'From the Lips of a Lady': Mrs A.M. Hamilton-Grey's First Biography of Henry Kendall

By Dimond, Jill | Australian Literary Studies, May 2004 | Go to article overview

'From the Lips of a Lady': Mrs A.M. Hamilton-Grey's First Biography of Henry Kendall


Dimond, Jill, Australian Literary Studies


THE 'stupidest writer', says Baruch Mendelssohn in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, 'can remain alive after his death', lamenting that a person like himself 'who talks only, and even becomes warm and radiant in talking, dies with each word as if he spat out nothing but sparks' (Stead 141). It is a sentiment that Mrs A.M. Hamilton-Grey may have appreciated. While the three books she wrote on Henry Kendall in the 1920s survive, her much earlier career on the lecture platform in the 1880s has disappeared with little trace. This essay sets out to examine Hamilton-Grey's career as a lecturer and as an author, tracing the lines of connection between the spoken and the textual in her career to the point where they culminate in the publication of her first book. It examines the ways in which her career as a lecturer, her intimacy with Kendall's family, and the circumstances of her life informed the writing of her first book, Facts and Fancies about Our 'Son of the Woods' Henry Clarence Kendall and His Poetry, and its reception by critics and Kendall scholars past and present. While my focus is on Hamilton-Grey, Henry Kendall enters the story at significant turning-points in her career.

While Hamilton-Grey's biographies have provided source material for a band of Kendall scholars over the past eighty years, she remains a little-known and previously unexamined figure in Australian literary history. The primary sources for information on her life are the Hamilton-Grey Papers at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, which include drafts of her autobiography ('A Brief Biography of the Authoress' and 'An Outline of the Life of the Authoress'), a description of how she came to lecture on Kendall, titled 'A few reminiscences', and various versions of 'How I, at last, came to write about Henry Kendall'. These papers were compiled after the publication of her third biography of Kendall in 1929 and, with a few family photographs, ultimately bequeathed to the Mitchell with her literary estate.

Agnes Maria Melville was born into a large and well-connected Anglo-Irish family in West Maitland, New South Wales, on 28 May 1853, the youngest daughter in a family of nine, of whom two sisters died young. Her brothers were to become a bank manager, a solicitor and a surveyor respectively, while the fourth, as a marker of the family's social standing, 'married the youngest daughter of Lieutenant Ker, son of Colonel Ker and Lady Selina Ker, the sister of Her Excellency, Lady Mary Fitzroy' ('A Brief Biography' 8-9). Her sisters did not marry. She describes her father, Robert Melville, a veterinary surgeon, as enterprising, well-read and an enthusiast for Shakespeare and Byron. He wrote verses to his wife and encouraged his daughter's interest in poetry and drama, as she remembers in the dedication of her first book. She also studied French language and literature, memorising long passages and surprising her teacher with her ability to answer in 'the exact words of the author' (Hamilton-Grey, Kendall: Our 'God-Made Chief' 83).

By her early twenties Agnes Melville was living in Sydney, where she arranged a consultation with a phrenologist and lecturer, Archibald Hamilton, hoping to confirm that acting was indeed 'her natural vocation'. She saw him in his rooms in Hunter Street, and was not disappointed. She had dramatic gifts. If he thought she was stage-struck he would discourage her, he said, but she was talented, she would learn roles easily and, given the opportunity, 'she was bound to succeed on the stage in high-class drama'. He identified her talents as a writer, her exceptional memory and her gift for recitation. By the end of the consultation, it had been agreed that she would be his 'amanuensis and secretary' and that he would teach her 'the passions & sentiments, & their natural language, with a view to lecture-recitals'. Her own view was that lecture-recitals would offer a grounding for the stage ('A Brief Biography' 14-15). …

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