In praise of difficult women, Annabel Cooper

Who is Sylvia? The Diary of a Biography
Lynley Hood
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1990, $29.95

Sylvia! The Biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner
Lynley Hood
Viking, Auckland 1988, $39.95, Paper $24.95

Who is Sylvia? is a day-by-day account of Lynley Hood’s work, her interviews, her negotiations, and her problems and struggles during the years she spent on her prize-winning biography Sylvia! Although the diary confirms that Hood covered a good deal of ground, both in her interviews and in archival research, the insights which Who is Sylvia? offered into Hood’s approach to biography only deepened the disquiet I felt when I read Sylvia! The diary enables a re-examination of some of the biography’s conceptual and procedural problems. When Hood read I Passed This Way, Ashton-Warner’s autobiography, she found it full of ‘gaps, contradictions, and unanswered questions’. The problematic sense that the biography gives of being a catalogue of discrepancies between what Ashton-Warner says about herself and the ‘real facts’ as detected by Hood may have had its basis in the conception of the work as a kind of counter to Ashton-Warner’s own reading of her life. Yet Sylvia! closes rather than opens the debate, offering little access to sources and a single reading of a complex life.

The major argument of the biography is that almost every characteristic of the adult Ashton-Warner can be explained by maternal deprivation. The diary reveals that Hood’s belief that Ashton-Warner’s ‘key motivation is the search for a mother’ was formed early (p23), and despite Hood’s injunction to herself to test her working hypotheses against the evidence, appears to have remained largely unexamined as a conceptual structure. As an argument it contradicts Ashton-Warner’s autobiography, yet Hood’s means of establishing evidence for it in the first chapters of Sylvia! are dubious indeed. Much is summary, with few or no sources. In the diary she tells us that her publisher insisted on fewer reference numbers per page, but why, when she was establishing her main argument, did she retain the references to the published material and delete those which refer to more contentious, presumably unpublished sources? Also an ‘imagined’ episode is created (to fill in for a lack of other evidence?). When Sylvia was between 14 and 18 months old, she was left with her bed-ridden father while Mama was away at school. Hood posits this as a kind of primal experience of loneliness and lack of love, yet offers no evidence that Papa was unable to offer Sylvia any care during this period. suggests that it produced a deep sense of guilt. The experience is identified at this point (pp18-19) as hypothesis, but as the biography proceeds it is treated as fact: ‘despite the deprivation of her early years’ (p20); ‘that guiltridden child’ (p23); ‘to Sylvia love meant betrayal. From babyhood she had been hurt by the people she loved’ (p121); and so on. It is only towards the end of the diary that Hood begins to consider that there might be other impediments to objectivity than ’emotional involvement’ with the subject – that ‘our responses’ might be ‘coloured’ also by ‘preconceived ideas’ (p267). One wonders whether Hood might have written a more open, more reflective and self-conscious biography if she had had more time to incorporate this idea into her writing.

Sylvia! under-reads the positive contributions which Ashton-Warner’s mother might conceivably have made to the person she became – notably Mama’s determination and ambition for her children – and attributes major decisions and events in Ashton-Warner’s life to attempts to compensate for childhood trauma, to needs rather than strengths. When she decided to become a teacher, for example, she was following in the footsteps of her teacher mother, and thus ‘identifying with the aggressor’. Hood seems not to have got past blaming Ashton-Warner for what she still regards as faults. The diary does reveal that Sylvia’s unlikeableness was a problem which concerned Hood, but it seems to have been one she was unable to solve. The focus on trauma and needs almost inevitably results in a reductive view of Ashton-Warner; the sources of her considerable and unusual abilities are not accorded the attention given to her weaknesses.

In concentrating on relations within the family, Hood ignores its structural relations to the society of which it was a part. Neither of them simply acceded to the powerful demands of the dominant concepts of femininity, and it might be reasonable to consider that Sylvia’s refusal of a woman’s place in that gendered culture drew on her mother’s stance. When Sylvia left her home circle and discovered that the rest of society didn’t expect her to enact the kind of womanhood that her mother represented, that another, strictly prescribed, womanhood was required of her, what might this have meant to her? There seems to be room here for a great deal of conflict, that might well have been very present for her when she began to try to reconcile the roles of wife and mother with that of artist. The more flagrant elements of her self-dramatisation did not emerge until after her marriage, even if – as Hood believes – she found the perfect husband.

A cultural analysis might re-read some of the ‘Sylvia stories’ which were legion among those who knew of her (and which, taken as a group, would make a fascinating study). Hood observes that Ashton-Warner shocked ‘conventional people’ who disliked the role reversal of her household and expected childcare and housework to be left to ‘self-effacing wives’ (p115), but her general tone throughout the biography, especially when she deals with Ashton-Warner’s own ability to mother, implies agreement with that same conventional opinion. Hood tends to view the ‘Sylvia stories’ in much the same light (somewhere between hilarity, bewilderment, ridicule and outrage) as those who told them to her.

An important implication of one of Hood’s epigraphs to the diary – ‘All biography is a form of autobiography’ – is, it seems to me, crucially missed. At the heart of my own objections to these books as a pair is a belief that if women writers now, despite the impediments that remain for them, enjoy a relative freedom, then it is largely because of the determination and the struggles of their predecessors. We still have no book about Ashton-Warner as a writer. Anti-hero though she may have been, Ashton-Warner deserves more.


Annabel Cooper lives in Dunedin. Her current work is on the autobiography of Mary Isabella Lee, and New Zealand and Australian war writing. This review was written in January 1991.



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Posted in Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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