Kate Grenville, The lieutenant (Review)

Kate Grenville, The lieutenant book cover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

I first came across William Dawes, the inspiration for Kate Grenville’s The lieutenant, in Inga Clendinnen’s award-winning history, Dancing with strangers (2003). But this is not the only book that Grenville’s novel brought to mind, as it also reminded me of Kim Scott’s That deadman dance. (Intriguing that both these books use a dance motif, but it’s an historically valid one).

However, before I talk more about these connections and their relevance, I should briefly describe the plot. The novel is set during the first years of the white settlement of Australia. (The very fact that I write the “white” settlement says something about how far we have come in the last two centuries, though we still have some way to go). Daniel Rooke, the protagonist, is a young astronomer. He has been chosen for the First Fleet on the recommendation of the Astronomer Royal who believes that a significant comet will appear in the southern hemisphere in late 1788-early 1789. With this role in mind, Rooke manages to largely separate himself from the day-to-day hurly burly of the first year or two of settlement by creating an observatory, of sorts, for himself, on a hill (now called Dawes Point) overlooking Sydney Cove. Here, in his isolation, he is visited by a group of indigenous people, mostly women and children, and develops a particular relationship with the young 12-13 year old girl, Tagaran. They learn each other’s language, which Rooke chronicles in his journals. All this generally reflects the story of William Dawes whose journals Grenville (and Clendinnen) read, but, as Grenville writes in her author’s note:

Although I made use of historical sources, I departed from them in various ways. This is a novel; it should not be mistaken for history.

Meanwhile, back in 2003, Clendinnen wrote of Dawes, bemoaning his earlier-than-wished-for departure from the colony:

His departure cost us access to the local language as it was spoken at the time of contact. It possibly also cost us a brilliant ethnography, although his tender conscience  might not have allowed him to open the people to easier communication, and to more disruptive exploitation.

Grenville does a good job of imagining the Dawes described by Clendinnen as an “introspective, scholarly type” in her characterisation of Daniel Rooke. She introduces him as a socially awkward but sensitive and thoughtful young man who joined the military not for love of war but because it provided the best chance for a poor young man to make a life for himself. From this supposition she develops a credible character whose final actions in the book pretty closely mirror what we know of Dawes.

I will leave Rooke here for a moment, though, to talk a little more about the conjunction between the three books I mentioned in my introductory paragraph. The significant point they all make is what Clendinnen calls “acts of kindness” by the indigenous Australians in the early days of settlement (in the east, in the case of Grenville and Clendinnen, and the west in the case of Scott). All three writers describe a willingness to be generous that was not recognised or accepted by the colonial invaders. Now, I know that here I am speaking of history and fiction in the one breath and I know that, as Grenville wrote, novels should not be mistaken for history. However, modern readers can, I think, glean the truths, regardless of form or genre, if the writers provide the appopriate signposts.

Take The lieutenant. In it, Grenville is still smarting I think from the criticism she received from historians regarding her claims about the historical value of The secret river. The book contains many rather sly allusions to facts, reality and truths. I particularly liked Rooke’s contemplation about the value of his journals in which, as well as documenting the language he was learning, he described his interactions with indigenous Australians, telling stories that actually happened but whose meaning, he discovered, could be distorted. He considers omitting all but the dry documenting of language, but then realises:

Making an expurgated version of the notebooks would kill them. Like a stuffed parrot, they would be real, but not true.

With a little sleight of hand, Grenville uses a fictional character and his fictional journal to talk about the use of historical sources and the telling of stories from them. Do you simply present the “facts” or do you tell a story –  either factual as in history or fictional as in novels – from those facts in which you aim to draw out the truths as best you see them. Am I drawing too long a bow? I don’t think I am.

And so, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed the novel. It suffers from a little earnestness in tone but that doesn’t get too much in the way of a good story about how first contact in the first settlement played out. It’s not the only story about first contact but it is a valid one – and it helps us understand how an all too human inability to walk in the shoes of the other resulted in a catastrophe of major proportions that we are still working through today.

Kate Grenville
The lieutenant
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 9781921656767

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing. An unsolicited review copy received in 2010 so I’m afraid I’ve taken my time to get to it.)

28 thoughts on “Kate Grenville, The lieutenant (Review)

  1. Nice review! I am all for some playing with the facts in historical fiction. I think that when you’re dealing with real events, there is a responsibility to be true to the general spirit of what happened. And obviously you want to avoid any glaring anachronisms in details like clothing or language, because that spoils the pretence. But I think that messing around with dates and other details is fine if it aids the story. People who want absolute historical accuracy should read history books. Historical fiction is something completely different, and the emphasis is always on the “fiction” part rather than the “historical”.

    • Thanks Andrew. I basically agree as you can tell. Anachronisms are an interesting one … I’d allow a little leeway depending on the circumstances – like perhaps a piece of clothing a little out of sync, maybe a bustle worn too early or late – but glaring ones can spoil the effect as you say.

  2. Lovely review, Sue. I enjoyed this book too. I was intrigued by Grenville’s changing of names for real people, done after the criticism of historical accuracy made against ‘The secret river’, but I wonder if the story would have carried even more weight with real names(?). William Dawes also appears in one section of Ashley Hay’s wistful ‘The body in the clouds’ – interestingly, Hay uses his real name. Horses for courses… John .

  3. I read this a number of years ago now and really liked it. I was excited at the prospect of her latest book coming out but I still haven’t actually managed to read it yet! Given that the loose trilogy that this book is part of is now finished I will be interested to see where she goes next in her writing. I seem to recall her saying that she would still be looking at the past.

    • I haven’t read the latest either Marg … I haven’t read the latest either but look forward to seeing where she goes next. Most of her books have looked at the past I think … Except my favourite, The idea of perfection and Dreamhouse which was the first of hers that I read a long time ago.

  4. Yes, I think you’re right about Grenville still smarting a bit and determined to make a riposte of some sort without involing further criticism. I enjoyed The Lieutenant too, though not as much as The Secert River which I really admired.

    • Thanks Lisa … yes, that’s how I felt. I enjoyed this … she wrought a good story from the life of Dawes but for whatever reason, and I suspect that criticism is part of it, the book didn’t sing off the page the same way The secret river did.

  5. Sounds like an enjoyable book. It’s a fine line in historical fiction isn’t it? But so very interesting to see what a writer does with it. I like reading history through fiction but I never trust that the story is the truth according to fact. There might be certain truths revealed in fiction that go missing in fact and the frame of the story might be true but the details, I expect them to conform to the possible but I don’t expect them to be true.

    • It all semantics isn’t it Stefanie. I expect historical to be “true” in the wider meaning of truths but not necessarily “factual”. I would never quote one as fact but I come away from a good historical fiction work feeling I’ve understood the period or situation or how people behaved in some way.

      “The possible” is another whole thing to tease out too. I’ve had discussions about that before. Do we mean it could have or was likely to happen or do we mean mean it was within the realms of possibility even if it may not have been likely?

      • Oh yes, semantics most definitely. I too come away from good historical fiction feeling as though I understand the period better. As for possible, you got me on that one. I was thinking possible in terms of what could have or was likely to have happened, but may have but not likely is good too!

  6. Great review. I really like your point about how facts need meanings. And to give meaning a writer of either fiction or history must involve something personal in the account. Perhaps meaning may come from theoretical analysis, for example about economic conflict or gender. Or better, it can come from personal involvement with the subjects; what it means to live in this time and place, what it means to live here in reality or in archives.
    And once we get personal, we have to admit that there is always more than one story to tell about any situation. We have to relinquish our supposed omniscience and place our story alongside others, some more or less true than ours.
    I just posted my review of Historians Conscience, in which Penny Russell explores that issue.

    • Thanks for this response Marilyn … You’re right about meanings having many sources and baing of many types. My feeling in writing is that the writer should always clearly signpost what they are doing … If you say it’s personal or from a particular perspective you can’t then be criticised for not doing something else but the validity or value of your approach can be critiqued or analysed.

  7. A very interesting review. I have only read The Secret River which was of course excellent. I wasn’t aware of the controversy it caused but am not surprised – although it seems rather nit-picking to me – so many fiction writers make and adaptation of history nowadays that I’m surprised its still thought of as a problem.

    • Thanks Tom … I think it was partly a timing thing regarding changing attitudes to our black-white relations history. Grenville clearly hit some buttons that at another time may have been barely noticed.

  8. Im yet to read this. I did enjoy The Secret River, although I thought that it might have been better as a longer novel perhaps. I didn’t love it it though, and so it hasn’t encouraged me to go and read another book by Grenville in the same vane. I do have friends who have read this and really enjoyed it so I suppose one day I will give it a shot.

    • Thanks Becky, nice to hear from you. A longer novel! I like short novels myself! (Just joking, I’ve loved many long novels too). I did like The secret river a lot, and delayed reading this because I’d heard quite a few people say they didn’t like it as much, but I did enjoy it…

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