‘My Accidental Career’ by Brenda Niall

2022,293 p

Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s best known biographers. I first ‘met’ her on paper in a course on children’s literature that I did with Deakin University a lifetime ago, and then again with her biography of Georgiana McCrae which, along with Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass helped fuel my love of Melbourne history. She has written several biographies since then, particularly focussing on literary or artistic biography or biographies of fellow-Catholics such as Archbishop Daniel Mannix or Father Hackett. She dipped her toes into family biography with Can You Hear the Sea? My Grandmother’s Story but here she wades in at least knee-deep with her own memoir My Accidental Career. A biographer knows the tricks and pitfalls of the trade, and she keeps careful control of what she chooses to reveal.

The title My Accidental Career of course triggers associations with Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, but there is no brashness or boasting here. Instead, the book is perhaps a little too self-effacing and deferential but even this is of a piece with the life she is presenting. Written at the age of 91, she justifies her biography, and its choice of title like this:

Looking back over more than sixty years of work as academic and writer, I see a pattern of surprises. For better and worse, fortune’s wheel kept spinning. Am I right in thinking of an ‘accidental’ career? Freud said that there are no accidents, and it’s easy to look back and see inevitabilities in events that seemed random. In the following pages, I’ve tried to show how it felt at the time, when each turn of fate appeared to me as unpredictable. To be born in 1930 meant that I entered the adult world well before the sharp, fresh breeze of the women’s movement. With my own inner wars of independence to fight, I had little awareness of the public world as a shaping force…My Accidental Career is the story of a 1950s consciousness gradually waking up to a new world in which opportunity and equality were within a woman’s reach. And that I wanted them.

p.2

Born in 1930 as the youngest of three children, her father was a prominent cardiologist and she lived in a wealthy enclave in Kew, attending Genazzano college, one of Melbourne’s prominent Catholic Girls’ schools. Her Catholicism permeated her life. Living in their large house in Studley Park Road, one of her neighbours was Archbishop Daniel Mannix (whose biography she would later write), and her first job was with in Bob Santamaria’s Catholic Action office, a research position in which she seems to have been particularly naive and unsuitable. She was no political warrior: instead, she had imbibed the values of quietness and gentleness from her education. (I must admit that the women I know who had a Catholic Girls’ School education, admittedly younger and who came to adopt leadership positions in education, were neither quiet nor gentle but did have a quick, direct and rather distinctive confidence and articulateness exemplified by Geraldine Doogue or Susan Ryan. Perhaps this reflected post-war change in Catholic Girls’ education? Or was it the effect of Vatican II?) When her father died with a brain tumour at the age of 53, there was an unspoken assumption that marriage would be the escape from the ‘caring’ role often visited upon an unmarried daughter, and this was something that she was quietly but implacably determined to avoid.

On the one hand, Niall is clearly aware of her privilege but by reverting to the self-effacing declaration that her career was ‘accidental’, she seems unconscious of its effect on her life. Her family was financially comfortable; her childhood neighbourhood was affluent; she attended private school throughout, and her Catholic connections led to her first job. She was clearly brilliant: she was one of only five girls to win a Special Exhibition at Matriculation, and the only one from a Catholic Girls’ School to do so. She enrolled in English Honours in post-war 1949, just after an influx of older ex-servicemen on veterans’ grants and when women lecturers were rare. She won the exhibition in English language and literature in 1950 but missed the First Class Honours she was on track for after her father died. This was the first of a number of false starts where she was progressing towards academic prominence (dare I say “A Brilliant Career”?) only to find herself almost frozen to immobility by external events or her own diffidence. A broken engagement with ‘G’ prompted her mother to fund a round-the-world airline ticket in April 1958, leading to the first of the journal entries that Niall includes in the book.

There are five of these journal entries, distinguished from the rest of the text by a stylized corner at the top and bottom of the page. They mark out her various overseas sojourns in Limerick (1958), Ann Arbor (1967-68), Yale New Haven (1975) and two research trips undertaken as part of her work on the Boyd family in 1985 and again in 1999. Drawing on a journal does solve a narrative problem for the auto/biographer – you can go straight back to the source material- but I found myself wondering about the authenticity of these remarkably lucid and self-explanatory entries.

However, they do highlight the opportunities that opened up for her, even though she describes them rather diffidently. After moving to ANU in Canberra for postgraduate studies, she wrote her thesis on Edith Wharton and was offered jobs at Melbourne, Monash and ANU universities. She accepted a tutorship at the four-year old Monash, and her thesis was awarded first-class honours by both the internal and external examiners. She was later to embark on a long-term relationship with Grahame Johnson, the internal examiner at ANU and her mentor, but because of their shared Catholic faith, divorce and a second marriage was impossible, as Niall explains rather clinically. Grahame was to become the deputy director of the newly established ANU Centre for Research in the Humanities when he died suddenly in December 1976, aged forty seven. She does not expand on this, although she notes the “feeling of emptiness” and the “kindness of people who didn’t know what to say to me.” (p. 171) Not one to push herself forward, she remained at Monash, mainly working in teaching and administrative roles. However, she was feisty enough when another female academic began to muscle in on work that she had commenced on Martin Boyd, suggesting that they could be co-authors. She wrote back, saying that her work would be a biography, and that there would still be sufficient space for a critical study, should her colleague choose to write one. She didn’t. Niall’s solo-authored biography Martin Boyd: a Life won several awards in 1989, and marked a turning point from a tenured academic to an independent writer.

We tend to lionize prodigies and youthful success, and it was interesting (and encouraging) to read of a career that only found itself near the end, at the age of 59. At the age of sixty she was admitted to the Australian Academy for the Humanities. She was invited to write reviews of biographies, reviewing one book a fortnight between 1997-8 and several other biographies followed with Georgiana (1994), the group biography The Boyds: A Family Biography (2002) (my review here), Judy Cassab: A portrait (2005), The riddle of Father Hackett : a life in Ireland and Australia (2009), True North: the story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack (2012), Mannix (2015), Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers: Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson (my review here). She wrote about the craft of biography in Life Class (2007), and wrote her grandmother’s story in Can You Hear the Sea in 2018. This is a woman who has found her strength.

It is hard to believe that Brenda Niall and Dale Kent (author of The Most I Could Be – my review here) were working in Victorian universities at the same time, albeit in different disciplines. Kent’s academe is a ferocious place where you had to fight for your position; Niall’s “accidental” career is helped by colleagues, mentors and champions – mostly men- to whom she acknowledges her debt. Kent’s biography is hormone-driven and personal; Niall’s is almost ascetic.

I sensed throughout this book Niall’s control in what she was telling, and what she was choosing not to tell. It is a quiet biography, where she is applying to herself the techniques she might use in narrating another’s life. There is a reluctance to brag, a readiness to cede credit to others, and a sense of almost incredulity that these things occurred unbidden and so generously. The nuns taught her well.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: borrowed from my friend Patricia.

One response to “‘My Accidental Career’ by Brenda Niall

  1. It’s hard to imagine she is in her nineties. I met her for the first and only time when you invited me to a talk she was giving at the historical society, and so when I think of her, that’s the image I see, though it was a long time ago now.
    She’s an author who’s brought me much reading pleasure.

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