A carping review
Frances Wilson is an esteemed biographer, so I looked forward to her review of Brigitta Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: A writing life in ABR (March 2023).
I was puzzled therefore to read this sour-toned review. Frances Wilson clearly dislikes Shirley Hazzard. That’s fine, but it’s a personal animus that spoils a review of this important first biography of a major Australian novelist. Wilson quotes a critic’s view of The Great Fire (2004) as ‘the masterpiece of a vanished age of civility’, but then adds the back-handed compliment, ‘which might be said of Hazzard herself’ – suggesting that Hazzard’s work has nothing to say to modern readers. She might be describing a notable but ugly piece of furniture, regretfully inherited.
The review continues in this carping strain, with a catalogue of complaints about Hazzard’s personality. Wilson notes Hazzard’s simple mistake about the title of her first New Yorker story – this prompts an accusation of ‘self-mythologising’. She disapproves of Hazzard’s double crime of marrying an older man who, moreover, is independently wealthy. (Never mind that Francis Steegmuller was a renowned biographer and scholar who twice won the National Book Award in the United States.) ‘Was the marriage a success? On one level, yes, but there were no children,’ Wilson tut-tuts.
Wilson then chides Hazzard for ‘the dreariness of name-dropping’ in her diaries, though these were private documents to record meetings, not intended for public viewing. In later life, Wilson cattily observes, Hazzard ‘disappears into her Missoni jackets and Ferragamo shoes’ (another ‘crime’, apparently). The relevance of this to Hazzard’s art eludes me.
Frances Wilson’s review does a disservice to both Shirley Hazzard and Brigitta Olubas.
Paul Morgan, South Yarra, Vic.
Frances Wilson replies:
Paul Morgan is ‘puzzled’ by my ‘sour tone’, and I am puzzled by his misreading of my review. I don’t ‘dislike’ Shirley Hazzard in the slightest; I think she was a remarkable novelist. Describing her as ‘the masterpiece of a vanished age of civility’ doesn’t in the least imply that Hazzard has nothing to say to modern readers, any more than to apply the same term to Henry James would suggest that he is now irrelevant. I can’t think how Morgan finds in that phrase the suggestion that Hazzard is an ‘ugly piece of furniture, regretfully inherited’.
Were Morgan to read Olubas’s judicious and ground-breaking biography, he would see that she does not make ‘a simple mistake’ about the title of Hazzard’s first published story in the New Yorker; it is Olubas, not Wilson, who reveals that the story was in fact ‘Woollahra Road’ rather than ‘Harold’, and Olubas who is interested in the process of Hazzard’s ‘self-mythologising’.
I don’t disapprove in the slightest of Hazzard’s marrying an older man who was also wealthy – why on earth would I? How can Morgan possibly hear a ‘tut-tut’ in the question – again, posed by Olubas – of whether the marriage, in which Hazzard frequently described herself as unhappy, was altogether a success?
As for the lists of famous names in her diaries and her designer wardrobe, Hazzard’s polished persona as a figurehead of literary high-life is fundamental to Brigitta Olubas’s study.