Kate Grenville, The lieutenant (Review)
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.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
(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.)