Saturday Seminar – Writing Historical Biography: a labour of love or a sign of madness

Tutor/Facilitator Mary Hoban

Date: on/from Sat 18 Jul 2020 to Sat 18 Jul 2020
Frequency: Single Event
Class time: 2:30-3:30

Other information

Mary Hoban, an award-winning Melbourne-based writer and historian, has just been short-listed for the 2020 Magarey Medal for biography, a biennial prize awarded to the female author who has published the work judged to be the best biographical writing on an Australian subject in the preceding two years.

Her first book was a history of Melbourne’s celebrated Queen Victoria M Market.  She has also authored, co-authored, and edited various textbooks, papers, and journal articles on Australian and Asian history and cultural studies. For some years she was employed in the philatelic section of Australia Post as a writer, editor, and researcher for the nation’s postage stamps, where she wrote and edited books on subjects ranging from Christmas Island to the Antarctic, from royalty to rugby. She holds a graduate diploma in biography and life writing from Monash University and an MA in public history from the University of Technology, Sydney. In 2012 she was awarded the inaugural Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship to write the biography of Julia Sorell Arnold.

“This biography was haunted by a question that intrigued me: is it an interesting life that makes for a good biography or is it the art of writing, the way a life is given shape and meaning and placed it into its time and context? I returned to this query time and again on those numerous occasions when I was ready to abandon the project, defeated by the impossibility of writing an ordinary woman’s life, nearly vanquished by the difficulty of finding material that would allow me to portray the colour, the complexity, the ambiguity of my subject’s life. Was I mad to continue in the face of so many challenges or was it a labour of love to honour both my subject and my reader?”

Born in Hobart in 1826, Julia Sorell was an original. Vivacious and warm-hearted, her marriage to Tom Arnold in 1850 propelled her into one of the most renowned families in England and into a circle that included Lewis Carroll and George Eliot. Her father-in-law was the revered Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby, her brother-in-law was the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, her eldest daughter, Mary Humphry Ward, became a bestselling novelist, while her grandchildren included the writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO.

With these family connections, Julia is a presence in many documented and famous lives, but she is a mostly silent presence. When extracted from her background of colonial life, extracted from the covers of marriage and family life, her story reveals an extraordinary woman, a paradox who defied convention as much as she embraced it. Julia Sorell’s ‘ordinary life’ is the story of sexual politics in the time of Charlotte Bronte. It is a powerful tale of deeply committed lovers who differ fundamentally in their understanding of the marriage contract, the role of a wife and religion. Julia’s is an enduring story about yearning, self-deception, pain and love. Like Virginia Woolf’s girl behind the counter, she may not have made her mark in history books but in its depiction of the limitations, the struggles and the triumphs that shaped women’s lives in the nineteenth century, hers is the hidden story of all women.

This seminar is open to all U3A Port Phillip members and subscribers and to the general public.

As there are limited numbers, please book in below.

This is an online live seminar, presented as a webinar on Zoom.

If you have not yet used Zoom, you will need to download Zoom onto your device in advance- click here for instructions.

Click here to join the webinar, from 2:20pm for a prompt 2:30pm start.

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