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?

Michelle Arrow in conversation with Frank Bongiorno

A few days ago, Mr Gums and I attended another ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event, this one featuring Australian historian Michelle Arrow in conversation with Australian historian Frank Bongiorno. It was an especially interesting pairing because Arrow’s book, which she is currently touring, is titled The seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, while Frank Bongiorno wrote, just 4 years ago, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia. So, it was a case of the Seventies facing off against the Eighties! Fortunately no blood was shed…

The conversation was introduced, as usual, by MC Colin Steele, who does a marvellous job of organising and mc-ing these events. In his intro, he told us that one of the main threads in Arrow’s book is the now well-known idea that the personal is political. This theme also ran through the conversation.

The Seventies was a big decade for me. It’s the decade in which I graduated, established my professional career, and married. It’s also the decade in which I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch, and when the great reformer, Gough Whitlam, came to power – and showed what a government with vision and heart could do. I must say that it is rather disconcerting to think that an era in which we were fully adult is now the subject of serious history! Such is life!

Now, the conversation …

The conversation

Michelle Arrow, The SeventiesBongiorno commenced by asking Arrow how she defined her decade. Before I share her answer, I should explain that Arrow later told us that, while Bongiorno had taken a comprehensive look at the Eighties, she had narrowed her decade’s focus to gender and sexuality. This affected how she defined the decade. So, her answer was that she took the formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the ACT in 1969 as her start, and the Women Against Rape in War protests (which also originated in Canberra) of the early 1980s as her end. She noted that soon after these protests, the ANZAC narrative began to dominate our national mythology.

Bongiorno asked Arrow to describe the discourse characterising the Seventies. Arrow talked about its being a time of rapid social and economic change and, consequently, of some disarray. Feminism and Gay Rights were big issues.

The conversation then turned to the theme mentioned by Colin Steele that the personal is the political. The main example of this, Arrow explained, is feminism. Women began to realise that their personal experiences and concerns (economic and social, for example) were structurally and politically based. Formal and informal consciousness-raising groups began exploring the underlying issues. This theme also played out in the gay and lesbian rights movement: being gay was also seen as having a political component. She mentioned here the work of the early-1970s-formed group, CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution).

After this rather long introduction, we got to the core of Arrow’s book, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. This Commission grew out of the Whitlam government’s failed attempt to reform abortion law. It was reading the fascinating personal submissions to this Commission that inspired Arrow’s book. While the Dismissal and Fraser’s election resulted in funding cuts to the Commission, bringing the Report forward and affecting the end result, the submissions themselves remain valuable.

Bongiorno noted that this Commission initiated a new role and purpose for these sorts of enquiries. Arrow agreed, explaining that it legitimated people’s stories and played a therapeutic role, both of which we still see today. (The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a good example)

Another issue discussed was that of violence – and its appearance in the submissions. Violence also reflects “the personal is the political” theme. Corporal punishment for children, violence against women and girls, and gay bashing were all issues that played out politically. Bongiorno referred to Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. Arrow explored the paradoxical nature of this argument: homosexual people sought freedom and privacy for the expression of their sexuality, while women were seeking protection for theirs!

There was of course a discussion about the Pill and its role. I was interested, given contemporary politics, in Arrow’s comment that the liberation of the 1960s, afforded by developments like the Pill, transformed in the 1970s to concerns with identity.

Bongiorno, though, pushed on to ask about the relationship between women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. Arrow talked about researching 1970s popular culture. She read magazines like Cleo and Forum, and suggested that Cleo had a more feminist aspect underpinning its exploration of sexuality and bodily knowledge, than did Forum. She commented that “letters to the editor” were particularly informative. She shared her shock on reading a response to a letter about father-daughter incest that said it was caused by wives not satisfying their husbands. How far we have (hopefully) come!

She also looked at movies – such as Alvin Purple and Petersen – for their evocation of sex, class and gender.

The conversation concluded by discussing Whitlam, the Seventies, and whether it matters. Arrow argued that there was a particular convergence in Australia of the height of the women’s liberation movement and the election of the Whitlam government. This resulted in things like Elizabeth Reid becoming the first women’s adviser to a leader anywhere in the world, to a big government commitment to International Women’s year, to attempts to reform abortion law (still an issue today), and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Fraser, coming into power at the end of 1975, had to face this new infrastructure. She traces in her book what happened to women’s issues as time passed – for example, to Women’s Refuge funding made by Whitlam in 1975.

Q & A

The Q&A, though brief, demonstrated the audience’s knowledge of the Seventies! Topics included:

  •  No-fault divorce laws (the Family Law Act of 1975): Arrow agreed this was crucial social change, and it is covered in the book
  • Multiculturalism: This is mentioned in the book, but given her focus, it’s mostly in relation to migrant and indigenous women in the women’s movement, and how the movement accommodated difference.
  • Indigenous issues (Tent Embassy, Land rights, etc): Again, because of her focus, her coverage mostly relates to women. She noted that because of Indigenous people’s specific concerns, Indigenous women did not particularly feel part of the women’s movement.
  • Education: Arrow agreed that Whitlam’s opening up access to tertiary education was transformative, and that it was particularly so for middle-class women (rather than for its main intention, working class people.) This led to the rise of women’s studies in universities, and to women (as teachers) then taking their learning out to schools – proving, again, that “the personal is political”.
  • Backlash against feminism: Arrow noted PM Malcolm Fraser’s (1975-1983) “more fractious” relationship with the women’s movement, and the rise of anti-feminist groups. However, the women’s movement, she said, “opened up spaces for protest”.

Another questioner cheekily asked which decade – the 70s or 80s – was most influential, to which the replies were mutually respectful!

The final question I’ll share concerned whether “the personal is political” theme played out in other parts of the world. Arrow responded “yes, mostly in women’s movements”, but that in Australia the convergence of Whitlam with women’s movement gave it a particular flavour. She noted the significance of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships being not just about work but private life as well, and that this influenced the flavour of action in Australia.

Vote of thanks

Frank Bongiorno, The eightiesSociologist/social commentator Hugh Mackay gave an inspired vote of thanks. With a cheeky glint, he compared the subtitle of Arrow’s 70s book – “the making of modern Australia” – with that of Bongiorno’s 80s book – “the decade that transformed Australia”.

He discussed the major “revolutions” Arrow explores – women’s and gay rights. He noted that histories like Arrow’s show how rocky these were, and how far we have come. It is because of these revolutions, he suggested, that we now better understand Gender and Equality. He then talked a bit about gender and its place today – and why young women seem to feel that it, as a concept, is less relevant to the inclusive, gender-blind, world we want. However, he said, those wanting to eschew the “feminist” tag might want to read Arrow’s book to see just how rocky and difficult it’s been to get where we are today.

It was a lively and engaged encounter, and one which I’ve got even more out of by writing up!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
7 March 2019

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
553pp.
ISBN: 9781925603934

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (#BookReview)

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksIn her extensive acknowledgements at the end of her book, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot thanks “Heather at The Book Store, who tracked down every good novel she could find with a disjointed structure, all of which I devoured while trying to figure out the structure of this book.” Interesting that she looked at novels, particularly given our recent discussion regarding non-fiction that reads like fiction, but more on that later …

Many of you will have heard of the book, or, if not, of Henrietta Lacks, or of her HeLa cells? It’s a sort of hybrid biography-cum-science book about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951, and the immortal HeLa cell line that was and continues to be cultured from her cervical cancer cells. As Skloot writes, “these cells have transformed modern medicine.” The book was published in the USA in 2010. It won multiple awards, including, says Wikipedia, the National Academies Communication Award for “best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine”. In addition, the paperback edition was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks.

I’ve described the book as hybrid, because the story (or biography) of Henrietta Lacks is just one of its threads. It also interrogates the complex intersection between race, class and ethics in medical research as well as broader ethical ramifications of issues like “informed consent” and the commercialisation of human tissue. Skloot, herself, says early in the book,

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then, this book is another example of those non-fiction books that I like so much in which authors author takes us on their journey of discovery, in this case to understand the people and the science, the ethics and the law, behind this astonishing story. Skloot wasn’t the first so tell it, however – something she makes clear during our journey. Earlier stories include Michael Rogers’ 1976 article in Rolling Stone, and the 1997 BBC documentary, The way of all flesh, which you can watch on YouTube. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story of the cells, so if you want to know about them – read the book and/or watch this video.

Skloot explains her own fascination with Henrietta, from being introduced to her cells in high school, through those HeLa cells being “omnipresent” throughout her biology degree, to when she was in graduate school studying writing “and became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story”. It’s not surprising then that this book has been extensively researched – as evidenced by the Notes and Acknowledgements. (These two chapters make great reading in themselves.) It took around 10 years to write, not just because of this extensive research. A major issue which Skloot had to confront was the understandable suspicion and anger of the Lacks’ family, whose help she needed if she were to tell this story properly and with integrity. Their story is bound up in a long invidious history of research carried out on African-Americans, which is also detailed in the book.

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!”

So, the structure. The book is divided into three parts – Life, Death, Immortality. In the first two parts, the story is told in two roughly alternating, chronological threads – one telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family, from 1920 to 1973; the other tracking the early days of Skloot’s research from 1999 to 2000. In the third part, the two tracks coalesce into one chronological thread, starting from 1973 when the late Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, discovers quite accidentally via a friend’s brother-in-law, that Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research and had been since 1951. Until that point, no-one in the family had known that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive” and being used in research all over the world:

“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What you mean you got her cells in your lab?”

He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”

She is, to put it mildly, horrified – and rushes to tell her husband and thence the family.

Here, though, I’m going to return to the issue of writing non-fiction like fiction. There’s the use of narrative structure, of plot lines, to create some sort of tension for the reader – in this case it largely revolves around the lives and reactions of the family, particularly Deborah – while we are also learning drier “stuff” about the history and ethics of cell culture and medical research. The dialogue I’ve just shared is part of the main plot line concerning the family’s discovery of what had been happening to Henrietta’s cells.

Then there’s the use of evocative, descriptive language. Skloot doesn’t overdo this, staying, in the main, direct and focused – but there are enough little flourishes to keep the writing interesting, like “HeLa grew like crabgrass” or “tufts of hair like overgrown cotton sprouted from his head”. The imagery draws from the area in which it is set. And, there’s the use of dialogue. Skloot did carry out a lot of interviews over her decade-long research and often makes clear when she’s quoting from those – but not all dialogue comes from that research. Some is imagined – or what critics call “representative”. No-one, for example, would have recorded Henrietta’s exact words when she visited her gynecologist, but Skloot writes:

“I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look”.

How much more interesting that is to read than, say, “Henrietta visited her gynaecologist, telling the receptionist that she had pain in her womb that needed to be investigated.” I know what I’d rather read. Not only is dialogue more engaging, but if the writer gets the voice right it enhances our understanding of the character. One of the delights of this book, in fact, is our getting to “know” members of Henrietta’s family, and the dialogue plays a significant role in this. Not non-fiction readers, however, approve of this approach.

As I’ve already said, I’m not going to write a lot about the content of this book, fascinating though it is. It has been written about extensively; there are interviews with Skloot on the web; and for background there’s that BBC documentary. The book is now nearly a decade old. Cell research has moved on, but the story of the intersection of race and class with science and ethics is still relevant. Moreover, this is a book of history – the history of medicine. Close to home for me, for example, was learning that HeLa cells were involved in identifying the connection between the HPV virus and cervical cancer, and thence the development of the vaccine with which my reading group’s daughters were among the first in the world to be vaccinated.

All this makes the book well worth reading. There were, admittedly, times when the cell science got the better of me (and other non-scientific members of my reading group) but not enough to turn us off. Skloot’s courage, warmth and empathy with people out of her ken, the trust those initially fearful, angry people came to place in her, and her ability to tread the fine line between judgement and analysis when discussing actions of the past make this a special read. No-one in my reading group regretted this choice for our schedule. A fine way to end the year.

Rebecca Skloot
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN: 9781742626260 (ePub)

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: on Nation and people

Hodge and Whitehurst, Nation and PeopleDo you keep your old textbooks? I do, though am now starting to move them on. But some I still can’t part with, one being my high school history text. Called Nation and people: An introduction to Australia in a changing world, and first published in 1967, it was written by Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst who were teachers at East Sydney Technical High School. I decided for today’s Monday Musings to have a little look at what my teenage self learnt from it …

I was tickled because some of what I saw, looking at it now, had connections with my future – though, of course, I didn’t know it then. First is the fact that I went to high school in Sydney, and the teachers who wrote it were in Sydney, but the front cover is an image of Canberra, the city I moved to for my first professional job after finishing university, and where I live today. The other is that the first book listed in the student’s bibliography at the back is “F. Whyte, William Morris Hughes: His life and times“. F. Whyte (actually William Farmer Whyte), a journalist, was the grandfather of the man I married. This biography was his magnum opus. I have no idea why it is listed first though. The list is not alphabetical by author or title, and Billy Hughes was not our first Prime Minister so there’s not an obvious chronological reason. The order is quite idiosyncratic to my librarian eyes!

What is history?

These, however, aren’t what I really want to share, entertaining though they are to me. I was interested, for example, in the Preface. The authors say that

students should be encouraged to look for themes. It is important … that they understand the nature of a particular topic they are studying and why they are studying it.

In other words, history is not about dates but ideas and trends. Now, my two favourite high school teachers were my history teacher (Mrs Reynolds) and the librarian (Miss Reeve). It was the late 196os, a time of increasing interest in rights for indigenous Australians, of the Civil Rights movement in the US, and when anti-Apartheid activism was becoming stronger. These two teachers – seen as “red” by more conservative parents – encouraged us to think about what we’d now call social justice. I loved them, because for them history was a living thing about themes, ideas and values.

Indigenous Australians

Of course, in looking at this book now, I particularly wanted to see what it told us about indigenous Australians, because this was an issue we felt strongly about. There are a few references to Aborigines, as indigenous Australians were called then, but there is also a 10-page section devoted to them. It starts with some quotes – from the Constitution (1901), “A Crown Lands Commissioner to Governor La Trobe in 1840”, and writer Marjorie Barnard (from her history of 1962) – followed by their introduction:

During the nineteenth century, the white settlers of Australia extended their frontiers and finally won a continent from its former black owners. The pattern was a similar one to other regions in the world where the white civilisation had made contact with coloured races which were less powerful and culturally different. Lands had been conquered, the stability of the conquered society shattered and the coloured peoples exploited.

They talk about early contact – from seventeenth century sealers to the later farmers – and their poor treatment of indigenous people. They note that “few whites made any effort to understand” cultural differences. They describe conflict between white and black people, in which killing occurred on both sides, but in their view:

Too often in Australian history in the nineteenth century good relations were destroyed by the low standard of settler and the low standard of police.

Next, they say

After the white man had won the land, his [this was before 1970s feminism!] attitude changed. The black man became regarded as a useful stockman who could perform important duties in areas of harsh environment where white labour was scarce and expensive. Thus an extensive cheap labour force was set up for the cattle stations …

They go on to discuss other aspects of black-white history in Australia: missionaries and paternalism, and then assimilation. In 1967, a referendum was passed which amended Australia’s Constitution “to allow aborigines to be included in the census”. Hodge and Whitehurst include a photo of some “Young Australians” sitting at desks. The caption reads: “Now these young Queenslanders will be counted. But will they count?” Good question.

This section ends by suggesting that “integration” is starting to be seen as a better policy than “assimilation”, but

This means, of course, that Australians would have to accept the fact that their society is multi-racial and multi-cultured, and that two cultures would live side by side with complete equality.

Those words – “would have to accept” – suggest, don’t you think, an uncertainty that Australians would indeed accept this. Around 50 years have passed since this was written, and progress has been made but “complete equality”? Nope. How very depressing it all is.

Further reading

Finally, the authors provide a list of additional reading at the end – where I found F. Whyte – but they say “the reading list in this text is recommended as a manageable one”.  They don’t think students “should or could read all the books listed, but … are thoroughly capable of looking at quite a number of them.” They tell students not “to become a slave to one or two general texts, even if they are concise and interesting” and not to “attempt to wade though volumes that are recommended as reference books”. Instead, they say:

Perhaps your most profitable course at this stage of your study of History would be to enter into the spirit of the course through biography. This plan of action  you will find very profitable in your study of Australian development. Through reading biographies you will gain a feeling for History and insight into the spirit and problems of each decade.

How sensible is that? Don’t make students read dry recitations of historical events and facts. Better to read books that will bring history alive. Those they recommend at the end include biographies and fiction, such as George Johnston’s My brother Jack, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia and, interestingly, Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country.

Looking at this book, I can see the origins of my ideas about what history is and what it means. Thank you Messrs Hodge and Whitehurst, and thank you too Mrs Reynolds and Miss Reeve. You have not been forgotten.

Do you have teachers and classes that have made a lasting impression on you and your way of thinking?

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 …

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
539pp.
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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: What’s in a street name?

Street names may be an unusual topic for a post on literature, but I think it could be argued that names of things are part of our wider literary culture. It can certainly be argued so for my city because street names here are serious business. None of your 5th Avenues and 61st Streets for us! I know, I know, New York’s a great place, and very easy to navigate compared to Canberra with its reputation for going round in circles, but we have our reasons …

I was inspired to write this post because this past weekend Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were in town as part of their Diamond Jubilee Tour downunder. One of their duties was to take part in the renaming of Parkes Place to Queen Elizabeth Terrace. This has special meaning for me because the address of my first library employer was Parkes Place, which was named for Henry Parkes, the “father” of our Federation. Queen Elizabeth now joins Queen Victoria, King Edward, and King George in being commemorated by a street in what we call our Parliamentary Triangle. I’m pleased to say that poor old Henry is not being completely brushed aside: the little roads that circle Old Parliament House will now be called Parkes Place.

Enough about my inspiration though, and back to the main point, which is that in 1928 the Canberra National Memorials Committee of the Australian Parliament presented a “Report in Regard to the Naming of Canberra’s Streets and Suburbs” which laid down principles for Canberra’s official nomenclature. Early in the document comes this:

… the commission divided the Canberra City District into 23 divisions. It devolved upon the National Memorials Committee to find names for these divisions, which will eventually become the suburbs of the capital. It was felt by the Committee that patriotic and national sentiment would be best met if the names of those men who have contributed most to Australia’s existence as a unified nation, be used in the most important places, that is, for the names of the divisions or suburbs of Canberra.

The patriotism of a nation is often expressed by memorials to its benefactors, so it is deserving and right that the names of those great statesmen who laboured in the cause of the federation of the Commonwealth should be perpetuated as place names to be used in the mother-tongue by all Australians for all time.

A map of inner Canberra showing the Parliament...

Inner Canberra early suburb names. (Photo credit: Martyman, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Now isn’t that a great piece of bureaucratic literature! I particularly love the reference to “mother-tongue” after the preceding references to “men” and “statesmen”. It then lists the names of these men, and explains that “a suffix has been added, similar to some of the Anglo-Saxon names of towns in Great Britain, where the name is thought not to be very euphonious”. So, while Braddon gave rise to the suburb of Braddon, and Barton Barton, Lyne became Lyneham and Fysh Fyshwick. Ingenius eh?

The Report then goes on to note that other suburbs would be based on names connected with Canberra’s early days and its pioneers, and that “the use of aboriginal names has not been overlooked.” They stated that much knowledge of indigenous naming in the Canberra region had been lost but those known would be retained, and so they are – with most rolling off the tongue beautifully (euphoniously, even), like Narrabundah, Yarralumla, Pialligo, Jerrabomberra, Mugga, and Canberra itself.

All this is probably pretty common in cities elsewhere but the committee went on to set down principles for the naming of streets:

The Committee has adopted the idea of grouping together various classes of names in separate areas. Sections of the City have therefore been set apart for Governors, Explorers, Navigators, Scientists and others, Foresters and others, Pioneers and others, Founders of the Constitution, and euphonious Aboriginal words.

I wonder whether the names of the scientists, foresters, “and others” had to be “euphonious”?

I won’t go on with more of the report, but I will say that this plan has continued to the present. One of our newest suburbs, still in the making, is Wright – named for the poet Judith Wright. Yes, we do now have a handful of suburbs named for women, including the writers Miles Franklin, Dame Mary Gilmore and Henry Handel Richardson. Moreover, some of our street names, says ACTPLA, our current planning authority, are named for “quiet achievers”. Things do change in the corridors of government – eventually. As for the theme for Wright’s streets, it’s a somewhat diverse one, “Environment, Poets and Butterflies”. Maybe there’s a connection there; Wright was a poet and a conservationist so perhaps the latter covers the “environment” and the “butterflies”!

I like that fact that such thought has been put into Canberra’s urban (or is it suburban) nomenclature, and I’m glad that while the spirit of the early planners has remained our nomenclature has broadened to encompass women, quiet achievers, the arts and increasing usage of indigenous names. The end result is, for we capital residents, a fascinating literature of suburb and street names. Do you have such literature where you live?