Blending Biography with Family History: Brenda Niall’s Can You Hear the Sea?

Cover image courtesy of Text Publishing

Brenda Niall’s biographies, in addition to being regular award-winners, generally share two features—their subjects are Roman Catholic and they emigrate from the northern hemisphere to Australia. Niall’s latest book, Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story continues this tradition.

Niall was a young woman in her twenties when her grandmother, Agnes (‘Aggie’), died. The author was old enough to have formed her own memories of a woman over sixty years her senior, but not old enough to have asked the kind of questions on which a biographer depends.

Who was Aggie Gorman (nee Maguire) and how does Niall evoke her grandmother’s life?


Aggie Maguire. Photo reproduced from Can You Hear the Sea?

Agnes Maguire (1869-1953), known as Aggie, was born to Irish Catholic parents in Liverpool, her family having been ‘forced into exile … in the years of the Great Hunger’ (15). With two of her siblings, Aggie leaves England in 1888—‘in a spirit of hope and adventure’ (2)—to embark on life in Australia. Her 19-year-old spirit could have been broken from the start—her brother dies during the passage to Sydney leaving Aggie and her sister, Minnie, without their intended position (and protection) as their brother’s housekeepers.

Seemingly undaunted, the two sisters make their way in an alien land. They settle initially in Melbourne, where their mother’s brother lives with his family, and establish a small teaching academy. They venture next to Kyneton, and then move further north for Aggie to take charge of a one-teacher Catholic primary school. It is while teaching in the small town of Burramine that Aggie meets property owner Richard Gorman, described by Niall as ‘a single man of good fortune’, undoubtedly ‘in want of a wife’ (47).

Marriage follows. Then children. Then death. In 1908, at the age of 39, Aggie is a widow with seven children. She navigates the children’s education through a combination of home teaching followed by boarding school in Melbourne. After remaining on her deceased husband’s property (managed by one of his brother’s) for a decade or so, Aggie decides to leave the land and return to Melbourne. Settling in the eastern suburbs, she nurtures the family’s next generation as her grandchildren come from country districts in Victoria and New South Wales to the southern capital’s schools.

More Than an Insular Family Tale

The outline above suggests a family story, modest in scope. Niall draws Aggie’s Irish relatives into her account, and various tussles with Aggie’s in-laws also add to the picture. But Niall’s long career as a biographer means that this story is larger than one family’s recollection of their matriarch, and it provides a useful template for family history writing.

History ‘Lite’

Niall weaves the historical record into her narrative. Her research is extensive (from contemporaneous newspapers and archival records, through biographies and general histories, and via the written and oral recollections of family members), but its detail does not weigh heavily on the story. The reader learns enough to glean an understanding of the times in which Aggie lived, but not so much that story veers too far from its main character.

By way of explaining a grim family photograph, for instance, Niall first describes Aggie’s mother as ‘severe and unsmiling’. She then continues: ‘Not that any of them smile: Victorian family groups are seldom animated. The photographic process was slow, and stillness was required’ (91). In another brief explanation of Aggie’s era, Niall notes Aggie’s indignation when she learns that her Liverpool-based sisters will inherit nothing from their father’s will: ‘The boys were expected to provide for their unmarried sisters. That was how it was in 1898’ (94).

Literary Links

Books are important to Niall, and they were important for her grandmother. Niall laces her biographical account with literary allusions. They serve two purposes: they reflect the character and interests of both author and subject, and they offer imaginative scope for readers familiar with the referenced texts.

Cover image (2000 edition) courtesy of Penguin UK

Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield makes an appearance when Niall writes about child labour in the blacking factories (19); Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as already mentioned, provides the model for Richard Gorman in his search for a wife (47); and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited offers a literary parallel for the lifestyle of one of Aggie’s England-based sisters-in-law, Isobel. Niall writes that Isobel employs a private chaplain: ‘It was the sort of thing that aristocratic Catholic families did—the Brideshead model’ (222).

A Sense of Character

Consider these insights into Aggie’s character:

  • when her brother Joe dies at sea on the voyage to Australia, Niall senses: ‘Perhaps that’s when Aggie taught herself to meet grief with silence’ (32)
  • when Aggie’s husband Richard becomes ill, Niall says that her grandmother ‘would have liked to keep Richard’s privacy and her own. She dreaded what she saw as an invasion of sympathisers’ (114)
  • when Richard dies, Aggie feels ‘an overwhelming emptiness’ and does not let herself ‘weep in front of the children’ (123).

This emotional reserve and isolation is a constant in Aggie’s life. It is so potent that it is transmitted to the next generation. Not long before Aggie’s own death, her daughter Connie’s husband (also Niall’s father) dies. Niall writes: ‘Connie’s grief was intense and silent … [Her] refusal to talk about her loss, and her attempt to protect her younger children, were almost certainly mistaken and damaging … In many ways, [Connie] became more like her mother’ (267).

A Sense of Place

In a biography, evocations of place are as critical as windows into history and character. People live in time and space. Word pictures bring worlds alive.

Exhibition Building. The Leader (Supplement), 29 December 1888: 1

Aggie and her sister Minnie arrive in Melbourne at the time of the 1888 Centennial Exhibition when a ‘dazzling display of creative talent’ (38) is on show. Niall deftly engenders a sense of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ through her description of the sisters’ visit to the Exhibition Building: ‘The girls paid their threepences to climb eighty steep stairs to the gilded dome. It was the highest point in Melbourne. From here, looking south, they could see Parliament House and the Treasury Building, solid and impressive in Italianate style, the Princess Theatre and the Windsor Hotel. To the west, the dome of the Supreme Court building dominated the skyline. Melbourne was a great city’ (38).

The Author in the Story

Brenda Niall. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Niall doesn’t shy away from allowing herself to be a character within Aggie’s story. From time to time, she blends her own memories and research processes into the biography.

The book opens like this: ‘On Christmas Eve, 1940, soon after my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me a small wooden box with a lock and key. There was nothing inside it, and as far as I can remember she didn’t explain it’ (1). Later, Niall recalls going to the cinema with her grandmother and seeing wartime news: ‘I look up Liverpool during World War II and find the newsreels we watched’ (10).

When researching the disease that killed her grandfather (Aggie’s husband, Richard), Niall offers a first-person reflection: ‘I looked on the internet for an account of actinomycosis and shuddered’ (119).

The distance between subject and reader is narrowed via the author’s presence.

Being Up-Front about the Unknown

Niall’s subject is a woman born in the 1860s. Inevitably, much is unknown and unknowable. Niall does not paper over the gaps. When her mother (Aggie’s daughter, Connie) marries and leaves Aggie’s home, Niall muses on her grandmother’s state of mind: ‘I can’t guess what she was thinking. Calm after the chaos perhaps. Or a void that she didn’t know how to fill?’ (209). Niall doesn’t know the answer, but by musing on possibilities, she opens avenues for the reader to explore. She wonders (following the account of Aggie’s brother’s shipboard death) ‘why wouldn’t the sisters go home’ (37)? There is no definitive answer, but spotlighting gaps is part of the story.

What’s Missing?

I am disappointed that Can You Hear the Sea? has no index. While a name index might seem a tedious addition, it provides a handy tool for finding references not only to individual family members, but also to well-known Australians and international identities with whom Aggie’s family cross paths. Niall’s biography touches on significant events in Australia’s history with which the Gorman family was connected (for example, the 1893 Federation conference in Corowa, and the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917); it would be easier to locate references to these events with the help of a place and subject index. So, too, the mentions of Melbourne schools and suburbs that form an important aspect of the family’s life.

A Parting Thought

Early in her account of her grandmother’s life, Niall admits her dependence on the public record and other people’s memories. Of herself, she says: ‘I didn’t ask enough questions’ (4). It’s a salutary warning.

Links and Sources

  • Can You Hear the Sea?: My Grandmother’s Story is published by Text Publishing.
  • My reading copy of the biography was from the National Library of Australia’s collection. Copies of all books by Australian publishers are sent to the National Library under ‘legal deposit’. This scheme ‘ensures that a comprehensive collection of published material relating to Australia and its people is preserved for the community and future generations’. The library has my ongoing gratitude.
  • Brenda Niall’s autobiography, Life Class: The Education of a Biographer, was published in 2007 by Melbourne University Press. Her 2005 Seymour Biography Lecture, Walking upon Ashes: The Footsteps of a Modern Biographer was published by the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University in 2006. To find more books written by Niall, visit Trove Australia.

2017 Reading

Historical fiction and crime fiction, books marketed for children’s and young adult audiences, novels set in holiday destinations, even a sliver of non-fiction – here is an overview of my reading for 2017.

Books for Travel

Mid-year, I travelled in the UK, and I wanted to read, in situ, books that would lodge me in that landscape. One of the novels I chose for my Northumberland sojourn was Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water. There’s a shiver of recognition when I find myself in a place I’m reading about. When Into the Water’s Lauren wants to take her son for an outing on her 32nd birthday, she chooses Craster as her destination:

It’s my favourite place in all the world … after we’ve been to the beach and the castle, we’ll go to the smokehouse and eat kippers on brown bread. Heaven.

Lauren’s right, the ‘kippers on brown bread’ are heavenly.

Smokehouse, Craster, Northumberland. 2017.

My travels also took me to Devon’s Jurassic Coast. On my day trip to Lyme Regis, I imagined Mary Anning trudging across the sand, her keen eyes searching out traces of life from eons past – traces that would up-end 19th-century scientific theories and theological frameworks. Tracy Chevalier brings Anning’s undervalued contribution to palaeontology magnificently to life in Remarkable Creatures.

Children’s and Young Adult Books

2017 marked an end to my focused engagement with children’s and young adult (YA) literature. I wrote my last reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Reading Time journal in April. I was delighted that my final review bundle included Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle – a beguiling fusion of word and image.

Relinquishing my connection with Reading Time and with my @OzKidsYALit Twitter account doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books published for the children’s and YA market. A chance encounter with the name ‘G. A. Henty’ (a 19th-century English author) sent me trawling through the National Library of Australia’s excellent collection of Henty’s ‘boys’ own adventure’ stories. I was particularly interested in his 1887 novel (one of nearly 100 books from Henty’s pen) titled A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. Henty never visited Australia so how did he garner his information about life in the colonies? I went some way towards answering that question in the final instalment of my three-part blog post on Henty, ‘G. A. Henty and Australia: A Final Reckoning‘.

Later in 2017, I read Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. It’s the first book in a series about 11-year-old Morrigan Crow who, facing imminent death due to an unlucky birth date, is granted a reprieve provided she accepts an uncertain future with a previously unknown patron. My reading of Nevermoor set me thinking about the moral universes created by authors of fantasy fiction. Once again, my reading spawned a blog post, ‘Nevermoor: Morality and Values in an Imagined World‘.

I ended my children’s/YA adventures for the year by joining a Twitter book discussion hosted by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. These two Brits proposed a reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. (You can follow the discussion thread here.) For those in the northern hemisphere, the discussion coincided with the winter solstice, icy winds and flurries of snow – all mirroring the seasonal setting of the book. My reading took place during a pre-Christmas heatwave in south-eastern Australia. As I read Cooper’s novel, I took notes, and jotted down comparisons with other fantasy worlds (particularly J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series). One sentence, duly copied into my notebook, remains with me still. It concerns unintended consequences when rulers quarantine the land for their own private use:

But forests are not biddable places.

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is my unabashed escapist reading. I love assembling puzzle pieces, detecting motives, spotting subtle revelations. This year, I started Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series – two down, four to go! And Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (her second book featuring Australian Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk) took me, willingly, into the dark forests of Gippsland and the even darker jungles of corporate Melbourne.

Crime novels are often ‘easy reads’. I skate through them, carried by the pace of the narrative. But Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident did not let me off easily. The intensity (for me) in Maguire’s novel is not about solving the crime, it’s about the bedrock of culture and sex and relationships in 21st-century Australia. This book wouldn’t let me go, even though I wasn’t ‘enjoying’ it. Finally, I reached the climax; a single, convulsing stream of words. Words about men. About men who butcher girls, and men who don’t cause quite so much damage, and men to whom women go for protection, and about men who are pure and good.

But we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps, is the most unbearable thing of all.

Historical Fiction

When I’m not reading crime fiction, I’m often buried in a historical novel. The ‘Collections’ on my six-year-old Kindle reveal 30 titles listed under ‘Crime Fiction’ and 54 under ‘Historical Fiction’. (There are also two books in the ‘Too Awful to Continue Reading’ collection, but they shall remain secret.)

I’ve already mentioned Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, set in 19th-century England. Another book with an English setting is Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns, a richly evoked novel of the Pre-Raphaelite era. I was captured by the contrasting lives of the male painters and the women who succoured them. I went in search of Georgie Macdonald and Lizzie Siddal and Jane Burden. I wondered whether their painterly princes simply wanted to possess their beauty and fix it onto canvas, while the women themselves wanted to cease being objects in a man’s life and become the subjects of their own. Again, my reflections gave rise to a blog post, ‘Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns’.


A glance at my ‘2017 Books’ Pinterest board exposes a reading diet comprising mostly fiction. But the odd work of non-fiction sneaks in. I’m going to cheat a bit here because I’m including a journal among my ‘books read’.

2017 marks the end of publication, after five years and 17 issues, for EarthLines magazine. The journal, edited by Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, sprang from ‘a way of life … rooted in the natural world and in the wild’. I was fortunate to have an essay included in the first issue of EarthLines and I subscribed to the magazine throughout its life. It provided many hours of reading and pondering, and it included fine photography and original artwork. Thank you, Sharon and David, for your care, commitment and curation.

Lastly, an essay. Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading is published in a small, A6-sized booklet running to just 36 pages. It speaks of friendship and community and gifts and sharing. Macfarlane reflects, in part, on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, particularly Hyde’s proposition (in Macfarlane’s words) that ‘in the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving … Although the outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving … the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good.’

And so, my thanks to all the authors who have gifted me with their books this year. You have acted upon me ‘for the good’. Keep writing; I’ll keep reading.