History is a story about the past told by people who didn’t live there. Historical fiction and scholarly histories and biographies dominate the field, but a fresh approach, the literary nonfiction narrative of reflection, is making its presence felt.
As a writing genre, history is no spring chicken. Livy (59 BC – 17 AD) gave us the history of ancient Rome, while Australian histories have an even longer provenance, from the First Peoples’ Dreamtime narratives to Grace Karskens’ excellent scholarly account of European settlement in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (2009). Historical novels are nothing new either, from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).
A relative newcomer to the field is the literary nonfiction historical narrative, in which the archive serves as a springboard into a pool of reflection for a contemporary writer. The latest example, published this month, is Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart, published by University of Queensland Press, a book that retells the life of poet and short story writer Henry Lawson, from multiple viewpoints. Central to Davies’ narrative is a sadly damning affidavit filed by Lawson’s wife Bertha when she sued for divorce in 1903 alleging domestic violence.
When journalist and academic Davies emerged blinking from the archives and into the glare of publication and media interviews, she was greeted by headlines like “Henry Lawson, voice of a nation, larrikin, likely wife beater”.
My excitement reading that headline was due not just to the fact that Davies is a colleague and friend. I was simply happy to see that unorthodox approaches to history are welcomed, and can ignite and enrich our readings of our past.
History, as we know, is a political football. We struggle over the meaning of the past in order to control the game of present and future. A marriage like Henry Lawson’s that began in 1896 and ended seven years later can be hijacked by anyone with an agenda. Davies adopts a light touch. She moves among the many contemporaneous perspectives on Henry from friends and foes as a man who struggled with poverty, ambition, deafness, a failed marriage and alcoholism.
Bertha, who struggled to raise two children while coping with Henry’s ups and down, had her critics as well. She ended up doing a long stint in a mental institution for what today might be called manic depression. Their fraught marriage and messy divorce provides Davies with a ball of historical wool to untangle. She chases it through the archives and across the landscapes through which her subjects drifted, including a grinding stint in London. The affective impact of this pursuit turns the pond of reflection into a whirlpool, inexorably drawing the reader in.
Not everyone sees it that way. Though he has not commented on Davies’ book specifically, Sydney journalist and author David Marr recently disclosed his distaste for biographies in which authors share the personal reflections and experiences they have had while researching and writing their books.
For evidence of the correctness of his position, Marr conveniently points to his own writing, quoting from a scene in Patrick White: A Life in which he reports a medical emergency he witnessed at White’s home not long before the Nobel Laureate’s death in 1991. Marr was witnessing what could have been (but wasn’t) his venerable subject’s demise. Yet his own voice is detached. He expresses no personal emotion or reaction, acting instead as a fly on the wall observer.
I’m on the side of invisible biographers. I don’t give a damn about their happy thoughts as they tread in the footsteps of their subjects. Spare me their personal reflections on the Straits of Gibraltar or the old House of Reps. I’m not interested in their research triumphs. I want the life, not the homework.
In A Wife’s Heart, Kerrie Davies transgresses Marr’s “law”, sharing generously of her own life story while telling Henry and Bertha’s. Readers learn that, like Bertha, Davies is a single parent whose marriage has ended in divorce. The pressures are financial as well as emotional, just as they were for the Lawsons.
At first I found these personal references, which begin on page three of the book, jarring. I simply wasn’t ready to have the focus shifted so early in the story. However, as the book progresses the personal reflections merge with her subjects’ narratives. Conflicting accounts by the Lawsons’ friends and colleagues give the book the feel of a detective novel, a texture well suited to a story of marital failure in which there seems plenty of blame to go round.
Some readers no doubt share Marr’s views about biography, but there are good reasons why younger authors working in a less journalistic genre might profitably venture where Marr warns them not to go.
The distant voice of the “invisible” biographer – like the voice of God booming from above Mount Sinai – has a slightly anachronistic feel these days. To depart from this voice challenges readers who like being reassured by an authoritative tone, or perhaps, put less kindly, enjoy being told what to think. But others prefer more open, less conclusive arguments and reflections.
For some, Marr’s preference for invisibility is out of synch in a world in which readers routinely write back at authors, questioning their logic and exposing mistakes in the “comments section” that now follows most online articles. The invisible narrator’s biases are more implicit, or opaque. That may seem subversive in an era when transparency is valued.
Marr’s argument is that the reader is not well served by an introspective or performative narrator, and that is often true. Some of the worst nonfiction I’ve read in recent years was penned by authors who lost focus on their subject by sharing too much of themselves.
The changing economics of publishing are contributing to our evolving literary landscape. The ranks of subeditors patrolling the borders of mainstream media publications, beating the literary crap out of upstarts who dare to use the personal pronoun “I” are being depleted.
On the bright side, literary rules exist to be broken in the more diffuse structure of contemporary publishing. There never was a golden age.
The subjects of Marr’s early biographies, like White and former Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick, were alive and highly influential when he started writing about them, good reasons for being careful and adopting an orthodox style. But for Davies, archival sources were all she had. No living witnesses of the trouble between Henry and Bertha survive. The author was left to curate documents. Personalising the narrative breathes life into documentary sources.
There are dangers in interpreting the facts of history. Historians grapple constantly with the problem, while historical novelists can choose whether to stick with the facts or alter them, sometimes radically. Literary nonfiction’s third path allows the juxtaposition of an author’s experience and perspective alongside the archival evidence. This might just reduce the temptation to invent or over egg.
Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the world in which we live, marital violence is at epidemic levels, commanding our society and governments’ attentions. In that context, Davies’ personal story as a single parent acts as a footbridge connecting contemporary readers to the world of her subjects.
Beyond questions of literary technique, Davies’ academic writing on the Lawson story reveals that her literary reflection was catalysed by previous accounts by respected historians that favour Henry over Bertha.
In a conference paper delivered in 2015 she noted:
The biographers of the iconic bush poet and writer – most notably Denton Prout (1963) Manning Clark (1978) and Colin Roderick (1982, 1991) – have all constructed a victim as hero narrative around Lawson’s life, blaming Bertha Lawson (nee Bredt) for his personal and creative decline. In their biographies, Lawson’s marriage breakdown and judicial separation from Bertha Lawson is narrated as a destructive turning point, with Bertha portrayed as a callous persecutor who “spun the wheel of retribution” … against her husband. The unanimous interpretation in these works is that Bertha Lawson in her legal claims disregarded Henry’s evident inability to pay child support, resulting in his imprisonment at Darlinghurst Gaol sporadically from 1905 to 1910.
Was Lawson a wife beater? Davies thinks so, but some who knew Bertha believed otherwise. We may never know, but it’s a worthwhile conversation in which all voices and literary styles are welcome.
Marr’s argument for invisibility is undermined somewhat by the fact – which he acknowledges – that he has previously put himself into his stories about others, including the White biography (in a note near the end of the book), and in essays on Kevin Rudd and the Bill Henson case. In all of these his narratives were better for it.
Kerrie Davies and David Marr will be speaking at separate events at next month’s Sydney Writers Festival.
The sign on the public car park in the tiny Tasmanian town of Wynyard reads,
Egress from this carpark is to be via the access lane in the rear.
“Egress?” I wondered.
As my 21-year-old son quipped, perhaps the council had called in the local duke to write its signs. Or at least the local lawyer.
I could say all the words on the sign with very little effort, and with impressive fluency.
That is called decoding.
I had to work a little harder to understand what the sign was saying.
That is called comprehending.
The aim of reading is, of course, comprehension.
In essence, debates around how to best teach reading have been about which comes first, the decoding or the comprehending.
Research concludes these debates are redundant because comprehension and decoding are codependent.
The federal government’s recent proposal, however, for a Year 1 Phonics Screening test – which tests a child’s ability to decode made-up words – appears to support the view that decoding comes before comprehension.
Comprehension, therefore, is deemed irrelevant – at least initially.
So who is right? The researchers or the politicians?
Let’s take a look at what the research tells us about how we learn to read.
Tackling unknown words
It was the first word in the car park sign that threw me. “Egress.”
I used my knowledge of how sounds map on to letters in English to decode it. However, because I couldn’t remember ever hearing the word said out loud, I wasn’t sure if I was decoding it correctly.
It might be EE-gress or ee-GRESS, EGG-ress, or egg-RESS. It is the first, apparently. I Googled it later.
In any case my decoding efforts didn’t help me understand what the word means. In order for decoding skills to be of any use in reading, children need an excellent vocabulary to which they can cross reference as they attempt to decode.
Tip 1: teach phonics through words already in the children’s vocabulary.
Building children’s vocabularies
Before we rush out and start teaching children lists of vocabulary, words in lists are not enough.
If someone had shown me “egress” by itself on a flashcard, I might have guessed it was a bird.
Luckily, “egress” was in a full sentence on a sign in front of a car park, and all of that context helped me comprehend the word.
Without context, words are just letters on a page. This is because all words in English are polysemic – they have multiple meanings depending upon the context.
The wind in my hair. My baby has wind.
And some words keep their spelling but change their pronunciation as well as their meaning.
I’d like to wind you up. I need to wind my clock. Why do I always **wind **up doing the dishes.
Tip 2: build your children’s vocabulary by talking and reading to them so that they encounter words in all their many and varied guises. Seeing a word in many different contexts is more important than just seeing the word flashed at you many times.
The grammar of the parking sign in Wynyard also helped my comprehension.
I had figured out from the context that “egress” meant either entry or exit.
I hear a lot of language so I understand how words “collocate” in English – that is, how some words always hang out together grammatically. My experience with the language meant I knew that we exit “from” and enter “into”.
The more we hear and read real language, the more we learn about how word order works in English.
Tip 3: teach reading through real books with real language so that children learn the rhythm and patterns of English grammar.
I relied on my experience as a driver to look around and see that a median strip in the road would make “egress” from the front of the car park tricky. Life experience helps us read too.
If I write I live in a studio apartment in San Jose, your interpretation of where I live will depend upon whether you understand a studio apartment to be a basement bedsit, or penthouse bachelor pad. It will depend on whether you understand San Jose to be an affluent tech hub or an working class industrial city.
The words alone cannot carry all the meaning of my message. You bring your life experience to the task of reading my words.
Tip 4: give children lots of real life experiences and talk to them about what they see. Trips out and about, and chats about things beyond their everyday environment are important.
Are we giving poor readers the help they need?
Good readers have a full repertoire of skills, each dependent upon the other.
They have excellent oral language and a wide vocabulary. They know what words mean and this helps them decode.
They can decode and this helps them locate the word in their existing vocabulary.
They know the structure of English through exposure to authentic complex written and spoken language.
They use rich life experiences to support their comprehension of written texts.
Poor readers need all of these skills too. Yet our interventions for poor readers typically only address one skill – decoding.
Our declining results in international tests of literacy show us that our 15 year olds can decode but they can’t comprehend.
Until we pay full attention to all the other reading skills, the decline will continue.