Do I write a Biography? – that is the Question.

Why have I this urge to write a biography, I ask myself? I have never been a great reader of biography or autobiographies. In fact, I can count on one hand those I remember reading in my younger years. As a schoolgirl I chuckled over Doris Gordon’s life as backblocks Doctor, and was only partially moved by the story of Mary Slessor, which my Bible Class leader encouraged all her girls to read. Whether it’s because I was drawn to the world of medicine or whether biographies of women only focussed on women who achieved the ‘unexpected’, I read the biography of Agnes Bennett, by Cecil & Celia Manson and the autobiography Lady Doctor, by Frances L. Preston. My mother gave me Somers Cooks’, A Friend in Need: Nurse Maud her Life and Work, but its almost immaculate condition raises some doubts. Did I ever read it? Family tales of the years of the great depression my father told encouraged me to search out other stories. Mary Findlay’s Tooth and Nail and Robyn Hyde’s Godwits Fly are two that I vividly recall. These auto/biographies still sit on my bookshelves.

Attending University in my late 30s opened a new world. Those long and daunting subject ‘recommended readings’ that were distributed at the beginning of each course included auto/biographies. Some I read with enthusiasm, such as the two volumes of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, Raewyn Dalziel’s biography of Julius Vogel and Frances Porter’s detailed and exciting biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand. Pressure of time meant I only dipped into others, now long forgotten. At the time I was hopeful they just might contribute towards a respectable exam pass rate. So in many ways it was surprising that I chose as my Post Graduate Diploma thesis, the life of the Dunedin woman Mary Downie Stewart. Reflecting on the reasons why I chose this direction may explain my present urge to write a biography on Mary (Molly) Dorothea Whitelaw (nee Shannon).

New Doc 2017-05-13

Mary (May)  Downie Stewart, 1917

Being totally besotted with the study of women there was little doubt in what direction I wanted to explore as a thesis topic. Initially, my curiosity led me to ‘the where and why-fores’ of what appeared, anecdotally, to be a large number of single women with means and leisure living in Dunedin pre WW1. I spent hours thumbing my way through the Hocken catalogue trays (there was no electronic catalogue those days) to discover women that fitted my criteria. The first major collection to catch my attention belonged to Mary (May) Downie Stewart [how they liked to shorten names then]. The comprehensive collection included extended family material under the name of William Downie Stewart adding further appeal. May Stewart and her sister Rachael had not been studied and the economic and political status of her family intrigued me, especially May, as she accompanied her political brother through his career. An added attraction was my indirect connection with her branch of the Stewart family through a common great-great-grandfather. To see much of her life recorded in correspondence, family reminisces and documents became a tempting challenge to want to know all. I went no further in discovering other single women. A biography, this thesis would be! Studying May Stewart I reasoned could answer some of my initial questions around single women-of-means. I must say however, the Department weren’t as excited as I was; biography wasn’t viewed as suitable history at the PGDip level, but thankfully they acceded to my wish.

As I researched and wrote up the thesis, I gave little conscious thought to what was biography? The collection offered an opportunity to considered May’s life and that is what I did. Telling her story as found in the documents, with some in-depth analysis, did however, give consideration to her status, gender, political and social life. My recent re-reading of the thesis I recognise hints of a deeper and connected insight, but in hindsight I feel this was more by chance than by any academic skill.

So, what are the similarities of the above to my desire to explore and research the life of Molly Whitelaw. Firstly, as with May Stewart, I am drawn to the comprehensive nature of a collection; Molly’s collection is large and rare by Presbyterian standards. It measures 3 ½ metres and is one of the few significant women’s collections that have made its way to the Presbyterian Archives, a largely male dominated collection in nature. Secondly, a life is to be discovered through the copious numbers of letters, talks and addresses, journalistic writings, publications, some photographs and written observations by people who knew her; a life that quickly became invisible within the ‘halls of Presbyterian fame’, as did May Stewart’s contribution to the political career of her brother. Lastly, and linked to the above, by exploring Molly’s religious faith, experiences and practices, her role as ‘lady of the manse’, mother, leader of women, and kindred spirit to many, provides a window into the little explored experiences of women of faith. Across most disciplines there has been scant attempts to explore the religious dimensions of women’s faith journeys in their everyday lives.

As I re-read these thoughts I see a glimmer of an answer emerging. ‘Do I write a Biography? – Possibly. But then, my next question is, as expressed by Virginia Woolf at the beginning of A Sketch of the Past, ‘My God, how does one write a biography?’  So, there are further questions to investigate, contemplate and share.


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