A Biographer Reflects

Two Book Reviews by Frances Devlin-Glass and Frank O’Shea

Brenda Niall: My Accidental Career, Text Publishing, Melbourne

ISBN: 9781922458148

RRP: $35

Brenda Niall came late to her métier, literary and historical biographies, and she has become an acknowledged doyenne of them, producing among other biographies, one on Martin Boyd and another on the creative Boyd families, others on Georgiana McCrae, Judy Cassab. Those that are more intensively focussed on Irish Australia include MannixThe Riddle of Father Hackett and Friends and Rivals. In addition, she and her sister Frances O’Neill and Josephine Dunin produced an institutional history of Newman College.

The offspring of a full suite of 8 Irish great grandparents, Brenda Niall grew up in a cosily inwardly-focused Catholic world, until and beyond her university training. This was not unusual in her era. Although the Irish did not settle in ghettoes in Australia, they were inclined to be separatist in the name of ‘keeping the faith’. In this book, Catholicism seems to be more a way of life and a social circle than a religious practice.

My Accidental Career is a career-driven memoir told in a self-deprecating and modest manner, but nonetheless in a way that is quietly assertive about what it was to be working in a male-dominated profession in academia as a writer, first on Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce, and later of ambitious biographies. Brenda Niall is aware that her chosen field, sitting somewhere between the stock-standard disciplines of English Literature and History, is an unusual one and that the roads to it are not clearly signposted, so there’s a certain beguiling fascination in finding out how one falls into such a career ‘accidentally’. The telling of this trajectory is modest and mildly self-critical: 

I didn’t have the sense of struggling in a man’s world that younger women rightly felt. Somehow, in what I persist in seeing as a series of accidents in which timing played a big part, I found two satisfying careers. My Accidental Career is the story of a 1950s consciousness gradually waking up to a new world in which opportunity and equality were within a woman’s reach. And that I wanted them. (p.2)

This is a story that resonated for me growing up and observing my mother’s struggle in rising in a couple of different careers. I was much angrier on her behalf about women’s disadvantage than she was, but she had mapped and shown the way with a quiet dignity and resolve, and maybe I inherited some of her suppressed anger or was lucky to belong to a later era when expressing that anger was was more legitimate. Certainly, Niall is aware of the anger of that later second-wave generation, but her tenor is always measured and moderate.

Her account of being a schoolgirl at Genazzano, a school for breeding ladies rather than workers, where ‘there were more prizes for being good than for being clever’ is quizzical and often funny. She writes affectionately about the nuns’ kindness to her (she was an asthmatic and accorded many privileges because of it), but their ‘not doing brilliant’ failed to quell the ambition in this young woman.

The account of her first visit to Ireland to locate a missing great grandmother Niall (née Doyle) and solve some mysteries of ancestors is told with gentle humour. Arriving in Limerick in 1958 without luggage and ill with a heavy cold, she confides to her diary laconically, ‘[this] is a very easy country to collapse into’. The maid is keen for her to avail herself of a ‘hot jar’ and produces ‘Mrs Kylie’s bread [that] never sits on your chest’. Niall is a sharp observer and is amused that the big news in the papers is of the progress of the illnesses of Cardinal Stepinac and Archbishop O’Hara, and of an Australian visitor stung by a bee eating honeycomb. Indeed, illness brings a retinue of sympathisers to her sickbed. All of them, including other housemaids at the hotel, are keen to help her find her relatives. Niall wryly observes that

[y]ou don’t have to make much effort to get a social life in this country. Stay in bed and it comes to you. Mary has been out and about exploring the city. She brought me a thermometer that had a personal guarantee from the pharmacist; he popped it into his own mouth to make sure it was working….Soon after Father Finnegan and the chaperone departed I had a formal call from Dr Devane’s wife, who stayed exactly half an hour. Very dignified, she looks like Dame Sybil Thorndike, in good old tweeds and sensible woollen stockings. She brought a large bunch of flowers at which I exclaimed: ‘Oh, what lovely daffodils’. They turned out to be narcissi. Mrs Devane was a bit shocked but probably concluded that we don’t have flowers in Australia.

(p.74)

The sense of this visitor as unwonted excitement in Limerick town is inescapable.

She’s a more diligent and careful historian than her cousin, Mrs Lilla Ward (first names take a few days to arrive at), into whose organising hands she fell. Extremely anxious to please, and a social mover and shaker, Lilla organises visits to the FCJ convent (the order of nuns known as the Faithful Companions of Jesus who had educated her at Genazzano), a local priest, and random O’Neills sourced from the phone book, and earnestly promises to unearth letters and relics of Doyles and Nialls. The sense is of being overtaken by a cyclonic force of nature with more enthusiasm than insight is strong. Her induction into the family is a crash course in c19 Irish history: from the Young Irelander’s rebellion to the Civil War, with family stories and uncharitable character sketches superadded to enliven the telling. I felt I’d been dropped into a unique and recognisable cultural milieu. One sees in these diary sketches the germ of the big biography she would research and write decades later:

‘So, you’re the lady from Melbourne,’ [Christy the postman] said. ‘That’s grand. And how is Himself?’ ‘Who?’, ‘The Cardinal. Cardinal Mannix. Our man in Melbourne. They all ask about Mannix and they all think he’s a cardinal. More than thirty years on, everyone remembers the stories. They get it slightly wrong but they know who did what in 1925. They – The British – took Mannix off his ship near the coast of Cork and wouldn’t let him land to see his dying mother. I have given up spoiling the story by saying that Mrs Mannix wasn’t dying, but of course, it’s true that he never saw her again. 

It’s a great country for stories and Mannix is a hero here in ways that would surprise him.

(pp.79-80)

In telling the story of her gradual turn from literary studies to writing biographies, Brenda Niall encompasses much fascinating social history, which because one has lived it, is not likely to have quite the same revolutionary feel that she is able to impose on it.  For instance, she talks of a gentlemanly era in Australian universities in the 1950s and before the advent of mass tertiary education: of gentle mentors who took students under their wing and created opportunities for them, of sherry parties in staffrooms, of small tutorials in offices. This system of patronage did not work so well in the generation of mass Ph.D’s that I experienced in the late ’60s (I’m referring to a cohort of about 10 in Literary Studies at ANU). I vaguely remember something similar occurring as a student at the University of Queensland but the changes were in full flight very early in my career when universities enrolled large numbers of undergraduates and became corporatised from the early ’70s.

If you love reading biographies, this book will be particularly enlightening about the process of writing them, and in particular of writing collective biographies, like that of the Boyd or Friends and Rivalswhich examined the linkages that existed between four literary women in the first half of the twentieth century. She uncovers how she found ways to structure very large quantities of material into elegant articulated works and outlines the effort taken to find the unique singular shape for each of the big biographical works. Interestingly, many of these have been written since she retired, rather than while teaching at Monash.

I can recommend this memoir. Although it’s personal and reflective, the gaze is, as I hope I’ve suggested, modestly outwards and on other lives she finds endlessly amusing and, lives demanding to be better understood.

Review by Frank O’Shea

‘Biographies depend for sales on the subject’s name, not the biographer’s’, Brenda Niall writes, near the end of this book. When the biographer is also the subject, it is not clear how that little aphorism applies, but perhaps it is saved by referring to the sales rather than the merit of the work. How the market will treat this work is for the accountants to decide, but readers familiar with the author will have no doubt about the merit.

I met Brenda Niall on one occasion, at the 2009 launch in Canberra of her wonderful book The Riddle of Father Hackett. The subject of that book was a friend of Erskine Childers, so Irish readers quickly noted the connection with that man’s famous Riddle of the Sands. The second of Niall’s long list of books, published more than 40 years ago, bore the title Seven Little Billabongs, a nod to Seven Little Australians. So it is not surprising to find the title here is an obvious take on the 1901 Miles Franklin classic My Brilliant Career. While the adjective in that title and this is tongue-in-cheek, each in its own way describes well the book it banners. 

Niall was born in 1930, growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Kew – Irish readers, think Ballsbridge or Ballincollig. Because she suffered from asthma as a child, her doctor father was able to keep her out of hospital by treating her at home with carefully monitored adrenaline injections, the only remedy available at that  time. She lost a complete year of school, but that did not seem to affect her academic progress. She had scholarships to Melbourne University, where her final year was seriously disrupted by the sickness and then the death of her father.

This was a time when a young woman’s role was to get married and have children. She was engaged at the age of 27, but broke it off. In her thirties, she formed a long-term and mostly long-distance relationship with the medievalist Grahame Johnston; they would almost certainly have married, except that he was divorced and both were committed Catholics who hoped for Vatican 11 changes that never came. As she was nearing 60, another man, not named in the book, proposed marriage, but she turned him down.

Her first job was as a kind of vade mecum for Bob Santamaria. The book describes her slow return to academic life, first at Melbourne University and then at the newly opened Monash. Despite short periods at the ANU in Canberra, at Ann Arbor in Michigan and at Yale, her academic career was spent at Monash and included a number of advanced degrees and an Order of Australia. She took up the writing of biographies after her retirement in the mid-90s.

My Accidental Career has a number of chapters in the form of contemporary diaries she kept in her travels. The first involves a trip to Ireland to visit her cousins in Limerick, Clare and Meath; she uses the same method to cover her time at Ann Arbor, at Yale and two different periods in England as part of her books on the Boyd families. These diaries are lighter, suggesting that they may indeed be unedited documents from the time. They feature little gems like her view of Michigan University, ‘courses too easy and too expensive’ and Yale where a hall porter told her, ‘You speak English real good. I guess you’re kinda British out there.’

Her account of life in academia, first at ANU, then at the newly opened Monash University is obviously full of the names of well-known academics in literature and history from the middle and second half of the last century. As such, the book will have particular interest for those who lived or studied in Melbourne in those times.

The writing throughout is the unfussy, unadorned prose that has made its author rightly popular. Her year of birth is mentioned earlier in this review; in the name of politeness, you are invited to do your own arithmetic and marvel that, yes, there is hope for all of us yet.

Frances and Frank are members of the Tinteán editorial collective.

2 thoughts on “A Biographer Reflects

  1. I have read these good Tintean reviews with special interest as I have been reading Brenda Niall’s fascinating memoir while preparing to write a review myself. Because my review is intended for an annual journal it will probably not appear until close to the anniversary of My Accidental Career’s launch. I hope the book receives the attention it richly deserves like all of the author’s publications. Michael Costigan

  2. I have appreciated previous Brenda Niall books and therefore was an enthusiastic reader of both reviews of that author’s latest work, My Accidental Career. Each increased my anticipation of reading Niall’s autobiography. However, the Devlin-Glass review had the additional effect of stimulating my thinking about the nature of biography.
    By facilitating the application of multi-dimensional modelling, modern technology has led to a better understanding of many aspects of our world. My thought is that a similar framework may contribute to our understanding of biography. Implicit in the comment by Devlin-Glass is a notion of a two-dimensional mode that places biography between the stock-standard disciplines of English Literature and History. As a starting point for change, may I suggest the addition of a third dimension.

    Biography requires the writer to evaluate and give meaning to of a lifetime of personal development. Since Psychology can greatly assist in that process, my suggestion is that Psychology be thought of as a possible source for third dimension.
    This is particularly apposite in the case of autobiography because autobiography pertains to emotions and thoughts from one’s inner life. The direct quote from Niall by Devlin-Glass offers supporting evidence for my idea. It speaks of mental struggle and motive, of satisfaction and of the formation of a particular view of the world.

    Devlin-Glass provides further supportive evidence in the form of a small slice of autobiographical detail about her own inner life. Here we see phrases such as “resonated for me growing up”, “I was much angrier”, and “a quiet dignity and resolve”.
    One final point worth noting is that, as the reviewer also implicitly acknowledges, autobiography’s story lines develop from a writer’s interaction with other people. That is the material of Social Psychology.
    Ray Watson

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