Monday musings on Australian literature: Thinking about historiography

Last week I wrote a post on Cindy Solonec’s hybrid biography-memoir, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez. This book, as I explained in my post, is a rewriting of her 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s.” Immediately, perhaps, you can see what inspired this post.

It has been accepted for some time now that social history, particularly that involving the stories of ordinary people, is a valid and important part of history, of the historical record. But, ordinary people’s lives aren’t well documented, history normally being, as we know, the province of the victors.

Solonec did have significant documentary sources to draw on, as the Kimberley has fascinated people for a long time. She also had her Spanish-born father’s diaries, which were not particularly detailed but they did provide the book’s “chronological framework”. Diaries are a common source for historians, so there’s nothing new about that. But, what about the First Nations side of her family? For that she had to rely on the stories her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately,

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

This comment reminded me of an essay “On listening to new national storytellers” in The Conversation. Written five years ago by academic Anna Clark, it considers Australian historiography and the historical record, and covers some issues that are discussed in longer tomes like Tom Griffiths’ The art of time travel. But her focus is specific.

Clark refers briefly to the “history wars” before moving on to say that

Debates over Australian history aren’t simply ideological, but also disciplinary, and reflect the historical challenges wrought by changing approaches to the past. 

She makes the point that history isn’t a simple matter of what happened and why, but is affected by “persuasions, politics and prejudices” of the historians writing it. So, a history of the “first settlement” written in, say, the 1930s, is very different to one written today, though the actual events are the same.

Clark goes on to say that Australia’s history has been viewed, at least until the 1960s, in terms of “progress” or advancement. It “privileged the written record” which is “located in archives, libraries and universities (themselves imperial institutions)”. Where did that leave the story of First Nations’ people? Clark writes that:

Dispossessed from their country, Indigenous people were in turn dispossessed from Australian historiography. It was, in the words of the anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, our “Great Australian Silence”, and his phrase has come to characterise the nation’s own historiographical “dark ages”.

Gradually, historians, inspired by the likes of Henry Reynolds, started to write histories that looked through lenses different to the “simple story of progress and advancement”. To do this, they used “Indigenous testimony and oral history sources”. This challenged traditional “historical research methods, which depended on written primary sources”.

Contributing to this shift have been Indigenous historians – such as Steve Kinnane, Noel Pearson and Larissa Behrendt – who have promoted “the inclusion of new historical lenses to read between the lines of colonial sources”.

Other storytellers?

That’s a good thing, but Clark has more questions, such as: while historians were “erasing the impact of settler-colonial society on Indigenous people in Australia”, were other “national storytellers” doing the same? And here is where it becomes interesting in terms of what we call “history”.

Take poetry, for example. Clark writes that

the sound of colonial violence and Aboriginal dispossession was ringing loud and clear in Judith Wright’s poem Nigger’s Leap, New England. Published in 1945, it’s based on the story of an Aboriginal massacre told to Wright by her father, and is a powerful antidote to Australian historiography of the time.

Or novels, like Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land (1941). In it “Dark tries to capture the cultural clash between the Eora people and the British colonisers in early Sydney”. This might be historical fiction, but Tom Griffiths, she says, argued in his book that “Dark deserves recognition as a historian for the work she did, and her impact on Australians’ historical consciousness”.

This doesn’t mean, she continues, that historians should ignore

the conventions of truth-seeking and critical inquiry. But as Griffiths intimates in his recent book, the relationship between history and fiction is surely more a dance than a clash, despite the heated debate over Kate Grenville’s historical novel, The Secret River. And historians who ignore the potential of fiction to imagine their way into some of those undocumented encounters diminish their own historical imaginations, he concludes.

Regular readers here will know that this accords with my – admittedly non-expert – views on the matter.

Anyhow, she goes on … mentions Mudrooroo’s Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, and other potential sources of history …

I think you get the gist. The point she is making is that there is increasing recognition of “the need to broaden our conception of historiography to reflect the many ways we make history, and consume it”. Aboriginal rock art is an obvious example, and other forms of “material culture”. Clark argues, and here we loop back to Cindy Solonec, that there is a need:

in Australia to expand and reconceptualise our understanding of historiography in order to recognise that history is frequently captured and made outside the academy ­– in fiction, poetry, art and even beyond the public domain altogether, such as local and family histories.

Clark has more to say, but concludes that she’s interested in how less traditional records or stories, these “vernacular epistemologies”, “can add both to our understanding of the past and the discipline itself”. I’ve been fascinated by historiography since I read EH Carr’s What is history at university, and so I loved this article.

Any thoughts?

Jane Austen on history and historians

Jane Austen, we know from her letters, was a keen reader. She read novels, sermons, plays and poetry, magazines and, of course, histories. Did you know, though, that she also wrote a history? This is her juvenilia piece, The history of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st (online text), illustrated by her older sister Cassandra and completed in November 1791, the month before Jane turned 16.

It’s not, however, like any history you’ve read before, except perhaps Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and all that. Published in 1930, this book, Wikipedia tells us, is “a parody of the style of history teaching in English schools at the time”. Well, interestingly, scholars argue that Austen’s History is a parody of the histories being taught in the schools of her time, in particular, Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771). The parody starts on her title page where she tells us “N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History”. She also identifies the author of her history as “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”, satirising Goldsmith’s claims to be objective. “It is hoped the reader admits my impartiality” he wrote in his Preface, but many readers, including our Jane, would not admit this at all given some of his pronouncements!

Mary Queen of Scots, by Cassandra Austen, believed to be modelled on Jane

Mary Queen of Scots, by Cassandra Austen, believed to be modelled on Jane

And so, as you’d expect in a parody, Austen is unashamedly subjective in her History, usually promoting the opposite to the prevailing view of her times. She is, for example, partial to the Stuarts, and particularly to Mary Queen of Scots, and is critical of Elizabeth I, “that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society”. She continues:

It was the peculiar misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers —— Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive Mischeif, had not those vile & abandoned Men connived at, & encouraged her in her Crimes. I know that it has by many people been asserted & beleived that Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, & the rest of those who filled the cheif Offices of State were deserving, experienced, & able Ministers. But oh! how blinded such Writers & such Readers must be to true Merit …

If you know anything about Austen scholarship, you won’t be surprised to hear that her History has been the subject of intense theorising, with various perspectives being explored, in addition the parody/satire angle. Other perspectives include that it

  • explores ideas about historiography, and the blurring of fact and fiction; and/or
  • reflects Jane and her sister Cassandra’s maternal line’s Jacobite/Stuart sympathies (which were not shared by the men of the family) or, conversely, it reflects their anti-mother attitudes; and/or
  • supports a feminist reading of her work; and/or
  • conveys Austen’s irreverence towards authority.

My aim is not to discuss these here, though, because I want to refer briefly to Northanger Abbey, the first version of which was written around 1798–99 (that is, only a few years after the History). It is famous for its defence of the novel, but it also contains references to other sorts of reading including, yes, history. I want to share some of these, which make interesting reading in the light of her History. The references come from heroine Catherine Morland’s conversation with Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor.

When you read Austen, you need to know whether Austen approves of the characters who are speaking, as this affects how we are meant to read the character’s pronouncements. Now, in Northanger Abbey, Catherine is our heroine, but she is also young and a little naive. As the novel progresses, she is “taught” by the somewhat older and wiser, Henry Tilney, but he can also be a little pompous. So, I think we can read the following comments with some respect for Catherine’s position, as well as for Henry’s.

“That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?” [Catherine]

No, not necessarily, Austen is perhaps suggesting:

“… I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.” [Catherine]

We hear you Catherine! And we think back to Austen’s History where, surely with tongue in cheek, she refers her readers to “inventive” writers for authority, such as Shakespeare (“whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays” or “he afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreeable Woman by Shakespear’s account”) and Sheridan:

Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this & the preceding reign, & is by many people held in great veneration & respect — But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him, & must refer all those who may wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his Life, to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting Anecdotes …

Cheeky Jane!

And so the discussion continues, with the reasonable Eleanor Tilney stating that she likes history but is happy if historians, such as Austen’s revered David Hume, embellish speeches to make them readable.

“Historians, you think,” said Miss Tilney, “are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made—and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.”

Ah Eleanor, I hear you. The scene concludes with Catherine making some concessions while suggesting that she used to think all historians did was to write “great volumes … for the torment of little boys and girls”, and Henry Tilney teasing her about this idea of historians aiming to “torment” rather than “instruct”.

Reading or studying history appears in other novels too, particularly in Mansfield Park, where, for example, Austen tells us Fanny, her heroine, had to “read the daily portion of history” but where she also says of Fanny and her sister, Susan, that “their conversations, however, were not always on subjects so high as history or morals”.

I’ve barely touched the surface of Austen’s discussions of history and what we might make of them, but I hope at least that I’ve shown why students (and lovers) of Austen never run out of ideas to think (and argue) about!

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Conversation’s Writing History

This is the post I planned for last week, when Jessica White hijacked me. Like that post, this one too was inspired by another person, this time my historian brother who sent me a link to an article in a new series by The Conversation called Writing History. This series aims to “examine the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction”. A topic, as regular readers here will know, of interest to me.

I’m not sure how many articles are planned for the series, but here are the five that have been published to date:

I haven’t read them all yet, but I have read the first two, and dipped into another. In the first one, Nelson and de Matos explain that the series draws from essays that were published in a special issue of TEXT, an open-access academic journal. The issue is titled Fictional Histories and Historical Fictions, and its aim is to “get beyond … the often acrimonious exchanges between writers and historians that have been such a characteristic of the History Wars of the last ten years, with its boundary-riding rhetoric.”

The secret River cover

Now, if you are an Australian interested in this subject, you won’t be surprised to hear that both articles I’ve read refer to the conflict between historians and novelists inspired by Kate Grenville’s award-winning, best-selling novel The secret river – or, to be honest, by comments Grenville made about history in relation to her novel. Nelson and de Matos write that the question of who should interpret and write about the past and how the past should be taught or written about has been around for centuries but it was “made palpable” in the tussle over The secret river.

Nelson and de Matos discuss the accessibility of history – and the fact that historians can write accessible history, as proved by writers like Clare Wright in her award-winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). And they talk about the politicisation of history, referring to comments by politicians like Christopher Pyne bemoaning “the ostensible disappearance of western civilisation from the curriculum” and John Howard’s critiquing of “the black armband view of history”. While political interference is not a good thing, they suggest that in a sense, all history – in its relationship to debates about democracy, identity and social justice – is public history. It makes it even more critical, then, doesn’t it, that we understand what we are talking about and the grounds upon which we are doing it.

In the second article, Tom Griffiths tackles the intertwining of fiction and history. He argues that it was Eleanor Dark, a novelist, who confronted the complacent imperial view of history in Australia’s sesquicentenary, a view that ignored the place of “Aborigines, convicts and women”. She led the way in rethinking our history. Paradoxically, the poet Judith Wright, a few decades later, wrote a history, Cry for the dead, which “gave a secure scholarly foundation to the political campaign of the Aboriginal Treaty committee”. His point is that both writers chose the form that best suited their needs at the time. “Like Eleanor Dark”, he writes, “Judith Wright carefully set about becoming a historian”.

By 1990s, the idea of “frontier conflict” was an accepted part of our historiography but there was a conservative backlash which tried to discredit research by arguing detail such as the number of people who died “as if it decided the ethics of the issue”. It was into this “moral vacuum”, Griffiths writes, that books like Inga Clendinnen’s history Dancing with strangers (2003) and Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river (2005) appeared.

Unfortunately, Grenville’s comments on the value of fiction to history –

The voice of debate might stimulate the brain, the dry voice of ‘facts’ might make us comfortable, even relaxed. It takes the voice of fiction to get the feet walking in a new direction.

– got her involved in the wrong debates, in discussions about history and fiction rather than the topic she wanted, frontier violence. Griffiths suggested this occurred partly because of the timing, because the conservatives were interested, at that time, in debating the “precise, grounded, evidenced truths of history”. To debate on that ground you needed “time, place and specificity”. Grenville, in other words, “found herself at the centre of a debate that goes to the heart of the discipline of history”. I like this explanation. It explains for me some of the reactions to Grenville that never completely made sense, it explains why historians I admired came out so strongly against Grenville, whose story seemed to make a valid contribution to the discussion.

Griffiths concludes that history and fiction are “a tag team” in the study of the past, “sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem”. “History doesn’t own the truth”, he writes, “and fiction doesn’t own the imagination”. We need to understand the distinctions and how they play out, but we shouldn’t see this discussion as “defending territory”.

I look forward to reading the other articles. But for now, I’ll close on a quote my brother also sent me last week. It’s from Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey (2008):

… that is how it’s set down in history, as an incontrovertible, documented fact, supported by historians and confirmed by the novelist, who must be forgiven for taking certain liberties with names, not only because it is his right to invent, but also because he had to fill in certain gaps so that the sacred coherence of the story was not lost. It must be said that history is always selective, and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar.

And so the discussion continues …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women’s non-fiction writing

Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by a post last month in Overland literary journal’s blog. The topic – Women and non-fiction writing – is a big one, bigger really than I have time for now, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a start.

In the Overland post, which comprised an interview with writer, Rebecca Giggs, Giggs discusses the issue of authority in non-fiction and the notion that “nonfiction writing is supposed to have a fidelity to the real world. Disgrace comes to the author who adds too much of the unreal to their mix”. She talks of how it is believed that “things must be stated, accounted for, and settled. Declared. The unknown turned into the known” and sees this view very much as a gendered thing. As male, in other words. And then she continues

But of course, this is not how the world actually is. Inner and outer worlds are not so easily divided! And permitting that fact – allowing such things as the corporeal, the uncertainty, the experiential in – doesn’t just make clear that falsity, it also lets in other modes of authority. It questions the role of women’s interior lives in our political discourse.

So much to unpack here that I fear getting bogged down, so will just keep to the surface (more or less). I have always been intrigued by the subjective in history, ever since I read EH Carr‘s What is history in which he argued, convincingly for me, the interpretive basis of history, that the role of the historian is significant in terms of what we come to know as “history”, as “fact”. I have no idea how Carr is viewed now as I’m not an historian but it would take a good argument to shake my belief in Carr’s basic premise.

And so, I like the changes I’m starting to see in non-fiction writing. I like the fact that the role of the historian – or, let’s broaden this to non-fiction writer – is becoming more transparent in the (in some anyhow) writing. And it seems that a lot of this is being driven (championed, even) by women writers (although my impression could be skewed by the fact that I’ve read more non-fiction by women over the last decade or so. I would love to hear whether you agree). In the rest of this post I’ll discuss a few of the writers who have come to my attention, in roughly the order I’ve read them.

Helen Garner

Garner was the first to confront me with a new personal way of writing non-fiction. She put herself in the picture and told us exactly what she thought about the subjects she was writing about: college master-student harassment in The first stone, murder/manslaughter and duty of care in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Garner caused quite a furore with these books, particularly the former, but I’m not going to go into that here. Google if you are interested. My point is that she was fearless in putting herself in the frame, and in documenting her process. It’s exciting writing – and it’s honest. I like that, whether or not I agree with her views and conclusions. I like the fact that she allows us to see her thinking and to engage in the discussion – and engage we surely did.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper.

Chloe Hooper (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

In a way, Chloe Hooper in her Tall man did for Cameron Doomadgee‘s death-in-custody what Garner did for Joe Cinque. Chloe Hooper is less emotional, less heart-on-sleeve, than Garner but she does also put herself into the story, taking us with her as she researches the situation, and admitting her sympathies. She specifically raises at one point the issue of “historical relativities” which I read as meaning that the facts can be seen from different angles depending on where you are in the spectrum – in many often overlapping spectrums in fact, the historical one, the black-white one, the power one, to name a few.

Anna Krien

Krien’s book Into the woods and essay Us and them work very much like Hooper’s book. She’s there in the story she is investigating. She researches all sides as best as she can. She makes her sympathies clear as they become clear to her, taking us, like Hooper, on her journey.

Francesca Rendle-Short

The Garner, Hooper and Krien books I’ve mentioned above are all pretty straightforward. They put the “I” in their nonfiction writing, something that was once a no-no. But they still focus on the “facts”, albeit recognising the subjective and/or interpretive aspect to them. Francesca Rendle-Short’s memoir-cum-fiction, Bite your tongue, though, is quite a different matter. And it is, I think, a good example of what Giggs is talking about when she talks about “letting the experiential in”. Rendle-Short’s story is powerful and no less valid or true because she has chosen to write most of it through a fictional voice. It’s a clever book. Most of it is told in the voice of the fictional Glory because “some stories are hard to tell, they bite back … [so] I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned” but the “real” Francesca has the odd chapter which comments on, validates, Glory’s experiences. The truths in this book are palpable.

Anna Funder

Funder has said that she initially planned to write Stasiland as fiction but for several reasons turned it into non-fiction. One was that she wanted to honour the people whose stories she was telling, that in fact “it didn’t feel right” to turn those stories to another purpose. But, another reason was that she felt the stories were so far-fetched at times (such as the story of the “smell samples”) that they would not be believed in fiction. And so Funder wrote Stasiland as non-fiction and she, too, put herself in the book. When she interviews her subjects we don’t get a dry reportage of the results of the interviews, nor do we get a simple interviewer-interviewee style presentation. What we get is her in the room – reacting to the person as a human being while also reacting to, and reporting on, the facts being presented. The result is something rich in which the particulars lead to a complex universality (or truth) that encompasses both sympathy and horror.

Oh dear, I have gone on haven’t I … so I will close here on Giggs’ point about these new approaches letting in “other modes of authority”. I’m not 100% sure what she means by that, but what I take from it is a recognition that this new “authority” can encompass something beyond the mere “declaration” of facts, something that encourages us to empathise, something that might force us to confront the moral dimension to the stories being told. And this is, to me, a good thing. What’s more, in the right hands, it can make for darned good reads.

I’d love to know whether you read non-fiction and what you look for in it, particularly in terms of “authority” or, dare I say it, “truths” …