Biography and Memoirs

Xavier Herbert by Laurie Clancy

by
May 1982, no. 40

Xavier Herbert is probably the most enigmatic of Australian writers, but there is nothing enigmatic about Laurie Clancy’s treatment of the man and his works in Twayne’s World Authors Series. This is the best assessment of Herbert since Vincent Buckley’s article ‘Capricornia’ (Meanjin, 19, 1960) forced critics to take Herbert seriously as a writer of stature and an experimentalist with the form of the novel, and since Harry Heseltine’s Xavier Herbert (OUP, 1973) drew attention to what Heseltine saw as the ‘deep motive’ of Herbert’s writing in the works that preceded Poor Fellow My Country.

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Exiles at Home is a fascinating work by a feminist of the 1970s about a group of anti-fascist feminists of the 1920s and 1930s. From it we learn as much about the world view of the author as we do about the politics of its subjects. A serious book, about serious writers, it examines novels for their historical rather than for their literary interest. It offers no real criticism of writing styles, and no comparison with modem feminist authors. Nor is it a book to be read in the hope of rediscovering almost forgotten characters from our literary past.

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The best things about this book are the paintings, the photographs, and the paper. The worst thing is the prose. But does this matter, you may well ask, in a book obviously designed to travel rapidly from the coffee table to the wall – with its large size format and convenient disintegration at first read? It’s the pictures we want, not the prose.

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Verna Coleman’s biography of Miles Franklin is extremely valuable but somewhat flawed. Those parts of Franklin’s life that are germane to the mateship tradition and the development of a nationalist Australian literature have been widely canvassed – although they take in only her precocious youth and mellow old age. The crucial decades between 1906 and 1927 are an almost total blank, even though they include the writing of her most important journalism and all but one of the novels on which her reputation rests. (Marjorie Barnard scarcely even tried to fill that blank with her 1967 biography.) Ms Coleman has restored those lost years and we must all thank her.

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In this, her fourth autobiographical volume, Naomi Mitchison takes on a difficult task – that of making travellers’ tales interesting. Her first three autobiographies dealt with childhood, youth, the between-war years. She demonstrated great literary skills in selective recall and in creating the wholly misleading impression that this was an artless narrative. In fact she gave us a brilliant account of the lives of a section of the British upper bourgeoisie, and the moving and honest story of her own growth into political radicalism.

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Following her husband’s excellent autobiography of his early years, Mucking About (1977), Alexandra Hasluck’s own life story has been eagerly awaited. And it has been worth the wait. Portrait in a Mirror is one of only a handful of good autobiographies by Australian public figures. Its 322 pages are full of colour, with some excellent passages of prose, particularly her warm, evocative descriptions of the Australian countryside. Hers is essentially a feminine, empathetic view of the world.

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In the Australian administrative tradition, Dr H.C. Coombs is a remarkable survivor, a maximalist and an innovator, not least in his· preparedness to write in public. The key figure in the Post-War Reconstruction brains trust which flourished under Curtin, Chifley and Dedman in the 1940s, he became Governor of the Commonwealth and then the Reserve Bank for twenty years and then entered a new creative phase in the post-Menzies and the Whitlam years.

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