Clare Wright, You daughters of freedom (#BookReview)

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWell, that was a tome and a half! And in saying this I’m referring less to the length of Clare Wright’s new history, You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, than to its depth and richness. There are, in fact, two main stories going on here – the story of women’s suffrage in Australia and England, and that of Australia’s leadership in the world, at the time, in terms of progressive politics, of forward-thinking social legislation. They were heady, optimistic times, and the suffragists (being those men and women who advocated for women’s enfranchisement) were part of it all.

Clare Wright frames her history of this period in Australia’s nationhood through the story of five suffragists – Vida Goldstein (1869-1949), Dora Montefiore (1851-1933), Nellie Martel (1855-1940), Dora Meeson Coates (1869-1955), and Muriel Matters (1877-1969). These women should – like that famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is – be household words. Indeed Pankhurst knew and used most of them in her long battle for women’s suffrage in England. Why are they not? Why, for example, asked Clare Wright at the lecture I attended, is there no statue to Vida Goldstein in Victoria? (There is, she tells us in her Epilogue, a memorial park bench in her hometown of Portland, Vic! A park bench!!)

Well, lest we think they are not well-known because achieving suffrage was oh-so easy in Australia, Vida told otherwise to a US Senate Select Committee on US Suffrage during her 1902 USA tour:

Vida wished the senators to know, too, that this was the result of years of hard fighting–in case they also subscribe to the ‘one fine day if just happened’ school of political progress.

In other words, our five women (and all the other Australian fighters for the cause) may not have had to chain themselves to a grille like Muriel Matters did in England in the Suffragette cause, nor refuse to pay taxes as Dora Montefiore also did in England for the same cause, but they had lobbied their case hard. Indeed, while South Australia granted suffrage to its women in 1894, and the new federal government to women in 1902, it took until 1908 for the last state in Australia, Victoria, to do so.

I should clarify here that, although Australia was a leader in women’s suffrage by being the first nation to legislate suffrage for all white adult Australian women, without property qualifications, and to enable those women to stand for parliament, it was just for white women. As Wright says, “it was now race, not gender, that defined the limits of Australian citizenship.”

Writing history

You daughters of freedom is, then, a good read, because the story it tells is fascinating. The five significant women are all wonderful subjects in their own right:

  • Vida Goldstein, the private school girl who “developed a passionate commitment to the underprivileged” and a “zeal for social reform”, and stood for parliament several times to pave the way for others;
  • Dora Montefiore, the committed socialist whose practice of non-violent civil disobedience was observed by a young Gandhi;
  • Nellie Martel, the elocutionist whose militant activism resulted in her being arrested in England and spurned by papers at home;
  • Dora Meeson Coates, the artist whose “Trust the women” banner is now on permanent display in Parliament House; and
  • Muriel Matters, the actor who led the grille protest in the House of Commons, flew in a “Votes for Women” labelled airship over London, and undertook a popular, successful lecture tour on English suffrage in Australia.

I’m not going to share their stories, because you can find them in reviews (like Lisa’s, in the link below), in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (on which their names above are linked), and most importantly in Clare Wright’s book. Each of these women played critical roles in the suffrage fight both home and in England where limited women’s suffrage wasn’t achieved until 1918.

No, what I want to write about is the style, because no matter how interesting or important history is, few (besides the academics and die-hards) will read it if it it’s not written in a way that engages. And this is where Wright shines. It’s a hefty tome, at nearly 500 pages. It’s a complex one which juggles the stories of five quite disparate women, from the late nineteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth. And it is extensively researched, with each page containing not one but several quotes from mostly primary sources (such as newspapers, speeches, and documents from personal papers.) A daunting work for researcher and reader alike.

In my admittedly limited knowledge of historical writing – so I might be barking up the wrong tree – Clare Wright’s approach reminded me somewhat of Thomas Carlyle’s in his three-volume The French Revolution. It’s a few decades since I read Carlyle, but that history could be written with such verve and colour made a big impression on me. Like Carlyle, though perhaps not quite so flamboyantly, Wright is not afraid to use bold rhetorical tools to tell her story. Explaining why 1911 didn’t turn out to be the golden year England’s suffragettes hoped, Wright writes:

Truth be told, the writing was on the wall well before that. The summer of 1911 continued in a national pantomime of over-the-top pageantry and under-the-surface tension with the King and his court centre stage. But the audience should have been shouting, ‘Over there! Look over there!’

Over there  … to Bermondesy […]

Over there … to Ireland […]

And further over there–to Germany […]

The glorious late summer of Edwardian England was about to shatter like a cheap vase.

There is nothing inaccurate in what she says – to my knowledge, anyhow – but the way she says it is fresh, compelling, and devoid of dry or, worse, obfuscating academese. I could pull out example after example of writing that captures our attention, but I think I’ve made my point.

Wright is also careful to make clear where the historical record is lacking. Why did Nellie, for example, suddenly disappear from public life? Wright explains that there are no clear answers, but follows up to discuss the “few clues”.

And, then, almost best of all, there’s the extensive use of contemporary newspaper reportage – surely made so much easier for modern researchers by the wonderful Trove. Wright draws on conservative and progressive newspapers from around Australia to reflect what people – as represented by editors and journalists – were thinking at the time. When Nellie, say, or Vida, were active in England, the Australian papers were watching closely and reporting. Not only does this flesh out our understanding of the suffrage question, but it fleshes out the wider social history.

The book is chronologically told, with evocatively titled chapters, such as, for example, Chapter 28’s “Homecoming Queen, Australia, winter 1910”, which chronicles Muriel Matters’ return home for her lecture tour. However, despite this signposting, readers do have to be on their mettle to keep track of our five suffragettes, to know where they are at any one time, and which of the many political organisations, if any, they’re aligned with. It’s a complicated story that Wright aims to tell – and following it requires attention.

They were heady days …

So, You daughters of freedom, is an engrossing read – but, I have to admit that, as I read it, I became sadder and sadder. This was mainly because of that thread that I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the one to do with Australia’s leadership in terms of progressive politics. What happened to us – us Australians I mean? There we were, at the turn of the century, leading the world, not only in women’s suffrage but in a whole raft of social reform measures, relating to working conditions, conditions for women and children, and, even, Maternity Allowance. We were also the first nation to elect a socialist or Labor government, when Andrew Fisher was swept into power in 1910.

Well, what happened, says Wright, was World War 1, which completely changed the nation’s narrative. But that is another story. Meanwhile, I highly recommend You daughters of freedom, and look forward to Wright’s third book in her planned trilogy on Australian democracy.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed this book. She liked it too.

AWW Badge 2018Clare Wright
You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603934

Dymphna Clark Lecture: Clare Wright and You daughters of freedom

According to the University of Melbourne website, the Dymphna Clark Lecture “is delivered annually by a lecturer who exemplifies the deep commitment Dymphna Clark showed to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.” Strangely, I can’t find a description of the lecture series on the Manning Clark House site which, I believe, is behind the lecture series. I can, however, find a list of the Manning Clark Lectures up to and including 2019 on their About Us page. Poor form I think, particularly given it was Dymphna, I understand, “who bequeathed the family home to the intellectual and cultural community with the wish that it be used to support artists and public intellectuals and provide a safe haven for the entire community.”

On Facebook I discovered that Drusilla Modjeska gave the 2016 lecture; on the above-linked University of Melbourne site that Anna Funder gave 2013’s; and on Virginia Haussegger’s site that David Headon was 2009. Drilling down to page 3 of my Google search, I found at honestyhistory that Bill Gammage was it for 2014 and on safecom that Eva Sallis was 2007. But, why can’t I easily find a list of all the Dymphna Clark lectures, as I can of the Manning Clark lectures? We could take exception to this, seeing it as, once again, sexism in action, but I’m inclined to think the reason is more mundane, and that it’s a sin of omission, not of commission. So, I now respectfully suggest that they create a new page for the two lecture series and maintain a list, with relevant links, of both series, because they are serious lectures. Clare Wright’s 2018 talk, for example, was being recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program. But now, having made my point, I’ll move on to the lecture.

You daughters of freedom

Technological troubles

It was held in a lecture theatre at the ANU. Unfortunately, despite many people trying for over half an hour to get the technology working, the lecture went ahead without Wright’s accompanying slideshow. A real shame but, luckily, Wright is an excellent, engaging speaker, and easily kept our attention for the 50 minutes or so that she spoke. The lecture was, of course, inspired by Wright’s latest book, You daughters of freedom, the second in her Democracy Trilogy, she told us. Manning Clark House’s promotion for the lecture said the book:

brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the envy of the world—and the standard bearer for progress in a shining new century. For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s feminist activists won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration.

This epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players: the redoubtable Vida Goldstein, the flamboyant Nellie Martel, indomitable Dora Montefiore, daring Muriel Matters, and the artist Dora Meeson Coates, who painted the controversial Australian banner carried in the British feminist activist marches of 1908 and 1911.   

I’ve started reading the book, and while I’ve only read some 40 of its 500 or so pages, I’m finding it wonderfully readable.

Anyhow, now, really, the lecture! Wright was briefly introduced by Sebastian Clark, President of the Manning Clark House and son of Dymphna and Manning Clark, and then we were off. She started by describing that famous restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally – you all know the one – which concludes with the woman at the next table saying to the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Wright teased out some meanings and implications of that scene in terms of women’s freedom, the #metoo movement, and, of course, her lecture’s subject, the granting of the vote to women in Australia in 1902.

“In the noonday glare”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWhen Wright stated that this legislation made Australian women the most franchised women in the world, there were mutterings in the audience about, for example, New Zealand – and was followed up in the Q&A. But, I had already read Wright’s Author’s Note that opens her book, where she explains her claim. Australia was the first nation to give (white) adult women full suffrage – meaning not only could they vote on equal par with men (that is, without property qualifications, and with the same age and residency requirements) but they could also sit in parliament. New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, but New Zealand was not a nation until 1947, and women could not sit in parliament until 1919. Finland was, in fact, the next nation to grant full suffrage to women – in 1906. I loved that she refers in this Note to something that we’d discovered on our US travels back in the 1990s, which was that women were granted the vote in Wyoming in 1869! But, Wyoming is a state, not a nation. Similarly the colony of South Australia enacted universal suffrage in 1895, including allowing women to stand for the colonial parliament, but again, it was not a nation. It was the fact that a nation had granted suffrage that apparently became a beacon for the world. Of course, proclaiming “firsts” is always risky, but Wright’s definition seems perfectly valid to me in terms of her book’s thesis.

Wright explained in her lecture that this same Act disenfranchised indigenous people. Some parliamentarians did apparently demur on this point, but those who demurred gave way to ensure that at least women got the rights. Consequently, race not gender became the dividing line. As Wright said, “white” Australia was very much the game from Federation, and, while later, some women started fighting for their “black sisters”, their first priority, after gaining suffrage for themselves, was to go to England to support the mother country’s sisters. Such were the times. Later in her lecture, Wright said that it may not be pleasing to know this about our “heroines” but it’s historically accurate!

I should confess at this point, that I’m not reporting on this lecture exactly in the order that Wright gave it but in an order suiting my main takings from it.

Anyhow, back to the granting of suffrage. Wright quoted American-born Australian suffragist Jessie Ackermann who said that this act of the new Australian nation put it/us “in the noonday glare.” Suffrage was, she said, the biggest news in the early years of the twentieth century and was simply known as “the Cause”. Australia’s actions made it/us a test site for universal suffrage and the other socially progressive laws Australia enacted in those days. Could it work? Everyone was watching – particularly of course men who feared loss of power. As Wright said near the end of the lecture:

Power never concedes anything without a fight.

Wright briefly introduced the five main women she features in her book, Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters, and Dora Meeson Coates, and characterised their approach to activism by giving them a canine archetype! Goldstein, the “born activist”, she described as a kelpie, for example, while Meeson Coates is a “reluctant activist” and a Weimaraner! (As past owners of Weimaraner, Mr Gums and I chuckled here.) Again, near the end of the lecture, Wright explained that she did this canine breakdown to show that these women were not all one type, and that difference is critical to the movement’s internal gatekeeping.

Wright also spoke about the challenge she faced in making suffrage, citizenship and federation exciting, particularly at this time when democracy is under attack. She quoted the recently reported Lowy Institute poll showing the surprising level of ambivalence in Australia about democracy. It’s hard to imagine in this environment, she said, that democracy and all that it involves was the hottest topic on the planet in the late 19th century. Why did Aussie women travel to England to fight for the rights for others?

Well, they were different times, of course, as Wright made clear. The turn of the century was a time of optimism. In Australia it was a trinity – new year, new nation, new century. People believed the past was being left behind; they had new Utopian visions. Women’s suffrage encapsulated all this – the ideas of rebellion, emancipation, restructuring society. Suffrage was seen as the key to unlocking repression. If women could vote, and if women could sit in parliament, women’s needs might be better cared for. As Jessie Ackermann said, the freest girls were in Australia.

The women’s suffrage banner

As she does in her book’s Introduction, Wright walked us through (our current) Parliament House to a narrow corridor past the Members’ Hall where, if you get there, you find a large banner. It was created by that Weimaraner Dora Meeson Coates in 1908 and was carried in the 1911 suffragette-organised Women’s Coronation Procession. Wright took us through its iconography/symbolism, through the implications of its depiction of Mother Britannia with Daughter Minerva. It shows, she said, the daughter Australia speaking to the mother England, the banner headline reading “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done.” This was, she said, “allegorical effrontery.” Why had she not known about this banner, she wondered, given she calls herself a feminist historian?

Now, I could go on, but I’ve probably lost half of you by now and will soon lose the rest, so I’m going to try to become even briefer. Wright explained that one-third of her book is about how Australian women won the vote, and two-thirds about how Australian women inspired the world, In this context, she told a wonderful story about Bulldog Dora Montefiore, another Aussie woman who went to England, and her “Siege of Hammersmith”, a 6-weeks long passive resistance protest again paying taxes without representation. (She was, says Wright, seen by a young Indian man, Mahatma Gandhi!) A wonderful story. It was part of something called the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Wright also described the passive resistance campaigns against the 1911 Census: Women argued that if they don’t count, they shouldn’t be counted.

The irony of history

And so, Australian women were leaders in the suffrage movement and yet, today, British suffragettes are icons of rebellion and bravado but our Australian activists are relegated to the footnotes of academic history. BUT, she argued, Dora Meeson Coates’ banner challenges the view that this history of women’s activism is niche. The big picture is, she said, that Federation and Feminism went hand-in-glove: the banner is about colonialism, about old and new, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, about men in Australia who championed women’s suffrage and those in England who didn’t, and more …

Why then are women not sufficiently accounted for in Australian history? Because, she said, of the First World War. Federation’s optimism, she argues, was soon overshadowed by the War, which, as we all know now, precipitated a “new narrative.” So, whilst before the War, our role in the world was being seen in terms of our achievements in terms of democratic idealism, suddenly it was being seen in military terms. It was our bravery, our contribution to the war effort, that now defined us as a nation – and the rest, as they say, is history! (Particularly given, I’d add, that, as Jane Austen said one hundred years ago, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.”) From Wright’s point of view, the War represented not the birth of a nation, but the death of the nation we were becoming. Something to think about, eh?

Clare WrightThere was still more, but even I’m running out of puff now. Wright concluded by talking about the importance of stories. The stories we choose to tell are the ones that define who (we think) we are. Why, for example, she asked, is there no statue in Melbourne memorialising that significant suffragist and social reformer, Vida Goldstein? Why, too, is Prime Minister Fisher remembered more for his statements about war (about our defending the mother country “to the last man, and the last shilling”) but not his argument about “true democracy” requiring the inclusion of “women as well as men in the electorate of the country”?

Wright said she’s wary of “learning lessons” from history, preferring to think about legacies. The legacy of the suffragists is that resistance, that grass-roots movements, can create real and lasting change. Her mantra, she said, is Dora Montefiore’s exhortion: #trustthewomen. And with that, her true colours, already advertised in the borrowed suffragette scarf she was wearing, were shown!

An intelligent Q&A lasting nearly half an hour followed, but eventually we had to finish. It was a wonderful lecture. I love that not only is Wright such an accessible, engaging historian, but that she linked the past to the present, because that is the main reason I like to read history. The past is interesting, but its true value lies in how it can enlighten the present.

And now, if you made it to the end – I thank and salute you!

Dymphna Clark Lecture
RN Robertson Theatre, ANU
17 October 2018

Delicious descriptions: Clare Wright’s sources on the Australian landscape

While the focus of Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, which I recently reviewed, is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, the book offers a wealth of wonderful insight into the times. As regular readers know, I have a specific interest in descriptions of landscape so I greatly enjoyed contemporary descriptions of the environment that Wright includes in her book. I can’t resist sharing some with you.

In the first chapter, Wright quotes from the diary of Englishman Charles Evans who walked to the diggings with his brother and another companion. He wrote of one place along their journey:

the scene from the hills was lovely beyond expression—the sun had set and a mellow twilight and the silvery rays of a full moon shed a soft light over the beautiful landscape … I cannot remember any scene in my own country … to excel it—I was going to say, perhaps even to equal it. (from his diary, 1853-55)

Ballarat Diggings c.1852

Ballarat Diggings c1852 – not so ugly, but before the rush was in full swing (Courtesy: State Library of South Australia, B29496

By contrast, English journalist William Howitt comments on the destruction of the landscape in the service of digging for gold:

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, every feature of Nature is annihilated. (from his book Land, labour and gold, 1855)

According to Wikipedia, Howitt’s body of work draws from “his habits of observation and his genuine love of nature”. Environmentalism, as we know only too well, didn’t spring up in the twentieth century, but I always enjoy, albeit with a certain chagrin, coming across concern about environmental degradation in writings from the past. Wright, with her characteristically evocative language, writes that several diarists and letter-writers comment on the ugliness of the diggings. They “emphasise”, she says, “the conquest of culture over nature, the bulldozer urgency of conquest.”

For some reason that doesn’t fully make sense to me, Wright also quotes Mrs Mannington Caffyn from a book published in 1891, but I’ll share it because Wright did and because it is such an evocative description of Australian sunlight:

Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia [me: Funny that!]. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young, untried things.

Many – though of course not all – of the 19th century sources Wright quotes in the book have a picturesque way with words. Mrs Caffyn’s example here was written for publication, but I enjoyed the expressive language used by several of the diarists and letter-writers too. The aforementioned Charles Evans, for example, says this of the plains between Melbourne and Ballarat:

stretching as far as the eye could reach were immense grassy plains undulating in emerald folds like the swell of the ocean.

I may write another more serious post on this book, if I can get my head into gear, but hope you enjoy these little descriptions in the meantime.

Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (Review)

Book cover, The forgotten rebels of Eureka

Courtesy: Text Publishing

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.

awwchallenge2014Clare Wright
The forgotten rebels of Eureka
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922182548

* I bet you can hardly wait until next month now!
** Do check out historian bloggers, the Resident Judge and Stumbling Through the Past, and litblogger Lisa of ANZLitLovers.