The challenge of biography

Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Mary Hoban

Photo of Mary Hoban sitting on a bench
Mary Hoban

One of the most common questions asked of biographers is, “How did you find your subject?” For Australian biographer Hazel Rowley it was the way you hear particular words and how they might strike a chord in you.

This happened to me when I was reading the memoirs of the English scientist Sir Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO. He was reminiscing about his Australian grandmother Julia Sorell.

First chord struck – I had no idea that either Julian Huxley or his novelist brother Aldous had an Australian grandmother. In his memoirs Huxley said that his grandmother Julia (after whom he was named) was renowned in the family for her actions on the day her husband converted to Roman Catholicism in Hobart in 1856. While the ceremony was taking place, Julia collected a basket of stones, walked to the church, and “smashed the windows with this protesting ammunition...”[1]

Second chord struck – these words conjured a long forgotten memory from my childhood when I was a member of a stone-throwing cabal, a motley group of young Catholic kids tossing ‘yonnies’, as little stones were called, onto the roof of the building where the brownies were meeting. It was claimed the brownies wouldn’t accept Catholics as members – I don’t remember testing the allegation, nor even being particularly interested in being a brownie, but I did like the idea of testing my arm. No windows were broken – most of the yonnies didn’t even carry that far – but we exorcised our demons and believed the Brownies felt our presence at their meeting.

What also stands out in my memory of that day is the excoriating reprimand my mother delivered, castigating me for my behaviour and declaiming that “young ladies do not throw stones”. Recalling this incident, I was fascinated by Julia Sorell’s actions. What could have caused her to behave in such a dramatic way? What feeling was inscribed into each of her tossed stones – was it anger, frustration, or something else – despair perhaps? In the context of gender, class, time and place, her behaviour was too compelling to put aside.

So you’ve found your subject, what now?

In a world where biographies focus on quest, on achievement, on destination, there is always the awful need to justify the subject. “What did she do”? And if the subject is simply an ordinary woman whose oblique and private life was determined by whose daughter she was and whose wife or mother or even grandmother she became then the challenge is immense. How could such a life be deemed worthy of a biography? It’s all very well for Virginia Woolf to call for the true history of the girl behind the counter rather than the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or the seventieth study of Keats, but who apart from Virginia Woolf might be interested in reading it and what publisher would be brave enough to take it on?[2] 

Only recently, a reviewer of a biography about Betsy Balcombe – as a young girl she had shared a house with Napoleon – reflected that she “was, after all, a fairly insignificant character, one who had no perceptible impact or influence on the great man.” Why then, he asked, was there interest in this girl.[3]

But I refused to be daunted. If ordinary lives are the stuff of novels, why could they not be the stuff of biography? There is a very good reason. Such lives are rarely recorded. They are not found on monuments, in books, in galleries or in archives and the paucity of evidence relating to ordinary lives, particularly those of women, is discouraging.

I was fortunate with my ‘ordinary’ subject for Julia Arnold, née Sorell, was a woman who, despite living her life in the shadow of a famous lineage, did made her presence felt in the houses and stories of her more famous forebears, her husband and daughter and her grandchildren. She was the granddaughter of Lt. Governor Sorell of Van Diemen’s Land and her marriage propelled her into one of the most eminent families of Victorian England. Precisely because of her family connections, documents have survived that relate directly and indirectly to her. Many of her own letters are still in the archive; there are biographies of her husband and other members of her family; and her daughter, the writer Mrs Humphry Ward, used elements from Julia’s life in several of her novels.[4]

Even with documents, though, there is still the considerable challenge of how to portray Julia’s perceived world, and to portray it so it might be understood by a 21st century mind and imagination. Hers was a world where a married woman had no legal status – she was in effect the property of her husband – where a woman’s life was remarkably circumscribed and where effective exile was the consequence if she broke the unwritten rules regarding her behaviour. It was also a world where religion was central.

Difficult too for the biographer is the task of narrating a life as it might have unfolded, unknowingly rather than in hindsight. Too often lives are given a retrospective clarity and a logic by a biographer that would have astounded the subject.

In the face of these numerous challenges, what did the archive reveal? What sort of woman emerged from the background? It transpires that Julia Sorell’s ‘ordinary life’ is the story of sexual politics in the time of Charlotte Bronte. It is a powerful tale of deeply committed lovers who differ fundamentally in their understanding of the marriage contract, the role of a wife and religion. Julia’s is an enduring story about yearning, self-deception and human suffering. Like Virginia Woolf’s girl behind the counter, she may not have made her mark in history books but in its depiction of the limitations, the struggles and the triumphs that shaped women’s lives in the nineteenth century, hers is the hidden story of all women.

About Mary Hoban

Mary Hoban was the inaugural winner of the Hazel Rowley Fellowship in 2012. She used her Fellowship stipend to research documents in the Balliol Library at Oxford and is now on the last stages of her biography of Tasmanian woman Julia Sorell. She has written previously on Australian history, dating back to her first book, a history of the Queen Victoria Market, written in collaboration with Ellen McCaughey. She holds a Grad Dip in Biography and Life Writing from Monash University and an MA in Public History from the University of Technology, Sydney.

About the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

The annual Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship commemorates the work of Hazel Rowley (1951–2011), one of the world’s leading biographers, who left behind a legacy of great writing, and a passion for words and for exploring the lives and relationships of exceptional men and women. The Fellowship is now open to all Australian citizens. The focus is on biography, but extends to an aspect of cultural or social history compatible with Hazel’s interest areas. Up to $10,000 will be awarded for travel and research to further a writing proposal or work in progress.

The winner of the 2016 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship will be announced at a special event on The Art of Biography at Writers Victoria in March 2016 (SOLD OUT). Unfortunately, Mary cannot attend the forum, but has provided some thoughts on the challenges that her biography has presented.


[1] Julian Huxley Memories, London: Allen & Unwin, 1970, pp. 12-13

[2] Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own, Triad/Panther Books, St Albans, 1977 (first published by The Hogarth Press Ltd 1929), p.86

[3] From Philip Dwyer, “Boney and his Balcombe girl”, Spectrum, The Age, Sat 14 Nov 2015, 26

[4] Letters and documents relating to the Arnold family are held in the Archives of Balliol College Oxford and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Memoirs and autobiographies of family members are numerous. They include Thomas Arnold, Passages in a Wandering Life, London, 1900; Mrs Humphry Ward, A Writer's Recollections, London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1918; Julian Huxley, Memories I, Allen & Unwin, 1970; biographies include Bernard Bergonzi, A Victorian Wanderer The Life of Thomas Arnold the Younger, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; Meriol Trevor, The Arnolds: Thomas Arnold and his family, London: Bodley Head, 1973; Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley 1894–1963: a Memorial Volume, London: Chatto & Windus, 1965; Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs. Humphry Ward, London: Constable, 1923; John Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990; Mrs Humphry Ward’s novels that relate most specifically to her parents include Robert Elsmere and Helbeck of Bannisdale.