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Dr Brenda Niall, First HRC Seymour Lecture in Biography

‘Walking Upon Ashes’: the Footsteps of a Modern Biographer

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National Library of Australia, Canberra, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday 2 November 2005

Dr John Seymour, Dr Heather Munro AO, Dr Brenda Niall and Professor Ian Donaldson


The HRC is delighted to announce that the first Seymour Lecture in Biography, entitled ‘Walking on Ashes’: the Footsteps of a Modern Biographer, will be delivered by the distinguished Melbourne author Dr Brenda Niall AO, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday 2 November 2005. She will deliver lecture again at the University of Western Australia on 17 November 2005, and at 3pm on 22 November, 2005, in the Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library, Adelaide University.

The title of this lecture comes from Samuel Johnson, as he contemplates the difficulties of writing the life of Addison, whose lifetime, very briefly, touched Johnson’s own. ‘As the process of writing these narratives [The Lives of the Poets] is now bringing me among my contemporaries, I begin to feel myself walking upon ashes under which the fire is not extinguished, and coming to the time of which it will be proper rather to say nothing that is false rather than everything that is true.’ This paper will discuss the ways in which a modern biographer, working close to her own time, must try to resolve the problems Johnson discerned. Brenda Niall’s first biography, Martin Boyd: a Life (1988) seemed to offer the ideal distance between author and subject: close enough to provide many living witnesses, yet with a certain degree of detachment which would enable Boyd’s life (1893-1972) to be seen in perspective. She followed this work with Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer, for which the sources, from McCrae’s birth in 1804 to her death in 1890, were all documentary. The Boyds; a Family Biography explored five generations of family history, with a time range from the 1840s to the 1990s. Its concluding chapters are based on interviews with the present generation of Boyds, and other living witnesses. Most recently, in August 2005, Niall published Judy Cassab: a portrait. Interviews with the Hungarian Jewish artist, who survived the Holocaust and migrated to Sydney in 1951, as well as access to Cassab’s unpublished diaries, were the main sources for this biography. Comparing the experience of writing these four works suggests that for a modern biographer, the fire beneath the ashes may still give off heat in unexpected ways, no matter how distant in time her subject may be, or how close.