My Accidental Career

Brenda Niall

My Accidental Career
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My Accidental Career

Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall, arguably Australia’s foremost biographer, looks back on her own life and the circumstances, events and choices that shaped her career.

My Accidental Career spans nine decades, from her childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Kew-where powerful neighbours included prime minister Menzies, millionaire gambler John Wren and Archbishop Daniel Mannix-to her university days, her first job writing reviews for a magazine and her travels in Ireland after breaking off her engagement to a suitable young man. It’s a lively account of academic life at the newly established Monash University in the 1960s, a time when women were rare in university departments and even more rarely promoted, the snakes and ladders ups and downs of her time in the US, and of her charting new territory in Australian biography with acclaimed works on artists, writers and leaders.

Brenda Niall’s career isn’t one of struggle against the odds in a man’s world but one of quiet, confident work that couldn’t be ignored. Her Jane Austen-like wit and elegant prose enlivens this story of Australian women’s history seen through the lens of her remarkable life.

Review

Brenda Niall is considered one of Australia’s greatest biographers. During her career she has penned accounts of the Boyd and Durack families, written numerous columns, literary reviews and considerations. In 2004 she was awarded the Order of Australia for services to Australian literature. If you have ever marvelled at her ability to capture a person’s life in print, then imagine this same diligence applied to her own story. It is all here: family, education, travel and relationships.

However, don’t just open this book for the details of Niall’s life (or to find out if you are named in it); this undertaking is more than that. Like all great personal studies, Niall has also created a portrait of a particular time in our history, beginning in the 1930s. Niall writes about tram rides in school uniforms, staying in bedsits in Ireland, travelling over bumpy paddocks to view the University of Canberra, or being in the States when Martin Luther King was assassinated. She dives into various positions she held at our own state universities with a special focus on Monash University. She talks about political and social change, and she recalls her devotion to her family and to editor Grahame Johnston. My Accidental Career spans nine decades and could be regarded as a front-row seat to the development of Australian academia.

Throughout this memoir’s various chapters, Niall includes excerpts from her diary entries; after all, here is a woman who has always written. The result is a detail-filled autobiography that journeys through various university departments, dinner parties and a life well lived. This is not a story of struggle, but rather a sensitive recall of a writing life from a woman who was there, successfully and unapologetically, and lived to tell the tale.


Chris Gordon is the programming and events manager at Readings.

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