Julia Sorell Arnold first came to my attention when I was reading the memoirs of her grandson, Sir Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO. Interesting, I thought, as I had no idea that Huxley or his novelist brother, Aldous, had any Australian connections.
In his memoirs, Huxley told the story of how Julia had reacted when her husband, Tom, converted to Roman Catholicism in Hobart in 1856. While the ceremony was taking place, she had collected a basket of stones, walked to the church, and ‘smashed the windows with this protesting ammunition ...’ These words immediately conjured up a long-forgotten memory from my childhood, when I was a member of a stone-throwing cabal, a motley group of young Catholic kids tossing ‘yonnies’, as little stones were called, onto the roof of the building where the Brownies were meeting. It was claimed the Brownies wouldn’t accept Catholics as members. I don’t remember testing the allegation, nor even being particularly interested in being a Brownie, but I did like the idea of testing my arm. No windows were broken — most of the yonnies didn’t carry that far — but we exorcised our demons and believed the Brownies felt our presence at their meeting.
While the stone-throwing was exciting, what stood out most in my memory of that day was the reaction of my mother, who declared very forcefully that ‘young ladies do not throw stones’. Recalling this, I wondered what caused Julia, an adult woman and a mother herself, to behave in such a dramatic way. What feeling was inscribed into each of her tossed stones: was it bigotry, anger, frustration, or something else — despair perhaps?
Although Julia was a fascinating and vivacious woman and although her marriage to Tom Arnold propelled her into one of England’s most intellectually renowned families, she herself has remained a relatively obscure figure, rarely mentioned in the histories of her famous relatives. Precisely because of her marriage though, Julia’s letters have been kept and are held at Oxford University. Even so, the challenges in discovering her life were almost insurmountable at times, and when I look back, the difference between the book being started and the book being finished was not the initial inspiration to write her story but rather three other factors. It was these that spurred me on when I was quite ready to ask Julia’s forgiveness and abandon her story to the dustbin of history, defeated by the impossibility of writing an ordinary woman’s life, nearly vanquished by the difficulty of finding the right brushstrokes to portray the colour, the complexity, the ambiguity of her life in a way that would do honour to both her and to you, the reader.
The first factor was winning the Hazel Rowley Fellowship, which not only gave me vital affirmation at the beginning, but also created for me a moral obligation to see the project through. And this did at times literally keep me at the desk. I wanted to finish the book for Hazel, and for her friends and family who set up the fellowship in her memory. And I wanted to write something that I thought Hazel might approve of, for, although she wrote about famous women, I think she would have loved the challenge of writing about someone who was largely hidden from history — and someone who, when she did emerge, was usually brushed aside as being too passionate or too vexatious to be taken seriously.
The second factor was the determination to prove that biography can be written about ordinary people and, more particularly, ordinary women. When asked, as a biographer always is, ‘Who are you writing about and what did they do?’, I would slyly reply that I was writing about ‘an unknown woman who achieved nothing’. It would stop people in their tracks as they considered what I could possibly mean, and more often than not it led to some wonderful conversations about what biography means and what people might want from it that they cannot get from a novel or a history.
And the third factor was probably the simplest and the most difficult: the desire to write a book that people might want to read, one in which the first page led to the second, and the second to the third — one that the reader wanted to keep reading. If I have achieved that, then I would like to think that I have honoured Julia, fulfilled my obligation to both Hazel and my readers, and, in demonstrating the courage and complexity of ordinary lives, contributed to the scope of biography. What do you think?