Veronica Brady’s Biography of Judith Wright

Literary biography has both its friends and its enemies. Readers of the genre may be fans of particular authors, or may be addicted to literary biography in general, or perhaps both. The evidence of literary festivals and public libraries is that these readers are a numerous cohort of a surviving highbrow readership. For anyone, though, with any kind of investment in the subject of a literary biography, it is a dubious genre at best, if not a positively hazardous one. It is unable to be fully controlled at any stage. As in the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, 'something can always go wrong'. Authors frequently try to pre-empt the (potentially) incorrigible perspectives of the biographer either by writing their autobiographies, or by choosing their own preferred biographer (like Judith Wright). This may mean rejecting other aspiring biographers, and 'authorising' the chosen one. This can work out to the mutual satisfaction of subject and biographer, but it can just as easily lead to endless and fraught contests over the biographical subject, or to the rarely edifying spectacle of duelling biographers, and in the work of Janet Malcolm, for example, extended meta-biographical commentary - the Plath/Hughes pile-up is the paradigmatic example of our time.

Then of course there is the 'Salinger protocol,' where the author does all in his/her power to minimise and control all the auto/biographical material circulating both publicly and privately. This takes serious effort and may only throw kerosene on the fire of literary biographical desire, leaving the (hermit) author, and/or sometimes the (sleuthing) biographer who thoughts/he had it all under control, without any eyebrows, or with a safe full of unpublished manuscripts. That's not the only way in which authors can be control freaks. The flipside to Salinger is perhaps best exemplified by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw happily (and manipulatively) collaborated with numerous biographers (including G.K. Chesterton), and in the case of the American mathematician Archibald Henderson, over decades. Henderson's biography of Shaw, Playboy and Prophet, fifty years in the making, was in large part 'actually drafted in the third person by G.B.S. himself (Holroyd 212). Utterly shameless, Shaw also reviewed Chesterton's biography of himself. Finally, perhaps the least effective in these secular times, but certainly the least self-ulcerating for the author is the public curse on all (post-mortem) biographers. In 'One Cheer for Literary Biography,' John Updike in the New York Review of Books imprecates: 'as long as I am alive, I don't want somebody else playing on my jungle jim - disturbing my children, quizzing my ex-wife, bugging my present wife, seeking for Judases among my friends, rummaging through yellowing old clippings ... and getting everything slightly wrong' (3). Ironically enough, the allusion in Updike's title, to E.M. Forster, reminds us that it was Forster himself who said he couldn't care less what people said about him once he was dead. In general, the field of literary biography, then, seems to be strewn with anti-personnel devices.

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Published 1 October 1999 in Volume 19 No. 2. Subjects: Biographies, Family history, Fiction, Narrative structure, Novels & novelists, Place & identity, Poetics, Poets, Social injustice, Writer's works.

Cite as: Mead, Philip. ‘Veronica Brady’s Biography of Judith Wright.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.64d9ea1154.