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Melbourne Writers Festival Recap – Part 3

on September 8, 2013

MWF13My third day at the Melbourne Writers Festival was Sunday 25th August and I’d booked one session, Modern Love with Sarah Wendell and Marjorie M Liu at 4pm. I had one session left on my paperback pass so I looked for something on Sunday a little earlier in the day to make a bit of a bigger day of it. After (much) deliberation, I finally chose a session entitled Life Lessons which was about the art of writing the biography. It featured Peter McPhee and Ian Donaldson in conversation with Lisa Gorton. Firstly, each of the authors explained who they had chosen to feature in their historical biographies and why.

Ben Jonson

Professor Ian Donaldson has devoted much to the study of Ben Jonson, a colleague of William Shakespeare. He was once considered the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and during the lifetime of the two writers plus some 100 years thereafter, it was Jonson who was the far more dominant, better known and more widely praised playwright. He was the greatest literary figure Britain had produced until sometime around the late 18th Century when Shakespeare’s reputation “took off”. Jonson wrote several dozen plays, of which some have been lost.

Apart from being a playwright, Jonson was also a court poet for the Stuart dynasty and wrote entertainments for private patrons, the city of London and businessmen. He was a great scholar but often considered a bit of a know-all. He was interested in questions of language and regarded as a superlative poet. Donaldson became fascinated on how could such an immensely talented figure become so sidelined and so overtaken by Shakespeare – this was the question that inspired him to write a biography focusing on Jonson.

Peter McPhee

Peter McPhee (pictured above) stated that his subject is radically different from that of Donaldson’s. He has chosen to focus on Maximilien de Robespierre, a French lawyer and politican and a man who was extremely influential (if not one of the most influential figures) in the French Revolution. According to McPhee, the French Revolution matters in history – and therefore, so does Robespierre. He personifies various stages of that Revolution. Robespierre supported the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was one of the most revered/most popular figures in 1790/1. He also embodies the awkward period after the French Revolution – a draconian time. Unfortunately Robespierre also makes a series of tragic and profound errors which ends up costing him his life. Most of the 100+ biographies on him are negative – McPhee takes a different perspective.

The question was asked why Robespierre was so determined to change history. He had terrible scandal follow him around as a child – his mother also died and his father left. He was never allowed to forget that he was conceived out of wedlock. He was a scholarship child, yet another thing he was probably never allowed forget either. He saw himself on the cusp of a regeneration of humanity, as someone who has almost a sacred responsibility to make the most of every opportunity that came his way. Every legal victory he obtained was a victory of enlightenment.

Even though the two historical figures had nothing in common, both of them had a capacity to survive humiliation.

Ben Jonson had a similar education and similar views of history. He had an admiration for Roman civil virtues – Jonson had a view of history that was cyclic – events that had occurred in the Ancient World would come back in this time, both figures of good and evil.

Ben Jonson also suffered embarrassments – he ran a bit too close to the law at times and spent some stretches in prison. He was either at Court or in prison on charges of sedition (which sounds interesting!). He was tortured, presumably for a confession but was released because of his stoicism. The theaters and entertainments began playing again, once he was released.

Question: When you read biographies you feel both close to and distant from history. We are living in an age where the biography is immensely popular – why?

Peter: There is a suspicion of exemplary lives. He thinks his subject (Robespierre) is an extraordinary man with massive achievements who didn’t deserve vilification. He was perhaps not likable, but he was important. There’s a deep longing to believe in someone who seems exemplary (ie Obama) but at the same time, there’s often a need to take them down too – their ‘fall from grace’ so to speak. Peter finds himself constantly attracted to stories about the past – to live a whole period through the experience of one person. He knows he has written a controversial biography – Robespierre brought in a law that sent thousands of people to the guillotine. There’s a lot of negativity around and in his work, he’s trying to even that up. And he’s aware that there’s some dissent about that. He also said that many biographies are written between World Wars where people understand the sort of draconian measures that leaders often have to take  in order for the greater good.

Ian was fascinated by reputation in history. There was a rumour that Jonson was buried vertically in Westminster Abbey (but apparently it’s not true). Donaldson claims that biography is “between history and the novel”. Novel writing techniques are used in biography – they are often necessary to avoid the clincality of reading a textbook, to inject some life and passion into the subject.

(Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting!).

How far does biography draw on the techniques of the novel?

Peter: Never begin at the end. It’s very difficult to construct a life in the negatives. His subject ended at the guillotine, people know that but his subject didn’t know that about himself. The challenge of the biographer was the capture his fears. The two disciplines biography is closest to is psychology and the novel. Where he parts company with Hilary Mantel et al is that he’s a historian and makes claims about veracity. As a historian, he cannot invent to fill the gaps. When writing biographies, you have to be frank about the claims you are making. There’s a need to understand the period and novels/art/etc have a role in the research but are best not grafted into the story.


I’m not a big biography reader (in fact rarely ever) but I found this session really interesting. Both of the two speakers were so very passionate about their subjects and that really shone through every time they spoke of them. I’m particularly interested in McPhee’s book on Robespierre and I may attempt to slot that into my TBR pile if I can find a space. It’s not like anything I’ve read before and I’m curious as to how I would find it.

This was a great session to compliment my History’s Script session with Jane Sullivan and Sarah Dunant, talking about writing historical fiction. In that session they talked about history being cyclical and also what writing historical fiction allowed you to do – this one talks about what writing biographies does not allow you to do – embellish to fill in the gaps. My knowledge of history is poor, I readily admit that. Whenever I read historical fiction I often find myself googling in order to separate fact from fiction (something that was talked about in the History’s Script session, how to know what is real and what is not). I love the idea of reading historical biographies, of getting the facts as such, but often I wonder how well, interesting they would be. This session has made me want to give a few a go. There are many other there that do use novel-writing techniques and don’t read like a high school textbook. I just have to hunt them down!

Next up: the Modern Love session with Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell and paranormal romance and comic book author Marjorie M Liu.


2 responses to “Melbourne Writers Festival Recap – Part 3

  1. Marg says:

    I was surprised to see that he was trying to present a positive pictuer of Robespierre. He doesn’t often get portrayed that way!

    • That was pretty much what he was saying, that everyone has previously seen him as this really negative kind of figure but he had another slant in that he had to make hard decisions. I don’t think he’s trying to make him super positive but more say that just because he’s been seen as negative it doesn’t mean he isn’t important and there aren’t reasons for his actions. This session was really interesting. It’s always good when speakers are really passionate about their subjects.

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