Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 1 May 2020 in Extracts, Non-Fiction |

SYLVIA MARTIN Sky Swimming: extract

Tags: / / / / / / / / / / / /

What makes a biographer? How do you approach writing a biography? Having run an extract from a biography last week – Cathy Perkins’s The Shelf Life of Zora Cross – it seems fitting this week to explore the work of a biographer with an extract from award-winning writer Sylvia Martin’s memoir, Sky Swimming.

Sylvia Martin is the author of three biographies of Australian literary women: Passionate Friends: Mary Fullerton, Mabel Singleton and Miles Franklin; Ida Leeson: A Life (winner of the Magarey Medal for Biography); and Ink in Her Veins: The troubled life of Aileen Palmer, the story of the daughter of writers Vance and Nettie Palmer.

Sky Swimming ranges from childhood snapshots in ‘Shadowing the Boyds’ to building a mudbrick house with her partner Lizzie in the Warrumbungle Mountains, uncovering a family mystery, and meditations on memory and insights into her work as a biographer.

This extract describes her urge to see the world through another’s eyes, and her approach to writing biography.

Extract courtesy of UWA Publishing

From the chapter ‘Ferrying, Shape-shifting’ 

When I was a child, I used to fantasise about becoming someone else for a day, to see the world through their eyes, to feel what they felt. Just for a day. And then to return to my body with the memory of that experience. I remembered that preoccupation recently when I was asking myself why, since I was a shy and introspective child, I harboured such a strong desire to become an actor. As a biographer, I try to interpret aspects of a person’s life from clues gathered from archives, from material that is full of gaps and silences. Memory is also an incomplete and often unreliable life record, but it can be enlightening to cast a biographical lens over one’s own life too. And there was the clue, in the memory I brought to light. My acting wasn’t ‘showing off ’, behaviour that was much frowned upon in my youth. It was not me out there on the public stage, but me becoming someone else temporarily. But then again, not entirely. Always there was a distance between the role I was playing and the part of myself that was in control, able to sense the audience response and wait for laughs to subside before delivering the next line and, more importantly, able to handle the unexpected events that happen in a live performance. Tools of the trade. Don’t be left with egg on your face.

When I moved into writing about women rather than performing them, I found that some of the tools of the acting trade applied to biography as well. Not that I was aware of it at the time. But, retrospectively, it is apparent that my early training had seeped into my being and transferred itself through a kind of osmosis into a new process. Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, writes that what the reader wants from a biography ‘is a vivid sense of the person… a living person in a body, not a smoothed-over figure’. Unlike some biographers, I have never considered writing about women who are still living. When I was acting, I created that ‘living person in a body’ from the pages of a script. Similarly, the material I like to work from in bringing biographical subjects to life is on the page: letters, diaries, photographs. Studying archival material requires discerning subtext in letters and diaries, identifying and probing the gaps and silences and speculating about them; it is not just about putting together major life events in a seamless fashion. I often need to go back to the same letters and diaries more than once when I have read enough of them to get a sense of what I am looking for. This is the core material, although it is embellished where possible by interviews with living relatives and people who remember my subjects as well as exploring the circles they moved among and the wider context of their lives.

The common thread among the women I have chosen as my biographical subjects has been their rejection of marriage and motherhood, the expected trajectory laid down for women by society. None openly called themselves lesbians but they all eschewed relationships with men and had significant relationships with women. And here the nose for subtext and for identifying silences is crucial.

Rather than setting out to discover and reclaim lesbians from the past in the way historians like Lillian Faderman did in the 1980s, I was interested in exploring how women like Australian poet Mary Fullerton and her lifelong friend Mabel Singleton, or Mitchell Librarian Ida Leeson and her partner Florence Birch, might have understood their relationships, what narratives were available to them during their lifetimes, what ideas were in the air, and more importantly, how these particular women breathed them in. In the case of poet and political activist Aileen Palmer, born in 1915, I wanted to read between the lines of what she wrote in order to try to understand this woman who had no overt intimate relationships but whose orientation seemed to be towards women from an early age.

Letters, diaries, poems and autobiographical fragments by some of these women have found their way into public archives but, of course, there are significant gaps. No letters between Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton survive but much of Mary’s poetry does, including unpublished poems written in the early twentieth century that are interspersed through her papers. Put together, they trace an unusual love story. Ida Leeson, born in 1885, left no letters and virtually no personal papers, but her life partner Florence Birch is present in library documents and in the history of Castlecrag, the model suburb in Sydney designed by Walter Burley Griffin where the two women lived. Other clues to my biographical subjects survive, such as portraits of Aileen Palmer painted when she was in London in the 1930s and her voice on a tape-recording, while Ida Leeson’s immaculate handwriting is preserved on old catalogue cards in the Mitchell Library. These material traces provide the touch of the real and enable a biographer to glimpse the person buried in the archive.

It is commonplace to say an actor steps into another person’s shoes when they take on a role. In Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Richard Holmes imagines the biographer as the ‘ferryman’ crossing back and forth over the River of Oblivion between the dead and the living, between the past and present, as he strives to bring his subject to life. His sleuthing begins in the archives and then radiates outward. Tracing subjects’ footsteps, visiting places that contain particular resonances in those lives, is another way the biographer can find that touch of the real: putting oneself in the place, even if that place has changed almost beyond recognition, is part of the phenomenological experience of creating biography, where the landscape – real, emotional and imagined – is understood through the body as well as the intellect.

Over the years when I have been immersed in the life of one or other of ‘my women’, Lizzie and I have joked that she shares their lives as closely as if they were indeed friends. She is the first to hear about new discoveries I find in the archives. She is the first to read and comment on each draft chapter as it rolls off the printer. She has accompanied me as I follow their ‘footsteps’. We met the son of Mary Fullerton’s lover, Mabel Singleton, in London. We searched unsuccessfully for Mary’s grave on a rainy day in a church graveyard in Sussex. Closer to home, we explored the streets of Castlecrag to find the house Ida Leeson and Florence Birch shared and we stood in the overgrown open-air amphitheatre where they were involved in the plays Marion Mahoney Griffin directed there in the 1930s. We travelled to the battle sites of the Spanish Civil War, where Aileen Palmer worked as an interpreter for the medical units of the International Brigades from 1936 to 1938.


The embodied knowing that I gained from tracing Aileen Palmer’s footsteps through the Spanish landscape provided new inspiration at a time when I felt as if I was drowning in the sea of papers that is the Palmer Collection at the National Library. It even exceeded my expectations in unforeseen ways, bringing about one of those moments of recognition through a chance encounter that makes history suddenly seem eerily palpable, moments that are a hallmark of Holmes’ essays in Footsteps.

It occurred towards the end of our time in Barcelona on the occasion of the Dia Hispanidad celebration. From early in the morning crowds started gathering in the square below Lizzie’s family’s apartment on the Plaza de Sants where we were staying. A convoy of sleek black police vans converged on the blocked-off road bordering the square, blue lights flashing as they formed a sinister phalanx, disgorging their cargo of armed, black-clad police who moved to make a continuous line along the edge of the road, rifles at the ready. Lines from Aileen’s poem ‘Remembering Garcia Lorca’ came into my mind:

You remember the Guards (‘Los Thiveelays’, the people called them)…

the Guards of tradition, and pain, and continuing serfdom:

in their hats of black patent leather their skulls were of lead

in case they should ever shed tears… they went always with rifles,

black in the uniform of the night before nightfall…

Anarchists draped in red and black cloaks and bearing large banners declaring that Spanish Day was nothing to celebrate but meant continuing oppression for Catalonia gathered in their hundreds on the roadway. The contrast between the predominance of young men with shaven heads milling in the square and the long-haired protesters was obvious, the tension in the air palpable. As a helicopter hovered overhead, the demonstrators started their march, chanting NO PASARAN! NO PASARAN! (They Shall Not Pass!) – the catch-cry of the Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War. As the chant grew louder and more intense, I felt as though I had been transported from the balcony on which I stood back to the Barcelona of 1936. I almost expected Aileen in her muddy boots to materialise beside me. A visceral moment and one that demonstrated to me the gulf between my Australian experience and that of Spain’s inhabitants, where the divisions between political groups and regional borders remain volatile and passionate, not history but part of daily life. Since that trip in 2008 those divisions have widened and escalated exponentially.

Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer was published in early 2016 and I was invited to speak about Aileen at an International Brigades Memorial Trust conference in Manchester, the theme of which was ‘Women in the Spanish Civil War’. Not long after I returned, I was interested to hear a lecture on biography at the National Library, where I had spent so much time researching the Palmer papers. It was presented by David Marr, so I knew it would be interesting, witty and informative. And it was. But, to my surprise, David, after quoting English biographer Frances Spalding’s observation that biography was ‘a hybrid and fluid genre’, proceeded to ‘lay down the law’ with his ‘key rules’ for writing it. Tongue in cheek? Perhaps a little, but his intention was to argue for the invisibility of the biographer, against what he called ‘current fashion’.

In his persuasive way, he spoke about his own acclaimed biographies of Patrick White and Sir Garfield Barwick, about the biographies he had been reading lately (‘sharp little biographies of political players, men like cardinals and prime ministers and leaders of the opposition’) and about great biographers of the past. I sank down in my chair, becoming more and more horrified as he detailed the misdemeanours of biographers he disliked – inserting themselves into the text, boring readers by writing about their research, ‘mucking around’ with chronology. Mea culpa. Then I realised that his examples all shared one thing, they were all biographies of men by men, even the one he was critical of: Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead, by Thornton McCamish. Apart from quoting Frances Spalding at the outset of the lecture, there was not a woman in sight nor any recognition of the practice of feminist biography, which has been questioning the tradition of humanist biography and the omniscient biographer for at least three decades.

As a child I remember agonising over the meaning of my own subjectivity. Not in those terms, of course. But I would sit in the back of the car on a road trip musing about what this ‘I’ that was ‘me’ meant. That I could not be outside that ‘I’, but nor did I know how to understand it. Much later, I would read feminist theory and learn that the subject, the ‘I’ in a patriarchal society, is implicitly male. For women, constituted as object, to assert themselves as subject has to be a conscious act. I consumed books on the subject of feminist life writing; Liz Stanley’s The Auto/biographical I still stares boldly down at me from the shelf beside my computer.

There are many and varied ways to write biography with a feminist consciousness, depending on the project and the person writing it. Is the subject a well-known figure with a wealth of source material? Does the biographer take a literary approach or does she come to the task primarily as a historian? One of the ways a feminist biographer can subvert the humanist convention of the invisible biographer is to insert herself into the text, not gratuitously or in order to bare her soul as David Marr claims McCamish does, but to indicate that the position of the biographer is integral to creating the version of the life she is writing. It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion that McCamish’s biography is the one Marr chose to critique precisely because it is written by a man and therefore becomes noticeable and notable for its difference. Further, I would suggest that McCamish himself has probably benefitted from the work of feminist biographers. Unlike the subjects of the ‘great man’ type of biography, Alan Moorehead was well known in his time but has been largely forgotten until McCamish set out on his quest to recover him.

From Sylvia Martin Sky Swimming: Reflections on auto/biography, people and place UWA Publishing 2020 PB 205pp $24.99

Like to keep reading? You can buy Sky Swimming from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.