Biography

Members of the general public are likely to recognise the names of some of the pioneering female aviators. There is of course Amelia Earhart, the American who became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Here in Australia, many would recognise the name Nancy Bird Walton, who is known for gaining her pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen, as well as for helping to establish a flying medical service in regional New South Wales. But what of the Australian female aviator who is the subject of James Vicars’s début, Beyond the Sky: The passions of Millicent Bryant, aviator? Millicent Bryant (1878–1927) has largely passed into obscurity, but in her day she was a sensation. Vicars would like his great-grandmother to become once again a household name, celebrated for her achievement as the first woman in Australia – indeed, the first in the Commonwealth outside Britain – to gain a pilot’s licence.

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The first statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97), a swirling tower of forms coalescing into a single naked figure at its apex by British artist Maggi Hambling, was unveiled in London last year. Responding to accusations that the statue was ‘mad’ and ‘insulting’, Hambling defended it as ‘not a conventional heroic or heroinic likeness’ but ‘a sculpture about it now’. Against such dehistoricisation, Sylvana Tomaselli’s intellectual biography of the late eighteenth-century philosopher seeks to recover the historical Wollstonecraft. Tomaselli, the Sir Harry Hinsley Lecturer in History at St John’s College, Cambridge, has been writing on women in the late eighteenth century since the mid-1980s.


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Vera Deakin was Alfred and Pattie Deakin’s third and youngest daughter. Born on Christmas Day 1891 as Melbourne slid into depression, she grew up in a political household, well aware of her father’s dedication to the service of the Australian nation, not only in the Federation movement but later as attorney-general and three times as prime minister.

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Sylvia Pankhurst was unquestionably the most interesting of the Pankhurst women and the only one who continues to be thought of with admiration and respect. Her life certainly deserves to be known. A talented painter, she gave up the possibility of an artist’s life for one as an activist, not only as a suffragette, but also in the labour movement and for a time as a communist, an anti-fascist, and an anti-imperialist fighting for independence for Ethiopia, where she lived for her last five years (she died in 1960 aged seventy-eight).

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On 8 November 2015, a year after his death, a celebration was held for Mike Nichols in the IAC building in New York. The audience included the likes of Anna Wintour, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Meryl Streep. Seventy-six years earlier, less than a mile away, seven-year-old Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky walked down the SS Bremen’s gangplank into America and a new life. The transformation of the angry, bewildered immigrant Peschkowski into the outwardly charming, debonair, outrageously talented Nichols is at the heart of Mark Harris’s comprehensive, compulsively entertaining biography.

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Grimmish by Michael Winkler

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April 2021, no. 430

Have you ever noticed how boxing matches invariably deflate into two breathless people hugging each other? In pugilistic parlance, this is called a clinch. It is a defensive tactic, a way for fighters besieged by their opponent’s assault to create a pause and regain their equilibrium. And while it is beyond cliché for books to be hailed as knockouts or haymakers or other emptied expressions of victory, Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the best literary clinch you’ll ever read. It is the honest account of a writer overmatched by his subject matter and left clinging on for dear life.

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Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.

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Sir Ninian Stephen: A tribute edited by Timothy L.K. McCormack and Cheryl Saunders

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April 2007, no. 290

The plans for this book were announced at the time of Ninian Stephen’s eightieth birthday, almost four years ago. Each of the ten contributors focuses on one of his public roles in the last thirty-five years – five of them in Australia, and five on the international stage. The last of the Australian positions, ambassador for the environment, is a bridge between the two. Kenneth Keith’s chapter finds another bridge: in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), on Stephen’s last day as a High Court judge, his judgment decisively transformed the issue of racial discrimination in Queensland by recognising its international potency.

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The subtitle of Janet Malcolm’s new book (published in Australia by Melbourne University Press) is Gertrude and Alice. Few names of literary couples can be so confidently trimmed. Scott and Zelda, Ted and Sylvia, George and Martha … all those happy couples. Gertrude and Alice has been used before, as the main title of Diana Souyhami’s joint study (1991), and will doubtless be used again. Their fame is an achieved and bankable thing, notwithstanding the fact that Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) – whose books included Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans (1925) and the wonderfully titled A Long Gay Book (1932) – remains perhaps the least read of the modernists.

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Soldier. Draftsman. Massacre survivor. Prisoner of war. Veteran. Son. Brother. Uncle. RSL Secretary. Indigenous Man. Activist. Black Scotsman. Celebrity. These are just some of the words used to describe Douglas Grant, an individual who embodied the contradictions of assimilation and the challenges facing Aboriginal people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Famous during his lifetime, Grant’s reputation has faded since the 1950s but in recent years has attracted the attention of Indigenous Australians and historians of World War I.

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