Monday, July 5, 2010

then lost patience and swore at her, disgusted

The thing about Penne Hackforth-Jones is that she doesn't acknowledge a difference between Baynton's life and the events in Baynton's fiction. The first part of that life (born obscurely and illegitimately, Baynton lived lonely in the bush during her first marriage while her husband rode away to find work elsewhere or gambled at track meetings) is mostly negative space and mystery, the second part is positive space and recorded detail, viz, her book of short stories being published, interviews with newspapers, a friendship with the editor of the Bulletin, houses in England and Australia, her photograph in the London Daily News, her patriotic behaviour during World War I, and so on. The contrast between positive and negative, invisibility and visibility, could have been the theme that shaped the book (the subtitle paves the way: Between Two Worlds), but Hackforth-Jones prefers a clean, smooth, even surface spread over everything: she won't let the negative space be. She fills it with information lifted from the stories; she goes at her subject's life like a handyman with a tub of polyfilla. She writes --

She was frightened when she tried to separate the cows from their calves and had to be forced to do it. Alex [her first husband] first laughed and then lost patience and swore at her, disgusted. When she finally had forced the animal to do as she wanted and came back white-faced and trembling with the stick he had given her to brandish still in her hand, she wondered if he too would run if she tried the same on him.

-- then endnotes it to one of Baynton's short stories, The Chosen Vessel. "This story was used to reconstruct Barbara's early married life." The relevant part of the story reads:

It was he [the protagonist's husband] who forced her to run and meet the advancing cow, brandishing a stick, and uttering threatening words till the enemy turned and ran. "That's the way!" the man said, laughing at her white face. In many things he was worse than the cow, and she wondered if the same rule would apply to the man, but she was not one to provoke skirmishes even with the cow.

But no recognition of the difference between fiction and fact, an absence of the note that would remind us there is no reason to believe that the thought Baynton gives to her character should be given to her as well,* and no discussion of Baynton's debt to Gothic literature, or the similarity between the husband in this story and the standard Gothic villain who traps the heroine so that he can gloat over her. In the biographer's eye the husband and the villain become indistinguishable, the author and the heroine are the same person, and the precocious little boy in the unpublished short story Drought Driven is precisely Barbara Baynton's son at the age of five. Hackforth-Jones shows the same faith in Baynton that Robert Burton shows in the Bible when he advises his readers to treat their melancholy with wine in accordance with Proverbs 31:6, as if the Holy Book is only incidentally a spiritual guide and more importantly a health manual. ""Give wine to them that are in sorrow,"" he writes, "or as Paul bid Timothy drink wine for his stomach's sake, for concoction, health, or some such honest occasion." In the mind of Hackforth-Jones, Chosen Vessel and Drought Driven cease to be stories; instead they are transformed into diary entries with the names changed a little; they are not literature; they are news reports in disguise.

* Compare this, for example, to Peter Ackroyd's long Dickens biography. Ackroyd acknowledges that certain events in the author's life might have turned up again in his fiction, but he does not draw absolute conclusions with the insouciance of Hackforth-Jones. She treats uncertainty with repulsion; he treats it like an invitation to an unanswerable mystery. He will say that "such and such seems to be the case" or "we may speculate that ..." For example, "There is another small echo, too, perhaps in the importance which in his fiction Dickens imparts to someone helping a small boy with his homework -- Paul Dombey is helped by his older sister, and Anges helps the young David Copperfield. Can we see in these two consonant pictures an image of Dickens' older sister Fanny helping him?"

So the idea is introduced but not taken for granted. In place of Hackforth-Jones' conflations, Ackroyd writes: "But such derivations have to be taken very cautiously -- there is no doubt that on many occasions Dickens used certain salient characteristics of the people whom he met or knew, but there are very few instances when he simply transcribed what he had seen and heard onto the page. The novelist's art is not of that kind. Dickens perceived a striking characteristic, or mood, or piece of behaviour, and then in his imagination proceeded to elaborate upon it until the "character" bears only a passing resemblance to the real person."


  1. What's the name of the book, Deane? A bio of Baynton, I guess?

  2. Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, published by Penguin in 1989. It looks as if Hackforth-Jones is related to Baynton through her uncle, who was married to Baynton's daughter, although I'm guessing that the daughter must have died before the biographer had a chance to interview her, because she thanks "my uncle H.B. Gullett for his knowledge of Barbara and the time" but not "my aunt Penelope."

  3. Oh, you make me laugh: "she goes at her subject's life like a handyman with a tub of polyfilla". Great stuff, but not exactly encouraging me to read the book! I think I'd read you instead! It is always a worry when people draw conclusions about a writer's life from their writings, even when they have written from their experience. Unless the writer has specifically told you that this really was so - and even then do you always believe what a writer says? - you never know whether they are exploring different options/ways of acting/being rather than recording verbatim their actual experience/feelings. What an ugly sentence that is but you get my gist I'm sure...

  4. I get your gist, and yes. She writes as if Baynton simply hauled her life out of her memory, thumped it down on the page, and added a climax. But the stories are shaped -- that's obvious when you read them. Everything in Chosen Vessel is there to emphasise the wife's isolation and legitimise her fear. The husband laughing in his wife's face is part of that shaping. There's no reason to believe that Alex Frater laughed too. How many villains have laughed cruelly in the heroine's white face? Dozens. Hundreds. How often must she have read scenes like that in novels? The early parts of Baynton's life in this biography are a combination of extrapolation from the fiction and details from interviews (in the paragraph after the cow scene, we hear that Alex Frater liked to spend his time at home sitting and smoking on the verandah, and this is endnoted to a conversation with someone called Ken Frater) but in the text there's no acknowledgement of the difference. I kept one of my thumbs jammed in at the back of the book because I was flipping to and fro so often. Every time I came to something new, I wanted to know whether I was reading a corroborated fact, or something the biographer had just made up because it felt nice.

    It's one thing to say, "The character lives an isolated life in the bush, as we know Barbara did, and so, reading the story, we might assume that Barbara felt lonely and terrified, as the character does," and another thing to artificially insert the thoughts of a fictional character into a real person's head, to say, "she wondered if he too would run if she tried the same on him," because the character wonders it. In the case of the son and Drought Driven H-J not only gives the fictional character's behaviour to the real-life son, she invents a real-life psychological reason for it. In the story, son, mother, and baby are in danger, and the son's precociousness is there is underline the mother's helplessness -- see (says the author silently): her only male protector is this little kid, who has no idea how much danger they're in, and who chatters about snakes, and how he's going to rescue her from these imaginary snakes by stamping on them with his little kiddie shoes -- the author describes the smallness of the shoes, and the reader understands how useless this protection is. His precociousness is an inadequate mimickry of the assistance she needs. It has a role in the story. But H-J takes it at face value, and tells us, "Alex was away most of the time and the elder boy, with no regular father figure, became more precociously manly and protective of his mother." This appears to be utterly, completely, absolutely, the biographer's invention.

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  6. I think it came down to this: it was a crack in her authorial presence, the author let me think that she was ignorant (either she didn't see the difference between life and fiction, or she saw it and didn't think it was worth explaining), and after that I saw ignorance everywhere.