Placing Sociality, Intimacy, Authority: Dorothy Hewett in the Biographical Frame

By Moore, Nicole | Hecate, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Placing Sociality, Intimacy, Authority: Dorothy Hewett in the Biographical Frame


Moore, Nicole, Hecate


Prominent British biographer Hermione Lee declares that "the telling of narrative life-stories is the dominant mode of our times" (17). But how much does an individual life matter? How and where should its significance be weighed? In beginning work on a biography of the Australian writer Dorothy Hewett, some of the epistemological problems inherent in the genre have manifested with perhaps predictable force. Despite (or perhaps as an effect of) its booming success as a contemporary form of history, biography remains troubled by assumptions about the role of the singular subject in the national/ historical frame, and these assumptions can play out in ways that render idiosyncratic, or even illegible, non-conformist forms of living that may contest the dominant narrative of an age. When one puts together the terms cosmopolitanism, women, and biography, the questions at issue become concentrated through the valencies of place. Where is it that lives are made legible? Where do we locate the frames through which individual lives become representative, distinctive, or significant? Is biography as a mode of history dependent on older forms of belonging that globalisation's new world order is rendering unviable? To make narrative, do lives need to be contained by familiarised space and time? Does biography need the nation state?

Dorothy Hewett left home many times, turning her back on embedded belonging, the forms of which nonetheless haunt and preoccupy her writing across the genres. She left home, family, jobs, husbands, her first child, sites of memory, tangled relations of desire, and she left four or five times; such reiterative leaving, of course, enabled by the key trope of return. But she was never a cosmopolitan writer in the way that Soren Kierkegaard posited for the Romantics--never exiled from "all the substantial categories of family, state and race." (1) Unlike a number of Australian writers from her own and earlier generations, Hewett did not leave Australia for an expatriate writing career overseas and did not seek to position herself outside or "beyond the nation," to use the subtitle of Cosmopolitics, Peng Cheah's and Bruce Robbins's pivotal 1998 volume on the political theory of cosmopolitanism. She never declared, as did Virginia Woolf (disingenuously, one could argue, as the self-conscious and profoundly Edwardian Englishness of Woolf's fiction shows), that "as a woman, my country is the whole world." Even in her involvement in what can be couched as the mid-century socialist "quest for global justice" (in ways similar to those through which Richard Rorty in Cosmopolitics sought to redefine cosmopolitanism as a "larger loyalty," though Rorty would probably have repudiated such a comparison), Hewett's passionately articulate imaginary was rooted and lodged in the local details of quotidian living, distinctively inhabited community, and inherited memory.

More than this, in common with other leftist Australian writers through the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, Hewett's aesthetic project had an identifiably nationalist lean, engaged as were she and her contemporaries in a cold-war tussle with the intellectual right over who could speak for Australia and whose culture would count. In her ambitious early poetry and in her vernacular theatre of the new wave, the settler postcolonial imperative to make national culture is often clearly at work, compelling her to affectionate nostalgia and to rousing critique. To speak and write as expressly Australian still had a radical edge, even or perhaps insofar as the realist mode for doing it--representatively, "authentically," analytically--began to come under increasing pressure. In 1971, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane could declare that the most significant achievement of the new "impressionist" theatre was "to teach our actors to speak their native language" (167). The horizon of the white nation state and the licence to speak collectively in the literary field were newly-enough made, it can seem, to tempt the staking of redistributive claims. …

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