Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2022

Life as Art, the Biographical Writing of Hazel Rowley…and news of the 2022 HR Fellowship

Life as Art, the Biographical Writing of Hazel Rowley is essential reading for anyone interested in biography as a literary form.   Edited by Lynn Buchanan and Hazel Rowley’s sister Della Rowley, it is a collection of the late Hazel Rowley’s journal articles, essays, talks, and diary entries, giving an intriguing insight into the biographer’s art.

There is an excellent Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska.  It is partly biographical, but it focuses on why Rowley chose biography as a career and why she so courageously chose the subjects that she did. It places her life, and her early adulthood in particular, in that ‘heady’ time to be young, coming of age in the late sixties when a new generation of biographers — influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — were keen to write the multiple selves that inhabit us all, and not be restricted to one, or two, or six at best.  

‘We all swim in a certain culture,’ as Hazel writes here.  Social forces can shape ‘even our smallest decisions.’ (p.xiii)

Modjeska also links the issues of our contemporary polarised, post-truth world with the questions that Rowley centred on, in her four powerful biographies: freedom and choice, the political within the personal…

There are brief introductions to the ensuing sections by the editors, but most of the book, as the blurb says, is in Rowley’s own words about the joys, the challenges, the highs and the lows of writing biography. Much of the material is previously unpublished and reveals Rowley’s lively ideas on a range of topics.

The two general sections comprise:

  • Writing biography: essays and articles about the life of a biographer, its ups and downs, and Rowley’s reasons for making biography her life’s work.  This was such an engaging part of the book: I kept wanting to share excerpts on the blog, except that I didn’t want to stop reading. Often, books of this type are great books to dip into.  Read a bit today, some more later on, and maybe take some months to finish it.  Not this one.  Life of Art had my undivided attention from the moment I started reading
  • Research trips and personal connections: journal entries and observations about her research experiences

It is, IMO, Rowley’s beliefs about the question of judgement in her biographies, that elevate them out of the ordinary.  In ‘The ups, the downs: My life as a biographer’ (published in Best Australian Essays 2007 and the ABR no 293) she writes:

This brings me to the question of judgement.  In my last two books, I have left all judgement out of the narrative.  I have done so deliberately.  I see it as my task to present the facts, to tell a good story and leave it up to the readers to decide what they think. You could argue that my choice of what to put in and leave out is already a kind of judgement; I am steering the reader’s opinions.  I would normally agree, but the fact is my steering lands readers all over the landscape. Those who were deeply attracted to Sartre and Beauvoir tell me they found my book deeply moving, and they cried at the end.  Those who already disliked them tell me that it made them seem thoroughly dislikeable. With Tête-à-Tête I have finally learned that my readers and I do not necessarily think the same way, and it is probably not a good idea to write a book that provides a kind of blank slate on which readers project their own feelings.  For my Roosevelt book, I’ve decided to include more authorial comment — as I did in my Stead book. (p.16)

(You can see why I’m looking forward to reading the Sartre and Beauvoir book, and the Richard Wright one when I can source it, because I’ve only ever read Rowley’s bios with this authorial comment that she refers to.)

Of the journal excerpts from 1997 and 1999, I loved best ‘Mockingbird Country’ (published in Best Australian Essays 1999).  She visited the landscape of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as research for her bio of Richard Wright, and it was fascinating to read her keen-eyed observations about this Deep South town that exists for most of us only in imagination, perhaps also coloured by the 1962 film.  There’s a funny email encounter in ‘Sometimes computers have a way of keeping us human’, and a lovely anecdote about the generosity of Michel Fabre, the author of a previous bio about Wright.  There are also notes about the delicate art of gaining access to love letters…and the frustration of interviewing the reluctant…

Then there are sections devoted to the writing that formed her four biographies, about people who had the courage to break out of their confined world and help others to do the same:

Christina Stead (see my review): I enjoyed this greatly because it was good to see the notes that became the biography. And there is this wonderful summation of Stead’s fiction, written a decade after the bio was published:

With the audacity of a master chef, Stead mixes Zola-like naturalism with a touch of fairy-tale, a snuff of surrealism, a thread of Arabian Nights fantasy and a pinch of Edgar Allan Poe Gothic.  At her best, she creates moments of pure magic; at her worst, her writing is simply eccentric.  And then there’s the excessiveness, the over-writing, the tirades by insufferable characters.  Her writing is not easy to digest. (p.104).

These four essays make me want to read the Stead bio all over again, but first I must finish reading the four novels left on the TBR.

Richard Wright (I’m still hunting this one down).  This includes a very interesting unpublished article about writers in exile.  She notes that in 1928 when Stead was in London, Australia culturally speaking, was exile. But neither Europe nor America during the Cold War provided freedom to write: there was a publishing block which led to rejection of anything that didn’t conform to western political orthodoxy. The title of one of these pieces is ‘The exile years? How the ’50s culture wars destroyed Richard Wright.’

Exile has some obvious advantages for writers.  Exposure to other cultures is a broadening experience.  There is a kind of freedom in crossing borders and being free-floating.  The gap between the foreign and the familiar provides the sense of estrangement and detachment that is necessary for art.  And writing itself is a form of exile, involving isolation and withdrawal. (p.140)

However, Rowley notes that the government had subtle ways of silencing people during the McCarthy era, and suggests that a good study needs to be done of the many ways in which McCarthyism affected the publishing industry.  Nicole Moore covered that ground in Australia with The Censor’s Library which came out the year after Rowley’s death in 2012 (see my review), but I don’t know if anything similar has been tackled in the US.

The most pertinent of these pieces in the context of contemporary culture wars, is ‘Why Richard Wright?’  It directly addresses the question of why a white, female, non-American should have written a biography of Richard Wright, an African-American author who had grandparents born into slavery and were freed by the Civil War.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, (I’ve got this on order). Just a quick quotation from ‘French Censorship: Copyright laws, ‘private life; and biography’ because this post is too long already:

We live today in a far more conservative world than the world Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were striving for.  These are censorious times: it would be harder today to publish the kind of things they wrote.  These are puritanical times; we look askance at sexual adventuring.  These are anti-intellectual times; even the intellectual has all but disappeared.  These are shallow times; even the mainstream press stoops to sensationalism in its desperation to see newspapers and magazines.  (p.198)

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (see my review).  And this snippet from ‘Valentine’s Day piece’

I made one of my favourite pilgrimages today—to the Eleanor Roosevelt statue in Riverside Park at 72nd Street.  It’s a place which makes me muse on love, passion and commitment.  The trees above Eleanor are bare for the time being, there’s snow on her head and her shoes are icy, but she exudes her usual steadfast calm as she gazes across Riverside Drive at what is now the Islamic Cultural Centre.  The monument speaks of her contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I also think about her relationship with Franklin.

Rowley contests the popular opinion that the Roosevelt marriage was flawed.  And this is why she was such a good great biographer.  She wrote about lives as they were really lived.

Poignantly the last section of the book is an Afterword with some of her ideas for a next book and an interview in which she revealed that she was working on the Story of the Hollywood Ten in the Cold War period.  Rowley died suddenly on March 1st 2011.

Editors: Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan
Title: Life as Art, the Biographical Writing of Hazel Rowley
Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska
Cover design by Nada Backovic
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, an imprint of University of Melbourne, 2021
ISBN: 9780522877816, pbk, 237 pages, including an Appendix, list of Hazel Rowley Fellowship recipients, Acknowledgements and Notes.
Source: Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press.


2022 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship winner

It is just over a decade since Hazel Rowley’s untimely death, and the fellowship established in her name continues to support the art of Australian biography.  The roll call of previous winners is indicative of how this fellowship contributes to our cultural life.

  • 2012: Mary Hoban’s An Unconventional Wife: The life of Julia Sorell Arnold, was published by Scribe in April 2019.
  • 2013: Stephany Steggall’s Interestingly Enough…the Life of Tom Keneally was published in 2015 by Nero.  (See my review.)
  • 2014 Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race published by Hachette in August 2016. On my TBR.
  • 2015: Caroline Baum for a proposed biography of Lucie Dreyfus (1870-1945).  See her article about the progress of the bio here.
  • 2016: Matthew Lamb for a proposed cultural biography of the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse.  (Readings and Booktopia were expecting Frank Moorhouse, a Discontinuous Life to be released in 2019, but there’s no sign of it.  I wonder what happened?)
  • 2017: Ann-Marie Priest is using the Fellowship to write a biography of Australian poet Gwen Harwood (1920-1995), to be published by Black Inc. See her article about how she used the Fellowship.  Pre-order the book here.
  • 2018: Jacqueline Kent’s Vida: A Woman for Our Time, was published by Penguin Books in September 2020. (See my account of an author event about the book.)
  • 2019: Eleanor Hogan’s’s Into the Loneliness: The unholy alliance of Ernestine Hill and Daisy Bates was published by NewSouth Books in March 2021.
  • 2020: Lance Richardson is writing a biography of the writer, naturalist and Zen Buddhist Peter Matthiessen, (best known as the author of The Snow Leopard.)
  • 2021: Mandy Sayer, who is writing a biography of the McDonagh sisters, Paulette, Isabelle and Phyllis, who were Australia’s first female filmmakers in the 1920s and 1930s.

This week the winner of the 2022 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship was announced.  Congratulations to Naomi Parry Duncan!

Naomi is writing about the life of Gai-mariagal man Musquito, who was hanged in Tasmania in 1825. Musquito, originally from Port Jackson, was a resistance fighter who was exiled to Norfolk Island and taken to Van Diemen’s Land – lutruwita-palawa/pakana country.

As in some previous years, (see the website for more info,) this year the judges also gave a Highly Commended award.  This year they commended Sylvia Martin who is writing a joint biography of artists and artisans Eirene Mort and Nora (‘Chips’) Weston, who were influential in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Australia.

 


Responses

  1. This sounds excellent. I particularly liked her insights into how everyone writes within certain social forces, including the biographer.

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    • Yes. Modjeska talks about how the Victorian idea of biography changed, It was all about men, (of course) but there was also a strict cleavage between the private and the personal. Until Orlando, readers got the story of the public life, not the whole person, not the multiple selves. With bios of women, rare as they were, they never mentioned sex. Life as Art is an education in biography!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tempted by the Beauvoir/Sartre, I must say! :D

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    • Me too. The copy I’ve ordered through Readings (an independent bookseller here in Melbourne) is coming from the UK so you should be able to get it. Interestingly, the chapter about copyright explains that the French edition is different, so even if you read French you might prefer to get the original English one.
      I read The Second Sex early in my feminist reading journey and it changed my ideas about my gender entirely…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Obviously I have to read this – thanks for bringing it to my attention! It sounds wonderful.

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  4. I saw this and was thinking I’d love to read it. So sad that she died when she did.

    I also saw that award going to Mandy Sayer. I a book about them will be great (I hope).

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    • It’s just fantastic what this award achieves. A great legacy for a great biographer.

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  5. I enjoyed your deep dive into this book, one which I probably will not read. Five or six years ago I read Chris Williams’ biography of Christina Stead and you read Rowley’s. As I remember there were some differences and I formed, probably entirely without evidence, the opinion that Williams’ was the better.

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    • I think one has to be very keen to read more than one bio of a writer!

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      • I have and have read five or six of Miles Franklin, but then I probably fit your definition of keen.

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        • I suppose it depends on your purposes. I mainly read author bios for their insights into the novels I’ve liked.

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        • I’ve read a few of Austen too!

          Different biographers offer different insights sometimes Lisa. It can be quite illuminating, I’ve found, because it depends on their POV, on why they are writing the biography, no matter how “objective” they aim to be?

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  6. I can see this would be just fascinating. Not one I can readily find, but I enjoyed reading about it all the same!

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    • Fingers crossed you can find a copy.

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