Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Jacqueline Kent (J)
M: Good evening, everyone, and a very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia and to one of the highlights of our events calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, Director General of the National Library.
I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people, the first Australians as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Thank you for attending this event either in person or online coming to you from the Library on beautiful Ngunnawal and Ngambri country with a beautiful language being awoken by dedicated community members. [Speaks in language] which basically means we’re all meeting here on Ngunnawal country.
It’s a particular pleasure to see so many of you here tonight for this year’s Seymour Biography Lecture. Given the disruption to our major event activity over the last couple of years due to – I think you all know what it’s due to – and the very dedicated following that this lecture has had it is simply wonderful to welcome so many of you back to the Library.
The Seymour Biography Lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are both with us this evening and without whose support this lecture would simply not be possible.
The first Seymour Biography Lecture was held in 2005 and since 2009 the National Library has been very proud to be its home. John and Heather are passionate supporters of the National Library and also the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoir. Many of us share their passion.
John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in life writing through their support for the lecture and for many years now the Seymours have also supported a summer scholarship in biography as part of the Library’s Fellowship program for younger scholars and in so doing they are helping to develop the life writer of the future. So Heather and John, to both of you, thank you so much for all that you do for us and for the community.
M: Now past Seymour lecturers and if you think back – it started in 2005 – we’ve been fortunate to have quite a few – form an honour roll of great life writers and tonight’s speaker is a fitting addition. Jacqueline Kent is a writer of biography and other nonfiction. Training initially as a journalist and broadcaster with the ABC in Sydney Jacqueline has also written fiction for young adult audiences, worked as an editor and taught creating writing.
Jacqueline’s works in biography and memoir are numerous and significant. A Certain Style on influential book editor Beatrice Davis won the National Biography Award in 2002 and in 2008 she published An Exacting Heart: The story of musician and social activist, Hephzibah Menuhin and in fact very deep in our collections we actually have some Menuhin material, you’ve probably already seen or know about it.
Jacqueline has written not one but two biographies of Julia Gillard. The Making of Julia Gillard was published just before her Prime Ministership and Take Your Best Shot was just after. The writing of both books and the two different portraits that they created must surely have been one of the most fascinating journeys that a biographer could take.
Jacqueline’s memoir, Beyond Words: A Year with Kenneth Cook was shortlisted for the National Biography Award in 2020 and in that same year her most recent book, Vida: A Woman for Our Time, an iconic Australian – on iconic Australian suffragist, Vida Goldstein was published in 2020. So please join me in welcoming Jacqueline Kent to present the 2020 Seymour Biography Lecture.
J: How’s that? Can you all hear? Thank you, Marie-Louise, that was a lovely introduction and thanks also of course to the National Library and particularly for John and Heather Seymour whom I have only just met and was delighted to be their guest at dinner last night. It is an amazingly good thing, this, and thank you once again.
Of course it’s a particular pleasure to be here because of the COVID thing. This has been going to happen for at least I think two years? I think and numerous – like everybody else’s life it’s all been postponed and rejigged and we’ll do it again and hasn’t happened so it is a particular pleasure to be here speaking to you all.
Now the thing is when you start off talking about biography, because it’s such a sort of an important kind of word, it’s kind of a thing, you start thinking that you should start talking about great biographers of the past like maybe – I don’t know Tacitus or Suetonius or Boswell’s Johnson or even Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. You can get embalmed in that sort of thing so I’ve decided not to do any of that tonight and what I want to do is lower the tone considerably and talk to you about of all people Donald Rumsfeld. You may – yes – well not talk about Donald Rumsfeld, actually but start off by mentioning him because really the thing that people remember about Donald Rumsfeld who was of course the US Secretary of Defense in the George W Bush administration, the thing about him was his ill-advised – he thought it was ill-advised, it’s actually really sensible – his comment – he was speaking at a briefing about the lack of evidence that linked the government of Iraq with supplying weapons of mass destruction, in 2002 this was. Whether they were providing them to terrorist groups.
What he said was – and this is exactly what he said – as we know – don’t you love as we know? As we know there are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns – you got to keep this fairly slow because it’s sort of – it’s kind of a bit vertiginous if you keep doing it quickly – we also know that there are known unknowns and that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
When you think about it that’s actually quite sensible and it also goes - in another way it goes with another quote which I'm quite fond of which was by one of Abraham Lincoln’s favourite humourists, a guy called Artemas Ward and he said – he was one of those homespun, backwards humourists of the 19th century in America and what he said was, it ain't what you don’t know that hurts you, it's what you do know that ain't so.
I think all those comments are very worthwhile bearing in mind when you're talking about biography and I think it’s slightly unfair that Donald Rumsfeld was pilloried – or ridiculed, rather for saying those thing about known unknowns and known – but what I’d like to do tonight is to go through what Donald Rumsfeld said and sort of evaluate it in terms of writing and researching biography. Because they’re the bits of biography I know best I’ll be mostly talking about my own work, I think, so this is how it all will pan out, I hope.
Okay well in the last 20 odd years I’ve been writing the life stories of notable women. It’s interesting that they just all – they just happened to be women, I just thought that it was most interesting. Trying to set the course of their lives against their times to explain the pressures of various kinds that led them to do what they did and possibly to challenge others’ expectations of them which is the bit that I always find most interesting, actually.
So this is where the Rumsfeld effect, if you can call it that, comes into operation ‘cause it’s what do we know? What do we or don’t we know? What can we or can’t we know about the lives of our fellow humans if we want to write biography? So I’d like to spend a bit of time going through the criteria, just looking at them and examining them in the light of – well basically my own work.
Right well first of all the easy one which is what you know about a subject for biography. What you know is usually or most often the reason most people decide why they want to spend their lives examining the lives of their subject. Maybe – it’s probably a series of facts that you find intriguing that you think need to be examined further or haven’t been given their due or else there’s a central mystery in this person’s life that you really want to tease out. I have to say, and we’ll get to this later, but the central mystery is the very interesting one for a biographer and I'm sure most people who write biography would agree with that. What made them do it? Why did they do it? Why were they there? What did they think they were doing? What did they think they were doing is also a great way of being exasperated, what on earth – what did they think they were doing? But you do need to try and find out the reason for these things.
I think there are lots of reasons why people choose biography but – choose subjects for biography and one of them of course is because the person is worthy – because they’re a famous person, they are worthy of having their lives memorialised to which point I might tell you a story about a very well known Australian – very celebrated Australian biographer who was asked by his editor to write the life story of a particular well known Australian politician with whom he did not feel aligned, he did not feel that this was a congenial subject. The editor sort of said oh look, come on, no-one’s done it, you’ve got to do it. It’s zeitgeist something, blah and blah and he said oh I have done a lot of work like this, I know how long biography takes and I am not having that little – in my head for five years.
One can sympathise seriously because a lot of people write biographies and about halfway through them they think I don’t really like this person, I really want to stop by which time it’s like that bit in Macbeth. He was far gone in, you’re so far gone in that you can’t extract yourself. So that’s always difficult.
But for me the reason for getting onto a biography subject, it’s always personal for me because my first one, my first biography, full biography which was of Beatrice Davis, the well known Angus and Roberson book editor from 1937 to 1973 was that I didn’t know her well. I mean I started out as a baby editor and Beatrice was kind of the [grandarne] 12:50 and I mean both those words very seriously, she was very [grand] and she was very [arne] and she really – we’re all terrified of her at the same time as resenting her because we were the next generation along and we knew more about it than she did and so on and so forth and there were all these people coming up, the Helen Garners, the Kate Grenvilles, people who were not the kinds – or wrote the kinds of books that Beatrice Davis was at all sympathetically disposed towards.
But I decided it would be good to memorialise her, to write a book about her for several reasons. One is that publishing is – anyone who’s been involved in book publishing knows that it is an absolutely mad industry. It is – it gets written about as if it’s some kind of tablets of stone thing but it’s not. When you think of the extreme difference in the personalities involved, both the people who write books, the people who publish them and sort of the mad things that happen and trust me there are a lot. I thought why hasn’t anyone written a book about publishing saying what fun it is apart from everything else and what fun these people are and what reserves of tact, human kindness and sheer keeping your temper sometimes you have to have if you’re working as an editor?
I thought well Beatrice knows an awful lot about that and I’d done her job, I’d been an editor so I’d read a lot of her correspondence which is in the Mitchell in Sydney and – oh the Angus and Robertson archives are a glory to behold, they really are wonderful, they’re got everything in them. It’s a sort of archive where people kept theatre tickets and bus tickets, the sort you really love, the sort you really want to look at. But she – but because I knew her job and I’d been seeing the letters that she wrote and I could tell fairly well quite often how clenched the teeth were occasionally, how happy she was about somebody’s success, how well she got on with her writers, how sympathetic she was towards them and how cranky she could be because she’s a pretty multifaceted creature. But I really thought that really someone doing a job in an industry unlike any other and because I’d worked with other people’s words I did want to give my profession as it was then its due.
So books about it - books about publishing can be so dull so that was the reason, that was the reason for writing about Beatrice and it was good because I could read a lot between the lines with that and it was interesting to see things like the way editing was done then and so on and so forth when nowadays of course you can go straight from having an idea for a book to print without going anywhere near paper which is really something to think about. The proof’s on screen, proof-readers read proofs on screen, people do corrections on screen, they’ll do all of that. It’s almost completely non-paper now so the other reason for doing that was to keep a record of an industry that was changing very fast and is changing even more now so that was that one.
The second one was about Hephzibah Menuhin who was the sister of Yehudi Menuhin, violinist, a name that’s not known much now for anybody over 40 ‘cause there’s the Nigel Kennedys, there are the – there are all these violinists who’ve come up and the celebrity, the celebrity pianists, the celebrity musician is much more a creature of music now than it was when - Yehudi and Hephzibah were absolutely at the time. This was in the ‘30s and ‘40s and up to the ‘50s and they were rockstars. Hephzibah was particularly interesting because the Menuhin family, the two of – the three of them, there were two girls and a boy, the three of them were - had enormously precocious musical talent.
They were all child prodigies, the three of them and I happened to come from a family where precocious intelligence is wildly overvalued. I will not go into details but I’ve got a few fairly dodgy relatives on one side in particular and – who did fairly dodgy things but – oh but he has – they have – they’re bright. Oh we musn’t say that because he’s got an IQ of 160 or something like that. So I’ve always been a bit interested for personal reasons about what happens to people who show precocious talent very early, whether they crash and burn, whether they learn to catch up all these things that most of us learn as teenagers and most of us have to learn through life just through sort of being out there and being thumped, basically.
Hephzibah and Yehudi weren’t, they were never sent to school. They were hot-housed into being - well stars, really and so the thing is that - my father also happened to see Yehudi and Hephzibah when he was young and Yehudi Menuhin was the greatest violinist the world has ever known as far as my father was concerned and Hephzibah was a very good pianist. It was actually quite interesting because she was second – she was sort of playing the second part – I was going to say second fiddle but that’s terrible. She was playing the subordinate part to him and she was never - as far as my father was concerned she was never subordinate, she was a talent in her own right. So I thought she was well worth examining not least also because of what she did with her life.
Now I don’t know whether you – those of you who read the book would know that she got married at 17 and she married a rich grazier called Lindsay Nicholas who lived in the western district of Victoria and she gave up – she was about to have – the following year she had been – she was ready to play at Carnegie Hall and she gave that up to marry Lindsay ‘cause she was 17 and she’d just being playing the piano since she was three and she was really sick of it and she wanted to discover life. Well she did but the problem was that the life that she discovered wasn’t exactly the – she sort of thought it’d be like Europe only with sheep. It was going to be very different and she did quite a lot – just during and after the war she had two kids. Then in the mid-50s she gave it all up and went to England. She left her husband and two children, two boys aged 11 and nine and went off and married somebody else, she married a guy called Richard Hauser whose daughter by the way was Eva Cox whom some of you may know of, yes.
So that was – we were talking about – early before about the mysteries of life, that was the one I wanted to try and work out, what leads a woman to do that? I don’t know whether I got – I was very angry with her at the end because I thought – because she really did hurt a very large number of people and she had no – because of her background, because of who she was – she’s a bit of a kid, actually, she’d had no idea what she had done to those other people. I thought how do you – anyway so that was the second one. Also that whole thing about being a special person. Who did she have to prove her specialness to and why? All those questions come together in her story.
The third one of course was the biography of Julia Gillard, was not really in the same category as either of those two. It was in about 2009, I think, when she was Vice – when she was Deputy PM – well she was Deputy PM to Kevin Rudd – she was getting a lot of publicity and it was suggested to me that she might be a good subject for biography. I thought well yeah, I mean she’s the first person who’s got this far so let’s have a look. I wanted to see what drove her and what were the steps in her becoming Australia’s first woman Deputy Prime Minister and afterwards of course in about May  21:41 becoming Australia’s first woman Prime Minister. Gosh, I remember that night when she deposed Kevin Rudd. It was a Wednesday night, it was freezing cold in winter and I remember yelling at the television, Julia, no, it won’t be good, it’ll be good – it was going to be – and of course the thing, the mystery in her life there was what led her to as the Deputy – ‘cause people say oh well there are fights going on but she was the Deputy – what led her to do that? That was the thing in her life that I wanted to try and elucidate.
Now the thing about the Julia Gillard one too of course is the story isn’t finished yet and she’s gone on. After 2013 she’s gone on to have an extraordinary, stellar career as a public institute person and she is – the other thing that she’s done with enormous dignity as she has not got herself involved in Australian politics. She’s the only one of the ones who hasn’t in the last – well forever, actually, when you think about it. I mean you even get Keating weighing in every now and again too now these days but yeah, what was that? Having the self-discipline and the self-respect to be able to do that is pretty big, pretty good, I think. But her story of course isn’t finished so I would – I’d like – I’d like to revisit that one but it’ll have to wait for a while, I think, because – that’s the only subject I’ve had so far who’s been alive when I’ve been writing about her and I mentioned this to her in an unguarded moment and she said I’m not crossing the road with you which is reasonable enough.
But – and that whole thing about being guarded, we saw it on television again and again. It’s exactly the same, I think. Unless you know her, and I didn’t, I was coming from outside, I wasn’t a friend, I wasn’t part of the byzantine – god help us – Victorian Labor Party. I didn’t have the connections, I didn’t have the history so she was understandably very guarded and it was a – it was okay but it was a bit frustrating from that point of view. But she was really good. I met her a few times and I became very fond of her in – not in any particular close way because she doesn’t offer friendship to all, she offers friendliness without friendship and that’s what – that’s her sort of modus operandi. I suspect Albanese’s a bit like that too, I think they – you have to, you can’t get – you’ve got to keep the Perspex between you and the rest of the world, I think but it’s not great for a biographer, I can tell you but anyway.
But Vida Goldstein which is the one after that, that was much easier in a way because first of all she had died in the 1930s and – no, it was later than that, ’46, I think. Anyway she’d died and the saving grace of her was that she didn’t have a family which is one of the things – as a biographer I mean I know that – oh I think it was Brenda Niall, I think someone told me last night that she talked about having to be – having to get onside with the descendants, yeah and it’s very important and it’s often not possible.
But anyway being how she was the first woman to put her hand up for the Federal Parliament anywhere in the western world in Victoria in 1903, that had a strong personal element to me too because many years ago when I was a student at – no, I’d just finished being a student, I was about 19, I think, I had a friend called Diane Scott who was the first woman I’d ever met who’d done – she’d done a history thesis at Sydney University about Australian suffragettes or suffragists and I hadn’t known there were any, I hadn’t heard of Rose Scott and I hadn’t heard of Vida and I hadn’t heard of any of them but Diane told me about them and it just kind of lodged in the back of my head. I thought she again had been written about in a rather worshipful way so I thought it would be really good to look at that struggle and look at all the women because it wasn’t just her, there were heaps of women who were out there on the hustings and there were some very brave women doing the work and they had to put up with a great deal.
So I was – fascinating to hear about her. So I was – I’ve dedicated Vida to Diane because I’m extremely grateful to her. Unfortunately she died two or three years ago in Japan so that makes it even sadder, she never saw the book which I’m very sad about but it’s there so there we are.
Okay well that’s the known knowns but you get to the known unknowns and that’s the things where you have to find out and this is – you're always looking for details that illuminate a subject. I’ll get onto that a bit later because it’s very important.
It can be pretty disheartening when you’re interviewing people - I’m sure people have had this experience – you go to find someone who insists that she’s the best friend of the person you are writing about and knows every single thing about them and you think oh good, spill the beans, great stuff. They – with Hephzibah in particular there were – and would be interested to some extent also – there were people who told you stuff you already knew. Yeah, I knew she got married, yes, I knew she got married. [unclear] 27:40 and I knew she edited this book and I knew she edited that book and I knew all that but they were presenting it as if no-one had ever told them this before.
Now that’s interesting in itself, really because what that says is that in Hephzibah’s case in particular she’s dazzled, they’re kind of dazzled by her and anything – they’re happy to have her as a friend, she’s glamorous and so anything that she chooses to tell them and she’s got the way of saying well I’m telling you and only you. So some people have the ability to be very confidential and I think that was Hephzibah but wasted a lot of time. But anyway that’s how it is. One of the big blank spots in the story of Hephzibah which I really had trouble with was about the divorce, the events surrounding the divorce because as I said she met and married Lindsay Nicholas and fled in her 20s and abandoned everybody and it caused – the whole thing caused a terrible scandal as you can imagine because they thought – the parents thought that they'd – they’d got her happily settled and there she was in Australia and she was bringing up healthy children and that was all fine.
But when she did that they were furious, they were absolutely ropable. I didn’t have any information from them, I didn’t have any correspondence from them or anything at all about that time. I mean I could have pasted over the cracks, there are always ways of doing that but you never feel happy doing that, you really don’t. Anyway so I visited Hephzibah’s – when I was in London researching the book I visited Zamira who was Hephzibah’s niece, Yehudi’s eldest daughter and I said something about what a difficult life she must have had herself because she was married – she was the daughter of Nola who was Yehudi’s first wife and it wasn’t a happy marriage. I just said something anodyne and sympathetic biographer-y about how it must have been so hard and she just looked at me and said just a minute and she went away and she went into another room and she came back with a pile of paper, I swear it was that high.
She said here and I said oh what’s that? She said these are all the letters that Hephzibah wrote to her parents and that her parents wrote to her around the time – in 1953 and 1954 around the time of the divorce and the separation. I thought oh my god. I said how did you get those? She said oh Moshe, her grandfather – this tells you a fair bit about him – he kept carbon copies of every letter he wrote. Don’t you love people like that? But he did, he just did, he wanted to keep a record and he kept all her letters. When he died he handed them over to his eldest grandchild who happened to be Zamira who had kept them ever since, hadn’t given them to a library, hadn’t given them back to the family, she had them in her spare room and I just sort of went um look, I’ve got my computer here, I’ll sit in the back room and I’ll come every day and I’ll type it all out and I’ll be terribly careful. She said oh no, don’t have to do that, just take them away. I thought – so there was I getting on the tube at Paddington with a Sainsbury – no, it was Waitrose plastic bag in my right hand containing this amazing cache of letters.
Of course I spent a fortune on photocopying, of course I did and then handed them all back. But that was – without that I would not have been able to complete the book, it’s the greatest stroke of luck I think I’ve ever had as a biographer and it just happened completely out of the blue and that’s the weird thing about biography on any level, the weird things that happen to you and the things you find out. Those were good letters too, they were written – I quoted them extensively in the book and she didn’t want to read the book when I’d finished it, she just said oh no, this is alright. She believed – I think it was some kind of family duty. It was quite something. Anyway the thing was that they were written at Whiteheath, those letters by two very angry people and it was really good to have them, really good to have them.
One of the bits about writing biography too – we’re getting to the third of the Rumsfelds – is the bit that Rumsfeld left out which is the unknown knowns which are the things you didn’t realise you knew and the little things you can put together in your own head and this happens a lot with biography as well. It happened a lot with Beatrice Davis because I knew her background and the stories of her authors and I’d done her job but the most interesting example I think of this was Beyond Words which was the memoir I wrote about my marriage to Kenneth Cook and he – the author of Wake in Fright – I married him several months before he died in 1987. The reasons I married him – I didn’t want to marry him, he was – he wanted to marry me but – and I wasn’t all that keen on it but I thought oh well I suppose you got to do it once. So better to marry than burn, all that stuff.
But the thing is he wrote about 10 novels and scripts and radio plays and talks and stage plays, he has an enormously large body of work but he’s most famous for Wake in Fright, of course, published in 1961. That movie by the way is an absolute shot list for the book, it really is. You could just about take that book and write a film script from it scene by scene, it’s really so visual. But it’s very interesting, he only wrote - he was – always sort of said - oh early 30s he wrote his first book, first and biggest success and he always said that it was a young man’s book. He’d learned a lot since he wrote it and everybody talks about that but I’ve done better stuff since, you know the way writers always do say things like that.
But it always puzzled me a lot because when I read it you see the subject matter’s pretty bleak as most of you know and the – particularly for the novel, the subject matter’s really bleak and the landscape’s a bit ordinary and – but the tone of the work’s what’s interesting. It’s got a slightly jocular – have another look at it, it’s got a slightly jocular tone. The book does, it’s not sort of grim and spare at all, it’s got a sort of tone about it. Who are these people and why do they drink so much? For goodness sake, who are they? What are they doing? Do you know the books that it struck me most like, and this is really weird, this is the joining of the dots – you're going to be really surprised, They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Carlotta - by John O’Grady, it’s the same story if you look at it. Strange person comes along to new society of which he knows nothing, is thrown into a deep end, has to make sense. I mean of course one is played for comedy and Wake in Fright isn’t precisely played for comedy but it’s the same story.
That’d been written – I’d looked, I’d checked it out and that book was written – published about 1957 and Wake in Fright was only four years later and he had two or three goes writing it. I think something lodged in the brain there, I really do. So that was the – sort of the weird little synapse there. I would never have said that – I came upon that little gem some time after Ken had died so he would have sort of said whatever floats your boat or something like that, he would have been very dismissive of such a view. But anyway – and in fact if you look at his other novels, he wrote a novel called The Wine – with a ridiculous title – The Wine of God’s Anger which is about a young conscript in Vietnam.
Same story. Young conscript, wide-eyed young good Catholic lad in this case goes - it’s one of Australia’s very few, in fact I think possibly the only full length Australian anti-Vietnam war novel. I mean there’ve been books about it but they’d been mostly memoirs. I don’t think anyone else wrote – I may be wrong but I don’t think that anybody else – but it’s the same story, it’s – and of course it’s a fairly common story, I mean really it is. Wide-eyed young man in – goes to find life and finds this more difficult than he thought. I mean it’s a tried and true one. But it’s something that he used twice and I thought it was quite interesting.
Anyway so if anybody wants to write a thesis about the links between They’re a Weird Mob and the word of – with Kenneth Cook, feel free. There it is.
But the worst of it is of course – and we’re getting to the – yeah, the serious end, is the unknown unknowns and they’re the worst, I mean everyone will tell you that, they really are. The bits that you find out when it’s 10 minutes into print or you never find out at all or the words that you can’t – or the little connections you just cannot possibly make, it’s very frustrating. You often find things out when it’s too late to which point I would like to read you one of my favourite quotes from a New Yorker writer called Louis Menand.
In 2003 he wrote, when you undertake historical research, and it also applies to biography, too true that seem banal come to seem profound. The first is that your knowledge of the past, apart from occasionally a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor, comes entirely from written documents. You are almost completely cut off by a wall of print from the life you have set out to represent. You can’t know most of what has not been written about, what has been written about therefore takes on an importance that may be spurious.
That is so true ‘cause it’s the only thing you’ve got, you’ve got to make a heap out of it.
A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary all become luminous with significance even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. The historian, biographer, clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past, of the person you’re writing about, sinks slowly out of sight.
There's a lot of truth in that, how can you know someone? Anyway it’s a bit – what you can’t do is make stuff up and this is what people have done. You may know the story of – anyone know the story of Edmund Morris? Edmund Morris was given the job of writing the first authorised biography of Ronald Reagan. He found out so little, he said, from Reagan and those who knew him that he abandoned a straight biography and turned the book into a sort of hybrid novel. He invented characters who never existed in scenes in which they interact with real people and other scenes that were dramatised or made up. He even invented sources and footnotes. I mean seriously, this is big time stuff. He called the book Dudge. The book was published in 1999 after 14 years of work and I mean okay but you can imagine how desperate he must have felt knowing that he’d got all this money – ‘cause he had a lot of money to write this and it was hanging over him and he didn’t have a book that – he couldn’t write it from - he was being paid to write more than just New York Times cuts and so he didn’t have it so you have to sympathise with him to some extent.
But when it was finished it was – the problem was that when it was finished it was presented to the public as if it was a proper researched biography. Now that was the - I reckon that was the really big mistake because without getting too po-faced about this you’ve got a certain contract between writer and reader and as a biographer the reader’s got to believe that you’ve done your work and you know what you’re saying and that what you’re saying is as far as you can judge true. If you don’t know it is or it isn’t this is something I keep telling younger writers about, you’re allowed to speculate provided you flag that you don’t know but it could be because of this, it could be because of that. The balance of probability is that it’s this. But we do not know because of X. I mean it’s a little frustrating but it’s a hell of a lot better than presenting fiction as fact, I think.
I mean I know, I know, there’s all the hybrid stuff, there’s The Crown for heaven’s sake and I’ve got no great quarrel with The Crown, the conversations that may or may not have taken place and probably didn’t but that’s never been presented as absolute documentary fact, that’s been as – and think that’s okay. But The New York Times had such trouble with it, they just said – a 1990 review in The New York Times said a reader who surrenders to Morris’ self-indulgent blend of scholarship and imagination will be led through a riveting story to a transcendent conclusion with a surprise twist. If there is quote, higher truth, unquote, justifying the book’s technique, it is that Ronald Reagan lived in a world of his own fictions, far more extensive than the fictions of Edmund Morris. Who better suited to plumb a phantom subject than a phantom narrator? Sorry, don’t buy it. In fact as far as I know that book did not sell its socks off and neither it should.
But anyway I’d like to just go into very – gosh, quarter to – I’d just like to sort of mention a couple of other things that I was – when I was thinking about this, I was just thinking of certain details about the subjects that I’ve dealt with and how small incidents about who they were, things that I just found out that were usually things that went past and nobody – or real depth chargers, they really were very – told you a lot about the person without them knowing and you sort of – and gave you a new illumination about their carriages.
I’d just like to mention a few of them. In the early 1990s I helped Lindy Chamberlain write her autobiography – this is before I started writing a biography of my own – and that was an assignment and a half, I can tell you but anyway I spoke to her about – it was 1993, I think, ’92, ’93. Anyway it was 10 or 12 years after the baby had been taken. Now what she told me, she told me two things that I wish in a way had come out at the time but they didn’t and the first one in August 1980, she and her husband, Michael, went home to Cooranbong without their baby, with their two elder sons and she described – this is really amazing – she described lying awake in bed at night in Cooranbong which is surrounded by the Watagan Mountains and hearing dingos howling to each other in the mountains. Imagine what that would have been like.
The other thing – this is really – she told me because she and Michael were broke and she wasn’t producing enough milk, she was producing milk with no baby so she had to take the baby formula back to the chemist and get a refund. Now those two small facts tell you a great deal, I think, and with Beatrice, the thing I learned about her which was interesting, when she as – in 1937 she married a much older man, Frederick Bridges, and it was the time when of course women were not allowed – married women were not allowed to go – not allowed to work.
So what did she do? She was working as Miss Davis at Angus and Robertson’s, you know the wonderful Miss Davis, we all love her, she went off one lunch hour, only one lunch hour, one hour, she went to the Registry Office, took her wedding ring off, came back to work and didn’t tell anybody. I think that was – I don’t think she was alone there, actually, I’ve got a feeling that might have been a little less uncommon than – but it was very Beatrice, my private life is my private life and I’m not telling anybody about it so I thought that was – besides which she wanted that job, she wanted to keep doing that job. So those two things were very sort of indicative.
With Hephzibah it was her wedding photo. When she married Lindsay Nicholas there’s this photograph of her and it’s – this photograph of her, he’s putting the ring on her finger and she’s wearing the most ridiculous wedding dress. It’s actually a poke bonnet, she’s got one of those – she’s wearing a crinoline, she’s wearing one of those high 19th century – early 19th century bonnets and I couldn’t work out why and the editor of that book – and I was thinking I mean mad ‘cause Lindsay was just dressed sort of normal gear. I finally worked out that she had – that Lindsay was a sheep farmer, she was being Little Bo Peep. I couldn’t – she was only 17 and I mean that shows you how young she was. Needless to say she found that life in [Terranullen] 46:34 was a little different from that and she wasn’t going to run with a little crook sort of – anyway so that was that.
The other thing I found out about her which was – and I had this corroborated not 24 hours ago, actually but when she couldn’t get a piano and practise what she did, she used the edge of a shelf or a table as a practice keyboard when she didn’t have a – and a reviewer said oh that’s ridiculous, nobody’s that good but yes, that can happen, that has happened, people do that. It was because she was – she knew the repertoires so thoroughly from the age of three that she knew, she could hear the piece in her head even when she was going to play – they’d played – she and Yehudi had played it together so often they knew it.
With Vida it was her washing because it really bugged me, when she was – 1903, she was wandering around Victoria speaking to town meetings and she was always praised for being – oh never what she said, it was always how pretty she was and how ladylike and funny, that still happens, Julie Bishop’s red shoes. Anyway – and she travelled everywhere by train and it was really hot and dusty and how on earth did she manage to look so good in that era? Who did her washing when she was travelling around Victoria with a tin trunk? So I did a bit of a search and I found out that first of all she was – she had people - she was staying with people and the people she was staying with were pretty well to-do ‘cause it was a very middleclass thing and they had servants often in Victoria, they had people who did the washing and stuff.
So if she was staying there for two or three days they would do her washing for her if necessary. Also there were railway hotels but I can’t imagine her really giving her precious petticoats to someone in a hotel. Also of course the point is that all the railway lines were radial from Melbourne so she could go out and back, it wasn’t that hard so she could wait for her person at home, Lizzie, Lizzie McPherson, to do the necessary tidying. But just imagine all that was – it was hot, it was dusty. Buttons, no zips ‘til after world war two, just really, really difficult stuff and it’s questions like that that drive you mad, actually, you just really want to know.
Yeah and I think with – just one more thing, actually, one thing about Gillard was her – I told you it was boilerplate all the way, she told me exactly what – and then acting on information received I was – I sort of said so what was your first car? She said no-one’s ever asked me that before in an accusing voice, I mean ‘cause you’ve – and I said well what was it? I can’t remember what it was now, I think it was a Cortina and the interesting thing about it was that her parents bought it for her to go to Melbourne in. That tells you quite a lot about their parents.
That tells you quite a lot that – she always made a big deal about her parents were dirt poor and everything. They saved up enough money to get their eldest daughter a car to go to Melbourne in. No wonder she was so close to her family which she always was. That was just another little way of showing how close - the family closeness. So all these little things just turn up. You’ve got to be on the lookout for them, I think but when you find them they’re absolutely – they’re the valuable – I think things like that are what make people come alive on the page if you can possibly do it.
I’d just like to finish by saying there’s a very nice quote from the London Review of Books by Tom Crew and it’s one of those we must remember things. It’s a [slightly] 50:39 pay attention class but here we go.
We must remember that the past is more unknown than known, that the vast majority of lived experience is penetrable only to the guided imagination. If we pursue the dead it is because they have left so many clues behind and because we can’t help being curious as to what they looked like before they turned their backs.
If you're a biographer you need to find out as much and as clearly as you possibly can, however long it takes. Thank you.
M: Thanks very much, Jacqueline, and we’ve got lots to think about in terms of obviously known and unknown but in fact that last quote is amazing in terms of about what you’re trying to do before they turn their backs, it’s kind of wonderful. You’ve also of course talked about the role of luck and that stroke of luck you had I think must be – that was pretty special and you will know that many biographers toil and toil and actually that smoking gun, they never find which is really quite difficult so all of these things come together and together with those little kind of details that might give you a tiny little – a key into what might otherwise be an impenetrable kind of surface, I think. Knowing what that key is I’m sure is something that the biographer’s imagination has to find over time as well and not exceed it by making up citations, goodness me, that’s very naughty.
So thanks, Jacqueline, for a really fantastic lecture. I'm very intrigued and I’ll get a chance to talk to you about this later on, about the fact that your subjects are women and of course you all know that women tend not to leave papers behind. Either they or somebody else think it’s not important enough and there are so many important women for whom it’s very, very hard to tell these stories because they’re like a ghost and you have to tell their story from the outside in but not with these women which is fantastic.
Now we do have some time for some questions this evening. The presentation is being livestreamed so those who are regulars know the routine. Please wait ‘til the microphone gets to you or the people at home won’t be able to hear you and we’ve got folks on both sides here so if you’ve got a question put it up – oh there we go, we’ve got two over here straight away so we’ll go one and then two, got you up there, okay.
A: Thank you so much for your talk. I had a kind of pointed question about biography but I want to make some – I don’t want to ask that question, I want to just play on some of the wonderful concepts that you gave us about known and unknowns. The last time I heard anybody quote that Rumsfeld thing, it was at an academic conference by a young academic, it was so dismissive. So it’s nice to hear – it’s so refreshing to hear this. But I was thinking about – as you were talking and I guess my question is do you agree with this? As biographers there’s what we know, we find it out and we know it and then there’s what the public does not know. I think that the meeting point of that or one of the key meeting points is a word you used and one that gave Morris so much trouble and you brilliantly exposed him by the way and that word is multifaceted. What we find out and we know about our subjects is they’re all in one form or another, I think, multifaceted. Yet if you’ve got members of the public, especially like I do US President and US politicians you do Australian politicians –
J: Oh Reagan, yes.
A: Right so they often will have a very – almost caricaturish view of people – they don’t think of them as being complex, they’re either good or bad or whatever, they support them or they don’t. Our mission here is to show the multifacetedness of almost all of these figures. So Morris’ problem as you’re weighing at was that he went looking for a multifaceted Reagan and he couldn’t find him, he found a simplistic unreflective person. Why? Because his earlier subject was Theodore Roosevelt who was –
J: Right, can we-
A: I think that was his problem but everything you said about – I’ve read that book, that is a frustrating book.
J: Yes, this is the biography or alleged biography [unclear] 55:32 alleged biography of Ronald Reagan. In fact you can always say with Virginia Woolf that we’re all composed of many selves but I reckon that’s a copout, I reckon it is and I think you probably do too, yeah. Yeah. Yeah?
A: Thank you, Jacqui, that was really lovely. My question is biography seems to be a form of inhabitation, you sort of – trying to step into a person’s mind and after doing that for so long how do you shrug that person off? How do you exorcise them from your own mind? Do they stay with you forever?
J: Well they do a bit like that comment about the well known biographer who wasn’t going to have this politician in his head for five years. In fact they do and they – not only that but it’s kind of a process of finding out – it’s like a gunpowder trail, your little fizzes coming along. You can’t ever possibly – now there’s all – you can’t possibly know them as well as you think you do but what you have to do is I think look for empathy, something that you can relate to. I mean I know this sounds simplistic but it’s true, something that you can understand even though when this is a person whose life you don’t understand and is completely different from your own.
I mean we’ve all been angry, we’ve all been frustrated, we’ve all been furious, we’ve all had all these feelings, it’s trying to – well it’s not inhabitation, it’s slightly projection too, I suppose, projecting how you’ve – how you would feel about this or okay, she felt really angry about this, how did she express it? Well she went and gave him a piece of her mind. Oh I wouldn’t have done that but good on her for doing that, that kind of thing. You go from the impulses as well as you can find them, I think. Because they’ve got to become alive, I mean it’s not they did this, they did that. I mean that’s the whole point of this thing, bringing people to life on the page. It’s not unlike fiction at all in that respect, it really isn’t. So yeah, it’s –
A: Jacqueline, thanks very much. My question is something you – is on the subject that you alluded to early on and then put aside. You said how important it was to get families or descendants’ support. Can you talk about things that you just omitted from biographies because you couldn’t get their support or biographies you didn’t pursue because you didn’t think you’d be able to or other authors that you know have faced this problem?
J: Oh yes, it’s a big problem. It’s a big problem for everybody. The problem always is - with most people who aren’t familiar with biography, and most people aren’t, it’s really flattering to have your aunt or your mother or your father or whoever is going to be the subject of a book and you think oh then people will think - but the problem comes when the questions get a little bit too close to the bone and that’s really the problem and that is the problem with the biographer because if the biographer sort of – you’ve got to put that stuff in. I mean – I know - a very good friend of mine actually who wrote – she wrote a biography of the writer, Randolph Stow, and his family did not know that he had – he was gay, didn’t know he was gay at all and it was – and so my friend had to – and it was actually said to her that members of the family did say that if you say this is true you’re not going to get – the literary executor was not going to give permission for the book to be published.
Now that's a pretty basic something or other about somebody’s psyche and basically she got around it but she didn’t say – you can get around these things without sort of saying – I think in this, basically what – she talked about male friendships a lot. There was a lot more about male friendships and his poetry and it just about squeezed through, she was lucky, she was lucky. But the family had been – the family were very good. Most families are okay about doing this but you have to be really careful and in my case with Hephzibah, her second husband, Richard Hauser, was not a particularly attractive human being. He had two daughters and both of them – oh the elder one in particular, Eva, told me some stuff about him that was really not particularly flattering and I showed it to her before I published it and she said you’ve got it all completely wrong and I thought oh great, yeah, thanks, I didn’t put down anything you didn’t tell me. No, it’s all wrong, you’ve got it all wrong.
So I said okay well tell me what – tell me where I’ve got it wrong and so she didn’t really but I changed a few things. Her sister was – and her half-sister was absolutely incandescent and sort of punished me on Amazon and wrote nasty reviews and did all that. Well I have to say that I got to the end position of that fairly quickly and thought alright, that’s fine, you’re not going to sue me. Good, that’s okay. So you’ve got to be careful, you really do have to be careful but I don’t think you should omit things unless – well I mean with Ken Cook, he had four children and I had problems with them and they’re in the book but I didn’t make a big deal of them ‘cause it was 30 years ago and they have not had – some of those children have not been happy afterwards but I didn’t put that in the book ‘cause it wasn’t part of the story so it would have been gratuitous – had I been slightly – possibly slightly [unclear] 1:42 I might have sort of thought well serve them – but I don’t – you can’t do that, it comes out really badly when you do that and it’s just not necessary.
So if you can, you can be lucky. I heard of somebody too who was doing the biography of an artist and wrote a lot about this artist and his first wife and the second wife got really pissed off and refused to let her reproduce some of his work. You go to be careful, be nice to second wives is the thing about it too, yeah. Oh it’s a minefield, it is a minefield, yeah.
M: Look, we’ve got time for one last question and that’s it, I’m afraid so –
A: Well thank you very much. It’s quite a quick simple question. When you’re interpreting the evidence that you find, whether you’re interviewing people or you’ve done things out of archives you talk about instinct and interpreting things from your own point of view. Did you find the techniques or principles of psychology at all helpful?
J: Not particularly because - for one very good reason, I think. I mean psychology, yeah, you’re - well kind of, when you’re doing this you’re dealing in psychology all the time, of course you are but I don’t find reading psychology particularly useful because of its generalised nature. I haven’t found – I don’t know, maybe I just haven’t been reading properly but I’ve never found that the pronounce – academic pronouncements about people’s psychology is helpful ‘cause you’ve got about 437,000 other examples which are nothing to do with what you’re writing about and you can get – you can find so many rabbit holes which is always a problem with biography anyway, you’re always diving around rabbit holes so you got to keep your eye on the main game. So not particularly. I’m sure people who do use – people like Janet Malcolm, for example, can do that but I don’t, it doesn’t work so well for me. Okay, yeah.
M: Okay well we’re going to call the questions to a close ‘cause we have run out of time but I hope you’ll join us upstairs to enjoy a drink and some conversation and Jacqueline’s very kindly making herself available to sign some copies of her books that are for sale in our bookshop. I think we’d also want to say thanks for a really - I’m going to have such good conversation over dinner later on so that’s fantastic, lots of – I’ve been on the other side of course of the reference desk and I think I know some of those people you’re talking about, the artist with the two wives, I’m pretty sure I know who you’re talking about. But I just would also ask you to again thank Jacqueline for a great lecture and thank John and Heather for making it possible for us to hear from people like Jacqueline so thank you.
The Seymour Biography Lecture provides eminent 'life writers', living in Australia and elsewhere, with an opportunity to explore the business and craft of biography, autobiography or memoir.
This annual lecture was hosted by the Biography Institute at the Humanities Research Centre between 2005–2009. In 2010, the Lecture moved to the National Library of Australia as part of the Seymours’ ongoing sponsorship and support program. The Seymours also sponsor a Summer Scholarship in Biography at the National Library for young postgraduate students.
This year the lecture is delivered by Jacqueline Kent. Jacqueline Kent was born in Sydney, and grew up there and in Adelaide. Originally trained as a journalist and broadcaster, she has also been a book editor and a reviewer for numerous publications, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney. As well as biography and general social history, she has written fiction for young adults.