Wah! Once again I delayed reading a much heralded book until my reading group did it*, and so it is only now that I’ve read Clare Wright’s Stella Prize winning history, The forgotten rebels of Eureka. The trouble with coming late to a high-profile book is how to review it freshly. All I can do, really, is what I usually do, and that is write about an aspect or two that particularly interested me. Since other bloggers have already beautifully covered one of these, the history**, I’m going to focus on Wright’s writing and the approach she took to telling her story. I won’t be doing this from the angle of historical theory, as I’m not an historian, but in terms of her intention, and her tone, style, and structure.
If you’re not Australian, you may not have heard of the Eureka Stockade. It was a significant event in colonial Australia’s march to democracy and independence, involving the British army and police attacking a stockade created by miners whose grievances included the payment of a compulsory miner’s licence and the fact that this licence, which they saw as a form of taxation, did not give them the right to vote in the legislature. It has traditionally been framed in masculine terms, but Wright discovered, somewhat by accident while researching another project (as historians do!), a new angle – the role of women in the rebellion. There were, she found, over 5,000 women on the goldfields:
Women were there. They mined for gold and much else of economic value besides. They paid taxes. They fought for their rights. And they were killed in the crossfire of a nascent new order.
Consequently, in her book, Wright draws on extensive primary and secondary sources to explore and expose the lives of these women and the until-now-unheralded role that she believes they played in the goldfields, particularly in the lead up to and aftermath of that fateful day of 3 December 1854.
Wright opens the book with three epigraphs, one of which is particularly illuminating in terms of my subject. It’s by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey and states that “every history of every country is a mirror of the author’s own interests and therefore selective rather than comprehensive”. Having been interested in historical writing since studying EH Carr’s What is history at university, I like the admission that histories are inherently subjective, regardless of how well researched they are. The historian makes decisions about what s/he will research, what the limits of that research will be, and how s/he will interpret that research. It’s common sense. How can it be otherwise? And so, in this history, Wright’s specific interest in the role of women means that all her research – even research into men’s activities – is viewed through that prism. There’s another implication, too, regarding selectivity: with her focus being specifically the women, we cannot read this book as a comprehensive history of the Eureka Stockade. It complements, or expands, or even jousts with other works.
None of this is meant negatively. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. My point is simply that it’s important, as it always is, to be aware of what we are reading – and I like the fact that Wright recognises this. So, what we have here is, to the best of my knowledge, a thorough but selective history. The text is extensively referenced, with 25 pages of meaningful endnotes and nearly 20 pages of bibliography, and there is a useful index. These are things I look for in a good nonfiction work. The book is logically structured, by theme and chronology, and its (creatively titled) chapters are divided into three main parts: Transitions, Transformations and Transgressions. You can sense a writer’s touch in the alliteration here.
And it’s the writer’s touch I want to turn to now, because Wright has achieved that difficult mix – a well-researched but readable history. It has been written, I’m sure, with an eye on a general, but educated audience. The language is often breezy and even jokey (perhaps a little too much) at times, and yet is replete with classical, Shakespearean, biblical and other literary allusions. She uses metaphor, such as “the cornered lizard bared its frills” to describe the hoisting of the famous Australian flag in the days before the attack. Her descriptions are evocative, and often visceral. You feel you are there in the crowded “tent city” that was Ballarat:
The arrival of the extra troops meant squashing more stinky little fish into an already overpacked tin … From the outside, it seemed like the tightrope was about to snap.
Her stories of the childbirth experiences of Sarah Skinner and Katherine Hancock are devastating to read.
Indeed, I would place this book in the narrative non-fiction tradition. It has a strong narrative drive, with a large cast of characters, some of whom stay with us, some of whom pass through. They include Ellen Young whose poems and letters in the Ballarat Times articulate the mining community’s distress and sense of injustice; hotel-keeper Catherine Bentley who, with her husband, earns the ire of the diggers by consorting with government officials; theatre-owner and actor Sarah Hanmer who donated more to the rebels’ cause than anyone else; and newspaper publisher Clara Seekamp who takes the helm when her husband is arrested for sedition. These women provide significant evidence for Wright’s thesis that women played more than a helpmeet role in the intellectual and political life of Ballarat.
In addition to “developing” these characters, Wright uses other narrative techniques, such as:
- plot cliff-hangers (much like a screenwriter, which she also is, would do) and pointed aphorisms at the end of chapters
- foreshadowing to suggest causation: “Even female licence holders expected a modicum of representation for their taxation—as dramatic events would later demonstrate”
- repetition of ideas and motifs to propel her themes. Take, for example, the Southern Cross. It functions as “a hitching post for existential certainty when all else was in mortal flux” during immigrants’ sea journey from the northern hemisphere to the south (Ch. 3, “Crossing the line”) and is later picked up as a symbol for the rebels’ flag “as the one thing that united each and every resident of Ballarat” (Ch. 11, “Crossing the line (Reprise)”).
As an historian, Wright is confident and fearless, expressing clear opinions, either as direct statements, or indirectly through her choice of language. She calls the Bentleys’ murder trial, for example, a “morality play”. She asks questions; she offers close analysis of her sources, such as noting that the use of the word “demand”, rather than “request” or “humbly pray”, conveys the diggers’ frustration with authority; and she makes considered deductions by testing textual evidence against her understanding of the times and the work of other historians. She discusses discrepancies in reportage, such as the different witness reports of the fire at the Bentleys’ hotel. But she also, as other bloggers and my own reading group have commented, draws a long bow when she suggests the full moon and menstrual synchrony may have been a factor in so many men leaving the stockade on the night of the attack. She provides some evidence for this synchrony as a phenomenon, and offers other reasons for the desertion, but it feels a little out of left field.
At times her nod to the popular and her push for dramatic effect jars, but Wright’s argument that women played an active role at the diggings and in the stockade is convincing. I’m not surprised she won the Stella Prize, because this is engaging reading that is underpinned by extensive scholarship and clear thinking. It’s exciting to see a work that doesn’t just explore the role of women in history but that puts them right in the action.