The Paper Chase
Maryanne Dever explores the issues involved with delving into intimate archives.
Where do the boundaries lie between private lives and public scrutiny? It is this question that underpins the research of Associate Professor Maryanne Dever, an internationally prominent scholar across the fields of gender studies, feminist literature and archival research.
Over the course of her accomplished academic career, Dever has developed a deep interest in the ways archived personal papers can be used in research and the issues of intimacy and propriety that are inevitably raised when such archives are accessed and brought to public view. The field of study opened to her as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney in the early 1990s, when she wrote a thesis on Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, two writers from Australia's inter-war years.
"I was always dogged by the feeling that I had left the good bits out. There was plenty of politics but no sex, and personal intrigue was left on the side," Dever says. "I was aware that Marjorie had had a relationship with [fellow writer] Frank Dalby Davison, but the people I had spoken to for my research were reluctant to discuss things like that. I decided I wanted to know a little more about what happened under the covers, rather than between them."
Dever's subsequent research has traversed major collections of Australian literary manuscripts, letters from screen goddess Greta Garbo, and most recently the papers of well-known Australian second-wave feminist activist Merle Thornton. The latter project, conducted with a collaborator from the University of Queensland and supported by the Sidney Myer Fund and the Office of the Queensland Premier, resulted in Thornton's extensive collection of papers from a lifetime of activism being secured for the National Library of Australia.
In 2009, Dever co-authored the book The Intimate Archive: journeys through personal papers, which explored some of the moral and ethical issues associated with researching private documents in public collections. It dealt with the authors' experiences in researching the romantic lives of three women writers, including Barnard, as detailed in their letters, diaries and notebooks.
Dever jokes that archives are 'hot' in scholarly circles at the moment, unlike when she began researching literary manuscripts.
"Where archival research and theorisation come together most productively in my work is around the question of method," she says. "What are we doing in and with archives? What can we do in and with archives? The Thornton project pushed me to ask what does it mean to 'archive feminism'?
"Right now I am especially interested in what happens to the stubborn materiality of archived documents in the face of new storage and distribution technologies. I am exploring this in a keynote address, The Pleasures of Paper, for the Memornet Summer School in Finland later this year and through a new international research network I am establishing."
Dever spent last summer researching at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at McGill University in Montreal. While there, she led a workshop, titled archive + feminism, which attracted leading researchers in the field.
Before her appointment to the University of Newcastle in 2010, Dever held posts at the University of Sydney, the University of Hong Kong and at Monash University, where she was Director of the Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Research for nine years. Her work at Newcastle is aligned with the Film, Media and Cultural Studies program in the School of Humanities and Social Science.