Category Archives: Historians

Vale John Hirst


Australian historian John Hirst died on 5th February.

I remember seeing his name on his door in the history department when I first did undergraduate history at La Trobe in the 1970s, but I sailed through a B. A. without encountering him.  It was to Dr Hirst that I had to make application, forty years later, when I decided to return to university after a prolonged period of ill-health, determined to do something that I really wanted to do instead of working in a cut-down capacity in my present job. I had addressed my email of inquiry to “Dear Dr Hirst”, and as he opened the door to his office he exclaimed “I knew you’d be a mature-aged student! None of this ‘Dear John’ stuff!”  Dear John was, however, rather stringent in admitting me to the post-grad program at La Trobe, with his eagle-eye detecting the single ‘C’ mark in second-year history back in 1974 (given to me, ironically enough, by the lecturer I ended up working for as a research assistant some years later!) in amongst a CV that included good results in many other post-grad courses.  He enrolled me in an honours course, just to see how I went, and had the grace to quickly waive the requirement after the first assessment task.  By that time, however, I no longer wanted to leave the honours class. I had enrolled in a readings course with John, and I ‘grew up’ as a historian in the six months I sat in his tutorial room.

We read one Australian history book a week, starting with colonial history through to a range of ‘shist’ (Short History) compilations.  I learned to read for the overarching argument as well as detail, to uncover assumptions, to weigh evidence, to notice structure.  Some of my fellow students flagged a bit at one book per week, but I loved it.

I went on to tutor for John in his final presentation of first year Colonial History before retiring from lecturing- a subject he had taught for many years and had honed well.  Each lecture was a tightly woven argument, with none of this trailing-off half finished because time had got away.  You came out, not necessarily agreeing with him (in fact, I often did not agree with him), but having witnessed a historical argument being constructed, and supported, in front of your eyes. At the end of semester, I mentioned to the students how fortunate they had been to have had him, and I sat at the back of the room, proud of these 19 and 20 year-olds who spontaneously gave him a standing ovation at the end of the last lecture.

John wanted me- he wanted all his postgrad students – to write big history, and I’m afraid that I probably disappointed him in that regard.  John had a long-standing interest in the Australian character, republicanism and the democracy of manners.  In recent years as ‘John Hirst’, rather than ‘J. B. Hirst’, he moved out of academe into the public sphere, where he published a number of books under the Black Inc impress.  Although some of his recent books combined span with brevity (e.g. The Shortest History of Europe) several of his other recent publications  were compilations or reworkings of articles he had written in academic journals over the years, and were marked by his trademark punchiness in both language and logic.  He argued with his brain, without rancour or oneupmanship.

I did a search of this blog under ‘Hirst’ to see how many of his books I had reviewed. There was only one, Convict Society and its Enemies, but many, many posts came up where I had referred to him by name.  His own work in Australian colonial history was big history, even though in his chapter-length articles the canvas he worked on may have seemed to be small.  He influenced me deeply as a historian, even though I found his politics frustratingly difficult to pigeon-hole.  He was a man of the mind and  generous in his attention.  Vale, John.

‘In My Mother’s Hands’ by Biff Ward


2014, 288p.

Look carefully at that front cover. A well-dressed, attractive woman stands in front of a suburban house, her hair permed, in a stylish dress with white gloves.  Those gloves are important: they encase the gouged, ravaged hands of Biff Ward’s mother Margaret.  Despite the nostalgia-infused image of Margaret Ward on the cover, this is the story of a troubled and desperate woman and mother, told by her daughter.

Biff ( a childhood rendering of ‘Elizabeth’) Ward is the daughter of Russel Ward, the noted Australian historian who wrote The Australian Legend. This book was a hugely influential study of the Australian Character (the question that keeps on giving), published more than fifty years ago. Although perhaps not so well known today, The Australian Legend and its author were examined anew at a symposium in 2007 (proceedings found in the Journal of Australian Colonial History 10.2 (2008) with a summary here) and re-addressed each year through the Russel Ward Annual Lecture  (see Babette Smith’s lecture here)

Although Biff’s memoir focusses on her mother, it is just as much a study of her father and of the family dynamics that operated when dealing with mental illness, shame and fear in the context of  the 1950s and 1960s. Biff and her brother Mark had always known of the existence of an earlier child, Alison, who had died at the age of four months,but the conditions surrounding Alison’s death were murky. What was clear, though, was that their mother Margaret was a deeply disturbed woman.  Those gloved hands, torn and rubbed raw by Margaret herself, also throttled Biff as Margaret crept to her younger daughter’s bedside one night, and it was when Margaret threatened the lives of her two remaining children while her husband was absent at a conference, that Russel Ward finally had her committed. Although Biff felt that they were dealing with the nightmare of their mother’s illness in secrecy,  many people were aware of it, as Biff herself recognizes later.  In reading a short story ‘Friends in Perspective’ published by Gwen Kelly in a Meanjin article  in 1990 (available for Victorian readers through SLV), Biff realizes that  both Russel and Margaret were the topic of gossip and judgment throughout the small academic communities at ANU in Canberra and UNE in New England.  She has the maturity and grace to recognize that the academic wives may well have been reaching out to her mother as well, instead of just gossiping about her.

She captures small university-town life well, and places her father within the academic milieu of the  communist-phobic 1950s and 1960s.  She draws on Russel Ward’s own letters to his parents and sisters that documented Margaret’s progress, and to a lesser degree on Ward’s own autobiography which largely elides Alison’s death and Margaret’s illness. I found it interesting to read about the smallness of the Australian History fraternity at the time, and the intellectual isolation of local academics in a  world where international conferences and networks were luxuries.

Biff did not write this memoir until both her parents had died. She is well aware that she is exposing her mother, and perhaps from a sense of moral even-handedness, she exposes her father’s sexual addiction as well. Even writing as an adult, as Biff does, it is impossible to tease out cause and effect in this addiction, but it does raise the issue of omission in memoir. Is there more? or less? of an imperative to reveal the flaws of a public figure, as distinct from someone unknown? (I’m reminded here of journalist Laurie Oakes’ exposure of politican Cheryl Kernot’s extramarital affair when she omitted it in her own autobiography).  Although Ward’s revelations about both parents are startling, the tone is wistful rather than vindictive, and while she censures both parents at times, her compassion shines through.

There’s a fairly lengthy extract from the book here, which will give you a taste of the easy  narrative that, at the same time, reveals so much darkness and pain. You’ll spend quite some time turning to that image on the front cover.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums and Jonathan at Me Fail? I Fly! have written sensitive reviews of this book

aww2016 I’ve reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book . Read in one sitting on an international flight!


‘When it Rains’ by Maggie Mackellar


2010, 223 p

Right at the end of this book the author, Maggie Mackellar, tells us what she has set out to do:

At times I feel like a voyeur in my own life.  What right do I have to portray these events, to try to place them in a frame I might understand?  I return to the question asked by Anne Carson of Euripides’ tragedies: why is tragedy so important as an art form?  Her answer brings me up against my own terrible truth. Tragedy is important because it enables us to imagine our own reactions in a dark well of horror.  It lets us watch others suffer.  By watching, we are prepared. By watching, we place a frame around our world and pace its boundaries.  We guard against unknown horrors that call to us from beyond our walls.  I watch so that I might know, and write so I might be understood. But my terrible truth is that no matter how carefully I place that frame, no matter how deeply I dive under the sea, I will never really understand why. (p216)

As readers, we have been watching a tragedy unfold as this young widow, historian, mother, daughter packs up her Sydney life and academic career to return to her grandmother’s home in a small outback town with her two young children. She has come undone with grief.  Her husband  had committed suicide, four years earlier, leaving her with a five year old daughter and an unborn son.  Her husband (for this is how she refers to him throughout)  had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, when he absconded and killed himself. She had been many miles away, unable to reach him in the depths of his illness and frightened by his violence. Her mother was there for the birth of now father-less child, and it was her mother who taught her to love her new baby:

It was my mother’s hands that received my baby boy as he slipped from my body. She held him and sang to him, her hands firm around him, swaddled him, patted him, learnt him…. It was a relief to let her hold him.  To watch her loving him. I followed her lead.  This baby, whom I’d sheltered and who’d grown stronger within me even as his father’s mind was splintering; this baby, who was my constant companion through trauma and despair, had finally arrived. I didn’t fall for him as instantly as I did for Lottie…. In the end it was my mother who taught me to love him.  She held him high, she held him to her.  (p. 17)

Then suddenly her mother died, struck down by a fast-moving cancer.  Her grief for her mother’s death was not alloyed by anger and a sense of betrayal as her response to her husband’s death had been.  Her mother’s presence and assistance had been the rope that tethered her to the semblance of a career and single motherhood, and with the cutting of that connection, it just all became too hard: the child-care, the teaching, the marking, the academic hamster-wheel. She took leave of absence from her job and eventually resigned, knowing the significance of turning her back on a job as an early-career researcher and lecturer at Sydney Uni.

She returns to her grandparent’s pastoral property in Central Western New South Wales, her mother’s childhood home and a place that has happy memories for her.  Her aunt and uncle have taken over the farm, and she knits herself into small-town country life with the  primary school, the Tuesday Ladies tennis club, sheep, tractors, horses, dogs, chooks and snakes.  In many ways she is fortunate: she steps back into an extended family network; she has the financial resources to take the children to Europe for seven weeks for a holiday (brave lady!) and academic projects seem to come to her, instead of having to seek them out.

Her outback country life is juxtaposed against her memories of a six-month trip she and her husband took to Alaska when she was twenty-three years old and unexpectedly pregnant.  They had rock-climbed and kayaked in the wilderness, then lived for three months in a tiny shack outside a small Alaskan town. It had been a “shape-altering” trip that underscored her husband’s physicality as they talked about the future, study, life with a small child.  And now, as she watches their children fit into their new life in the red dust of the NSW outback, without him there, Alaska seems very far away.

The blurb on the back of the book describes her as “a brilliant new talent”, but I’d met her on the page before and even blogged unwittingly about her here.  She talks about her academic work, and I know the SLV manuscript room that she describes and, because I’m a historian of the Port Phillip district, I know of the people she’s researching.  She brings her skills as historian and academic to this memoir as well.  She tells us that

After he died, I sought clarity by writing in strict chronological order the events that led to his death.  I took each day, sketched its beginnings and end, recalled each mood, read into every silence some sort of message.  I wanted to trace the trajectory of his breakdown, to look for clues about spaces into which I could have stepped and saved him.  I wanted his past to speak to me.  As I wrote, what emerged was not clarity, nor understanding, nor peace; what was left was a chaotic scrawl filled with pain- and, looking back, an inevitable end (p. 5)

In this book, she has left strict chronological order behind and instead spirals around her story. The book is written as a series of short chapters, mostly in the present tense, that read a bit like newspaper columns in that each one seems self-contained with apparent closure in the final paragraph of each one.  But you turn the page, and still it goes on – just as she must.  As one chapter follows another chapter, she is still circling warily around her pain but gradually stepping away from it as well.  The academic is always there, making connections with other writers and literature, and her observation that she is a “voyeur in her own life” is apt.  There is much pain here, but there’s a detachment and abstraction as well.  A memoir is a construction, and I was very aware of the layers in this beautifully written, honest, intelligent book.

awwbadge_2014 I guess I’m still doing this Challenge although I’ve probably reached my target by now.  Nonetheless, I’ll still post my review to the Australian Women’s Writing Challenge.

Looking back at a historian looking forward

I had reason today to winkle out a reference drawing parallels between convictism and slavery.  It wasn’t difficult: several historians have written on the topic, and one of them was K. M. Dallas.

The name sounded familiar.  Then I remembered that  in The Tyranny of Distance Geoffrey Blainey had cited a lecture given to “a small, sceptical audience in Hobart in 1952”  by K. M. Dallas that “brilliantly probed” the mystery of why England decided to send convicts to the other side of the world. Dallas argued that Botany Bay had been intended as a maritime base for four promising trades: tea from China  via the Cape of Good Hope (thereby avoiding the pirate-infested straits near Sumatra); otter pelts from north-west America; whaling in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, and a bit of quiet dabbling in smuggling and privateering in the Spanish trade that linked the Phillipines, Mexico and South America.  A fifth potential prize might have been the disruption of the Dutch monopoly of trade in the East Indies.   It’s an argument that appeals to me in its scope, and certainly Geoffrey Blainey took it up in his widely-published book.

So, having remembered who K. M. Dallas was,  I looked more closely at the article I downloaded today “Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines” from 1968.  It, too, is a wide-ranging article that explores different aspects of forced labour across the British Empire: the hulks moored in the Thames and sent to Bermuda to provide labour for naval improvements; pauper emigration to Canada, Newfoundland and New South Wales, and the forced labour of Aboriginal women by sealers (a view challenged recently by Lynette Russell- my review here) and Aboriginal men under a scheme of pastoral employment bounty.  It struck me that this is transnational history, decades before its time.

So who was K. M. Dallas?  His ADB entry tells me that his name was Kenneth McKenzie Dallas, and that he was born in Tasmania in 1902.  He became a teacher and taught in one-teacher schools while studying a commerce degree. He became a tutor for the Workers Educational Association, which was at that time associated with the University of Tasmania.  His ADB entry notes that

Dallas embodied the ideal WEA type: while of an intellectual cast, he focused on the action of social and economic forces. His discourse was always positive and informed, often enthralling, sometimes overbearing.

Always leftish in his politics, he moved further left with the burgeoning of fascism. His historical prescience deserted him in 1937 when he conducted the opening meeting at the New Norfolk Workers Educational Association.   There’s an article titled ‘Is War Coming? Not Inevitable says K. M. Dallas‘ in the Hobart Mercury of 23 June 1937

Mr. Dallas said that he was not sufficiently pessimistic to feel that another world war was inevitable. Imperialism had undergone a great change in the past 50 years. He felt that the Imperialistic spirit was passing, and that war would pass with it.

Among the forces making for war at present was the assumption that war was inevitable. There were also the war objectives of the Fascist Powers, which were backed by official announcements. Against the forces of war were the development of an organised will to peace, and the building up of peace as a political policy. People would enter the next war with their eyes open. He believed that, even assuming that the German and Italian Governments provoked war, they were not in a position to go to war at present. From the material point of view, those nations likely to provoke war were least equipped for that purpose, and in the circumstances he felt that a world war was most unlikely.

How tragically wrong he was.  He joined the Royal Australian Navy, saw action in the Mediterranean and took part in the first wave at Normandy.  On his return to Australia, he resumed his academic career as a lecturer in economics, encouraging and forming friendships with socially conscious undergraduates including Polish migrants and Asian students.   He was a member of the Australasian Book Society, and he enjoyed European films (surely a rarified taste in 1950s & 60s Tasmania?). He supported the Labor club at the university and the Australian Peace Council, but despite an adverse ASIO assessment  that refused him a passport (quickly overturned by Menzies), he was not a member of the Communist Party.

However, this did not prevent an exchange of letters in July-August 1950  in the Tasmanian Mercury where, after a funeral,  he was publicly challenged by a ‘Lesley Murdoch’ to declare whether he was a communist or not.  The resultant kerfuffle (here , here , here  and here) was prodded along by Dallas’ rather provocatively timed letter to the editor about the Korean War.  The interchange carried out in the columns of the Tasmanian Mercury reminds us of the perils of politically contentious views in a small community, even in the days of a less ubiquitous social media.

Unlike many other academics, he did not support Sydney Sparkes Orr, the professor of philosophy, when he was dismissed from the University of Tasmania.  This stance isolated him from many of his colleagues, but perhaps time has vindicated him in this too, with the publication of Cassandra Pybus’ Gross Moral Turpitude in 1999

I’m a bit put off by the description of him as “overbearing”, but I think that he wouldn’t be out of place at a history conference today.  Transnationalism, networks, environmentalism (he wrote a book on water)- he’d have plenty to say. Certainly, his ideas are interesting, and must have come (literally) from left field fifty years ago.


[You may need to login to  a State or university library to access the articles]

Dallas, K. M. The first settlement in Australia considered in relation to sea-power in world politics [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association No. 3, 1952: 4-12.

Dallas, K. M. Slavery in Australia – convicts, emigrants, Aborigines [online]. Papers and Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association , Vol. 16, No. 2, Sept 1968: 61-76.

Dallas, K. M. The Origins of White Australia The Australian Quarterly  Vol 27, No 1 (March 1955) 43-55

Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance  Sydney, Macmillan, 2001 p. 23-4

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

Warrior of the Mind- Inga Clendinnen

When I read this interview by journalist Jana Wendt with Inga Clendinnen – my most revered historian- I didn’t know whether to smile or weep.

To be honest, I did both.






My response on learning of her recent death is here.


The Kelly Letter and the jousting historians behaving nobly

There was an interesting article in this morning’s Age written by historian Alex McDermott.  Titled ‘In the Kelly legend are our own lives writ large’ Alex describes the international interest that was attracted to the news that the State Library had acquired a letter that gave an eyewitness account of  Ned Kelly being taken into custody at Glenrowan.

The Sutherland letter, which can be seen at the State Library of Victoria website here was written in 1880 by young Donald Sutherland, a bank teller in Oxley in regional Victoria, to his parents back home in Caithness, Scotland.   On hearing of the news of the siege at Glenrowan he had travelled there, along with nearly everyone else in the vicinity, to rubberneck at this leader of the Kelly Gang who had terrorized the countryside for so long.  And there he saw him laid out wounded on a stretcher, his head cradled by Kate Kelly,  surrounded by his keening sisters.

Ned does not at all look like a murderer and bushranger- he is a very powerful man, aged about 27, black hair and beard with a soft mild looking face and eyes- his mouth being the only wicked portion of the face.

The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were lying covered by a sheet.  The bystanders were frightened to look at them, but not so young Donald:

Thousands of people thronged to Glenrowan on receipt of the news and not one of the crowd there had the courage to lift the white sheet off the charred remains until I came up and struck a match- it being dark- pulling down the sheet and exposed all that remained of the two daring & murderous Bushrangers.

They “presented a horrible appearance being roasted to a skeleton” being “[b]lack and grim reminding me of old Knick himself”.

I must admit that the letter, to my completely inexpert eye and limited knowledge, seems almost too good to be true.  In his reaction to the letter in October 2013, as reported on the ABC website, McDermott himself expresses similar sentiments, while still marvelling at the letter and the unique perspective it gives:

“To take the siege of Glenrowan, one of the most scrutinised events in Australian history, one of the most researched events in Australian history and then have someone sort of tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Oh by the way, there is another account no-one knew about it, it just came up,’ it’s a gem,” he said.

“What we have here is an everyday bank teller from Oxley, a little town near Glenrowan, and he’s not on the side of the Kellys, and he’s not on the side of the police.

“[Sutherland is] able to give an account of how Kelly’s demeanour was, the sort of man he seemed to be.

Is it too good to be true? Admittedly, Sutherland enclosed newspaper reports in the letter to his parents which gave much of the factual background to the Kelly events, so he was left free to give his own eyewitness account as an adjunct to these reports.  Further, it is true that he is making the point that Kelly’s actual appearance did not reconcile with the images and rumours that were sweeping Victoria.  But to have a physical description like this, with such a novelistic eye, still surprises me.  Perhaps it’s jealousy that I’ve found no physical description at all of my own Judge, but from reading many letters of the time, I have found that people rarely commented on what people looked like.  In memoirs, years after events, yes- but not in letters.  I hope that the letter is authentic: surely research would have been undertaken into its provenance.  But, as the recent challenge to the authorship of the diary-formerly-known-as-the-Lazarus-Diary shows, things are not always what they seem.

You’ve probably seen Alex McDermott on recent television documentaries (e.g. SBS’ Immigration Nation)  He’s young (well, anyone under 50 is young as far as I’m concerned), extremely photogenic, articulate and interesting.  He’s been working on Ned Kelly for some years (for example, he wrote the introduction to the recent release of the Jerilderie Letter)  and questions the Irish Hero status that has been awarded him.  He sees Victorian society during the 1880s as still fluid and not marked by  entrenched divisions between rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, Irish English or Scots.  As he says in the Age article:

To my mind, Kelly’s rebellion was fuelled by his extensive involvement in organised crime- namely, wholesale and retail horse stealing, which flourished in the region, especially in the circle of country that surrounded the Kelly homestead.  This crime wasn’t, as Kelly himself maintained, the result of a land war between poor men and rich squatters, it actually preyed on the smaller selector farmers as much as the big pastoralists.

In taking this stance, McDermott has been pitted against the doyen of Kelly Studies, Ian Jones, who takes the opposite view.  The final part of McDermott’s Age article reflects  on the relationship between historians who circle each other on contested ground.  They were thrown together during the filming of Tony Robinson’s 2008 Time Team- inspired documentary on the Glenrowan siege site.

He was the established lion of the field and I was the revisionist young Turk (in Tony’s excited narrative), who argued against some of the basic premises of Jones’ interpretation, which are also the popularly held ones- Kelly was victimised for being a poor Irish Catholic and suffered persecution from unreasoning tyrannical police bullies and an entrenched ethnic, economic and establishment elite.

On the first day of the shoot, Robinson told me how remarkable he considered the decency with which Jones was treating me.  Television is a dog-eat-pipsqueak world, as much as history wars.  He’d seen plenty of other established authorities dealing with revisionist young contenders on other programs he’d done, and assured me it wasn’t pretty. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are to be treated so kindly?” the amateur historian and actor asked me bluntly.

He then goes on to describe their interaction on the set of the documentary; staying the night in Beechworth with him; driving around Kelly sites  introducing him to amazed and rather derisive acquaintances.  It’s a  heartwarming story in a world of snarky Amazon reviews and vituperative partisan websites.

‘A Spy in the Archives’ by Sheila Fitzpatrick


2013,  345 p.

I have been the first person in my immediate family to go to university, although several of my cousins did as well.  I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to grow up as the child of academics and intellectuals. Part of my fascination with this book was reading about the child of historians becoming a historian herself.  Sheila Fitzpatrick’s father was the left-wing historian and public intellectual Brian Fitzpatrick and her mother Dorothy Fitzpatrick taught history at Monash University.

This book is the second memoir written by Sheila Fitzpatrick, noted Soviet Historian, and now Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney after a long academic career overseas. Her first memoir was called My Father’s Daughter  which, from the title,  I assume explores the generational issue further.

In this second memoir we are taken on the first steps of the author’s academic journey as she travels first to Oxford University to undertake her doctorate in Russian history. Her dissertation topic was Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunarcharsky, the Russian author and politician who was appointed Commissar of Enlightenment between 1917 and 1929.  Her thesis was titled ‘Lunarcharsky as Philosopher  and Administrator of the Arts’ and it ended up being published by Cambridge University Press as The Commissar of Enlightenment in 1970.  It was the stepping stone to Fitzpatrick’s eminent career as a historian of Russia.

It was not surprising that a daughter of Brian Fitzpatrick would be attracted to such a topic, but she claims that “Becoming a Soviet historian wasn’t a foregone conclusion, even with a left-wing father and a bit of Russian” and that from the age of about 13 she had become “less of a true believer in my father’s causes than earlier” (p.7).  Fitzpatrick’s father had died by the time she embarked on her academic career, and yet one senses that she continued to have an intellectual argument with him in her head at least.  The book is not so much a ‘ coming-of-age ‘story , as a story of  ‘coming-as-historian’ as she finds her own mentors and develops her own confident intellectual stance as a historian.

In the 1960s it was common for first class honours students in history to undertake their doctorates overseas, and so she trod a well-worn path. She was not terribly impressed with St Anthony’s College at Oxford and the supervision she received there.  In 1966 she applied for a British Council exchange scholarship to enable her to live in Moscow and to use the archives there for her research. Her application was refused initially but eventually received after she embarked on a rather utilitarian marriage to a fellow British student.  As part of the preparation for her stay in Moscow, she and her cohort of fellow researchers were warned against spies- indeed, against friendships with Russian people, full stop.  Like her fellow students  she ignored this advice, and this book describes her friendship with Igor, a middle-age friend of the now-dead Lunarcharsky, and Irini, Lunarcharsky’s daughter,  that developed as she delved deeper into her research.

This book emerged from a long article that she wrote in the London Review of Books, and you can get the flavour and much of the content from reading this article alone (which is often the case with LRB articles).  In fact, it’s such a detailed article that you barely need to read the book!  I must admit that, with little knowledge of post-revolutionary and Cold War Russia (or at least, I’ve forgotten what I ever did know), I found the content aspects of this article easier to follow than the book.  But it’s well worth going to the book itself because her research is only one facet of her story: it’s also about friendships, authenticity, insecurity in a clandestine world, and history-writing.

She writes of the joy that all historians feel when working in archives, but to her, working in the Soviet archives was particularly pleasurable- in fact, she pitied those British historians who would roll up to the PRO, ask for a file, and have it handed over instantly.  In Moscow, not only was there the challenge of even getting access to the archive,  but once admitted, there were strict limits on what was made available because the thesis topic is treated like a straitjacket.  There’s no chasing off down rabbit holes and false leads and serendipitous rainbows here: if a file was not directly related to the topic as you first conceptualized it, then you couldn’t see it.  Foreign researchers were not given access to catalogues,  so there was no way of knowing what to ask for.  Contact between foreign researchers and  their Russian counterparts was strictly forbidden, and the archivists held enormous power over what you could see and what you could not.  It all became a bit of cat-and-mouse, albeit playing with a cat with sharp eyes and sharp claws that you could not always assume would remain sheathed.

However, one aspect in the book that does not come through in her article is the process of the historian writing a memoir.  She mentions at one stage that one of her husbands had returned the letters she had written to him, in order for her to write this memoir.  She uses the correspondence between her mother and herself as well, triangulating it against the diary that she wrote at the time.  She often says that she cannot remember certain events that are documented, and is often nonplussed to explain things that she had written at the time.  As a result, it is a careful memoir that has a sense of distance between the writer and what she remembers  (or does not remember)  about the events she experienced.

And was she a spy?  In the end the Soviets thought so and clumsily ‘outed’ her, and she herself is not completely sure. She certainly was not an MI6-type spy but, as she admits, it would have been plausible for her to have turned out to be one after all:

Was I, in some sense, a spy? If the Soviets couldn’t make up their minds, it’s not surprising that I had trouble.  I can certainly recognize some spy-like characteristics in myself, starting with my intention to find out everything about Soviet history, including the things that the Soviets wanted to keep hidden.  If a spy is a chameleon who can speak two languages and doesn’t know what his ultimate allegiance is, that partly fits. (p. 342)

I enjoyed this book, and the undercurrent of Cold War tension that runs underneath it. I liked the reflexivity of her writing and the caution with which she treats the memoir genre.  I wish that I knew more about Russia, because I did find the details of her research rather overwhelming at times but not so much that I was ever tempted to give up.  I resisted the temptation to Google, trusting her to take me on the journey, and she did not let me down.

awwbadge_2013I’m posting this to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Memoir/Biography section- and, for this book at least, it fits all three categories!

‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’ Yvonne M. Ward


2013,  173 p.

We’re told that it’s all about controlling the narrative.  Politicians all do it, it seems; and we risk losing control of our narrative by putting too much of our lives onto the internet, we’re told.  All this might seem far removed from good old Queen Victoria, but on reading Unsuitable for Publication, I’ve realized that it isn’t.  Then and now, it’s all about image creation and the interplay between the image we think we have constructed and the image that others might massage or manipulate from our words.

Queen Victoria was a huge correspondent.  She wrote 122 volumes of her diaries over her long life and she maintained a large correspondence with her family  members so widely dispersed amongst the royal families of Europe, as well as a vast network of communication amongst politicians, and other notables. It has been estimated that she wrote an average of 2500 words each day of her adult life, and perhaps sixty million words in the course of her reign (p.9).  What to do with all this writing?  Her daughter Princess Beatrice thought that she knew.  Queen Victoria had appointed her as her literary executor, and after her mother’s death and over 30 years she copied the entries of the 122 diary volumes into 111 thick exercise-books, altering and censoring anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’, then burnt the originals.  Interestingly, Victoria herself had published extracts from her own journals while she was on the throne, so she wasn’t beyond a bit of image-creation herself. Continue reading

“In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography” by Inga Clendinnen


2004, 33p.

Sometimes you read the transcript of a paper given to a conference or seminar some time ago and wish with all your heart that you could be there to witness it, not so much for the paper itself (which, after all, you have a copy of) but to sense the response to it at the time.  That’s the way I felt reading Inga Clendinnen’s inaugural Allan Martin Lecture, delivered at ANU on 4 May 2004.  The title of her paper was “In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography”.

Inga Clendinnen knew Alan Martin from his decade at La Trobe University as Foundation Chair of the School of History, when he appointed her to a tenured lectureship at La Trobe  to join the 33 other historians he hired within three years to establish the department.  In this paper she speaks of him as administrator and mentor as head of school, but also as an academic and writer – and this is where I wonder if the audience started to lean in and listen a little more closely.

Allan Martin conducted an honours course in biography, and staff members were welcome to attend.  Clendinnen did, and she characterized it in 2004 as “probably the most sustained intellectual adventure of my rather long life”.  She attended every class over two years where they discussed the psychological theorizing then being pioneered by Gregory Bateson and Gordon Allport, and they worked on real documents, sequences of letters and confessional writings.  Martin was working at the time on his biography of Henry Parkes, the colonial politician, and when the class was ready, he gave the class some of his toughest Parkes material.  

Then some years later Martin’s work, Henry Parkes came out.

In the preface to ‘Parkes’ Allan made a remarkable apology.  He apologized to his biography class for something not there: the matter discussed in those enthralling sessions.  He acknowledged that he had initially planned ‘to explore Parkes’s life history under other categories’, to expose ‘those intersecting patterns of experience, personality and circumstance which mould a man’s response to the contingent and hence lie under the existential surface.’  Instead he had chosen to adopt ‘a rigid chronological framework’ (which was, he granted, ‘in some ways an intellectual and artistic defeat’) because it was the political Parkes he was determined to pursue- although, he said, he would also ‘try to tell the story of the man’s personal life as far as the documents would permit it to be glimpsed’- as if the story were there, as if ‘the documents’ spoke in a simple tongue- as well as ‘Parkes’ successes and failures in mastering his political environment.’ (Parkes, xi) Clendinnen, p. 13-14)

She was disappointed and she told him so.

On that first reading, I thought that any unusually good and judicious historian could have written A. W. Martin’s ‘Henry Parkes’.  Where was the brilliant essay into the art of biography I had been expecting? To me it was seeing a bright sword sheathed.  True, you could look up every light-footed political manoeuvre, every tricky little factional dance, and it would be there.  But where was the grappling with Parkes’s beguiling personal complexities?… A. W. Martin says in this foreword, ‘because one person cannot attempt everything’, and that’s true.  But only Allan Martin could have unraveled this strange, secret, public man.  He also claims to have been ‘defeated by structuring problems’, and that I simply don’t believe.  Allan had preternatural literary skills.  He could make his prose do anything he wanted, while his mind was as sensitive, as penetrating, as intrepid as any I have encountered.  So why did he choose to step back- and for him, truly, it was a step back (why else the apology?)- to pursue a conventional public-political biographical model?  Why didn’t he write the international state-of-the-art biography of which he was capable?  ( Clendinnen p. 15)

She suggests three reasons.  The first was Martin’s criterion of ‘good’ history:  that you could look something up, it would be there; and it would be right.  I was reminded of the writer’s ethical statement that Tony Birch talked about at the Past Matters festival at Montsalvat, and I wonder, as I suspect Clendinnen did, whether Martin’s own ethical statement served him, and his writing, well.  Historians hold facts in different degrees of reverence: military historians in particular have a grasp on detail and dates that I could never master (and to be honest, I don’t really know if I would want to) and my own certainty on dates in my own work is often slippery and vague.  Yet I veer between annoyance and exultation when I find a mistake in work that I’m familiar with- the academic ‘gotya’ moment. But it’s a hollow and rather demeaning victory: often the error relates to such minutiae that it is  ultimately irrelevant to a bigger picture.

A second reason, she suspects, was Martin’s own Calvinistic mistrust of his own talents, that he would have classified as self-indulgent; and finally, she concedes there was the inadequacy of biographical models that were available at the time- most particularly Jerome Bruner’s idea of self-narration, encapsulated in his book Making Stories: Law, Literature and Life (I reviewed it here) , – which emerged in the years after Henry Parkes was published.

Yet Martin did not immure himself completely in his strictures for ‘good’, fact-based, accurate history.  In an article published in Historical Studies in 1974, Martin tiptoed towards an exploration of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’- a phrase used by Henry Parkes himself, and apostrophized in Martin’s article title (‘Henry Parkes: in Search of the “Actual Man Underneath”, Historical Studies, vol 16, No 63, 216-234.)  After drawing on a myriad of sources to describe in some detail a period of years where Parkes’ political career seemed finished, Martin inched towards the approach that Clendinnen looked for, but did not find, in the book.  It’s there, right in the last paragraph, dangling tantalizingly at the end:

…one needs also to observe in the documents we have discussed the manifold hints that a life might fruitfully be conceived in more dynamic terms- from the inside a range of self-identifications held in fragile tension, personality a process rather than the unfolding of a given core of self-hood, and action the fruit of a traffic between circumstance and these unseen worlds.  It may be that such a perspective could melt the discrepancies between actor and man underneath, to merge the two and reveal in the individual’s struggle for their reconciliation the sources and character of motivation- and hence, for the outside observer, important keys to explanation. (Martin, 1974, p. 234)

Clendinnen rues that Martin came so close to the ideas that Jerome Bruner later articulated, but that he chose instead to work within the existing frames for political biography.  She admits, too, her doubts that even if Martin had had  Bruner’s ideas available to him, his choice of biographical model was deliberate:

So… at the end, despite contingencies of the availability of particular theories, the time of writing and so on, I have come to think Allan’s biographical model was fully deliberate: that it mirrored his moral temperament- as it had to.  Writing being the solitary business it is- sitting alone, making the dozens and hundreds of tiny choices of emphasis and selection we must make- I doubt if we could effect an enduring divorce from ourselves even if we tried.  That mass of barely-conscious choices figures forth the most intimate processes of our thinking. (Clendinnen, p. 23)

I very much enjoyed reading this small booklet and its exploration of the book not written.  It’s made me think a great deal about my own writing and the relationship between an academic’s personality and the type of history they write, and the ethical tenets she holds.  And gee, I wish I could have been there for the response that followed when Inga Clendinnen stopped talking and sat down.