested her, as 'My dearest Georgiana'.

Martin Boyd's 20th-century style was much more relaxed and expressive: for example to a friend and fellow Royal Air Force officer, he signed off with 'Toodle-pip, most kind and friendly, Thine, M. àB. Boyd'.

Before continuing to illustrate the different conventions of letter writing I found in researching the Boyd and the McCrae books, I would like to go back to my title 'The Trunk in the Attic: The Biographer and the Bundle of Letters'. This title was not chosen just as a romantic gesture, perhaps evoking The Aspern Papers and the notion of intrusion or trespass. I really did have the experience of trunks being opened for me and old letters being unpacked.

Martin Boyd's nephew Guy Boyd had a trunkful of letters and papers which had been sent to him from Rome after Martin Boyd's death in 1972. Its contents were still more or less unexplored when I first thought about writing Boyd's life. Guy lent me the diaries and a bundle of letters. Reading these, even just looking at them and all the other oddments that had been sent home - photographs, a passport, bank statements - gave some sense of the life that had been lived.

These were Boyd's privileged last things - the letters and papers and photographs he had chosen to keep. He led such a nomadic life, very often living out of suitcases, that he did not keep a great deal. He destroyed all the manuscripts of his novels. What he kept was what he valued though, of course, it is likely that if there was some private or sensitive correspondence it would have been destroyed. He did keep his own diaries and he kept letters written to him by close friends and family members.

The diaries were in some ways disappointing - not very eloquent on the whole and full of day-to-day trivia like when he had his hair cut, or had been to the bank, or what bus he caught. Here and there were single sentences which would reveal a mood, often a depressed or even desperately sad one. During Boyd's last illness before he died of cancer at the age of 79, there were entries that reflected his growing weakness; for example, how many steps he could walk from room to room, until 100 paces had dwindled to only 10 steps from bed to window. The handwriting got shakier, and he wrote: 'I cannot see what will become of me. I get weaker and weaker and can only hope to die soon.' And then - nothing.

In the diary I found Boyd the Stoic, the battler, the independent man who did not want to be a burden to anyone, and the man of strong religious faith, who was sustained by that faith, rather precariously, at the end. In the letters he wrote at this time I found various moods, other ways of presenting himself to the world. I found that reading a letter and then looking at the diary entry of the same day could be rather disconcerting, but also provided a kind of safeguard against over-simplification. While the diary entry might suggest acute depression, the letter could be funny, buoyant, and making a good story out of his predicament.

So which version gets the privilege from a biographer's point of view? I do not think it is simply a matter of saying that the diary, in which the self speaks to the self alone, is necessarily more authentic than the letter. They are both authentic. For me it was illuminating to have both; and to see more clearly the contradictions within the one man.

I also conducted quite a few interviews, most of them with people who had corresponded with Boyd. That is one advantage of writing about an expatriate, especially a restless one like Boyd who also had a gift for friendship. Those friendships could only be sustained by writing letters. If he had stayed at home and used the telephone more then I would have been deprived of a lot of material.

As an expatriate he had friends on both sides of the world, and his family ties, which remained strong, had to be maintained by post. Again, comparisons were interesting. His English friends spoke of Martin's breezy Australian openness, while here, at least among some of his Melbourne cousins, there was a feeling that he had become too English; a bit stiff, reserved and formal.

Letters should come in pairs or clusters, and with Boyd I was sometimes lucky enough to have both sides of the correspondence. They can be revealing for what they do not say - often there is a gap between what the biographer may know about the context, and the words on the page. Boyd had many friends. I interviewed dozens of them, and both the interviews and the correspondence showed his capacity for friendship (not only the number of friends, but also the trouble he took for them) but they showed his reticence too.

His reticence also showed in his financial affairs. In the end pages of his diaries there were lots of anxious calculations of small amounts of money in the bank: was there or was there not enough to pay the rent or the electricity bill? At one stage during a Rome winter he could not afford to get his electric heater fixed, but this does not appear in the letters. It was clear from the Rome diaries that Boyd was very short of money; it was also clear from the letters that he had not let anyone know what straits he was in.

In his last illness, friends in Rome sounded the alarm, and his nephews Arthur, Guy and David sent money to pay his medical and living expenses. The Australian government, through the Commonwealth Literary Fund, awarded him $1000 and a life pension of $30 a week. The irony of a life pension for a dying man was not lost on Boyd, but he was elated at the recognition this implied: he was not forgotten in Australia.

He wrote in high spirits to Arthur Boyd, thanking him for a cheque for a $1000 dollars which had 'come bouncing into [his] bank account'. And the same letter went on:

Now you need no longer have concern for an antique uncle sitting on the Spanish Steps holding out his cap, as the Australian Government has come to your aid. The Department of Conservation, Aborigines and the Arts has decided to conserve me.

God bless you for your wonderful generosity which has made so much difference to me at this time - With much love to all, Martin.

This is where I first came into the biography - reading the last letters to and from Martin Boyd as he came to the end of his life; as an expatriate, living alone in a Rome pensione, and dying in a Rome hospital.

The biography, as I published it, is shaped in the conventional way: from the cradle to grave. However, in doing the research it was the other way round, in that the first things I read were the letters and the last diaries, while the last thing I read, in fact just after I had written my final chapter, was the account of his birth. His grandmother's diaries became available at the last minute, when I had given up hope of ever getting to read them, and she described her grandson Martin as a fine baby who weighed 10 lbs and behaved very well at his christening.

From the grave back to the cradle: I think that is a good example of the fact that a biographer can not work on calendar time, and that you can not define a personality in self-contained periods or stages of so-called development. It is more a matter of multiple selves co-existing rather than negating or disproving one another.

Diaries and letters worked together: I was lucky to have both.

However, working on the Boyd biography was a combination of documentary research - primary sources, public records, family histories and so on - and oral history in a series of interviews with people who had known Martin Boyd at different stages of his life. The interviews showed me that there is really no such thing as a one-to-one relationship between biographer and subject, because the subject must always come trailing his or her fringes on human relationships and historical circumstances.

There is sometimes a temptation to put in too much: to give information just because you happen to have it, maybe because it was hard to get and it seems a pity to waste it; or just because it was there. I could have informed my readers of just how often Boyd had his hair cut, or how much he spent on bus fares, but you can do too much of that sort of thing. In an over-documented life the subject can sink without a trace.

The Boyd letters were reasonably varied in time and in tone. I would have liked more from the younger Martin, but predicably more letters survived from his old age. This is the risk, I suppose, that all biographers face: that the end, which is foreknown, shapes the beginning; that the old man obscures the younger self.

That is one reason I did not put a photo on the cover, for which one would I choose? The Australian schoolboy, the young officer, the West End man about town, or the old man on the beach in Italy? All equally valid as images. I settled instead for a landscape which had personal meaning for Boyd, and put the photographs inside.

It is the same with the letters. I could see Boyd in different moods and relationships at various stages of his life. To his publishers he wrote many angry letters, usually complaining about royalties, or dust jacket designs, or failure to reprint or promote his books. In a quite different context, he wrote several wonderfully eloquent letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury, protesting against the bombing of German cities in the Second World War, and urging the Church of England to assert moral leadership.

He was good at the comic, gossipy letters in which he represented himself as a slightly absurd figure. He could be malicious. He could be an authority figure in the family: the uncle rebuking a nephew. There is a sharp one written to Arthur Boyd in the 1950s about a ceramic group which Arthur had exhibited, and which seemed to Martin to be a piece of shallow modernist commercialism. He wrote:

As I made considerable effort, both financially and in nervous energy to help you and your family, I feel that I have the right to comment on what you do ... You have real genius and if you misuse it in this way you will be far more to blame than some nonentity who has to shriek discordantly to attract attention ... and you may do yourself a great deal of harm by copying these grotesque leg-pulls ... There are ways in which you can come to terms with the public without losing your integrity.

This letter is not signed 'affectionately Uncle Martin', rather it is a very cool 'from Martin Boyd'. And I suppose it says a good deal about the family relationship that Arthur Boyd, then aged 36 and well established as a painter, did not hold it against Martin nor resent - not permanently anyway - the moral blackmail of 'all I've done for you'.

The family letters gave me Boyd as Uncle Martin, a central figure in the clan. There were letters to his sister and to various friends and contemporaries in England and Australia. There were very few letters to or from other writers and he seems never to have wanted to be a literary personality, or to belong to literary circles.

And there were no letters which could be described as intimate: the defences were pretty well maintained, the self remaining a very private self. No love letters: perhaps he never wrote any, perhaps he did and they were destroyed, as the most intimate letters often are. That is an absence of the kind the biographer has to tolerate, or else turn novelist to fill the presumed gap.

With Georgiana McCrae, I thought at first the record might be a bit thin. For one thing, her range of correspondence was bound to be limited by her time and situation. Boyd wrote to family and friends, but he also wrote public letters, business letters (he was totally and hopelessly unbusinesslike, but he had to try) and he wrote some furious ones to publishers and agents. He also wrote letters to the editor in various newspapers, he took up causes - against nuclear arms, supporting conservation, about war, religion, art and literature. He took up public positions, though you could never call him anything but a private man.

Georgiana McCrae, like most women of her time, was pretty much confined to the domestic sphere. She had ideas and opinions, as strong as Boyd's, but they would be found only in letters to friends: no chance of finding her among the Letters to the Editor in the London Times, where Boyd was represented from time to time.

However, there were ways in which I was lucky with McCrae's letters. Georgiana was a painter who had been professionally trained and she kept in touch as far as she could with artistic circles in London. To be an artist and to feel an exile in Australia: that created a need to keep in touch with other painters, not to be submerged in what she called 'the useful arts' of housekeeping, gardening, and making clothes for her eight children.

I think too that Georgiana's coming to Australia made a great difference in determining the things she wanted to say, describing new places and experiences to people who could hardly imagine what her pioneering life was like.

I was worried in the early stages of the McCrae biography that it would be all narrative and not much sense of character. That is because Georgiana's story is full of drama - melodrama in fact. So much so that I keep being told the story is a natural for a mini-series. So far no offers have come in, although there have been a couple of people wanting to write a script.

Georgian's story is full of the stock situations of romance; in fact I approached it with a certain scepticism, wondering if some of the stories would collapse under examination. She was born in London in 1804, the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis of Huntly, who was later to became the fifth Duke of Gordon - he had no legitimate children. Her mother was a woman called Jane Graham, and nothing much is known about her.

I tried the usual sources but could only get rather meagre documentation. Jane Graham's baptismal certificate revealed her as the seventh child of a Northumberland labourer. I found her on a rent roll in a shabby genteel district of London during Georgiana's childhood. Her death certificate showed that she died aged 58 of 'natural decay'.

On the ducal, Gordon side there was plenty of material: dukes are highly visible people. Georgiana's father claimed her - she was baptised as a Gordon, not a Graham - and gave her a young lady's education in London. When she was about seven it was found that she had unusual artistic talent. She was allowed to leave school at ten, and when she was twelve had a painting accepted by the Royal Academy. At 16 she won a prize for portraiture in an open competition in London, and she exhibited more of her work at the Royal Academy.

During that period, the early 19th century, it was very difficult for a woman to make her living as a portrait painter. It was easier for women writers as they could write under pseudonyms - male pseudonyms quite often - as later the Brontes and George Eliot did. But a portrait painter had to meet her client quite literally face to face; a fee had to be negotiated, and that sort of commercial transaction was not thought suitable for a young lady, or indeed for any woman. 'Portrait painting,' Samuel Johnson had said, 'is an improper employment for a woman. Public practice of any art, and staring in men's faces, is very indelicate in a female.'

Because of her ambiguous social status, a duke's daughter, acknowledged but illegitimate, it must have seemed possible that Georgiana would have to earn her own living, and for a short time she did paint for a living, in 1820s Edinburgh. However, she did so only under the sharp-eyed supervision of her father's wife, who could at any moment have withdrawn approval and taken all Georgiana's clients away. Fashionable Edinburgh - those who could pay for portraits - would go to the Duke's daughter for a portrait, but only if the Duchess gave her backing, which for a time she did.

In the melodrama of Georgiana's life, the Duchess - her father's young, strong-minded and very rich wife - plays the part of Wicked Stepmother very effectively. She interfered in a promising romance, separating Georgiana from a young man she loved; and she promoted a 'suitable' but never very happy marriage to the young Edinburgh lawyer Andrew McCrae.

McCrae, a difficult, touchy, impulsive man, was not a success in private or professional life. He moved to London, and failed to make a living there. After nearly ten years of marriage, when Georgiana was expecting her fifth child, he decided to emigrate to Australia. Here again, bad luck and bad judgement worked against him. He was almost bankrupt by 1843, and gave up legal practice in Melbourne in favour of a cattle run on the Mornington Peninsula. However, the land was rocky and infertile, and McCrae had no experience and no capital. He and Georgiana and their eight children were saved from bankruptcy again by the discovery of gold in Victoria - not that they ever got close to a nugget, but because there was a new demand for magistrates in country districts and McCrae, with his legal training, was an obvious candidate for a paid appointment.

So, as Duke's daughter, as professional painter, and as pioneering wife and mother, Georgiana led various lives. In Melbourne, she opened her house to painters and poets, and became a cultural matriarch in these early colonial days. She always expected to go home to Britain. She had been promised a substantial legacy by her father, but the Duchess, who outlived the Duke by many years, dishonoured the promise and disinherited her husband's daughter.

Georgiana lived on in Melbourne, separated from her husband - she refused to go to the country with him. She had lost two homes, first in Melbourne and then at Arthur's Seat, both of which she had designed herself. She never really had a home of her own after that, but was dependent on her married son and daughter for the rest of her life. She died in 1890, still thinking of herself, after half a century in Melbourne, as an exile.

So, in writing Georgiana's life I had lots of events to make the narrative work: the strange childhood, the artistic success in London, the summons to Scotland, where she lived in ducal splendour; the rivalry of her father's wife which turned to mutual dislike, perhaps hatred; a love affair gone wrong; an arranged marriage, the death of her first child; financial troubles; emigration to a very primitive Melbourne, and the ups and downs of colonial fortune with the disintegration of a marriage.

There are wonderful backdrops in Scotland and Melbourne; Georgiana knew everyone, and her friends included artists such as Nicholas Chevalier, von Guérard, La Trobe Bateman, poets such as Kendall and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Everyone went to her house in Melbourne, and she mixed in Government House circles as well as the more Bohemian ones.

I mention all this to underline the point that I had a strong story-line for the biography. However, in order to show what these experiences meant to Georgiana, I wanted her own voice in letters and journals. There was, of course, her well known journal of her Melbourne and Arthur's Seat years, edited and embroidered by her grandson, the poet Hugh McCrae. Luckily a version in her own hand survived and I used that rather than the one touched up by Hugh McCrae. Nevertheless these journals cover only about six years of her long life.

There was an unpublished account of her childhood, which is vivid and detailed, and while it gives a good sense of the young Georgiana, it leaves out entirely any mention of her mother - Jane Graham remains a mystery.

In filling the gaps, then, I depended very much on whatever letters could be found. Luckily there were quite a lot, though some of the crucial ones were frustratingly brief and formal. Andrew McCrae's proposal of marriage is very stiff and awkward; Georgiana's response in her diary is anything but rapturous, but both documents do give some insight into this difficult marriage, and it was exciting to find them - both held by McCrae descendants, both retrieved from the attic.

Probably the best find of all for my purpose was a very large number of letters which Georgiana wrote in her old age to the young girl she called her adopted grand-daughter. This was a girl called Edith or Edie Anderson, and she was the grand-daughter of Georgiana's closest friend, Phoebe Howitt. Edie Anderson was only about ten when her mother died, and she was living a rather lonely and isolated existence with her father and younger brothers on a station property at Cape Schanck.

Georgiana started by writing the kind of letters a child might respond to: she sent puzzles and games and jokes, as well as recommending books and giving advice about all kinds of things. They are very motherly letters, at least in the beginning.

I found them illuminating in several ways. You would have to ask why Georgiana took such trouble for a child she hardly ever saw. It was for her old friend's sake, she said. It was a tribute to a friendship that went back to Georgiana's own pioneering days, when Edie's grandmother used to lend her books and tried to launch her as a portrait painter.

Still, it was more than that. There was such empathy with the child's isolation and loneliness, after her mother's death, that it made me wonder what it might suggest about Georgiana's relationship with her own mother. It also cast light on her feelings in her dependent old age.

With her own daughters there was friction and frustration - although there was certainly plenty of affection on both sides - and there was exasperation. With Edie, the young girl growing up at remote Cape Schanck, Georgiana could construct an ideal relationship. Perfect mother - perfect daughter. Nothing like the realities of her own life, but a comforting dream for a restless old woman, who was giving her own daughters a hard time.

As the correspondence went on and Edie grew up, Georgiana's tone gradually changed. The letters became letters to an equal. And eventually, I thought as I read them, Edie herself almost disappeared. The letters became an outlet for Georgiana's own meditations on the past. She would tell Edie about her own early life, with lots of detail about houses and paintings in Scotland that she remembered; about coming to Melbourne; about her own children, even about the man she had not been allowed to marry and with whom she had hoped to spend her life in Scotland.

So, while the letters to Edie were rather rambling and scrappy, they did in the end seem to give me what I had felt was missing. They gave a sense of how Georgiana saw herself, how she felt, in old age, about her life. They became autobiography, and they became a means of releasing painful feelings.

For example, in saying goodbye to one of her sons, not long before she died, she felt that she had been too constrained; the goodbye wasn't what she'd hoped, especially as it was likely that she would not live to see him on his next visit. She wrote about it in this way:

Perry made the wrench as sudden as possible - probably to hide his emotion - for I had perceived for a day or two that he rather dreaded the parting day. It makes my heart draw itself together to think that I shall never again be within speech of him. There were so many things I wished to say to him ... and I believe now that he purposely managed to keep out of the way for fear of a scene - but my dear, I cannot shed a tear!

Another letter, revealing in a different way, was the one in which Georgiana told Edie the story of her own early ambitions and success as a portrait painter, and how she felt about the fact that she had never been allowed to paint after her marriage:

What a happy woman I should have been, had I but been allowed to continue the practice of my profession! To say nothing of the competency I might have amassed! but in those 'stuck-up' days it was considered infra dig for the wife of a 'gentleman' to exhibit her talents for pecuniary recompense! The world is wiser nowadays - talents no longer kept down under the bushels but freely employed - as their Giver intended they should be - for the good & enjoyment of one's fellow creatures - Ach! my dear all too late for your ambitious old grannie!

That is Georgiana McCrae at 83 years old, still reliving her short career as an artist, and still rebelling against the social customs of her times, by which a woman - especially a gentleman's wife - was not permitted to paint for money. The date of that letter is 5 January 1888; it was written in suburban Melbourne, and it spent nearly 100 years in an attic at Cape Schanck and in various cupboards and suitcases before ending up where it is now, safe in the manuscripts collection of the La Trobe Library, just as the Martin Boyd letters are safely held in the National Library of Australia collection.

Back to the top