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10th December 2021

Beyond the Sky_Text Journal

Going above and beyond

review by Melanie Myers

James Vicars

Beyond the Sky: The Passions of Millicent Bryant Aviator

Melbourne Books, Melbourne VIC 2020

ISBN: 9781925556520

Pb 272pp AUD34.95

Pioneering aviators, even if their specific achievements cannot be readily cited by most

people, sit in the public consciousness as almost folkloric characters. Kingsford Smith Drive

is one of the busiest arterial roads in Brisbane. Visit the Kingsford Smith Memorial on

Airport Drive and you can see Southern Cross – the carefully preserved aeroplane Sir

Charles made the first trans-Pacific flight from the US to Australia. The names of early

female aviators of the 1920s and ’30s are also readily remembered: for example, Amelia

Earhart – the America aviator who disappeared somewhere over the Pacific – and

Australia’s Nancy Bird Walton, who was the youngest woman to obtain a pilot’s license.

Yet, Millicent Bryant – the first woman in the Commonwealth outside of Britain to gain her

pilot’s license – is a name only the most ardent aviation history buffs are likely to know.

Bryant’s relative obscurity in the annuals of aviation history is the starting point for Beyond

the Sky, but as the title suggests, it is much more than this. The work is biographical in the

sense that it traverses, though not chronologically, the life of Millicent Bryant. Rather than a

straight biographical account, however, author James Vicars, Millicent’s great-grandson,

chose to write the book in the ‘form of a story’ (p. 9). Using the historical sources available,

which he describes as ‘fragmented and unbalanced’ (p. 9), Vicars opts for the more

immersive and arguably more challenging form of historical biofiction (otherwise known

speculative biography) to depict Millicent Bryant’s life story. Like creative nonfiction,

historical biofiction powers its storytelling with the narrative modes of fiction to recreate

scenes, imagine dialogue and speculate on the interior lives of its protagonists, hence the

‘fiction’. As a contested genre of biographical writing (Brien 2015), authors who use

biofiction to narratise the life of an historical personage often add an afterword explaining,

and even justifying, that decision, and to assure the reader of their ethical approach to re-

animating that person in imaginative and subjective ways. Brien (2015) suggests the

practice of writing speculative biography, where ‘narrative evidence’ is ‘fragmentary,

ambiguous and contradictory’, allows space for ‘the speculative biographer to relay not only

how uncertain, contradictory and confusing real lives are, but also to reflect on the nature of

the biographical enterprise itself as a holistic mixture of the archival and the creative’ (p.


Vicars is no exception, supplying a ‘To the Reader’ note at the start of the book (in addition

to a foreword) as well as an ‘Author’s Note’ at the end. In ‘To the Reader’, Vicars explains

that writing Millicent’s story ‘in this way [as biofiction] could help readers meet her more

fully and for her voice, as it comes through in her letters and other writings, to be heard’ (p.

9). He also assures the dubious reader, who may take issue with their inability to discern

‘what is factual’ and ‘what really took place’, that he has ‘worked fully with the record, not

against it’, which, in Part 1 at least, is largely drawn ‘from Millicent’s letters and writing’

(p. 10). Vicars signs off this missive to the reader with a reference to ‘responsible

imagination’ – a term coined by American author William Styron – to distinguish this work

from ‘freely-imagined fiction’ (p. 10). What comes through in this earnest appeal to the

reader, is not just Vicars’ compelling desire to tell his great-grandmother’s story, but the

considerable thought he has devoted to how this would be best achieved, with a promise to

the reader that, guided by the historical record, he is committed to telling it as truthfully as


Vicars’ ‘Author Note’ is more expansive about ‘imaginative writing’ as means of

recovering lost stories, and where he goes into further details about his sources, and some of

the liberties, he took in re-animating Millicent’s life in narrative form. Here, Vicars explains

the project of writing his great-grandmother’s life began was one of ‘rescue and recovery’; a

theme foreshadowed in the opening scene that places the reader at the immediate aftermath

of the Greycliffe ferry disaster in Sydney Harbour on 3 November 1927. The Greycliffe –

the ferry that ran between Watsons Bay and Circular Quay – sank after it collided with the

steamship Tahiti. Forty people, including Millicent Bryant, at just 49 years of age, died in

what is still the deadliest incident on Sydney Harbour.

In the opening scenes, we meet Millicent’s youngest son, 16-year-old Bowen, who is

searching for his mother in the chaotic aftermath and eventually identifies her body at the

Coroner’s Court: ‘All that’s necessary is for you to say whether or not this is Millicent

Maude Bryant’ (p. 17), the morgue attendant asks Bowen before opening the drawer with

her body. Later, Bowen collects his mother’s belongings, which includes a leather-bound

notebook embossed with MMB. The policeman tells him that it, ‘Looks like she might have

been holding it’ (p. 19). Both moments allude to the narrative questions of the book: Who

was Millicent Bryant and what were her secrets? How Vicars chooses to answer these

questions makes Beyond the Sky a masterclass in how to structure a work of historical

biofiction, so it reads with the verve and tension of plotted fiction.

The structure of Beyond the Sky, beginning with Millicent’s terrible death as a victim of the

Greycliffe ferry disaster, is a triumph of reverse engineering. After the dramatic opening

scenes, it would have been tempting to start Millicent’s story from the beginning – that

being her grandparents’ migration from England to Australia in the mid-19th century – and

working forward from there. Astutely, however, Vicar’s devotes the first half (Part 1) of the

book the final two years of Millicent’s life, beginning with her first exhilarating passenger

flight in an aircraft piloted by a friend of her two eldest sons. Millicent soon decides to take

flying lessons, becoming a regular face at the Australian Aero Club in Mascot, and obtains

her pilot’s licence. The ‘movement of Millicent’s life’ during this period is, Vicars says,

‘constructed closely from her writings’ (p. 340), and the result is a forensically drawn

portrait of a woman finally coming into her own after a lifetime of service to others. Part 1

finishes with Millicent boarding the Greycliffe in a pensive, yet hopeful, mood, thinking

about ‘the many opportunities for records [in aviation] for a woman, and she was the first in

Australia who would be ready to take them’ (p. 131). For Millicent, these records were not

to be, of course; instead, Vicars suggests the richness of the life she has already lived.

Sitting in the ferry saloon, Millicent pulls out her notebook to sketch some rough notes on a

sheet of paper for an autobiographical novel – ‘A Life’ (p. 132) – she’s been working on:

‘Her own intensity and longing struck her; nothing was simple. But that was why it

mattered: there was so much to be written, to be explored’ (p. 132).

The second half of the book is a more imaginative chronicle, built on ‘known events’ (p.

341), of everything that came before 1925, beginning with the Harvey family history. This

ancestral backgrounding and the years dealing with Millicent’s childhood could have been

tedious reading had Vicars not secured the necessary interest in Millicent in the first half of

the book. Here we see how her role as the eldest daughter of an ambitious farmer-settler,

Edmund Harvey and his wife, Georgina – a woman who bore seven children and largely

raised them on isolated homesteads – shaped the woman Millicent became. Millicent grew

up cooking, cleaning, caring for, and even educating her younger siblings, and she brings

this sense of duty with her to an unfulfilling marriage. In many ways, Millicent, born in

1878, was a woman of her time, who didn’t much question her lot, or the role of women in

society, at least until ‘her lot’ became unbearable, and she had to find the inner resources to

start again after the breakdown of her marriage; here we meet an adventurous woman

discovering her own agency. There is narrative satisfaction in the way Vicars juxtaposes

Millicent as a middle-aged woman who finds freedom and independence in her ability to fly

an aircraft, with the curious, overburdened child who rides horses and reads books to

escape. Much of this achieved through the careful rendering of Millicent’s voice.

Constructed and calibrated by Vicars from her writings, Millicent’s interior life, from

childhood to middle age, evolves with an elegant sensibility as she ages and matures. The

voice is especially adept at conveying her disappointments and the depressive episodes that

plague her as she gets older, without ever falling into self-pity.

As with any book that details white settlement in Australia, the stench of colonialism is

pervasive and unavoidable, even if it is mostly in the subtext: white men claiming vast

tracks of the Australian interior that did not belong to them. As Millicent’s father, Edmund

Harvey (1850-1933), accrues various homesteads in western New South Wales, the family’s

wealth and social standing as ‘landowners’ increases exponentially. It is uncomfortable

reading, and it also highlights a particular limitation of biofiction when speaking from the

perspective of the colonisers: the author-narrator is limited in the ways they can intervene to

condemn the historical prejudices and actions of their subjects, as they might with a

straightforward biography. They must let their subjects inhabit that world as it was, which

can mean minimising or countering, with fictional interventions, the racism of their point-

of-view characters and saving any explanation for these choices to the afterword, as Vicars

does in his ‘Author’s Note’. ‘Johnny’ (a stockman) and ‘Mimsie’ (a domestic), the two

Aboriginal characters who work for the Harveys, are, as Vicar hopes, portrayed

‘respectfully’ (p. 341), but their servitude to a white family and their dispossession from the

land, are still facts that cannot be erased, though many have tried, from the historical record.

This ‘positive’ relationship between servants and colonisers also includes a visit by some

Aboriginal children to the homestead where, during a storm, they ‘squatted together on the

verandah’ (p. 162) with Millicent while she showed them her books. This fictional scene is,

by Vicars’ own admission, a ‘counterpoint’ (p. 341) to the conversation that follows

between Millicent and her mother, Georgina, after she sends the children away. Georgina

tells 7-year-old Millicent her grandmother, Margery Harvey, rescued a white child from an

Aboriginal clan: ‘“Grandmother says it was known for Aborigines to sometimes take white

children,” her mother said’ (p. 163). As Georgina tells it, Margery ‘induced the gins to give

her this child’ so she could give it a ‘badly-needed wash’, where upon she ‘realised it was a

white child!’ (p. 163). Georgina continues: ‘Thinking and feeling for the mother of the child

who may have been at that moment yearning for the baby “so cruelly stolen from her” as

her grandmother put it, she treated the mite as she would one of her own...’ (p. 163). It’s a

discomfiting scene, both for its naked racism and ironic acknowledgement of the Stolen

Generations, but Vicars deserves some credit for including this account, which, he says,

‘was Margery’s own experience’ (p. 341), as it would have been easier to exclude it and

pretend it wasn’t embedded in the Harvey family history.

Despite this unease and perhaps others, Beyond the Sky is an exemplary work of historical

biofiction and does much to advance the genre as a legitimate form of biographical writing.

Vicars’ retelling of the forgotten story of Millicent Bryant is both fulsome and eloquent, and

while some may take issue with its fictionalisations, what can’t be disputed is the author’s

passion for his subject and the project that became this book.

Melanie Myers, BEd (Primary), BA (Theatre Studies), MFA (Acting), MComm, DCA

(Creative Writing), is a writer, editor and sessional academic at the University of

Queensland. In 2018, she won the Queensland Literary Awards Glendower Award for an

Emerging Writer. Her winning manuscript was published as Meet Me at Lennon's (UQP) in

2019. Meet Me at Lennon's was shortlisted for the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a

work of State Significance and Courier-Mail People’s Choice Award. Her writing has been

published in Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Arena Magazine, Griffith Review, Hecate, and

her short fiction has won or been shortlisted for various literary awards. In 2021, she

received an Individual Funds grant from Arts Queensland to work on her next novel, a work

of historical biofiction about the McDonagh sisters, and a Griffith Review Fellowship to

work on two nonfiction pieces to be published in 2022. She is the former artistic director of

Reality Bites – a nonfiction writers festival based on the Sunshine Coast.