The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill: Autobiography


THE NARRATIVE OF GEORGE RUSSELL OF  GOLF HILL

1. AUTOBIOGRAPHY

The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill is a nineteenth-century autobiography, a colonial memoir supported by seven volumes of Clyde Company Papers. George Russell's 'privileged position' as a Western District squatter 'writing history' will be challenged by contemporary reports from The Age newspaper covering the Delegates' Convention on Land Reform (Melbourne, 1857). The aim is to reveal that which the narrator does not, can not, or will not, say about his experiences in the tumultuous period after the Gold Rush.

In writing their own histories, autobiographers determine what the reader is made aware of concerning their past, and even how those events are to be interpreted. In an historical setting, where alternative views may not be readily available, this creates an imbalance of power in favour of the author.

While The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill is the story of a successful and wealthy man, it did not arise from a social vacuum. The swirling winds of 'historical context', of real life as it was then lived, must have had their affect on what was actually written, and how it was written. If the choice of interpretive text(s) is appropriate, then it should be possible to uncover those details that were 'culturally inexpressible' for the author.

Reading Autobiography

A practical first step in reading Russell's Narrative is to question its reliability as a memoir. Autobiography is necessarily a retrospective account of events, drawn from both documents and personal memory. Russell's reputation as a meticulous record keeper is established by his preservation of over fifty years of Clyde Company Papers and associated personal documents. However his Narrative is much more than a dry recitation of verifiable facts.

A useful working definition of autobiographical writing makes two main points: that 'life narrative' is "a historically situated practice of self-representation", and that 'life narrators' "selectively engage their lived experience through personal story-telling". (S Smith & J Watson, 2001, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, University of Minnesota Press, p 5).

One simple example of The Narrative's historically situated production lies in the circumstance of its telling. The editor Philip Brown's Introduction indicates that the narrator dictated his story to his daughters' between the years 1881 and 1884 (Narrative, p 14). In a late Victorian setting the issue of 'self-censorship', or relating only what he thought suitable for his girls to hear, is potentially relevant. A similar issue around 'production' is that the Narrative was not formally edited for publication until 1935. At the time, the young historian Brown was reliant on the goodwill of the family's custodian (the formidable Mrs Biddlecombe, Russell's youngest surviving daughter and twentieth century proprietor of Golf Hill Station, Golf Hill Merino Stud, and Golf Hill Hereford Stud), for continued access to original documents and funds to publish. Any threats to the Russell-heirs' considerable social standing in the new century, such as the disclosure of previous misdeeds by an ancestor, could have come under pressure to be 'air-brushed' in the editing process.

However, the second of Smith and Watson's points, concerning "selective engagement" and arrangement, seems more pertinent to the question of authorial intent. Russell dictated short sections of the Narrative to his daughters "in the library at Golf Hill" after consulting his personal diaries and and extensive collection of business correspondence. In addition to carefully checking his facts, he also drafted a brief Prefatory Note stating his purpose.

This narrative is recorded from memory for the purpose of affording my children and others an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the events in connection with my first starting in the world on my own account, and my settling in Port Phillip, now the Colony of Victoria, in the year 1836. (Narrative, p 21).

Russell envisaged a relatively small circulation for his memoir, principally "my children", his direct descendants, "and others", presumably the circle of property owning relations forming the Russell-Simson-Bell-Lewis family connection. Loosely described, this encompasses the squatter's 'beneficiaries', those who at some stage in their careers benefited from the old man's advice, finance, livestock, or land. The natural point of convergence between George Russell and this particular, limited, readership is not so much in time (1836) or place (Victoria), as it is in their shared focus. They are all interested in how to make money. The phrase laden with ideological promise in this case is "the events in connection with my first starting in the world on my own account".

Russell's Narrative is the story of a 'self-made man'. It is this aspect of himself that he wants them to "becom[e] acquainted with". To use William Howarth's "anatomy of [autobiographers'] intentions", the Narrative is a rewriting of history by a prominent person whose life is treated as lesson, where the narrator teaches as he makes his protagonist relive past events (W Howarth in J Olney (ed), 1980, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton University Press, p 95). As a successful entrepreneur, he chooses to 'pass on' to his 'descendants' the accrual of his life, read 'commercial', experience. 

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