Life Class: The Education of a Biographer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am

Life Class: The Education of a Biographer

by Brenda Niall

MUP, HK$195

In a reversal of her role as a biographer, Brenda Niall here examines her own life to trace those aspects of it that have affected her approach to writing about others. It's a tricky exercise, but the result is a shrewdly constructed book revealing how the Melbourne author discovered different ways of tackling each biography.

In case anyone thinks biographies have to begin with a subject's birth and follow their life chronologically, Niall shows how form and viewpoint have to be adapted for each individual, as she recounts the difficulties and gratifying surprises in researching another person's life.

The biographical instinct first nudged her when, as an academic, she was researching Edith Wharton in the US. She had been reared as a textual critic, but found herself fascinated by Wharton and not just her writing. Yet rather than write a biography she returned to Australia and, catching the renewed interest in Australian writing in the 1960s, wrote a parallel biography of two popular writers for children, Ethel Turner and Mary Bruce Grant.

She made her name with biographies of novelist Martin Boyd and of the Boyd family, which has produced noteworthy artists for four generations, discovering that the daughter of an ex-convict was the foundation of the wealth that facilitated those artistic endeavours.

She also recounts her discovery of how the story of Georgiana McCrae - a Regency beauty who was the illegitimate daughter of the last Duke of Gordon - had been touched-up by McCrae's grandson.

Her first biography of a living person was of painter Judy Cassab, which began when Cassab asked Niall to sit for a portrait - a neat role reversal for a biographer.

Niall's early years are recounted in the first half of Life Class and her education is chronicled precisely, but one's first reaction is to wish she'd let herself go and provide more colour.

Yet in depicting others, Niall also sketches a self-portrait with an admirable combination of detachment and empathy, which are given full play by the deft construction of her memoir.