February 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Franklin & Eleanor’ by Hazel Rowley

By Carmen Callil

It is always a pleasure to read a biography by Hazel Rowley. She is an enthusiastic chronicler of the lives she chooses to present to us, and has considerable narrative and research talents. Her biography of Christina Stead remains her best. Always she chooses subjects who are unconventional or, in some way, crusaders and outsiders.

Her joint biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Tête-à-Tête, first took Rowley into uncomfortable waters. Certainly the brutal insensitivities of those two intellectuals were worth recording but the retelling of such lives mainly through the prism of emotional and sexual concerns can make even the nastiest of humans – it’s hard to view de Beauvoir and Sartre as other than this – seem footling and tedious.

Rowley is equally at odds with her better self in this new biography, in which she tells the story of the Roosevelts’ marriage. Franklin D Roosevelt (1882–1945): four times president of the United States, crippled by polio for most of his adult life, a liberal leader and saviour of his country, who directed America’s victory over the Nazis and the Japanese in the Pacific War. His wife, Eleanor (1884–1962): his political partner, the mother of his children, an activist of enormous energies and wide sympathies, who came to stand for all that was best in American democratic principles in the mid-twentieth century. They wrote themselves – Eleanor copiously. Many excellent biographies, memoirs, histories and accounts have been written about them; there is already a vast Roosevelt bibliography.

It has long been known that Franklin dallied with other women, that Eleanor too had other loves, including women. Rowley claims originality in this biography in her assertion that, despite these infidelities, the Roosevelt marriage was a “bold and radical partnership”, one of deep love in which each accepted that the other’s emotional needs might require fulfilment elsewhere. The trouble is that this has been clear for many a moon and it’s difficult in the twenty-first century to contend that a marriage such as this is something exceptional and astonishing.

A further problem is that the Roosevelts are part of world history, not literature; the lack of any historical context makes Rowley’s book a one-sided portrait of two most interesting beings. Where is Roosevelt the well-known political bully? Can the adoration of, and slavish servitude from, all who surrounded the couple be seen as bullying of a very high order, rather than as a series of semi-idyllic relationships?

These qualifications, however, never make her work uninteresting. Rowley is a biographer of the very first order and this rosy account of the Roosevelts shows no diminution of her skills. This book will provide a new generation with a succinct account of the lives and time of two Americans of unquestionable human worth. That in itself is something.

(The Monthly is deeply saddened to learn that Hazel Rowley passed away on 2 March 2011.)

Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil is the founder of Virago Press. Her books include Lebanese Washing Stories and Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family & Fatherland.

'Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage' By Hazel Rowley, Melbourne University Press, 352pp; $36.99
Cover: February 2011

February 2011

From the front page

From little things ...

Labor confronts an enormous historical opportunity

Image of Christian Porter and Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison’s bad faith

The PM’s bill to protect religious freedom is a solution in search of a problem

Illustration

A Norfolk Island mutiny

Australia’s remote territory is agitating for autonomy

Image of ‘I Didn’t Talk’ by Beatriz Bracher

Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

John Peter Russell & Vincent van Gogh

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Life juices

Fasting at a ‘Fat Farm’

'How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - And the Stark Choices Ahead' By Dambisa Moyo, Allen Lane, 224pp; $32.95

‘How the West was Lost’ by Dambisa Moyo

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A tale of two cities

Mahmoud Saikal and Kabul’s ‘New City’ Proposal


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Les Murray

Les Murray’s magisterial ‘Collected Poems’

How to approach a 736-page collection by Australia’s greatest poet?

Image of a bushfire

Fair judgement without surrender: Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Arsonist’

The author of ‘The Tall Man’ tries to understand the motivations of a Black Saturday firebug

Still from Cold War

Pawel Pawlikowski’s perfectly formed ‘Cold War’

Not a moment is wasted in what could be the Polish director’s masterpiece

Still from I Used to be Normal

Female fandom and Jessica Leski’s ‘I Used to be Normal’

They’ve been dismissed and patronised, but Beatlemaniacs, Directioners and other fangirls are very self-aware about their boy band ‘affliction’


More in Noted

Image of Henri Matisse, A Game of Bowls, 1908

‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

From Matisse to Malevich: a considered snapshot of adventurous Russian collecting

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

For their Netflix debut, the Coen brothers return to the Western

Cover of Killing Commendatore

‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami

Art, music and mystery abound in the Japanese author’s latest novel

Cover of ‘The End’

‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion


Read on

Image of Christian Porter and Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison’s bad faith

The PM’s bill to protect religious freedom is a solution in search of a problem

Image of ‘I Didn’t Talk’ by Beatriz Bracher

Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime

Image from ‘La Passion de Simone’

Performing philosophy: ‘La Passion de Simone’ at the Sydney Festival

The creatives behind this Sydney Chamber Opera production on the extreme empathy of Simone Weil

Image of Craig Kelly

Protecting Craig Kelly

Saving the MP from a preselection battle was another fine display of muppetry


×
×