The Ethics of Family History and Biography

Front cover of book, The Hare with Amber EyesEdmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is a family history that has become a best-seller.  It is a biography that follows the trail of small Japanese carvings as they were passed from owner to owner within the family while the family were entangled in the broader travails of nineteenth and twentieth century history.

Edmund de Waal received an unusual inheritance – over two hundred small Japanese carvings called netsuke (click here to see some of them).  In this book De Waal retraces the lives of the previous generations of his family who had owned the netsuke.  Thus the book is not a birth to death biography of the owners; rather taking up the story of the owners of the netsuke from the point when they first received them to when they passed them on to the next owner.  I liked this approach. Continue reading

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe

Cover of Stella Milses Franklin: A Biography

Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe, Harper Collins, 2010.

There are times when a book creeps up on a reader, nudging itself forward, saying ‘read me’.  Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin is one of those books.  Over the last few years I came across references to this book in many other histories that I read.  Then a couple of months ago I was doing some research assistant work and had to borrow it in order to check some page numbers. I held it in my hands and realised that I must do now what I should have done a couple of years ago.  I started reading.

The first three chapters tell the tale of the childhood and adolescence of a precocious girl carrying the name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin.  She grew up in country New South Wales and was first educated by a family tutor before attending one of the typical one-teacher schools that were dotted around the Australian bush at the time.

In her spare time Stella Franklin wrote.  When she completed the draft for a novel the twenty-year old author forwarded a manuscript to several people asking them to read it.  Stella Franklin was bold, a quality she exhibited throughout her life.  One of the people to whom she sent her manuscript was the popular writer, Henry Lawson.  He was taken by the book and while in England he found a publisher for it.   At the young age of twenty-one Stella became renowned as the author Miles Franklin when her novel, My Brilliant Career, was released.  Published in 1901 during the first year of the new nation of Australia, My Brilliant Career is now regarded as an Australian classic.

So there we have it.  The highlight of Miles Franklin’s writing career, the source of much of her fame is dealt with in less than one hundred pages.  Why did Jill Roe dedicate so many years to researching and writing this biography?  The answer sustains the rest of the book.  Miles Franklin was a dynamic, complex woman who was described by a contemporary as being “as paradoxical as a platypus”.  She eschewed the path expected of women into marriage.  She mixed with thinkers and activists, gravitating towards those who were making a difference in the world.  She encouraged many writers and was passionate about Australian writing at a time when it was struggling to be heard.  In her life we can recognise her as one of our contemporaries yet at the same time this biography is punctuated by reminders that she was definitely a woman of her times. Continue reading

Book Review: True North by Brenda Niall

Book Cover of True North by Brenda Niall

True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack by Brenda Niall, (Text Publishing: Melbourne, 2012).

I lost my carparking ticket so I bought a book.  The person at the shopping centre information desk informed me that I could either pay $40 to get out of the car park or $10 if I bought something from the shops at the centre.  It made sense to buy something but what? I was uninspired and just wanted to get out of the soulless place as soon as possible.  I spotted a bookshop and decided to purchase a book.

It was one of those chain book shops with plenty of books but nothing that excited me enough to purchase.  To be fair, my lack of enthusiasm was probably more due to my lack of time and annoyance at myself for losing the carparking ticket.  I had just been to the library and had heaps of reading waiting for me in the car and home.  I did not need to add more to my reading list!

After quickly browsing the shelves of history books and biographies I decided to save time by going to the counter and asking if they stocked some particular titles I was interested in.  I named three authors but not one title I wanted was in stock. The queue at the checkout grew longer.  All I wanted to do was to purchase a book and go home.  I grabbed the latest Brenda Niall biography from the new releases stand near the counter and bought it.

This is not a good start for a book that I hoped to enjoy.  Brenda Niall deserves better than this. Niall is a sensitive and fastidious biographer.  There are no short cuts in her research and I thoroughly enjoyed other books she has written: the biography of the Boyd family, The Boyds:  A Family Biography, and an autobiography, Life Class.

True North:  The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack is a biography of two sisters, one an artist, the other a writer.  They were members of the famous Durack family that were pastoralists in the Kimberley, Western Australia.  They grew up in Perth while their father lived on the station hundreds of miles away.  After they left school in the early 1930s they lived and worked on the family holdings in order to save money for a trip to Europe.  It was during this period in the north as young adults that they developed a bond with the land and its people who dominated the rest of their lives.  Niall observes, “their time in the Kimberley was far more important for the sisters than the overseas travel that followed”. Continue reading