Monday musings on Australian literature: Inga Clendinnen

I cannot let this week pass without adding my voice to the tributes made by my blogger friends to anthropologist-historian Inga Clendinnen (1934-2016), who died last week at the too-young age of 82. It seemed fitting to delay my tribute for a couple of days to make her a Monday Musings topic. Clendinnen deserves no less (says she, applying a gravitas to her Monday Musings that they don’t really warrant!)

Now, I wonder how many of my non-Australian readers have heard of or know much about this rather significant Australian public intellectual? Clendinnen’s first area of speciality – and the subject of her first two books – was the Aztec civilisation. I haven’t read those books. She then wrote another which is on my TBR, Reading the Holocaust (1998). Her next was the first I read, her memoir Tiger’s eye (2000). Critic Morag Fraser described it as follows (the back blurb):

This is a rare book … it is memoir, history, fiction, a documenting of filial gratitude and ingratitude, and a record of the cauldron of a near-fatal illness, all bundled coherently – that’s the miracle – between covers.

The book was inspired by her experience with liver disease (and her ensuing transplant) … but this disease in turn inspired her to contemplate all sorts of things about life – hers and life in general – about the things that interest her, like writing, for a start, and of course about the experience of being seriously ill. (Oh dear, I’ve always wanted to reread this, and am now becoming distracted from the task at hand by dipping into it!) She talks about how writing is her way of understanding herself. Much of what she says is thoughtful, serious, philosophical, but there are also light touches:

Meanwhile, I wrote. I was in a big mixed ward and discovered when I pulled out my writing pad that in such a ward writing is ‘letter-writing’, and therefore a collective activity. Topics and items of local interest were offered by patients and by nursing staff. If I said, defensively, that I was writing stories, passing strangers–chaplains, orderlies, tea-ladies–would stop to empty a bucket of tales about their dogs or their ex-wives over me, or would say that they are writers too, or would be when they could get around to it. When they weren’t too busy living.

I love how she captures that special world that is the hospital.

Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with strangersAnyhow, moving on. The book that really brought her to wider attention in Australia was her multi-award-winning book, Dancing with strangers (2003). In her Introduction she describes it as “a telling of the story when a thousand British men and women, some of them convicts and some of them free, made a settlement on the east coast of Australia … and how they fared with the people they found there.” “A” telling, she writes. I like that. She also explains how she aimed to apply the disciplines of history (which can be “culture-insensitive”) and anthropology (which can be insensitive to “temporal change”) to an analysis of episodes recorded in primary resources in order to understand better what people did and why they did it. In other words, she teases out possible cultural assumptions, expectations, and, even, aspirations which might have underpinned the behaviours and events that have too often been simplified in the historical record we all know.

So, in this history, we have Clendinnen, our historian, saying things like “I think Baneelon believed he had fully instructed Phillip as to what was in store for him”, and

There is another possibility in this hall-of-mirrors world: that Barangaroo’s funeral rites were muted not because of Barangaroo’s social isolation, but because of Baleen’s ongoing ambition to impress the British, in this case with the reverent sedateness of his mourning. After all, he has watched enough British burials.

She concludes by arguing, logically it seems to me, that “to understand history we have to get inside episodes, which means setting ourselves to understand our subjects’ changing motivations and moods in their changing contexts, and to tracing the devious routes by which knowledge was acquired, understood and acted upon.” This is the sort of history I enjoy reading …

Every time, in fact, that I read Clendinnen on history I am mystified all over again about her strong criticism of Kate Grenville’s comments regarding The secret river. I keep thinking I’m missing something. In Dancing with strangers Clendinnen uses her knowledge of culture and human beings to fill gaps or find different explanations for how people behaved which is, in a different but to me related way, what “literary” historical novelists do. We could get caught up in semantics here, in arguing exceptions and rules, and so on, but my feeling (with no evidence I admit) is that Grenville’s over-exuberant-at-the-time way of explaining what she was doing “got up Clendinnen’s nose”. I read (and enjoyed) Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay on “The history question: Who owns the past (QE23)” (2006) and the section in which she discusses novelists and historians is replete with my marginalia! I’ll leave it there!

Finally, the last book of hers that I’ve read is her essay collection, Agamemnon’s kiss (2006). One of the dedicatees is “my unknown [liver] donor, April 1994”. Not surprisingly, the collection includes essays on health, life and death. It also includes writings on reading fiction, writing history, the history wars, the Holocaust. And she writes about other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald. In the last titular essay, she writes (yet again) about reading and writing. I’ll end with something that I think we’d all agree with:

Rewarding reading is like being luxuriously absorbed in intimate conversation with a person not previously known, but whose words somehow interweave with the lonely interior monologue we conduct inside our heads. In real life we might encounter such a conversation in five, ten or twenty years, or possibly not at all. In a world of libraries and bookshops it is forever at our fingertips …

Vale Inga Clendinnen. Thank you for all your wonderful books, and for the intimate conversations we can now, because of them, continue to have with you.

For tributes from other bloggers, please see

  • Michelle’s of Adventures in biography (who brought Clendinnen’s death to my attention last week)
  • Lisa’s of ANZLitLovers
  • Janine’s of the Resident Judge of Port Phillip

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Inga Clendinnen

  1. A great tribute Sue. I’m writing from a bus station in Mexico having recently visited Aztec ruins so this was a reminder to look up her early work when I get home. Dancing with Strangers was fabulous. Lile you, I still don’t understand the history wars spat though! Cheers, John.

  2. Oh yes, this non-Aussie has heard of and read Clendinnen. I read Dancing With Strangers (loved it) and her Aztecs book as well as the superb “Whose History Is It?” I’d love to find time to read more of the history – the Holocaust book for sure. She and a couple other folks developed that Melbourne school of history I gather and that took hold here in the US for awhile (The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac – a Pulitzer winner). I love that really parsing out the bits from primary sources.

    As to Grenville, I think it was the way Grenville said she had invented a new way of doing history by going out on some river at night and realizing she was afraid (like people of the past). Something like that. Greenville’s book was so strewn with 21st century sentiments that I’m sure Clendinnen felt it had little to do with any authentic past. The Secret River is a good literary type novel but when Greenville says (on a radio broadcast) she has invented a new way of doing history … well … um … I think Clendinnen knew the subject a bit better than Grenville and knew that it was somewhat more nuanced than Grenville’s tale would allow?

    I used think I knew what the “history wars” think was about but I’m actually drawing a blank right now. I think it was about the depth and scope of the violence done to the Natives during British colonization. One guy said the violence was all made up – hmmmmm? – I suppose others said colonization was 100% murderous genocide? As Inga would ask, “Who Owns the Past? –
    On all of it –

    Love to Clendinnen – I’m a huge fan.

    • Ah thanks Bekah … Lovely comment. Yes that’s part of the history wars, at least, that difference in assessment of the violence led to a bigger difference in assessment of the whole early contact issue which then led to different justifications about or attitudes to the black-white relationships overall. At least that’s my simplification of how it went and the implications.

      As for Grenville, we won’t start that argument again! I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I’m just thrilled to have an American, a non-Australian, commenting here who has read these works and is able to argue so passionately on the ideas. Thanks!

  3. That’s a perfect quotation with which to end your post, Sue, and for me, it speaks for the conversation that I had with Clendinnen.
    I wonder… I wonder if somewhere out there is the family of the unknown liver donor, still keeping their peace about the important life they saved and the gift they gave to all of us, not just Inga Clendinnen. We owe them thanks too.

  4. I covered the Clendinnen-Grenville fracas during my degree (I sided with Clendinnen) and am familiar with Tiger’s Eye which I can only imagine I heard being read on the ABC. The one book of hers that I own is True Stories, the transcripts of her 1999 ABC Boyer lectures. In it she preaches the dangers of simplistic histories and if Lisa will forgive me another quotation, she writes of the USA, “Teach grown men and women a nursery version of their history and you will make babies of them when it comes to grasping the actual workings of their own society, and of their nation in the wider world.”

    • Hopefully all our tributes will be seen by her family who will realise what a wide impact she had. And thanks for the heads-up. I haven’t seen much in the media, though I have been pretty distracted in recent days.

  5. How did I miss this?

    We normally get all sorts of alerts at work when a well-known author dies, but nothing has come through for Inga at all. Not even on social media.

    And I loved Reading the Holocaust, which I know is kind of weird thing to say given the topic, but her ability to tease out all the details and perspectives and possibilities in this book was astounding and awe-inspiring.

    I’m very sorry to hear of her passing. We will miss her enquiring mind and her thoughtful gaze.

  6. Like Brona and yourself I missed the news of her death. I have always intended to read some of her work ever since my son, a historian, mentioned her to me but I had no idea she wrote so widely. I really must read at least something of hers – hint, hint! As other commenters have said – a fine tribute WG, thank you for it.

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