Brenda Niall

Just over one hundred years ago, Sydney readers were speaking in hushed tones about a shocking new book by a young woman, Zora Cross. A collection of love poems by an unknown would not normally have roused much interest, but because they came from a woman, and were frankly and emphatically erotic, the book was a sensation. It wasn’t, as a Bulletin reviewer said demurely, a set of sonnets to the beloved’s eyebrows. It was ‘well, all of him’. It broke the literary convention that restricted the expression of sexual pleasure to a male lover. Cross took Shakespeare’s sonnets as her inspiration. Her Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a long way from being Shakespearean, but it roused huge admiration. Cross was hailed as a genius, ‘an Australian Sappho’.

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Unlike an autobiography, which tends to be time-bound and inclusive, the memoir can wander at will in the writer’s past, searching out and shaping an idea of self. Although Geoffrey Blainey’s memoir, Before I Forget, is restricted to the first forty years of his life, its skilfully chosen episodes suggest much more ...

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From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence ... ... (read more)

Biography can be difficult to achieve. There is the balance between too much detail, where one can’t see the wood for the family trees, or not enough, which can be disappointing all round. One also bears in mind possible antipathy: Sigmund Freud, who famously began burning his personal papers at twenty-nine, was dismissive of future chroniclers: ‘As for biographers, I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray.’

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Brenda Niall reviews 'The Great Fire' by Shirley Hazzard

Brenda Niall
Tuesday, 05 March 2019

London seen through a haze of smoke and fire in J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, is the evocative cover image for Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited novel. The Great Fire comes twenty-three years after Hazzard’s brilliantly composed, witty, and ultimately tragic work ...

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Brenda Niall reviews 'March' by Geraldine Brooks

Brenda Niall
Tuesday, 05 March 2019

Spacious and solidly constructed, the classic nineteenth-century novel invites revisiting. Later writers reconfigure its well-known spaces, change the lighting, summon marginal figures to the centre. Most memorable, perhaps, is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which the first Mrs Rochester ...

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Brenda Niall reviews 'Upstate' by James Wood

Brenda Niall
Thursday, 25 October 2018

Forget the author – it’s the book that matters. That’s sound advice, but there are times when it is hard to follow. James Wood’s Upstate is a testing case. A quietly reflective little novel, elegantly written, with four main characters and a minimal plot, Upstate doesn’t look like a literary time bomb ...

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Drive along College Crescent, the circular avenue that forms Melbourne University’s northern order, and you will see the series of sedate, handsome university colleges that line the edge: Newman, Queen’s, Ormond, Trinity, plus the newer women’s colleges of St Mary’s, St Hilda’s, and Janet Clarke Hall. The impression today of quiet élitism and learning may be just, but the weathered stone has seen some turbulent times.

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When Vance Palmer met Nettie Higgins in the summer of 1909 in the sedate setting of the State Library of Victoria, they were both twenty-three years old. Yet even to speak to one another was a breach of convention; they had not been introduced, and Nettie at least felt quite daring ...

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‘Write about what you don’t know,’ British novelist Rose Tremain advised young authors. That has been her own strategy during a long and star-studded career. It is quite a stretch from the court of England’s Charles II in Restoration (1989), or that of Christian IV of Denmark in ...

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