BEHIND THE BOOK: Anne Black on George Isaacs

Anne Black, George Isaacs and Pendragon

In a new series on the Wakefield Press blog, we’ve asked authors to write about the background, inspiration, research and work that goes into writing a book.

This week features Anne Black, author of Pendragon: The life of George Isaacs, Colonial wordsmith. Anne writes about her first encounter with little-known literary icon George Isaacs, and the death certificate that sparked an obsession and a biography.

Penning Pendragon, or, the evolution of a biography

Pendragon is extreme family history. I confess my obsession. Sadly, I know little of my Pendragon, Anne Blackhusband’s other thirty-one great-great-great grandparents as my interest lies exclusively in the intriguing George Isaacs. From the moment I spied the words ‘literary correspondent’ on his 1876 death certificate I was smitten. And then, as the writer Samuel Lover wrote, ‘when once the itch of literature comes over a man’ – or woman in this case – ‘nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen’.

Initially I had no plans to write a biography of Isaacs, I just enjoyed the research. As I came across each new tidbit of information about him I added it to a chronological essay. By the time that document reached 40,000 words I required a mentor! Soon, I found myself a postgrad student in the supportive Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. I was so fortunate to have wise Dr Phil Butterss (winner of the 2015 National Biography Award for his excellent book on C.J. Dennis) as my supervisor. A PhD followed. I loved every minute.

Why George Isaacs?

Isaacs’ distinctive alias ‘A. Pendragon’ does not prick the modern Australian consciousness, and he is not listed in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. But he deserves a biography.

  • He is the author of South Australia’s first published novel The Queen of the South, based on his observations of the Victorian gold fields.
  • He has a terrific pseudonym. Isaacs was a compulsive ‘pen dragon’ of poetry, plays, fiction, letters, lectures and newspapers. His idiosyncratic writing, however, offers few clues to his rather sad personal life. Strangely, he never composed his own biography. The mythological sense of Pendragon (as in Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur) is apt too, because Isaacs was fascinated by the past. He was swept up in the Victorian mania for collections and amassed a hoard of medieval antiques.
  • He wrote the odd Burlesque of Frankenstein, now recognised as Australia’s first science fiction.
  • Isaacs was directly responsible for the composition of the iconic ‘Song of Australia’ (which I sang in primary school in Melbourne.)
  • He was a co-founder of the Humbug Society.
  • How could I resist the Register’s savage obituary that damned him as ‘a thorough Bohemian’? It suggested many improprieties!

Anne Black in Paris. Isaacs lived nearby.In fact, Isaacs’ adventures were so diverse that I sometimes feared that I was following the trails of several gentlemen named ‘George Isaacs’. Was the Isaacs thrice imprisoned for insolvency the same man who then advertised himself as an ‘accountant’? Was the rich young Englishman also the impoverished shopkeeper in Adelaide? And was the Jewish gentleman with the large family in Melbourne the same Isaacs who married a young woman in an Anglican church in Adelaide – and gave his status as ‘bachelor’?

Where did the information come from?

The short answer is, from many different sources.

  • Isaacs’ own writing, with its emphasis on autobiographical details, is a mirror to his thoughts. He directly experienced the great historical themes of revolution, immigration and gold rush, and his published words reflect those turbulent times.
  • My research magnified my gratitude to those vast repositories that quietly preserve our history and culture. I viewed Isaacs’ father’s business card in the Bodleian Library, and the sole remaining parts of the Queen in the British Library. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a painting of the ex-convict ship that brought Isaacs to Australia, and the University of Toronto has the only copy of his song The Myrtle. The National Archives in Kew has the legal document that confirms his birthdate, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has one of his brooches. The most important remnant is Isaacs’ scrapbook in the State Library of South Australia. Thank goodness I live in the age of email, digitised books and online catalogues. The wonderful Trove (so aptly named!) of Australian digitised newspapers filled out his life. Thanks again, National Library of Australia!
  • Experts, including an archaeologist, art historian, entomologist, jewellery expert, Jewish archivist, linguist and even an eminent numismatist were extremely generous with their knowledge. Isaacs’ descendants also responded to my inquiries with enthusiasm.
  • To place Isaacs’ life in its geographical and historical context, I happily indulged in biographical tourism, partially funded by the Fred Johns Scholarship for Biography. I have examined Isaacs’ medieval rings in a back room of the British Museum, and seen his ancestors’ graves at the Balls Pond Burial Ground. Visits to the streets where he strolled in London and Paris, the homes he inhabited, the dock from which he departed England, and his beloved towns in southern France, have helped me gain an impression of the man. I have strolled the promenade at Nice, “by the blue and tideless sea” that inspired Isaacs’ poetry, and climbed the stairs of the small museum in Montpellier where, as a young man, he attended an archaeological meeting. I have toured the Victorian gold fields and searched in vain for his trace. Isaacs’ presence is strongest in South Australia. Old pubs in Gawler, the Adelaide hotel where he died, the Queen’s Theatre where one of his plays was performed, even the Destitute Asylum, all evoked his diminutive, bespectacled ghost.

So, Pendragon is not really a family history. It is the meticulously researched account of one man’s life. My biography is not a hagiography (one of the two more interesting words acquired during my studies – the other is ‘dinkus’) but the true story of an overlooked, unconventional colonial immigrant. Now, the wonderful people at Wakefield Press have ensured that George Isaacs’ remarkable ‘riches to rags’ tale is available to a wider audience.

About the author:

Anne Black received the Dean’s Commendation at the University of Adelaide for her PhD thesis on George Isaacs. Pendragon, based on her studies, is her first biography.

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