An Interview with Jill Roe

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Historian and Emeritus Professor Jill Roe recently retired as Professor of History at Macquarie University after 36 years, during which time she mentored and inspired generations of students, particularly in the areas of Australian history, women’s history and historical biography. She was Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University in 1994-95. Her published work includes Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (1986), My Congenials: Miles Franklin and Friends in Letters 1879-1954 (1993) and A Gregarious Culture: Topical Writings of Miles Franklin with Margaret Bettison (2001).

Professor Roe is working on a biography of Australian writer Miles Franklin. Interviewed by Jan Zwar in March 2004, she reflects on the role of biography in academia, her time at Harvard, and living a rich national intellectual life.

Interviewer: In your own work you write with respect about the people you lived with in farming communities and in your years as an undergraduate in Adelaide in the early sixties, even though you felt you didn’t fit in.

I was a scholarship girl, and as you know I came from pretty ordinary beginnings. Very respectable, but pretty ordinary. I was fortunate, and I was obviously a swot.

I was a rebel girl. I knew that there was a bigger world, but how did you get there? I don’t reject my background. I was in rebellion against it but I have never rejected it. These were the days of the first Adelaide festival, the beginnings of the 60s, living on the wild side, and our kind of culture heroes were the Beats and the Existentialists: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Simone de Beavoir, Jean Paul Satre and so on, who were very fashionable at the time. It was exhilarating to have an entirely new world-view that opened things up.

I did start out thinking that I would do English but English was a bit stodgy in those days. It was still a sort of colonial thing. And to do well in English you had to be more of a lady than I was. History seemed to be more democratic, and it was another way of defining yourself and seeing the world, so that education was also liberating. I had a marvellous education in history.

I: One thing that strikes me about your work is your optimistic approach throughout.

Do you think so? I’ve never thought about it that way.

I: It seems to me that in your work, there’s always an effort to engage with social history and social policy.

That’s right. I’m really pleased that that comes through. In part, I guess that I was always trendy! I went with the issues a bit, but issues of social policy were a very real area of historical inquiry at the time. Also these are things that matter, so historians should address them.

These days I don’t work in those areas at all. I seem to be completely stuck in historical biography. But actually, working on my book about Miles Franklin, she’s an optimist too.

I: When you say “stuck”, it’s actually a choice you’ve made. What is it that attracts you?

The Australian Dictionary of Biography is a very important scholarly enterprise in Australia. I bet you don’t know about it!!

I: I went to have a look at it because you were involved in it, but before that, no.

You will soon, because we’ve got a big grant to put it all online. The ADB will be available from the beginning of 2005 at:

Volumes one to sixteen will be available online for standard searches then, with volumes now in preparation to follow. It will have a transforming effect on Australian history, I do not doubt.

I’ve been writing entries for the ADB for my whole career. It’s one of those collective enterprises that’s part of the profession but it’s come to be more and more important as an enterprise. People think it’s a summary of existing knowledge but that’s not the case, because in Australia the area is comparatively new. Important books and articles have come out of work for theADB. The ADB dates from 1966, with the first volumes covering the period 1788-1950, and as it got closer to the present, so it got closer to my own research interests. The ADB’s grown and I’ve grown with it.

Historical biography is a new frontier of knowledge. It wasn’t quite academically respectable because it was regarded as a belles lettres kind of thing. It was half-way between English and History and really it didn’t involve the kind of rigorous research that History does. That’s garbage of course – an old fashioned view and it’s gone completely, but there was this snotty attitude to biography for a long time, and because of that it fell through the disciplinary cracks.

Biography has boomed since then, and it’s boomed because the writing of lives has had a whole new significance attached to it. Once upon a time it was thought: this is terribly easy because obviously there’s birth and then there’s things and then there’s death. Really there are no conceptual challenges to it.

Now people take it far too far sometimes, but we do gain knowledge through the study of individual lives. Many of the things that people would really like to know about come from that kind of focus in the newer disciplines: psychology obviously, but also more interdisciplinary approaches. Biography also addresses abstract questions like failure and success in life. These are not as easily answered as they used to be in a more religious era, I think.

People love to read biography. They don’t mind knowing what the end is at all. And I must say I myself tend to read the end pretty quickly, to see if it’s moving and effective as an ending.

I: Is that true in relation to your own work as well?

I have written a paper on the death of Miles Franklin, but when I’m reading other people’s biographies, I certainly look to the ending, to see there the quality of the imaginative reconstruction. Because the ending is death, and nobody has quite managed to overcome that one.

The new functions of biography itself are one thing, and then from a more technical point of view, what you learn from an individual biography may actually transform a whole field, as William Blake said, “to see the world in a grain of sand”. In the workings for the research for the ADB, which is nearly all primary research, we constantly find that a single person casts fresh light on the Australian experience. If you gather up cohorts and generations, then you get quite different understandings of social and cultural and intellectual dynamics in a society, I hope.

My book about theosophy (Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939) grew out of an ADB entry. George Arundale was the third president of the world Theosophical Society, who became president after Annie Besant died. He was in Sydney in the 1920s when theosophy was at its most outward going. The society had its own radio station.

At the time of the ADB initiative, nobody knew anything about any of these things and because Macquarie University is near North Sydney where the Theosophical Society was located at the time, and I had written about religious history, I was packed off to do it. As I was researching the ADB entry, I had one of those moments when I realized that there was something there. There was a story that I could tell and at that stage nobody even knew how to pronounce the word theosophy. Many people thought I’d gone right off, but it was relevant, and when it came out, some younger theosophists were worried that historians were taking over their world. Older ones were not. But since then, they’ve got used to it and in fact it’s a standard reference and it has had an effect of making them more caring about their own history. It’s not my role to say whether or not theosophy should flourish. The history should flourish.

There’s another question too that interests me a lot. That is what I call the interior life. I have written quite a bit of religious history and I think that one of the problems in Australian history, not in Australia but in Australian history, is a failure to take religious behaviour and ideas seriously enough, no matter what you think of that.

You may disagree but actually people have had deeper lives than you would think. That’s something that attracts me a lot. David Martin, a Hungarian writer who lived in Melbourne in the 1960s wrote that, “Australians are a subtle people”. In that regard, I’m having a great grapple with Miles Franklin. She’s not actually a spiritual person at all but she vigorously records her inner life.

I: Why are you interested in the interior life?

I was brought up a Methodist. I was brought up to be a God-fearing type and when I was an adolescent I actually was. Church people were very helpful to me when I moved from the Eyre Peninsula to Adelaide. So I became very religious, but then I became very rebellious against it. And for a long time I didn’t do very much in that area. But it was all there. It was there from the beginning.

I: Do you have much of a spiritual life now?

I consider myself to have a classic Australian position, which is that the land and the environment just uplift me. That’s all I can say. I don’t think you can study history for very long and keep that big belief in a god as well. A lot of people can, but I didn’t.

I’ve been reading a letter by Miles Franklin in which she writes that one should disregard the latest psychological theories and “cling to your inner core”. She’s not referring to the soul, because she’s not religious, unless there’s some sort of hangover from her Christian upbringing. I’ve been thinking about that. What does she mean?

I should say that with regard to religious history, it’s only the way-out and zany ones that I’m interested in writing about. I have also written on anthroposophy, the Steiner group, and Christian Science. I’m interested in people who take a critical or an innovative view.

I: I get the impression that you’re quite admiring of them, even if you don’t agree with their views.

I wonder if admiring is quite the word. I enjoy them. It’s way-out stuff, it’s different. People trying something new. I like to see that. In history, of course, there’s not a strong record of actual success in the relationship between people’s experiments and aspirations in these areas, but they are tremendously interesting, and often they are hilarious, but no more hilarious than many of the things we do to try and organize our lives or give ourselves an uplift.

Also I do believe it’s important that, if you want to understand the norm, you should look at what isn’t the standard. It’s very illuminating to look at those who have taken a position to the edge, it casts a different light on what really is in general.

As Miles said of the young, “If they can’t be rebellious, they should at least be noisy.”

I: In your early publications there is an optimism about what history can offer, and also direct lessons that governments could learn from. Subsequently, however, you wrote that “research is research is research” – that is, it’s merely latent if it’s not picked up in other contexts. I wonder how you see the role of humanities and history now in engaging with broader social questions.

History is both a social science and a pursuit in the humanities. It straddles both. I don’t like the idea of history becoming narrowly one or the other. The immediate uses are generally just to say “Hang on, take heed” or “Think forward and think back”. The longer achievement to measure is – do people have well-stocked minds or are they technicians? Society is more than a technical exercise, so I continue to hold onto the importance of an historical education. If I had my way, everyone would have to do history. But more people do history than you would think. Often, they do ancient history. History’s not in such a bad way in New South Wales.

I: Can you speak a bit more about what you mean by a well-stocked mind? How we can achieve it? Are you making a reference to the influence of popular culture?

No, I am not. I haven’t got a well-stocked mind when it comes to popular culture. I simply don’t have time to watch TV very much. I listen to the radio a lot. But I don’t listen to commercial radio so I’m not representative. I can see that these are major areas of intellectual challenge that have come up in the last twenty years. Nevertheless, what I mean by a well-stocked mind is a widely-read mind. Reading is actually the most important thing that people can do to stock their minds and they can either do it themselves, in which case they may or may not get it right, or they can do it in association with their peers, which is a very constructive way to do it. When I was a student we just decided a lot of my early reading by saying “Have you read …?” This dates back to when we could only afford paperbacks. A well-stocked mind is a well-read mind. I’m not narrow about that. If people want to read in biology, that’s fine. But they should read widely.

I: You wrote about your father, a farmer, as someone who read widely. Now you’ve spoken about your peers at university. I’m wondering whether you’re speaking about Australians in general or whether you’re talking about people at university.

A lot more people go to university now than then. The people who didn’t go to university in those days were not more stupid or dimmer. It just wasn’t part of life, and certainly not farming life.

I think it is still true there’s a distance between universities and the majority of people. This is partly inevitable and not to be worried about by anybody, because a lot of what goes on in universities is very arcane research, necessarily so and it’s silly to rabbit on about elitism. How else is knowledge to be found except by these methods?

Universities are more important than they ever were, no doubt.

I: Why?

Because the world is a more complicated place. But at the same time, I’d hate to think that it made other people think that they were in some way incompetent or that they couldn’t do something because they didn’t have a piece of paper. That seems silly.

Universities have got a tremendous responsibility to conserve as well as create knowledge and to convey it. In some ways knowledge is like coal was in the nineteenth century in England. It’s getting the economy ticking over, so it’s a big responsibility for the universities.

I think generally that Australians are fairly well-educated. I suppose it is the question of whether the intellectual world is accessible and participatory. In the days where there was a belief that there was a common culture that we could all share, there was a belief that if only working people could read Shakespeare, we would all be part of it. I am not sure if anyone believes that notion of the common culture anymore. So in the fragmentation of cultures, there are probably distances that weren’t there before when the world was smaller and simpler and you didn’t have TV and so forth.

Much of my time at the moment is spent thinking about how Miles Franklin and her friends saw themselves as on a crusade for Australian literature as against there just being a nothing. In Sydney they had the Fellowship of Australian Writers, which was set up in the 1920s, and it was tremendously vigorous. They were all in there together and probably they felt they were up against something; they had a struggle, they had a cause. I’ve been thinking about that a lot but not to any final effect so far.

We’ve got to keep being creative. The History Australia journal is a tiny example of what we must do to build the bonds to make us strong enough to have our own voice.

I: Can you tell me about History Australia?

The Australian Historical Association (AHA) has had a Bulletin for many years but the time has come to do something grander. There’s an important professional space there, which is going to be filled by this new journal called History Australia. It is a refereed journal and it is wonderfully edited by Marian Quartly from Monash. It will be available online from November 2004.

I: What gap is it filling?

There’s the problem and there’s the gap. The problem is the distinction between history in Australia, and Australian history. We don’t want that distinction to go on. We want there to be a forum for all historians in Australia. The journal will have as a particular feature that it publishes refereed articles by historians working in Australia on non-Australian topics, as well as Australian history itself, which is well-served by other important journals. (But given the terrific expansion of the university in recent times, I don’t think there’s going to be any competing in the Australian field.) We will try to be an inclusive journal and make sure that the profession actually stands together. It’s terribly hard to get a profession to stand together but we need to for the Congress coming up. We need to be out in full strength.

Secondly, as a professional journal, it will deal with issues of professional practice that are not catered for by other journals. There will be refereed articles about professional, pedagogical practice and there’s no reason, for instance, why somebody couldn’t write a really learned article on their success with funding applications in history or failure thereof. Or about their struggles to put their units online or how to shape up the curriculum, those sorts of things. I can’t preempt the editor but the AHA will provide an outlet for history education at university level, research and writing about that. Or, I hope it does.

I: Can you tell me about Australia hosting the Twentieth International Congress for the Historical Sciences in 2005?

It wasn’t the first bid that the Australian Historical Association [AHA] had made. A bid was made in 1995 for the 2000 congress. Obviously Australia remained in the minds of the organizers because our people were very graceful losers and they didn’t moan and whinge and run around and say they’d been given a bad deal. They made a very favourable impression, and I pay particular tribute to Dr Anthea Hyslop there.

I became President of the AHA in the middle of 1998 and the question arose as to whether we were going to do anything about bidding in 2000 in Oslo, where the next one would be decided. I thought that it would be timely, feasible, for the University of New South Wales to hold the Congress. We couldn’t do it at Macquarie. We’re not big enough.

So Professor Martyn Lyons and I went off to Oslo. Martyn had made a lovely video for the delegates showing the University of New South Wales from many fine perspectives, from on high with the sea in the background! I hosted a cocktail party, and we thought it was a bit like an Olympic bid. UNSW was really backing it and they must have all due credit.

We feared that it was going to be a frightful contest but somehow or other, when we got there, that faded away. It seemed to me that the international organization had decided it was going to Sydney, not just because our predecessors had been nice people, but because the organization needs to get out of the European, mid-Atlantic orbit and wants to have a wider base. That presents us with our challenge.

I: It’s the first time it’s held in the southern hemisphere. It’s a big move.

It’s going to be fantastic. There’s going be an enormous festival of all the histories. The previous one at Oslo had 2000 historians. I think Martyn’s doing a great job.

[The CISH website is at]

I: What was it like for you to go to Harvard as Visiting Professor of Australian Studies in 1994?

I could hardly believe that such a thing was going to happen to me, to start with. When I got there, it had an enormous influence on my thinking, of course.

I lived in college. It was the most multicultural institution I’ve ever lived in. The intense competition was also astonishing. Students at Harvard could not believe it if they got less than a B, and they didn’t. The difference between the students I taught at Harvard and my own students at Macquarie was simply that there was no bottom. The tops were different, to my mind, but not better. But there was practically no bottom. So you had that challenge from the students.

I: Were you daunted or were you inspired?

I found it a challenge to relate to American students because they are very America-oriented. They were sweet people of course. Most students are rather sweet, cultural differences aside.

I got a view of what a great, rich university really is. Harvard has a daily student newspaper, The Crimson. I would open up The Crimson, and there would be things on all over the place. I would go to anything that interested me, so it was constantly a stimulating time.

I: Can you speak about the intellectual environment?

At Harvard, it didn’t matter if you had small classes. They never had large classes. A large class in the Humanities would be about twenty. What mattered to Harvard was to have the subjects, and so, whereas here, you might as well about shoot yourself if you’ve only got classes of eight, at Harvard that was fine. I found that hard to understand, to start with. What it was about was the subjects. Having the intellectual world there, all working. Some classes, of course, were very large, but that was not the criterion.

To come back to Australia, to Macquarie, was a bit of a shock. But on the other hand, my intellectual capital was so intensely built up by that experience. I felt, really, that I had a duty to try and give some back.

I: Do you think the equivalent of that rich intellectual environment exists in Australia today?

No. The richness of Harvard could never exist in Australia because we’re just not rich like Harvard is rich. Australia has to find its own way of living a federated intellectual life.

Places like Harvard are, I won’t say idyllic, but they lift your horizons, such that they give you new strength and you can press on. I don’t know how we could learn from that, but we also need to lift our game and value our intellectual diversity and vitality much more than we do. It’s very hard though.

That’s not to say that the voice has got to be inwards looking. The voice has got to be everywhere. The intellectual life is a free trade life in this country, so it’s very demanding here. We have to read both the European and the American stuff; they don’t have to read ours.

And we have to keep in touch with one another. I think you try and create communities of ideas and scholars and interests. Institutions are terribly important. Universities and libraries and churches and all those places that are actually about the inner life are the backstop, so we want to make sure that they are seen as strong and remain strong. We have to be continually creative about how to do it.

The number of small journals that have come and gone in this country in the twentieth century is truly astonishing. That’s another one of my bugs! One terrible thing about this country at the moment is that there is no progressive journal published in Sydney. Where are the journals of comment that you feel you must read? I have to read Quadrant! Overland, Meanjin, Eureka Street, Australian Book Review, there’s heaps in Melbourne, but what is there in Sydney? There’s something missing in the middle at the moment. How I could contribute to that, I don’t know, because I feel I’ve got these books I must write, but I will continue to participate in the history world as much as possible.

I: What are you working on now?

I would like to make it clear that what I have done is to retire from teaching and I intend, in that way, to achieve two things: one is that I will be able to progress my own research and writing faster, which I certainly need to do, and the other is I believe that the moment for renewal in the Humanities at Macquarie University has come and I’m very happy for younger people to take over.

In saying that, my commitment to Macquarie continues, in particular to building up the Humanities research profile. I have been made Professor Emeritus so I’m not about to disappear down the sinkhole.

I’m working on a biography of Miles Franklin. Miles Franklin was a sophisticated woman. She had been around the world, she lived overseas for many years, and she had an international perspective. Now she’s perceived as being part of a “gum-tree” mentality, which is misleading. What interests me is that she was trying to express the Australian land imaginatively.

It’s not a cliché. Murray Bail has written a book called Eucalyptus 50 years on. It became a simplified point for somebody who was trying to say “What distinctive thing have we Australians got to contribute to the international scene, the literary heritage?” There is a great deal of misunderstanding about nationalism. There are many types of nationalism and there is no way that Australian nationalism is the same as Eastern Bloc, or the terrible Balkan struggles in its expressions of nationalism. The histories are different. Miles Franklin belongs in an Australian version of the history of the coming of nationalism, which is, of itself, unusual and distinctive, and, in my view, not vicious.

It was once highly understandable, coming out of the British Empire as it did. So I hope to have things to say about that. She’s a person of her time. We all are. That’s the challenge, to show how this person actually functioned in a time that has gone. I mean, she died in 1954. There’s no television. The first World War II migrants are just arriving. It’s the old Australia, but to go back to a point I made earlier about values, the old Australia and the new are one continuous story, as well as having discontinuities.

I’m interested in – where does creativity come from? Societies really roll on creativity, especially now, so it’s a big question and I think a highly topical one. In the case of Miles Franklin, she was a celebrity writer, but she didn’t feel she was successful and in many ways she wasn’t. Why did she keep on doing it? What was it that drove her? I don’t think it’s a purely individualistic thing, but I think it has to go through individuals. Historians went through a period of interpretation where ideas didn’t matter very much. That’s changed.

I: When was that period?

There were two periods, really, or two main trends. One was the great Marxist dream, which had its noble aspects, and the other was the scientific, positivist view, and neither of these quite came to this big question of the politics of creativity. That’s what I think. I’ve been through them.

I: Could I ask you to reflect on what you see going on in Australia now?

I notice there was a big brouhaha about values in education. The kind of moralisms that are now going around don’t touch me greatly. I never have considered it my role to teach other people morals, indeed I would feel a frightful hypocrite trying to do so! There are certainly values, but from a professional point of view, you’re trying to teach people subjects. The intellectual values and educational values are how you do it.

I have always been a great supporter of teaching. I was very well taught myself, and so I in every way come back to educational and intellectual values as being the key ones in what is obviously a very political debate. So I’m very interested in that.

I: You’re not a complete moral relativist, though.

Oh no. What do you teach is a big question. That’s a very important and critical question and that is where all the values come together in my way of doing things. What I teach is what I think it is important for people to know, that I can tell them.

I: Give me a specific example.

Apropos Australian women’s history, I have always said in my classes, “I am doing this because I don’t want you to be as ignorant as I was. I want you to know what your inheritance really is.” Now that is a moral position, isn’t it? It was the basis of the course that I used to teach at Harvard (Women in Australian History: 1788 – 1988) and then have subsequently taught at Macquarie, and which I believe is going to go on being taught. I should hope so, they’d be crackers not to!

I think that it’s important for people to do political history as well as social history, so in my teaching there would always be that dimension. Some people would think that that was a moral decision, wouldn’t they?

I’m glad to see the way the debate’s going on values, because some important things seem to me to have been lost sight of about – I won’t use the word identity, that’s worn out – but about the Australian experience. We can get very obsessive about aspects but there is a bigger picture and it’s a challenge to always keep it in mind. I believe you can’t be a good inter-nationalist unless you know and love your own country. Many academics today are addressing issues of globalisation, which makes it difficult to look inwards.

I: What do you think is being lost or overlooked at the moment?

Well, I don’t think ideas like that, or that focus has been lost, because as soon as you say that all the other people like me get up and say “Of course they haven’t been lost” and you feel cheered up. But you’ve got to get the balance between equality and merit right. Now, the old egalitarian values have taken a battering, haven’t they, but they’re good ones. They need to be updated, not ditched.

I: The “new” areas of history (women’s history, Indigenous history), some of which you helped develop, challenge our notions of Australian egalitarianism.

That’s what I mean by they’ve got to be updated. There are areas of Australian society which mustn’t be left behind, or which are slow to be brought into that ethic. That’s one aspect of what I meant. The other aspect is the workings of modern consumer capitalism. However, it’s going to take a long time to get some of those questions right and they need to be continually worked at.

The ordinariness of Australians is an attractive thing too. We’re obsessed with it a bit too much, putting it down when in fact it’s quite a triumph.

I: You mentioned books that you feel you must write.

The first thing is I have by no means said all I feel I must say about the history of women in Australia. Secondly, as a labour of love really, I must try to write a regional history of the Eyre Peninsula, which is where I come from. At the same time, I am presently trying to make up my mind whether to accept an invitation to write a short history of Australia. Now when I say trying to make up my mind, it will be Miles that makes up my mind because the trouble with history is that it takes a long time to write and as a publisher friend of mine once said, it takes you lot about four years at least to do it.

So it won’t be only my own decision as to whether I can do that because I really do have a lot in the pipeline. I’ll have to go back to Chicago and London to check my work on Miles, and I haven’t yet been to Greece to check material there.

I: Looking back on your teaching career, what stands out?

One of my students said to me, “It took me ages to work out what you were trying to do.” Then she said, “I realized you were trying to make an historian out of me.”

I: Is there any other point you’d like to make to end?

Working on Mile’s biography, I find that the nearer I get to the present (Miles died in 1954), the more subjects come up on which I have to do a lot of research to avoid using clichés. At times it’s really irritating to me. There has never been a proper history of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. I can see that there’s a need for a new history of Goulburn, which is where Miles grew up. The last one was written in 1941.

In all this time, I have never had a postgraduate student who is working on Miles Franklin and I must say, I would really like to end this interview on that note.

I’ve got topics if anyone would be interested!

Emeritus Professor Jill Roe is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Chair of the Editorial Board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and a Past President of the Australian Historical Association.

Jill was interviewed by Jan Zwar, research officer in the Division of Humanities, Macquarie University. Ms Zwar is a writer and multimedia producer who is studying towards a Master of International Relations at Macquarie University.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]