‘Herstory’ and Biography: Recovering the forgotten woman’s voice

Michelle Staff, University of Sydney

I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.

Samuel Johnson, 1750.[1]

In his reflections upon the genre of biography, eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson highlighted some of the key issues at the heart of life writing as it stands today, more than two hundred years later. Although still largely focused on ‘significant’ individuals, written or other accounts of the life are no longer solely reserved for the ‘great men’ of history; the story of the less extraordinary or even forgotten person – even (or perhaps especially) if she is a woman – has increasingly come to line bookshelves alongside the names of well-known historical figures. The biographical subject has thus become somewhat more diverse and egalitarian. Moreover, Johnson’s notion of creating a ‘judicious and faithful narrative’ remains central to the biographer’s aims, with a commitment to the sources considered paramount.[2] As in history, however, this is a process filled with challenges. If the sources present an incomplete or one-sided picture, how does the biographer then manage to authentically evoke the singular, lived life? What happens to the notion of ‘faithfulness’when fiction and imagination, rather than fact, present as the answer to filling those gaps and contradictions? And, especially when the forgotten subject is being recovered from past silence, where does his or her own voice fit into all of this?

Since Johnson’s writings on biography, the genre has significantly moved away from its former image as uncritical and parochial. From the early 1970s, some historians began to emphasise the importance of examining individual lives in order to shed light on broader historical issues and forces, utilising the insights of biography in their work.[3] Such developments have progressed both parallel to and in conjunction with the rise of women’s, gender and feminist history. Yet there is some discord between the supposed ethos of women’s and feminist history to challenge the emphasis placed on elites by not only exploring the experiences of stand-out women but of women as a group, and the individual-focused approach of biography, which often retains an emphasis on ‘important’ people.[4] As Barbara Caine sums up:

biography is at one and the same time antithetical to some of the basic aims and approaches of women’s history – and the avenue that seems most helpful for those seeking to understand the actual historical experiences of women in all their complexity.[5]

In spite of these differences, the two approaches have proven to be in many respects quite complementary, with women’s biography representing some of the ‘best efforts’ in the area of women’s history.[6] As Caine notes, ‘the detailed study of individual lives offered one way to understand the nature of women’s private and familial lives and the relationship between their private and public activities’.[7] Using personal archives as an alternative to the traditional archives from which women were largely excluded, a focus on the ‘silenced’ individual helped to restore women’s agency and create a more complex historical picture.

The notion of telling the story of a person left out of the pages of history is a recurrent theme in what has become known as ‘recovery history’, and finds a place in biography as well.[8] This recovery mission takes on particular significance in the case of women’s biography. This subset of life writing brings women to the centre of enquiry, can reveal ‘obscure’ lives, and allow women to ‘tell their own stories’.[9] As such, with its focus on the individual, biography can be an effective way to realise the feminist goal of giving women agency and, importantly, a voice. A biographical approach can, if adapted to the spirit of the subject, successfully and effectively convey life stories and evoke subjectivities within historically-contextualised narratives. However, in the face of the silences of a fragmented or incomplete source base, this task is fraught with challenges.

This article explores how biographers grapple with such challenges in order to recover or rescue the life of women forgotten in the pages of history. It argues that in order to avoid yet again silencing and decentralising the individual woman from her own life story, the biographer must place her and her unique spirit at the centre of the narrative. This is not to say that women’s biography should adopt an uncritical, laudatory character. Rather, a focus on giving agency and voice to the subject must be framed by a critical and methodical approach that explores the different perspectives present in the evidence and the significance of broader contextual issues. Beyond such a theory of women’s biography, however, it is also important that the approach of the biographer adapts not only to their particular set of sources but also to the particularities of their subject. In vital respects, therefore, Ray Monk’s argument that biography is ‘fundamentally and essentially, to is very fingertips, as it were, a nontheoretical exercise’ is important; as Frances Spalding similarly emphasises, ‘it would be foolish to try to establish a set of rules for biography’.[10] Making further generalisations is difficult and, more importantly, not useful, as the approach of the biographer must be so different depending on their subject; even though there are features that unite women’s biography as a sub-genre, the diversity of female subjects is important to recognise and deal with.

This paper will draw upon two distinct and, in key ways, contrasting examples of Australian female biography in order to explore these ideas. Both texts reflect a recovery ethos and aim to give their subjects a voice – broadly speaking, a figurative sense of voice that, in order to fill in the silences in the records, encapsulates her essential character, spirit, agency and subjectivity, as well as her own words. Their vastly different approaches illustrate the argument that the strategies employed to give women agency and create narrative through life writing are unique and dependent on the sources and the spirit of their subject. They also demonstrate the often-insurmountable limitations of knowing a life characterised by silence and omission. Representative of a larger, more international corpus of women’s biographies that share similar issues and purposes – from works on ordinary wartime nurses to the lives of the First Ladies of America – these texts reflect upon the persistent dilemmas faced by the biographer.[11] On the one hand, Sylvia Martin’s Ida Leeson – A Life: Not a Blue-Stocking Lady (2006) explores a thoroughly non-conventional female life in the context of twentieth-century Sydney by piecing together the limited facts available.[12] On the other hand, Drusilla Modjeska’s fictionalised biography of her English mother, Poppy (1996), similarly explores the life of a woman not thoroughly recorded in the history books and archives, but through an imaginative approach.[13] How do these biographers deal with the often-limited sources available to capture the life of their subjects? How do they find the balance between making their voices heard and framing the life within a ‘faithful narrative’ that incorporates a sense of broader issues and themes? These are questions at the heart of biography more generally, but ones that take on specific meanings and powerful implications when applied to women’s biography.

Establishing fact ‘from the outside in’: Sylvia Martin’s Ida Leeson – A Life: Not a Blue-Stocking Lady

In its primary focus on the individual, biography ‘must give a feel for the person, who she was or is’, which in the case of women’s biography in particular, ‘most often means retrieving lost subjectivity, subjectivity lost because it has been historically suppressed’.[14] In the face of a partial and puzzling historical record, creating a truly representative depiction of the individual woman becomes a challenge for the biographer.

Sylvia Martin grapples with such problems in her biography of Ida Leeson, the first woman appointed to the position of Mitchell Librarian in 1932. Ida Leeson, as Martin tells us, was a significant figure in early twentieth-century Sydney; with the Mitchell Library as the ‘hub of much of its intellectual activity… it is little wonder that Ida Leeson was influential in a variety of areas’.[15] A graduate of the University of Sydney, Ida had to grapple with the challenges of being a female in the professional world, and one who did not conform to conventional gender norms. However her story has largely been forgotten and consigned to a fragmented and incomplete source base. A recovery mission very overtly shapes Martin’s biography – as she clearly puts it, she has ‘rescued Ida Leeson from footnote status’.[16] Adopting the feminist impulse to bring women into a mainstream narrative, Martin sees Ida as worthy of her own story and sets out to bring this unique individual back to life.

However, for a genre based on the telling of fact, the lack of direct personal sources proves problematic. challenge that has become more acute with the democratisation of biographical subjects is the issue of source material, or, more pertinently, a lack of source material. A difficulty already faced by both biographers and historians, the recovery of the forgotten woman means grappling with the fact that they have most likely been absent not only from writings about the past, but also from historical archives. Martin’s biography uses Ida’s limited personal papers and letters, and turns as well to the archives of numerous other figures from Australian literary and academic circles, sound recordings, personal interviews and newspaper archives. As Martin writes:

Writing a version of Ida Leeson’s life has been challenging, the fragments just too few and the holes too gaping to even attempt to create a seamless whole. Once a prominent public figure, she has almost disappeared from view: she left few papers, she wrote no memoirs, she did not make provisions for awards to commemorate her name after her death, no volume of essays has been written to commemorate her career.[17]

It is in only relatively sparse fragments that Martin can allow the reader to get a sense of Ida’s voice directly from her papers. In the examples she draws, Ida’s own words distinctively embody her fierce sense of her professional capability as a librarian. In a letter, for example, Ida writes:

You say you hope at some later date to be able to amplify the bibliography with comments on the various works by authorities competent to analyse their worth. Perhaps you did not mean to indicate that I, as a librarian, would not be competent to assess the value of the books I have seen and used, but I might be justified in taking that view.[18]

Monk has highlighted the value of direct quotation for getting at the subjectivity of the individual in biography, and the importance of not analysing such remarks but rather of considering them as ‘part of the narrative’.[19] In this way Ida’s words hold their own in Martin’s story, being used to tell not only what happened but also as an avenue to see Ida on her own terms and let her speak. However, as a result of the archival limitations such remarks are sparse, and so Ida’s actual voice is necessarily relegated to having quite a minor part in telling her own story. In the face of a lack of personal sources, Martin must turn to other ways of representing the life and the agency of her female subject.

Martin uses photographic evidence as another way of capturing a sense of Ida Leeson, trying to read into where the written sources prevent knowledge of her private life in particular. Martin puts a face to the name through discussing a studio portrait of Ida and her long-term companion, Florence Birch. However, with the exact circumstances of the photograph unknown, the information it can reveal is substantially limited and not verifiable. As Martin recognises, her analysis here is confined to conjecture and speculation.[20] Other ways to shed meaningful light on Ida thus need to be employed.

The broader historical context provides a means for the biographer to get to know their subject and frame their life in a larger time and place. Kathleen Barry has argued for a ‘feminist-critical approach’ to biography that redefines it as ‘a structural socio-political history that is grounded in the temporality and subjectivity of a life’.[21] Indeed, when it sits at the crossroads between the individual life and shared history, biography represents an effective way in which to explore the interplay between the individual and larger structures. In this spirit, Martin turns to the world around Ida Leeson in order to better understand her subject and fill in the silences in her records. She therefore establishes Ida as part of a particular generation in the Sydney city of the interwar period, a setting that is used throughout the book as an effective means to frame Ida Leeson’s self:

As far as her links to her home city are concerned, she was one of the early women graduates from the University of Sydney; she witnessed the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and she played a major role in the development of another Sydney icon, the Mitchell Library.[22]

However this text highlights the difficulties of bringing the context to bear on an under-documented subject. Biography is not simply the same as history; as Penny Russell articulates, in biography ‘the context is important where it illuminates the life’.[23] Whilst Martin does explore aspects of Ida’s more private life – for example, through devoting a whole chapter to her relationship with Florence Birch – Ida’s story is substantially examined in terms of her public life, with a certain reliance on the larger history of the Mitchell Library. As Martin identifies, ‘[t]easing out the woman from the library fabric is one of the challenges of this book’.[24] She gives voice to surrounding figures such as Principal Librarian William Herbert Ifould in order to tell Ida’s story. This method effectively reveals her subject’s individuality, provides balance by exploring different perspectives and fills in important gaps in the evidence. Whilst allowing a narrative to be constructed to recover the story of this life, these other voices often replace rather than supplement that of the female subject. As such, the scarce sources pertaining to Ida’s private world in particular are limiting, rendering it necessary to foreground both the voices of more thoroughly recorded figures and a broader narrative of the library to recount Ida’s public life. Yet, by drawing upon this context, Martin is able to then highlight contextually-specific themes that emerge – most significantly, understandings of gender and anxieties about women in public life – which proves to be an effective way to temper this preoccupation with a broader story and maintain a focus on her subject’s unique character.

Martin explores gender and notions of femininity to reveal Ida Leeson whilst avoiding reducing her to a vehicle for generalisations about women’s experiences in interwar Australia. The importance of gender as a structuring factor is largely a given in women’s biographies more generally, a product of the distinctive nature of women’s archives and the feminist impulse behind recovering these lives and restoring agency. By exploring how Ida did not conform to gendered social expectations, her biographer conveys a sense of the idiosyncrasy of her subject. She shows Ida to be more than the stock character commonly seen to befit her profession:

Yet stereotypes are persistent and the image of the librarian as humourless spinster, hair dragged back into a bun, patrolling the bookshelves telling readers to be quiet, lives on in the cultural imagination. … Her [Leeson’s] hair was cut short rather than scraped back, but in many ways she might have, at first glance, fitted the stereotype of ‘The Librarian’. But like all stereotypes, the woman herself far exceeds it.[25]

In so doing, Martin rejects the place of stereotypes and avoids reducing Ida to a generic image of any particular female condition – she was more complex than any label implies. Ida Leeson is thus defined in part as what she was not; she is neither the typical image of an early twentieth-century Australian woman, nor is she reducible to any one stereotype of a non-conformist. Further, this is not to say that Ida Leeson was a feminist as she would be typically thought of. Martin effectively nuances her central character, arguing that whilst she was ‘in many ways ahead of her time’[26] she was not a feminist per se:

Although she did campaign quite extensively for equal pay for women in the public service and higher pay for graduates, she was not aligned with the middle-class, liberal feminist movement of her time in the way that other women in the library, such as Jean Arnot, were.[27]

However, in engaging with these broader questions and painting a portrait of Ida Leeson in terms of her time, the subject’s own voice is still a minor one. Describing what she was not does not necessarily fully evoke what she was, and adds somewhat to the mystique and the unknowability of this individual. The challenges of literally looking at the subject ‘from the outside in’ are thus frustrating for both the biographer and the reader, as whilst Martin’s exploration of gender and context is effective at creating a story to lift Ida from footnote status, her voice is still often absent and the more personal aspects of her life remain just beyond the reader’s grasp.

Whilst this lack of evidence proves challenging, it does not hinder the development of a close biographer-subject relationship. It is clear that through her examination of the available evidence Martin has come to identify in certain ways with her subject. In positing herself as Ida’s rescuer, she establishes a particularly close and binding relationship with her subject and firmly and undeniably inserts herself into the text. This biographer-subject relationship reflects an implicit way in which Martin makes her subject heard, drawing her subjectivity close to the biographer’s own and maintaining a central focus on Ida’s spirit. Richard Holmes understands the biographical process as ‘a kind of pursuit, a following of footsteps’.[28] With Martin being seamlessly inserted into the narrative, she evokes such a spirit in physically retracing Ida’s life:

During my research on Ida Leeson, I would often cross the road from the Mitchell Library to take my coffee break at the café in the Renzo Piano building on the diagonally opposite corner of Macquarie Street, where Bent Street starts and where the old Public Library used to stand.[29]

Walking in the footsteps of her subject, Martin attempts to minimise the differences of time and place in order to evoke the essence of Ida’s life and draw nearer to her. As such, she approaches the biographical task not only alongside her subject, but also in the spirit of her subject, with the Mitchell Library as a workspace uniting them in their shared task of methodically compiling and cataloguing facts.[30] In this way, the approach of the biography itself embodies the character of Ida Leeson. According to Bell Gale Chevigny, feminist biographers are particularly ‘susceptible to uncritical identification’ with their subject.[31] Martin’s sense of affinity with her subject is particularly strong and overtly evident, though it is not overriding. Within the context of her clearly feminist ideology, she does create a very positive depiction of her subject. However, she does not go so far as exalting her, rather casting her as a ‘conundrum’ in terms of gender norms, and an interesting figure to be explored.[32] Though she does implicitly establish a connection between Ida’s subjectivity and her own, on the whole Martin is able to maintain a balanced focus on the voice of the subject and an awareness of the presence of the biographer.[33] Her self-awareness as biographer means that the rescuing mission of the project is not obscured and, whilst it does influence the portrayal of the subject, works to centralise Ida in her own story.

By ‘rescuing’ its subject from the recesses of history, Ida Leeson – A Life: Not a Blue-Stocking Lady grapples with the challenges of writing about the forgotten woman and the ideas of agency, individuality and voice. In dealing with incomplete source material, other ways of making the subject heard must be found. As such, Martin looks beyond her subject to explore the historical times and notions of gender in order to create a complex and historical image of Ida Leeson. In spite of the restraints placed on her by the archives and a certain dependence on broader narratives and themes, she does centralise Ida and evoke a sense of her uniqueness. Whilst some of the challenges of Ida’s silence prove obstructive, her recovery ethos importantly inserts this forgotten woman into the narrative of interwar Sydney and of Australian women. However, this is only one way to approach the recovery mission of the women’s biographer. In other cases, such as that of Drusilla Modjeska and Poppy, imagination rather than fact presents as an option for filling in the gaps.

‘Use your imagination’: fiction in Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy

Drusilla Modjeska faces similar challenges in writing a biography of her mother in Poppy, such as a lack of sources, conflicting opinions in the evidence and the importance of notions of femininity. In particular, she must deal with the clear concern of her subject to have a voice as well as a close biographer-subject relationship due to familial connection. However Modjeska takes a very different approach to constructing a narrative of this life. Against the backdrop of twentieth-century England, the story of her mother Poppy is shaped by features such as the desire for a perfect family, mental health issues, divorce, re-education and the subsequent need for self-rediscovery. Telling this life through the eyes of the fictional daughter Lalage, Modjeska uses fiction rather than fact as the route to understanding silenced female subjectivities through exploring Poppy’s life.

The use of imagination in the writing of a person’s life diverges from traditional historical writing and its commitment to the facts, yet can nevertheless present itself as a method for reaching an authentic understanding of the subject. Penny Russell argues that biographers ‘need to reach cautiously towards imaginative understanding’ in order to know and represent their subject.[34] Modjeska takes such an approach even further, seeing the realm of fiction as the only way to be able to even try to understand and depict her subject, with whom she had a complex relationship. In writing the biography, she is ‘drawn irresistibly into dream, imagination and fiction’.[35] In so doing, her work reflects the notion that the fictional character is more knowable than any real person will ever be; as Inga Clendinnen has asserted, ‘[w]e will never know a once-real-now-dead person, or quite possibly a living person either, as completely as we know Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’.[36] Yet Poppy is not simply a fictional character, but an actual person. The clear connections of this work to reality, as evident in the points of similarity with Modjeska’s later autobiographical work Second Half First, highlight the blending of truth and fiction here and call into question the biographer’s right to cast fact as fiction.[37] Specifically, can she go beyond the facts and still create a ‘faithful narrative’ that can be considered an authentic life story?

Whilst this biography is classed as a blend of biography and fiction, the distinctions between conventional and ‘imaginative’ approaches are in fact more blurred than is sometimes thought. Carolyn G. Heilbrun asks: ‘For who can write a biography without inventing a life? A biographer, like a writer of fiction, imposes a pattern upon events, invents a protagonist, and discovers the pattern of her or his life’.[38] As such, Poppy represents not so much an evasion of the facts but rather a sharp recognition of this fluidity between genres and a desire for freedom from the restrictions accompanying the nevertheless perceived authority of biography. By casting the story as fictionalised, Modjeska is able to more fully explore her mother’s subjectivities and imagined life, filling in the silences of the record; she can try to approach ‘an emotional truth’ that embodies a sense of the whole person, as distinct from ‘a literal or historical one’ that remains attached to the verifiable facts.[39]

The idea of the imagination is a persistent and emphatic one in Poppy, in which the subject’s own use of imagination serves as the basis and justification for a fictionalised approach to her life. The work is filled with Poppy’s advice to her daughter and biographer, the fictional Lalage, to use her imagination rather than an unwavering commitment to verifiable fact: ‘“Use your imagination,” she said, not hesitating to use hers’.[40] Foreign as this overt fictionalisation is to traditional conceptions of biographical writing, Lalage heeds the advice of her subject to use her imagination as a means to tell the life story where the sources are limited. Just as Poppy must imagine herself anew after her mental breakdown, so too must her daughter, who has to ‘find pattern and shape in her life’.[41] Similarly, in thinking about Poppy’s perception of the family, Lalage ‘can see its existence was as much imaginary as it was real to her’.[42] Lalage is ‘a narrator who professes herself uncomfortable with constructing the story of her mother’s life from “evidence”, rather than from fictions which seem to capture something of her feel and spirit’.[43] This approach taken by the author is therefore not simply her own creative choice or reaction to the sources, but rather attuned to the unique spirit of her subject. Whereas to let the imaginative mind construct the subject as a fictional character would be unthinkable in the case of the fact-loving, methodical Ida Leeson, in this instance it is in many respects an appropriate way to approach Poppy’s life and to allow her daughter to come closer to finding some sort of meaning in it.

Modjeska’s use of fiction is also a response to the limitations and problems she sees in the sources of Poppy’s life; whereas Martin turns to the historical times, Modjeska turns more so to the realms of imagination. Due to a lack of personal sources, imagination fills in the gaps. As Tom Griffiths has observed of another writer who fused genres, Eleanor Dark, ‘it had been the freedom of her fiction that had allowed her to write into a great silence’.[44] Yet at the same time, in tracking the biographical process through the experiences of Lalage in the book Modjeska is still concerned with historical investigation and creating a faithful narrative. The biography incorporates similar types of sources to those used in more conventional examples of life writing, such as diaries, memories, letters and newspapers. In referencing such sources, it can easily be forgotten that this is a work of fiction and the story interpreted as a factual account; readers must at times remind themselves that this is an imaginative text. Whilst some may see this proximity to reality as problematic, in light of the fluidity between history, biography and fiction, such an approach can in fact provoke a greater degree of self-awareness in biographical writing.

For some periods of Poppy’s life, there are plentiful forms of evidence that have simply been forgotten. Her work in the Probation Service was well documented. As Lalage writes: ‘This is the one part of Poppy’s life for which I have an abundance of evidence: pamphlets, figures, reports, statistics’.[45] With her public, working life reported in newspapers such as the Guardian and the Times, ‘she took on the status of a minor celebrity’ for a time.[46] Similarly, Lalage ‘can no longer avoid the diaries, or the voice (abrasive, powerful, scratching) that comes with them’.[47] Poppy’s diaries reflect not simply fact, but ‘a story she made of her life’.[48] As Russell persuasively argues:

Diaries, letters, notebooks, and laundry lists are not simply intimate spaces for the formation or expression of female subjectivity, but life at a point of interface between the subject and her world – a power-laden domain of imagination and experience, ideology and discourse, negotiation and agency.[49]

However for much of Poppy’s life prior to this period, and the more private aspects of it, the sources are not so straightforward; silence characterises the historical record, proving challenging for the biographer. Notably, in trying to piece together her and her two sisters’ memories, she is introduced to the issue of recollection: ‘None of our memories match’.[50] As Doris Lessing has evoked, ‘memories are about as dependable as soap bubbles’, and it is this issue that Lalage must address in her task of recounting her mother’s life.[51] Her sources do not present a straightforward, verifiable life story, but rather a set of imagined realities and divergent recollections, highlighting the selection that must be made in reconstructing the past.

Silence is a major concern of the text, and one that poses a methodological problem for the biographer. Most significantly, Poppy’s time in a psychiatric institution for mental illness represents a pivotal moment in her adult life and is characterised by profound silence in the archival material. With no sources from Poppy herself clearly pertaining to this significant period and only the relatively uninformed opinion of her extended family and friends available, Modjeska finds herself facing a brick wall. The fictional Lalage explains her solution: ‘as Poppy never spoke about what happened to her, except in the sketchiest of ways, I have to reconstruct what might have happened from oblique sources’.[52] She therefore uses 1950s psychiatry textbooks in order to understand conventional knowledge and treatments at the time for mental illness.[53] Applying this to Poppy’s particular case requires piecing together highly limited fragments of information and generalised knowledge, which cannot be proven to reflect Poppy’s lived experiences. However, in the mix of context, fact and fiction used here, Modjeska self-consciously reflects on the limitations of such a method, and recognises that, ultimately, she must accept Poppy’s silence and what she cannot know:

If I am to find heroism in Poppy’s life it won’t be there, but it is with difficulty that I come to the point where I can respect her silence on this episode and accept the limitations of what I can know.[54]

Silence becomes a key motif of the text. Moreover, it is cast within a gender framework, being a reflection of the feminine condition. Modjeska asserts:

I am interested in the enigma, and therefore the power, of the silent feminine which I come up against time and again in this task, and which remains as painful now as it did that bleak night of Poppy’s death.[55]

In this way, Modjeska highlights two key and interconnected concerns of this biography, which are shared by the recovery genre of women’s biography in which it is situated: the female voice, and the importance of broader structures such as gender.

Although not so explicit as Martin’s recovery ethos, Modjeska’s concerns with gender, the female voice and agency places Poppy in the sub-genre of women’s biography written by feminist authors with the project of recovering women’s subjectivities. Like Martin, Modjeska too evokes the Holmes-esque ‘following in the footsteps’ biographical spirit, but with an added autobiographical element.[56] As she writes: ‘This, at exactly the moment I was retracing my footsteps to mother and motherland’.[57] She records the biographical process and brings subject and biographer closer together. In so doing, she draws upon their shared experiences of gender norms and expectations. Though blending autobiography and biography and clearly shaping the text herself, Modjeska does not lose sight of or decentralise Poppy, rather accepting the blurred boundaries between different categories of life writing.

Though allowing her own feminist motivations and experiences with her subject to shape the narrative, in grounding such discussions in the idea of her subject’s own experiences, Modjeska manages to explore broader notions of gender whilst encapsulating the individuality and agency of her subject. Within this exploration of gender norms and structures, the issue of the woman’s voice becomes a prominent motif. Indeed, it constitutes part four of the text, ‘Voice’. ‘To find a voice. What does it mean? What does it mean when a woman finds her voice? And when she finds it, what then?’[58] This is major theme shaping Poppy’s life. Through joining a reading group, Poppy meets Rosa and Marcus, two key individuals in her imagined ‘rebirth’ later in life. Modjeska writes: ‘With them she found her way out of silence and began to express the longings that she had once turned against herself…’[59] As such, the issues of the silence imposed on women and the female voice direct the narrative to not only discover the person that Poppy was, but also to frame her life in a broader picture.

This exploration of gender and silence firmly embeds the narrative in the context of twentieth-century Britain, establishing this as a broader setting for the text. In this way, the fictional is not entirely divorced from the historical, but intertwined. As Barry argues, subjectivities must be understood ‘as temporal and structured, that is, located in history’.[60] Explorations of femininity and gender thus form part of a broader use of historical context specific to Poppy’s life, although less explicitly than in Martin’s biography of Ida Leeson. The turn to fiction builds upon the actual context of twentieth-century England in which Poppy lived. Specifically, Modjeska evokes the unique positioning of Poppy and her generation of women in order to situate her subject in her unique historical time: ‘Born to Edwardian mothers, mothers to feminist daughters, Poppy’s generation slips out in silence’.[61] Sarah Nuttall sees history as a ‘dominant structuring metaphor’ in the work.[62] Context adds authenticity and meaning to Poppy’s life, bringing the fictional story to bear on a wider historical narrative. However, Nuttall also points out that whilst Lalage views lives as contained in history, this is not how Poppy imagined her own life.[63] In light of this, contextual features ultimately take a supporting role in conveying the life story; in the end, the biographer listens to her subject’s imaginative spirit in order to best portray her life as she herself understood it and evoke her voice. Poppy is not reduced to simply one among many women of the mid-twentieth century, as the purpose of this biography is to recover the individual life forgotten by history. Nevertheless, this text shows how life writing can use the individual life to shed light on the ways in which womanhood was experienced at a particular time in the past.

Whilst still adopting the traditional methods and sources of the biographer, and evoking the historical context in order to situate her subject, Modjeska’s imaginative approach to writing the life of her mother allows an emphasis on the individual. Without delving into significant digressions on the norms and values of twentieth-century England as Martin does, she nevertheless evokes a sense of the importance of contextualised perceptions of femininity in shaping the individual life. She places the emphasis on the importance of the female voice, in so doing using fiction as a way to evoke this and embodying the essence of her subject in the very methods she adopts. Griffiths argues that history and fiction ‘are contrasting genres that offer different truths’. [64] Whilst the parallels between reality and this imagined biographical world could be seen as problematic in writing the real Poppy’s life, within the context of the recovery biographical mission, Modjeska’s very self-conscious method effectively approaches an ‘emotional truth’ that allows her subject to speak where the records stay silent and create a faithful narrative.


Recovering the forgotten woman from the silence imposed on her in and by the past is an aim common to many writers of women’s biographies today, reflecting a shift away from traditional focuses on the lives of public and ‘important’ individuals. Women’s biography is therefore significant for women’s history more generally, as through giving agency back to the individual woman, whether she be celebrated or ordinary, her story in history can be explored and expanded upon in order to study different times and places. As a ‘nontheoretical exercise’, biographical writing at its best reflects a sharp awareness of the spirit of its unique subject rather than of simply a broader historical context or an imposed theoretical approach.[65] In transforming ‘something that is experienced as fluid, fleeting, evanescent’ into something ‘fixed, and therefore lifeless’, the biographer places themselves at the junction between the subject and understandings of their life, and their approach defines the revival of their subject.[66]

Both Sylvia Martin’s Ida Leeson – A Life: Not a Blue-Stocking Lady and Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy reflect a keen sense of the individuality and complexity of their female subjects, using fact and fiction respectively. Martin pieces together the fragmentary source material in the meticulous fashion of Leeson herself in order to uncover the life of this woman. She explores the broader historical story as a way of shedding light on her subject. On the other hand, Modjeska’s fictionalised biography of her mother uses imagination as a means to overcome the hurdles of limited source material and feminine silence in order to reveal the ‘emotional truth’ of this life as it was imagined by the subject herself. Both are limited by the silences of the records and in different ways are unable to surmount them; women’s biographers cannot speak with authority where the past imposed a resounding silence. Nevertheless, these two texts highlight the different ways in which the biographer can approach their subject’s life and attempt to fill in these silences, creating useful life narratives that, most importantly, cast a sense of their subject’s voice at the centre of the story. As Michael Holroyd has argued, ‘[b]iography will continue to change, will become more personal, more idiosyncratic, imaginative, experimental, more hybrid’.[67] Adopting individualised and innovative approaches to biographical writing, whilst maintaining a focus on giving voice to female subjects, will prove vital to the continued recovery of women’s lives.

[1] Samuel Johnson, ‘Biography’, The Rambler, 13 October 1750, accessed 3 March 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Caine, Biography and History, (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 23.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of this point, see Judith P. Zinsser, ‘Feminist Biography: A Contradiction in Terms?’, The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 50, No. 1, (Spring 2009), 43-50.

[5] Barbara Caine, ‘Feminist Biography and Feminist History’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, (1994), 250.

[6] Joan Wallach Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 5, (December 1986), 1068. See also Susan Ware, ‘Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 40, No. 3, (Winter 2010), 413.

[7] Caine, Biography and History, 24.

[8] This is a term used by various contemporary historians to describe this type of task or approach to history. See Zinsser, ‘Feminist Biography: A Contradiction in Terms?’, 44.

[9] Lori Williamson, ‘Women’s History and Biography’, Gender & History, Vol. 11, No. 2, (July 1999), 379.

[10] Ray Monk, ‘Life without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding’, Poetics Today, Vol. 28, No. 3, (Fall 2007), 528; Frances Spalding, ‘The Biographer’s Contract’, 5, (Seymour Biography Lecture, National Library of Australia, 16 September 2010), accessed 3 April 2016.

[11] Reflecting the wide spectrum and innumerable other ‘recovery’ female biographies, see, for just two examples: Janet Butler, Kitty’s War: The Remarkable Wartime Experiences of Kit McNaughton, (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2013); Margery M. Heffron, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, ed. David L. Michelmore, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014).

[12] Sylvia Martin, Ida Leeson – A Life: Not a Blue-Stocking Lady, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006).

[13] Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy, (Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1996).

[14] Kathleen Barry, ‘The New Historical Syntheses: Women’s Biography’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 1, No. 3, (Winter 1990), 76.

[15] Martin, Ida Leeson, 111.

[16] Ibid., 199.

[17] Ibid., 197-8

[18] Ibid., 140.

[19] Ray Monk, ‘How Can I Be a Logician Before I’m a Human Being?’, (Seymour Biography Lecture, National Library of Australia, 19 September 2014), accessed 27 February 2016.

[20] Martin, Ida Leeson, 67-72.

[21] Barry, ‘The New Historical Syntheses’, 75.

[22] Martin, Ida Leeson, xiv.

[23] Penny Russell, ‘Life’s Illusions: The ‘Art’ of Critical Biography’, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 21, No. 4, (Winter 2009), 154.

[24] Martin, Ida Leeson, xiv.

[25] Martin, Ida Leeson, xii.

[26] Ibid., 109.

[27] Ibid., 65.

[28] Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 27.

[29] Martin, Ida Leeson, 1.

[30] Ibid., xiii.

[31] Bell Gale Chevigny, ‘Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women’s Biography’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, (Spring 1983), 81.

[32] Martin, Ida Leeson, xiv.

[33] This balance is discussed in Amia Lieblich, ‘Writing Biography as a Relationship’, Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, No. 7, (Spring 2004), 209.

[34] Russell, ‘Life’s Illusions’, 154.

[35] Modjeska, Poppy, 317.

[36] Inga Clendinnen, ‘Biography. The Impossible Art?’, (National Biography Award Lecture, October 2007), published by State Library of New South Wales, accessed 9 June 2016.

[37] Drusilla Modjeska, Second Half First: A Memoir, (North Sydney, NSW: Knopf, 2015).

[38] Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Joan M. Weimer, ‘Is Biography Fiction? [with Response]’, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 76, Nos. 2/3, (Summer/Fall 1993), 297.

[39] These terms are drawn from Sheila Fitzpatrick, ‘Can You Write a History of Yourself?’, Griffith Review, No. 33, August 2011, accessed 30 June 2016.

[40] Modjeska, Poppy, 12.

[41] Ibid., 118.

[42] Ibid., 8.

[43] Sarah Nuttall, ‘History and Identity in Contemporary Australian Women’s Autobiography’, Women’s Writing, Vol. 5, No. 2, (1998), 194.

[44] Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’, History Australia, Vol. 6, No. 3, (2009), 74.5.

[45] Modjeska, Poppy, 138.

[46] Ibid., 146.

[47] Ibid., 101.

[48] Ibid., 209.

[49] Russell, ‘Life’s Illusions’, 153.

[50] Modjeska, Poppy, 106.

[51] Doris Lessing, Time Bites: Views and Reviews, (London: Fourth Estate, 2004), 95.

[52] Modjeska, Poppy, 80.

[53] Ibid., 80-81.

[54] Ibid., 84.

[55] Ibid., 24.

[56] Holmes, Footsteps.

[57] Modjeska, Poppy, 102.

[58] Ibid., 93.

[59] Ibid., 118.

[60] Kathleen Barry, ‘Biography and the Search for Women’s Subjectivity’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 12, No. 6, (1989), 562.

[61] Modjeska, Poppy, 90.

[62] Nuttall, ‘History and Identity in Contemporary Australian Women’s Autobiography’, 189.

[63] Ibid., 192.

[64] Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’, 74.4.

[65] Monk, ‘Life without Theory’, 528.

[66] Lessing, Time Bites, 91.

[67] Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography, (London: Abacus, 2003), 30.