Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force by Sarah Goldman (my review) is the recently released biography of one of the most interesting and influential women in Australia’s early history. My review copy arrived with a letter suggesting Sarah would be happy to be interviewed, so I sent her some questions to which she has been kind enough to give extensive answers. I didn’t let on, but this is my first interview.
Q. Personal Stuff: It bemuses me that publishers ‘always’ put in an author bio, “so and so lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog”. The things that affect how I read a work are the author’s gender, age and education.
A. none [that’s what I get for being impertinent!]
Q. Writing: This is your first book. I like the writing, it is both fluent and informative. Did you arrive at this point by writing in the course of your work, keeping a journal, writing for publication short stories/essays, or maybe just by writing/re-writing Caroline Chisholm? During the course of writing Caroline Chisholm did you publish any extracts?
A. I’ve written all my life, firstly as a newspaper journalist and then later as a television producer mostly in news. They say of journalists that they know a little about a lot, but not much about anything. Writing this biography gave me an opportunity to concentrate on one, fascinating character and the people and places which became the background to her story. It did take me a time to develop my voice though. In most news writing, one avoids expressing opinions whilst striving to communicate relevant facts concisely and effectively. Writing about Caroline demanded a different style altogether. I soon found that expanding and colouring-in with the facts were both enjoyable and rewarding, particularly as I had such a rich subject and environment to explore. Through the process I was helped by being part of a writers’ group at the NSW Writers’ Centre. Disinterested opinions from other writers are very valuable. Once the rhythm to the writing was established though, I found it quite easy to continue. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable process and one I am eager to repeat.
Q. Motivation: Did you always want to be a writer? A biographer? What drew you to Caroline Chisholm in particular?(The more I read about her, the more I admire her).
A. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a journalist and I honestly enjoyed every moment of my career, whether it was in newspapers or television, in Sydney, Melbourne or London. I vaguely thought that one day I would write a book, but it wasn’t until I started delving into Caroline’s life that I became absolutely determined to write about her. It all started years ago when I mentioned her to my (then) young sons, who knew nothing about her. I began to investigate Caroline so that I could tell them about her and I became hooked. I was busy at the time and put the idea of writing a biography away until a few years ago when I decided to give it a go. I was interested in not just telling what she did and how she did it, but who she was, in effect the flesh and blood woman behind the story. Similarly, I also thought it important to explore the physical and social environment in which Caroline lived because they too are vital aspects of her life. I thought it important to look at her 19th Century world and try to understand it from a 21st Century viewpoint.
Q. Process: Had you already started when Carole Walker published, did this give you pause? By your notes you rely on the McKenzie Memoirs, is there much other source material for the early part of her life (I infer there is no birth record naming the mother)? I imagine Chisholm becomes increasingly visible in Trove over time. Was your manuscript or parts thereof workshopped?
Q. I came across Carole Walker’s excellent PhD thesis and then book sometime after I had started my work on Caroline. It did not really give me pause because I soon realised that we were approaching the same subject from two different viewpoints. Another major difference was that Carole Walker’s best research and interest was focused on Caroline’s life and work in the UK. As you have obviously seen from my end notes and bibliography, I have certainly referenced some of her admirable research, but I have also been able to follow other leads. One valuable resource was Edith Pearson’s essay on Caroline which was written after Pearson interviewed Caroline’s daughter, also named Caroline. Elsewhere I found other resources for example the notice of Caroline and Archibald’s wedding in the Northampton Mercury and William Whellan & Co., History, Gazetteer and Directory of Northamptonshire which gave me valuable information about Caroline and Archibald’s neighbours in Northampton in 1831 and the whereabouts of various of her relations at that time and afterwards. Elsewhere I was fortunate to happen upon the log of Archdale Low Whitby, who sailed to Australia in the Slains Castle, Caroline’s first Family Colonization Loan Society boat. The log gives fascinating information of what it was really like to make that journey in the mid-19th Century and, I have the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies to thank for using that wonderful material. Without doubt, both the British Newspaper Archives and more particularly our own Trove from the National Library of Australia were invaluable and truly engrossing sources, both to follow Caroline’s career and that of her various family members.
Q. I think you are careful to say when you are ‘imagining’, which is not always the case. What do you think about the fictionalizing of real lives? What influence have other biographers had on your work? Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa for instance which is really an extended discussion on constructing a life from insufficient facts.
A. I think that the art of biography is to bring a real person alive as a character so that they are interesting not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level also. If the reader is engaged with the subject then the enjoyment of the book is so much richer. There are various techniques. I have chosen to use short fiction pieces at the start of most chapters, each easily identified by a change in font. As I explained in the introduction, in each case, the fiction relates to events that follow in the body of the chapter. They were also created using actual facts and evidence, be it direct writings by Caroline or other people such as Charles Dickens or a diarist of the time.
Q. Last of all, do you have a new ‘life’ in mind, underway even?
A. Yes, I do have another project in mind, but it is still percolating through my brain at the moment, so I will remain a little coy about it for the time being.
Thank you Sarah!
Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)
I also referred to:
Carole Walker, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)
Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852) preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).