When I finished reading Alex Miller’s latest novel, Autumn Laing, a coincidence led me to a book that Miller himself read in the process of creating Autumn Laing. This latter book is The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, by art historian Janine Burke.
To simply move from one of these books to the other is no great step, as Autumn Laing is loosely based on the historical figures of Sunday and John Reed, patrons of modern art in Melbourne, and on Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed’s lover who lived for many years with the Reeds at their home, Heide, now the Heide Museum of Modern Art.
But I would perhaps not have gone on to read The Heart Garden were it not for my internship at The Conversation. I came across a press release about Janine Burke’s latest book Nest: The Art of Birds, and contacted Janine to ask her to write a short piece for us, not yet aware that she was Sunday Reed’s biographer.
She agreed, and I realised that she was speaking that very weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival in a session about Heide, with none other than Alex Miller. I attended that session, as well as another later in the day where Burke and Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty discussed birds with Sean Dooley.
During my three months at The Conversation I had spent a lot of time thinking about nature, but not much time thinking about art or literature. Then, just as I was about to leave The Conversation and starting to think more strongly about my own writing, nature and literature met once again – in Autumn Laing, in Janine Burke’s article for The Conversation, in the two sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and in the historical story of the Reeds and Heide, a central part of which was always the Heide garden.
Images, ideas and emotion from Autumn Laing stayed with me long after I turned the last page, and I could not stop thinking about the real Heide. So I bought Burke’s biography of Sunday Reed, The Heart Garden, a couple of weeks later.
Here, art and nature are strongly intertwined: Sunday Reed’s creativity and her vision for Australian art were inspired by, and embedded in, nature.
It is thanks in part to the passion and emotion of Autumn Laing that I feel emotionally involved with the story of The Heart Garden. This is not to suggest that Autumn Laing is a fictional retelling of the story of Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan’s love affair; it is not. As Alex Miller himself wrote:
The inspiration for this story may have originated in the model of the relationship of Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed, but Autumn Laing and Pat Donlon are my own fictional inventions … Anyone looking in this book for the real Sunday Reed or Sidney Nolan will be looking in the wrong place and they will not find them.
Nonetheless, Alex Miller’s fiction made me wonder about the real people behind those “fictional inventions”, and sent me looking for more in order to understand the historical basis, however thin it might be, to the novel.
Miller also wrote in his essay that only the novelist can deal “in the currency of the intimate lives of ‘us’”. In reading of the real Sunday and Sidney, their affair is just one part of Sunday and John Reed’s life and of their project, Heide. Whatever the internal motivations and passions of the Reeds and Nolan, the essence of it is difficult to capture in biography, in spite of what they may have left behind in letters or diaries.
And so I carry the imaginings of Alex Miller and the passions of Autumn Laing into my reading of The Heart Garden. This is not to mix up fact and fiction but to feel Sunday’s story that little bit more, to remind myself that the paragraphs which sum up Sunday’s desolation at the loss of Nolan are not even the tip of the iceberg; that a life fully lived is much longer, denser and more impenetrable than a retelling of that life can ever capture.
This is no fault of the biographer or the historian, just as it is no fault of the novelist that the story they tell is the author’s “own fiction” (in Miller’s words) – it is all made up. The two types of storytelling complement each other.
Both these books are rich in what they say about art, literature and the Australian landscape. The next step for me is another trip to visit the Heide Museum of Modern Art, a place that I expect will seem quite different now that I have read these two books.
Further reading: Janine Burke’s review of Autumn Laing, available here.