By Diane Murray
In 2007, I set out to write the biography of Marion Leathem, who operated the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser in country NSW. Marion was born in Belfast in 1841, and ran the newspaper from 1879 until her death in 1919. It is said she was never absent a day from her desk.
Marion was my great, great grandmother and was something of an icon in our family history. My grandmother, who was Marion’s granddaughter, used to speak of her with great respect and admiration but as a child I did not understand the sheer guts and determination required for a woman to run a newspaper in a male dominated industry in the 1800s. I listened politely but without too much enthusiasm but, unknowingly, I stored all the stories in my subconscious mind thinking one day I would tell her story.
It wasn’t until I undertook a PhD in Writing that I decided Marion would be the perfect subject for my research and I started to recall all that I’d been told about her. When I looked over my notes I realised what I had also stored was the awe in which my grandmother, the only person who remembered Marion Leathem, held this woman. The tone of my grandmother’s voice and the reverence which came through in her words had clearly impacted a sense of Marion Leathem on my young brain, which would be indelibly etched forever. I thought I had Marion’s stories but I also had the mirror of my grandmother’s memories, the shape of Marion Leathem, through the perception of my grandmother’s own life and experiences.
All good stories need a heroine and I had one readymade—Marion herself. The only photo I had showed an austere figure, reminiscent of Queen Victoria both in stature and mode of dress. I tried to imagine Marion as a young woman but that one photo persisted in defining her. I placed the portrait over my writing desk to be my companion for the writing journey.
For background, I had the stories told me in childhood and copies of Marion’s own newspapers, which had been stored on microfiche at the NSW State Library. For family history, I personally subsidised the Departments of Births, Deaths and Marriages in several states and acquired an impressive collective of certificates. For family background, I undertook an experiential trip to Ireland, including a visit to Cohb near Cork where the ship that carried Marion’s family to Port Phillip, had departed Ireland.
For romance, I had details of her husband Henry who as a young journalist in Tumut had wooed this doctor’s daughter and carried her off to share his dream of starting their own newspaper far away from family and all things familiar.
For tragedy, I had Henry’s early death from pneumonia at 36, leaving Marion with a fledging newspaper and 6 children under the age of 10 to raise and support on her own.
For the plot, I had the town of Molong, in which she lived, and the 78-year time span of her life set against the developing colony of New South Wales; the gold rush era; the Federation and two major wars, all interwoven with family and historical figures. Marion had covered all of this in her newspapers and editorials.
All good stories need a villain. Marion’s eldest granddaughter, known in the family as ‘Fanny’ had always been the subject of whispered gossip and scandalous allegations in the family annals, most of which I didn’t know until after my grandmother’s death in 1982. The untold family secret was that Marion had two daughters – Alice, who was the eldest, ‘good’ daughter and my great-grandmother; and Nellie, the youngest, who seemed to have been the difficult and spoiled child of the family.
Nellie married young at 17 and gave birth to a daughter nicknamed Fanny. When Alice married late in life and had children of her own, she and her husband, James, engaged Fanny’s services to assist with house duties and look after the children.
Fanny, being the ‘scarlet woman’ that she was had an affair with Alice’s husband, her uncle by marriage, and gave birth to an illegitimate son just four weeks before Alice gave birth to her third and last child.
The story goes that Fanny left in disgrace with her son, but when the little boy was four years old he arrived back at the gate of the family farm, all alone on the Cobb & Co. coach with a carpet bag of clothes and a piece of paper pinned to his jacket. The note said that Fanny could no longer look after him and she was giving him back to his father. The child walked half a mile up that lane on his own to meet the father he had never known, and was left to be brought up by his mother’s aunt, Alice.
So, I had my story and I had my characters; I had intrigue and sex; I had a scandal and I had the surety of firsthand family knowledge. What more could I possibly need to write a riveting and truthful biography of Marion and her family? I was so sure of her life and her times. What could possibly do wrong?
Well everything, in fact.
Note to self and all who read this: when researching any character—alive or dead—do not believe a single thing that you have heard. Family history, whether it be about your own family or some other character, is full of well-meaning and totally incorrect information propagated by artful story tellers with misguided loyalty who are intent on protecting the family from issues of shame or inadequacy.
Biography comes from the Greek bios or ‘life’, and grapein which means ‘to write’ and, according to biographer Catherine Parke (2002, p.1) writing this genre fulfils the ‘twin urges for immediate fame and subsequent immortality’ by ‘combining the solid satisfaction of facts with the shaping pleasure of the imagination’ (Parke 2002, p.xiii). As a naturally curious species, we want to know more about ourselves through the lives of others—especially when we look at ourselves through the prism of our forebears. It is also natural to want to belong to some revered line of ancestors who have achieved fame, either through good deeds or bad. I cite, for example, Ned Kelly’s many descendants; even though he was not known to have children and died aged 26 (West Australian, 1880) any connection with his family is equivalent to being descended from Australian royalty. Someone like Ned Kelly also connects us to the history of our colony, and we all crave a connection with our place of origin. We are grounded in the history of our land, the history of our clans and the history of our beginnings. It helps us find who we are – as Willy Serote (2013) said, ‘History is our home address.’
When telling the story of a life, C. Wright Mills believes ‘the best social science research is
located at the intersection of histories and biographies’ because the writer, by using their own learned ‘life experiences in (their) intellectual work’ (cited in Goodwin 2013, pp.xix-1) reflect on themselves to portray their characters. As a species, we seek connection with others and the act of delving into someone’s life creates an attachment which is immensely binding.
To accurately portray Marion Leathem I wanted to get inside her head and her thinking so that all I had found in my research could be used in her story—and there was so much to use. I had every detail of her life from the time she boarded the Branken Moor in Cobh aged six months, until she was buried next to her husband in Molong’s beautiful cemetery. In research, the trivial becomes important because only you know this or that fact. The character becomes part of you—you live and breathe them in each day when you sit down to write, and you take them to bed with you each night, allowing your unconscious mind to develop stories and patterns about them while you sleep. You want to tell everything you know.
Research is addictive and time consuming, so there is a need to justify all those hours at the library, all those hours spent away from family gatherings when instead I was locked up in my office with Trove as my companion. I felt I owned Marion for I was suddenly the foremost authority on her life – I knew it all and I wanted to tell it. But as Andrea Barnett wrote, ‘research, no matter how compelling may give you the bones of fiction, but it will never give you the flesh and blood’ (Barnett 2011), that comes from within as you travel this parallel journey with your silent partner.
What happens around the character also happens around the writer, for ‘every event experienced by the writer as she researches the subject will impact on her character’s life in some way’ (Murray 2016, p.20) in the end story. The character and the writer become enmeshed and there is a blurring of the lines and therefore a blurring of the facts. The writer needs to fill in all the missing details to make the story work, and she does that from her present life. The writer intuitively knows what happened. Michael Kannengeiser (2012) said, ‘discover everything about your character that you can before you write your story. If you get stuck at any point, they will write your dialog for you’.
The truth is that the writer experiences transference with their character in a similar way a patient in therapy experiences transference with their therapist. Freud first used this term to explain the mechanism of ‘displacement’ of affect ‘from one idea to another’ in the analytical field of human psychotherapy (Freud 1998). Much the same way as happens on the analyst’s couch, the writer projects onto her character what she believes the character is experiencing, ‘taking liberties when no facts are available’ (Brien 2014, p.1) to bring the character to life. Donna Lee Brien (2014) believes it is the ‘biographer’s right to distort the factual record in order to make important psychological or artistic points’ in the story, calling it ‘psychobiography’ (Brien 2014, p.18) believing, like Edel (1987, p.14), that ‘the relation of the biographer to the subject is the very core of biographical enterprise’. This taps into the writer’s unconscious thought processes through her emotional connection with the character.
‘What is experienced at a distance by the character is felt by the writer as a current event, because the writer is writing in the present moment. The writer can only write in the present and as such will always bring her own emotional conclusions to the story of the character. Because the writer has researched the character so intently, the writer can mirror the character’s emotional reaction to any particular situation. In lieu of any actual truth or evidence saying otherwise, there is no reason why this should not be considered viable.’
(Murray, Printer’s Ink, 2016, p.35)
To show her engagement with the other characters in her life, I decided to tell Marion’s story through her fictional letters to her family, friends and business associates. Letters seemed a more personal way to engage with this woman, who became more fascinating and more frustrating each day we were thrown together. ‘Letters are always written in the present, and the format dictates that the reader will also read them in the present, no matter how long ago they were actually written. Letters are always corporeal – they are living epistles’ (Murray 2014, p.3).
Dominique Hecq (2012 p,7) believes that writing is an ‘experiential activity which mobilises both unconscious and conscious processes’ so finding a voice for Marion had me writing her letters with quill and ink by candlelight, very early in the morning or late at night, as I struggled to reconstruct this woman emanating from my pen. The halo of light around the candle created a space in the darkness which allowed me to feel Marion’s presence as I channeled her words onto paper. Often as I wrote something especially personal or speculative during the reconstruction of her character, I would have a sense of her displeasure and would look around furtively expecting to see a vision of her sitting in the chair beside me. This act of writing her letters grounded the character, for as I wrote her story, I was writing about what was happening in the “now”. No matter how long it had been since Marion held a pen herself, to me she was very much alive—she was the writer.
My letters were fictional, but they were based on the subjective truth of historical biography. My research was comprehensive and, even if all the occurrences I was writing had not actually happened, they may as well have happened, for they were part of Marion’s life. My letters had the essence of reality because they contained so much of what was fact, written through the hand of an author who was living in Marion’s life. Marguerite Macrobert (2012) said, ‘the relationship between characters and their creators is symbiotic. An author’s life influences his characters and a character’s development influences the author. We may write about things we have never experienced directly, but as we write them, we experience in sensory and emotional detail, and they become real and merge with our real memories’; but the present as we know it also impacts on the end story. Once you know the ending of the story, as we do in historical fiction, it is impossible to not leave clues in the narrative of the character’s life, directing the reader to the end result.
My research had also shown there were more stories to Marion’s history than simply her own. Her children, parents, siblings and friends all had their own narratives. Each was intrinsically linked to Marion and generally retold something of the many events commonly held as fact in our family. However, this same research revealed evidence which blatantly contradicted what I had believed as truth and what had been passed down generationally as fact.
About three years into writing the novel and the exegesis which accompanied the PhD, I found myself overtaken by a variety of dualities which disrupted the family legacy. As facts merged with fiction and research destroyed truths, I was left looking for some credibility in what I had left of my original story. What, if any of it, was the truth? What if none of it was the truth? What if I was writing fiction, after all? The deeper I looked into my research and the lies that had led me into the original concept of telling the story, the more I believed I was experiencing Marion’s life as a parallel of my own. We were travelling on dual passageways 150 years apart. I became acutely aware of our similarities, our humanness and our shared predicaments as her life mirrored my own and Marion asserted herself into my writing.
I started to doubt the way I had chosen to portray her, for to tell the truth would reveal long forgotten realities which might impact on those still living who had no say in their evolved history.
One family member in particular, Marion’s eldest granddaughter, Fanny, my original villain, touched a deep place within my mind. My research has absolved her of her perceived sins and showed her to be sad and vulnerable.
I questioned if Marion had known about this and hushed it up. I wondered why this terrible crime against a child had been turned into a witch hunt to malign a perceived femme fatale, who was only a child herself. I found myself more aligned with Fanny’s story than with Marion’s. I was looking for someone to blame, not only for what had happened to Fanny but for all the time I had wasted writing a book that now seemed worthless. I had believed the deceits of all the people I trusted and relied on most for my firsthand accounts of Marion—my family. Because I had believed the stories of the past, I now only had lies to tell in the present.
I was further challenged by the story I had chosen to write when I located Fanny’s surviving daughters. What damage could my story do to their mother’s memory? They were old ladies who had no idea of the truth—having been told nothing of their mother’s ‘shame’. Was I, after all, entitled to destroy the fragile memories of their cherished mother when she had done so much to hide the truth from them? Does a writer need to tell the truth of the past at such a high cost to those in the present? Is that just another way to subject the family to the same pain their mother had already lived 100 years earlier? Suddenly Fanny became the heroine and Marion became the villain for I felt somehow this was her fault. With 80,000 now useless words and three years of lost time, the entire project was disintegrating as I battled with what to tell and what not to tell.
I encountered destructive bouts of transference and countertransference between myself and Marion as I tried to make sense of the research already undertaken, and write the story I had intended to write. I felt that Marion inhabited my mind and only her opinions were manifesting as the written word on the page. She seemed to have control of what was being written, to hide the family shame, and as I came to have more empathy with her granddaughter, I became resentful and confronted by Marion’s words and control of the novel, even though these were words I had written myself. There was no option but to rewrite Marion’s story to encompass the new facts and provide some justice to Fanny. It was important that this truth be told, but it is impossible to write historical biography without reverting to the writer’s own autobiographical prism which brings the story into the present, even if it is set in the past. Professor James Olney asserts that through the act of writing biography, the writer finds herself caught between the entities of the self and the life being told, which are ‘complexly intertwined’ and therefore ‘take on a certain form, assume a particular shape and image and endlessly reflect that image back and forth between themselves as between two mirrors’ (2014, p.19).
When the writer looks in the mirror of her writing does she only see her character, or does she see herself? The vilification of Fanny was a truth in the remembered history of Marion’s life, but the truth was the ‘poisonous legacy’ (Spear 2011) of incest perpetrated on a young girl by a predatory uncle. At the time of Fanny’s ordeal, victims were often seen as willing participants—
or even perpetrators—of their own abuse.
In 1910 this was the truth. In 2016, I was able to repay a perceived debt for the generational damning of Fanny.
In being Fanny’s voice as well as Marion’s I hope to let the blame be apportioned as it should.
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Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.