Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s foremost biographers. She is the author of five award-winning biographies, including her acclaimed accounts of the Boyd family. In 2016 she won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal and the National Biography Award for Mannix.
In her poignant new book Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story Brenda Niall delves into the life of her grandmother Aggie, an intelligent and determined woman who immigrated to Australia from Liverpool in 1888 at the age of nineteen.
The book launch for this remarkable biography included a heartfelt and insightful speech by Kirsty Murray, which Text is delighted to share with you:
I’m very honoured and a little nervous to be launching Brenda’s new book. Ever since I was a child, Brenda Niall has been the woman who has known more about my extended family (the Boyds) than I knew myself. So it was thrilling to finally turn the tables and read a book about her family.
The first time I met Brenda – or at least saw Brenda, I don’t think she saw me – she was researching the life of my great-uncle, the author Martin Boyd. It was around 1974 and I was thirteen years old. I had come home from school to be told that I was NOT allowed to go into the dining room because there was a writer there working on Uncle Martin’s papers and she was NOT to be disturbed. I already had ambitions to be a writer myself so, of course, I completely disregarded my parents’ instructions and peeped into the dining room to see what a ‘real writer at work’ actually looked like. Brenda was seated at the ‘Spanish table’ surrounded by piles of notes and papers. She was focused and intent on her work and I was intrigued.
Since then, I have read every one of her books, no matter what the subject matter, because whenever Brenda focuses her intense and lively intelligence on an individual, I know that she will bring that person to life for me and all her readers. I trust her writing. Unlike most novelists, whom you can never really trust, Brenda makes history accessible without compromise. Her writing is subtle and rich and captures the essence of her subjects’ experiences.
Of all her books, I feel Can You Hear the Sea? is particularly special. Because Aggie Maguire Gorman is an Australian cultural heroine, but the sort of heroine that is rarely historicised. We generally read history through the ‘great lives’; lives that are lived in the public arena. Aggie Maguire Gorman was a teenage immigrant, a country schoolteacher and later a single mother of seven children. She is the sort of character that appears in fiction, but the true lives of women like Aggie Gorman are almost never the subject of biography. Which is why Can You Hear the Sea? is also an important work of history. We do not read books like this, because few skilled writers turn their attention to the shape of a whole life. It’s incredibly hard to do this well: to be thorough in your research and balance history and minutiae, to be subtle and observant, to illustrate that everything happens within the context of an historical era and yet concede the impossibility of knowing anyone fully.
What may appear to be a simple, affectionate biography is a complex book. This is the story of an ordinary ‘extraordinary’ woman who lived a big, rich life at the heart of a family. Aggie Maguire Gorman was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother of enduring influence. This is real history, life as it was lived, encompassing the full sweep of one woman’s history: the lives of her parents, siblings, husband, her seven children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, two economic depressions, two world wars, births, deaths and marriages, from Liverpool to the Riverina to Kew. All those decades, all those cares and worries, small and large pleasures, thousands of slices of bread and cups of tea and the cooking of countless potato pies, not to mention the making of the ‘best rice pudding in the Riverina’, all played out against the backdrop of a century of political change.
Domestic history is often overlooked, but the domestic is also political. The politics of living – small rituals and labours – shape a nation. Brenda Niall captures all this, not just her grandmother’s experiences, but the times that she lived through and helped to shape.
I’m sure the marketing department at Text will try to sell this book as the perfect gift for your grandmother or your mother but I’d recommend giving it to your teenagers too. And your grandfathers and fathers, your sons and brothers. Just get a copy for everyone – all your Christmas-shopping anxieties are solved!
Because there are many times in your life, not just old age, when you need a book like this that provides you with clues on how to live: How do you survive unfathomable grief? How do you raise children to be good citizens? How do you hold your tongue when your in-laws enrage you? (A very important lesson). How do you persevere when it feels like the tides of history are going to swamp you? How do you adjust to straitened circumstances; give without burning out; be available to your children and grandchildren but still retain your own sense of self? How do you open your heart and the door of your home but maintain personal boundaries? In the midst of a huge, passionate family, how do you preserve your inner life and your sanity? I still haven’t figured that one out. Aggie Gorman did all these things and still held fast to her mantra of ‘let the children be happy’.
If Aggie had taken to politics, she would have been a fabulous diplomat. Anyone who can figure out how to sustain loving relationships with all their adult children and be a supportive mother-in-law without being invasive is a miracle worker. Aggie managed to pull this off with a degree of political adeptness rarely seen in families, or indeed in parliament.
I could go on endlessly about why you should read this book but the author’s voice is far more convincing than any endorsements I may offer up. The scene that I want to read to you is atypical of Aggie who was, for the most part, amazingly stoic. A little bit of context about this excerpt: It’s 1915. Jack Gorman, Aggie’s eldest son, has received a letter from his uncle, E. J. Gorman, telling him that it’s his duty to enlist to fight in WWI. Jack breaks it to his mother that, although he is a pacifist at heart, he has decided to enlist as a stretcher-bearer in the AIF. Here is Aggie’s reaction:
Desperate to talk about Jack’s decision, Aggie sent a message to Minnie. Could they meet next day at the picnic place between Galtee Park and Lumeah? It would have been a hot walk across the paddocks so she called Connie to harness the grey pony and drive her the mile and a half. ‘Bring something to read; we want a quiet talk,’ she said. In the event, it was anything but quiet. Connie had hardly settled down under a tree to read her new Billabong book when for the first time in her life she saw her calmly omnipotent mother lose all composure. Aggie wept, became hysterical, even screamed with rage. Connie wasn’t meant to hear but in the absolute silence of a bush afternoon, she couldn’t help it. Incoherent phrases about E. J. and all the Gormans: ‘as if he owned my children…as if I didn’t exist…no sons of his own, he doesn’t mind Jack being killed.’
At the heart of the matter, Aggie believed, was the Irish question and E. J.’s ambition. The perception of the Gormans as disloyal Irish affronted E. J., and hampered his career in local politics. Aggie remembered how he had distanced himself from the radical pro-Boer, anti-war position of his brothers Ned and Richard. She thought of Richard’s denunciation of the tactics of the British Army, especially their treatment of women and children. Richard wouldn’t have wanted Jack to go to war. But Aggie wasn’t comfortable with the position taken by the young Gormans at Auburn. They said they weren’t going to fight England’s war, no matter what. Their sympathies were with Ireland, still denied Home Rule. Aggie thought of other mothers; was it right that their sons risked their lives while her boys were safe at home? But no matter what she said or thought, it wouldn’t change Jack’s decision; he might seem gentle, but he’d made up his mind and he was very stubborn.
Minnie was the only person in whom Aggie could confide. On that summer day, under the Murray pines, all the grievances of the seven years since Richard’s death erupted in a volcano of feeling.
Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story is available now in all good bookshops, on the Text website (free postage!) and on ebook.