The biographer Hazel Rowley was fiercely determined and courageous

  • Life as Art: The biographical writing of Hazel Rowley. Edited by Della Rowley and Lynn Buchanan. Melbourne University Press, $34.99.

When Hazel Rowley died unexpectedly in 2011, Australia lost an outstanding biographer. Rowley produced acclaimed biographies of Christina Stead (1993), Richard Wright (2001), Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sarte (2005) and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (2010). The breadth of Rowley's writing was tremendous, and an unexpected pleasure in this book is that it gives the reader a distinctive potted history of the 20th century, and of the forces and ideas which shaped it, from existentialism to McCarthyism.

As author Drusilla Modjeska notes in a moving introduction, it's the reader's good fortune that Rowley was alert to how her celebrated subjects were interesting and complex in themselves, and also significant in our times.

Not one to shy from a challenge, Rowley's first biography tackled the Australian expatriate writer, Christina Stead. The four pieces on Stead cast a largely sympathetic light on the writer who was known to be prickly, difficult and mercurial. Stead's peripatetic existence would have been enough to discombobulate any writer, though. The fact that public and critical interest in Stead's work withered when she was at the peak of her powers is documented in thorough and thought-provoking detail by Rowley. It's incredible that Stead continued to be so prolific in the face of such disinterest.

Rowley said a biographer needed to be fiercely determined. She was certainly that, and also courageous. Her willingness to take a risk is amply evident in her decision to write a biography of African-American writer, Richard Wright, author of the controversial novel Native Son. Rowley pulled off an exceptionally well-received book about one of the most famous black writers of his generation. In doing so, she demonstrated her exceptional instincts, superb research and a knack for winning the trust of Wright's friends and family.

Of all her books, Rowley was perhaps most passionate about Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sarte. Rowley had written her thesis on de Beauvoir and had also interviewed her shortly before de Beauvoir's death. Reading her fascinating work on France's most famous public intellectuals, I'm struck by how radical the pair's pact to each other still seems today, amidst our ongoing debates about gender roles in relationships.

This terrific collection is let down however by a lacklustre design and occasional lackadaisical editing. Similarly, not all the pieces included here - extracts from Rowley's journals for example - match her form in the longer essays. It's a shame that Rowley's writing wasn't backed up by the design and careful editing it deserved.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer.
This story On the life of a fiercely determined biographer first appeared on The Canberra Times.