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Robert Francis (Bob) Brissenden (1928–1991)

by Bill Ramson

Bob Brissenden, by Louis Kahan, 1965

Bob Brissenden, by Louis Kahan, 1965

National Library of Australia, 4008356

Talk of Bob Brissenden and the talk is of wine and song and, indeed, in his latter years, the songster became predominant, the volumes of creative writing (which began as early as 1971) became his obsessive interest.

So the Canberra Times notice of his death was of 'Canberra novelist, poet', and only as a matter of biographical detail did his academic life emerge.

Yet it was here that he began and, in a way, he was representative of this University, this city, at a stage of its existence. Born in 1928 at Wentworthville, he graduated from Sydney with first class honours in English (BA 1951, MA 1954), before being appointed briefly as Senior Tutor in Melbourne (1951) and as Temporary Assistant Lecturer in English at Canberra University College in 1952 preparatory to going to Leeds (1954-1956, on a British Council grant), where he completed a PhD on the novel of sentiment in the eighteenth century. Appointed Lecturer in English at the Canberra University College he was to stay on this staff, being promoted to Reader in 1969, and resigning because of ill-health in 1985.

It is hard, from the start, to separate out the strands of his being, harder still to capture the excitement and freedom of those days when this University was young. Bob's formal training was as an eighteenth century scholar [(witness his Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade, 1974, his several volumes of Studies in the Eighteenth Century (1970, 1973, 1976, and 1979, the last two with J. C. Eade), his new edition of Joseph Andrews (1977)]. His enthusiasm was as a literary critic in the new-found field of Australian literature (witness his numerous, frequently seminal, essays on Patrick White, Judith Wright, James McAuley, A. D. Hope himself, and others), his anthologies of short stories (Southern Harvest 1964) and of poetry (1972). But his energy led him into American literature and his entrepreneurship into many things, academic and non-academic—eighteenth century studies, Australian literary criticism, censorship, the south coast and the environment, repertory, wine and food, the staff association, poets' lunches, etc.

Foremost amongst these, academically, were the Nichol Smith seminars (commemorating the acquisition by the National Library of a large part of David Nichol Smith's library) and, following five years as Associate Editor of Meanjin, a year (1964-65) as Literary Editor of the Australian, a venture which changed permanently for the better the literary pages of the major Australian newspapers. This movement outside academe was to lead to his becoming first a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and then its Chairman (1978-1981). He was elected a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in May 1976, and made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to literature in 1982.

It was also to give him a taste of life's wider horizons. In one of his early songs, 'All I want is a chair somewhere', appears one of the dilemmas he faced: Canberra was a city he loved, yet the recognition he felt he deserved eluded him here. The first Sub-Dean of the embryonic Faculty of Arts, he became a fierce critic of the 'administration' and its increasing dependence on rules, ultimately someone who was very dissatisfied with what he saw academic life as having become. The poet in him (Winter Matins 1971, but also three other volumes) triumphed over the scholar. It was with some relief that he resigned in 1985, suffering from Parkinson's disease, but with the prospect of working at what seemed the ultimate challenge, doing what he had been criticising. Two of the three projected novels have appeared.

How would he wish to be remembered? Neither as a scholar nor as a novelist, I think, but as a warm and generous-hearted human being; one who took an Australian pride in being able to talk with ordinary people but who could rise above this, in his sensitivity and the learning he wore so lightly, as occasion demanded; one who responded positively and strongly to the challenges of life. He was, as many of us know to our loss, a 'good companion'.

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Citation details

Bill Ramson, 'Brissenden, Robert Francis (Bob) (1928–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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