The journey of the biography

Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Mary Hoban

A myriad of impulses start a biography on its journey.

In my case, it was reading an autobiography by renowned scientist Julian Huxley. In it he reminisces about his grandmother, Julia Sorell, who gained notoriety in the family for her actions on the day her husband converted to Catholicism.

During the ceremony held in Hobart in 1856, Julia collected a basket of stones, walked to the church, and “smashed the windows with this protesting ammunition”. Reading this, the words evoked a long forgotten memory from my childhood when I, too, threw stones. I had joined a motley group of young Catholic kids making their feelings of rejection palpable as they tossed ‘yonnies’, or little stones, onto the roof of the building where the local 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 in our sights though, just the roof, and 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 I was given on my return home regarding the customary behaviour of young women.

Reading about Julia, I wondered what emotions drove her, a mature woman, to behave in such a way? What feeling was inscribed into each of her tossed stones – was it anger, frustration, or something else – despair, perhaps? In an age when it was unacceptable for women to express anger, this action was too entrancing to put aside. So began my biographical journey, a journey, which, thanks to the inaugural Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, has taken me to the Balliol College Archive in Oxford.

Julia Sorrell was born in 1826 in Hobart Town. Her paternal grandfather was Lt-Governor William Sorell; her maternal grandfather was Anthony Fenn Kemp, the so-called “father of Tasmania”, one of the richest men in Van Diemen’s Land and a member of the rum corps who famously mutinied against Governor Bligh. After several broken engagements (of itself interesting) Julia met Tom Arnold when he became Inspector of Schools in Van Diemen’s Land in 1850. Tom was the dreamy second son of Thomas Arnold of Rugby and brother of the poet Matthew Arnold. Julia and Tom fell in love and a few months later were married, at which point Julia entered one of the most celebrated intellectual families of Victorian England.

Six years later, Tom converted to Catholicism, causing a deep and enduring fault line through their relationship. Following his conversion, the family sailed to England, never to return to Van Diemen’s Land. Literally overnight, Julia’s privileged, stable life was destroyed. For much of the rest of her life she would be struggling. Despite her hatred for Catholicism and the sometimes grim circumstances her husband’s choices resulted in, their regard for each other remained intact until her death in 1888.

In a lecture that Hazel Rowley gave on biography, she said biographers needed courage. Since winning the fellowship, I have begun to understand that word a little more. It began with winning the fellowship itself. Until that moment, I had felt I was on my own journey – one that could be stopped and started, revealed or not, completed or not, just as I pleased. But in winning the fellowship, I was “outed” as a would-be biographer and the excitement and euphoria of winning was replaced with the realisation that I now had to complete this task in a lucid and engaging way. At times, this has felt like an enormous burden – one that is with me always. I can’t read anything without distilling it somehow through the lens of my character – how would she have reacted, would she have done that, is that what she might have felt?

However, I quickly recovered my equilibrium and began planning the trip to Oxford where all Julia’s letters are held. This would be straightforward, I thought, but it wasn’t. Work commitments were an obstacle (like most writers I have a “real” job) and even gaining access to the archive itself had its challenges, but I eventually gained access for a month. The unforeseen delays and mounting anxiety about timelines frustrated attempts at writing. A circuit breaker was needed and it appeared in the form of Elegance in Exile, an exhibition curated by Joanna Gilmore at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. And although Julia’s portrait was not among those selected (considered too delicate to make the trip from Hobart), this wonderfully vivid record of early colonial society in Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales brought me face to face with many of the characters wandering in and out of her story. It was enough to reinvigorate the project.

And so, for the month of November in 2012, I was privileged to find myself among the sandstone spires of Oxford and nothing – not the impenetrable discursive handwriting, not the dark, bitter cold of an encroaching English winter, not even the worst floods in half a century – could diminish my pleasure at finally hearing Julia’s voice, walking the streets she walked and looking at the houses she lived in. Form and substance were finally taking shape.

Or so I imagined… Since my return from Oxford I have been confronting the many challenges inherent in writing biography – deciphering the thousands of documents I photographed while in the archive, reading extensively for context, constantly searching for the elusive scrap, determining a meaningful endpoint. And all this before I begin the final challenge of shaping her story so that the presentness of her life unfolds, so that its messiness and its ‘unknowiness’ is conveyed, so that a life lived in the 19th century might be understood by a 21st century mind and imagination. In Julia’s Sorell’s case these difficulties are compounded by the fact that her life, unlike most biographical subjects, is not and can not be documented as achievement. While she is a presence in many documented lives, Julia is a mostly silent presence. She has never been centre stage before and part of the challenge of writing about her is to extract her from the background of colonial life, from the covers of marriage and family life, and to present her as the paradox she is – a woman who defied convention as much as she embraced it.

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.