Georgette Heyer kept only one fan letter. It was from a Romanian political prisoner who had raised her cell-mates’ spirits over a 12-year incarceration by retelling the story of Heyer’s Friday’s Child.
“Truly,” she wrote, “your characters managed to awaken smiles, even when hearts were heavy, stomachs empty and the future dark indeed!”
In times of stress, many of us crave a little light relief and, ideally, a happy ending. During the second world war, readers turned to historical romance for a past which seemed more colourful than the dreary present of restrictions and rationing. A young war-worker told the Mass Observation organisation, which recorded everyday experience, that she liked “books dealing with some costume period when smugglers had the rule of the seas. I like books to take me into another world far from the realities of this one”.
This is a genre in which women have excelled, particularly in the 20th century. Indeed, by the mid-20th century the historical novel had become so associated with female writers and readers of “costume romance” that the entire genre was dismissed by critics as merely escapist. It was not until the 1990s that historical fiction began to be taken seriously again.
And yet, as is so often the case with genre fiction, historical novelists have used formulaic plots and tropes to disguise controversial material and smuggle it past the censors.
As during the second world war, we are once again facing a period of great upheaval and as such our reading habits have changed to reflect that. A recent survey found that we are reaching for books that offer comfort in their formulaic narratives.
Historical romance allows us a space of relief from present worries but these novels are more than just escapism. While their narrative arcs may be familiar, they also ask still-crucial questions about the politics of gender, sexuality, class and nationhood.
Here are five great examples:
The Masqueraders (1928) by Georgette Heyer
Considered the inventor of the Regency romance, Heyer is admired for her authentic period detail. A superb stylist (she described her prose as a mixture of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson), she is also a brilliant comic writer. The Masqueraders is one of her most engaging novels, not just for the entanglements that ensue when a brother and sister swap clothes to avoid detection as escaped Jacobites but also because it poses questions about gender identity which resonate today. Reading it you may wonder to what extent is gender a matter of costume, a masquerade which we all perform.
Frenchman’s Creek (1941) by Daphne du Maurier
My copy is now yellowed with age but each time I dip into it I am transported to Restoration Cornwall and the lush green-shadowed enchantments of a hidden creek in midsummer where a pirate ship is anchored in secret. Just shy of her 30th birthday, Dona St Columb slips away from her husband and children and dresses as a cabin boy to go adventuring with her French pirate lover. Written during war-time, du Maurier’s novel evokes an imagined past as a space of freedom for women who can escape their restrictive domestic responsibilities only “for a night and for a day”.
The Lymond Chronicles (1961-75) by Dorothy Dunnett
For anyone who has more time to read during lockdown, Dunnett’s six-volume series offers the pleasures of a vast historical canvas stretching across sixteenth-century Europe from Scotland to Russia and North Africa. Genre fiction often allows women writers to ventriloquise male characters and Francis Crawford of Lymond, a charismatic but troubled young Scottish nobleman, is a hero of quicksilver complexity and many disguises. As he negotiates the power politics of Europe, particularly the fractious relationship between Scotland and England, Dunnett traces the beginnings of the modern world in the building of nation-states and the development of new art and culture.
Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters
In this subversively sexy picaresque novel set in 1890s London, Waters exploited the conventions of historical romance to slip a lesbian love story into the mainstream. Her appealing narrator Nan King is a working-class oyster girl from Whitstable who becomes a music hall “masher” or male impersonator, then a rent boy and finally the kept “tart” of a wealthy socialite before she finds happiness among a group of socialists. Intelligent, witty and stylish, the novel reimagines a lost lesbian history through vivid sensual detail, evocative period slang (the title is a sexual euphemism) and a satisfyingly complex plot.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) by Philippa Gregory
This was the novel which ignited our current passion for the Tudors and recovered the story of Mary Boleyn, mistress to Henry VIII before her more famous sister Anne married him. With two heroines Gregory can negotiate one of the most tricky elements of historical romance: the fact that with “real” historical figures we already know the ending (and who doesn’t know that Anne Boleyn had her head cut off?). The heart of this often contentious novel is the relationship between the two sisters as they choose different ways to negotiate the dangers of the Tudor court and decide whether to marry for ambition or love.
Having survived starvation and been spared execution, my father arrived in this new country, vassal-eyed and sunken-cheeked. I was born less than a month later and he named me Alice because he thought Australia was a Wonderland. Maybe he had vague literary aspirations for me, like most parents have vague infinite dreams for their babies, so small, so bewildered, so egoless. I arrived safe after so many babies had died under the regime created by a man who named himself deliberately after ruthless ambition — Political Potential, or Pol Pot for short.
“There was a tree,” my father told me when I was a teenager, “and this tree was where Pol Pot’s army, the Khmer Rouge, killed babies and toddlers. They would grab the infant by their ankles and swing them against the trunk and smash them again and again until they were dead.”
When I was an adult, I found out that there was not just the one tree. There were many such trees from which no cradle hung.
But as a child, growing up in Australia, the oldest of four, I knew the words to comfort crying babies. They’d been taught to me by my schoolteachers, with rhyme but without reason: when the bough breaks the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all. A gentle song to rock my sisters to sleep. If my mother understood the words I was singing, she’d yell at me.
My mother was always hollering at me about one thing or another. After the age of eight, I was never left in peace. She repeatedly told me that babies had really soft skulls, that there was even a hole in their heads that hadn’t yet closed. When I looked at my baby sister, I could see something pulsing on the top of her scalp, beneath the skin. Never drop a baby, they warned me, or your life will be over.
They spoke in warnings and commands, like Old Testament sages. They’d seen babies dropped dead. Their language was literal, not literary, but it did the trick.
We could not complain that we were dying of boredom because they’d seen death close-up, and it was definitely not caused by a lack of Lego. We could not say that we were starving because at one malarial point in his life, my father thought that if he breathed inwards he could feel his backbone through his stomach. We could never be hungry or bored in our concrete house in Braybrook, behind a carpet factory that spewed out noxious methane smells that sent us to school reeking like whoopee-cushions.
But in this scatological suburb, I was indeed often bored shitless. Imagine this — you go outside and hoons in cobbled-together Holdens wind down their windows and tell you to Go Back Home, Chinks. So you walk home and inside, it’s supposed to be like home. But it’s not a home you know.
It’s a home your parents know, where the older siblings look after the younger ones and your mum works in an airless dark shed at the back making jewellery, and you think it’s called outworking because although she’s at home she’s always out working. Just like her mum in Phnom Penh and her mum’s mum in Phnom Penh and every other poor mum in the history of your family lineage.
“What are you doing here? Stop bothering me,” your mum would tell you. Or when she was desperate, she’d be cajoling: “Take your siblings out. Go for a walk. If you give me just one more hour, I’ll be done.” Her face would be blackened, her fingers cut. She’d have her helmet on, with the visor. She looked like a coal miner.
Back in Cambodia, the eldest siblings looked after the bevy of little ones, all the children roaming around the Central Market, en masse. Here, in these Melbourne suburbs they’d call it a marauding Asian gang, I bet. I preferred to stay at home. I had plenty to keep me occupied there. Our school library let me borrow books, but I can’t even remember the names of the librarians now. They didn’t like some of the kids because sometimes we stole books.
My best friend Lydia read a book about Helen Keller that so moved her, so expanded her 10-year-old sense of the world that she nicked it and stroked the one-line sample of Braille print on the last page until all the raised dots were flat. I nicked books too, books on needlecraft and making soft toys. Sometimes one of my aunts would come by and give us a garbage bag filled with fleecy fabric offcuts from her job sewing tracksuits in her own back shed.
Being a practical kid who bugged her parents at every opportunity possible for new toys, I wanted to have reference manuals on how to make them. I didn’t nick story books or novels because to me, those were like films I often only wanted to experience once.
One day, my baby sister rolled herself off the bed when I was supposed to be watching her. She was three months old. I had just turned nine. My mother ran into the house and railed at me like a dybbuk, “You’re dead! You’re dead!” She scooped my sister out of my hands. “What were you doing? You were meant to watch her!”
“She was asleep,” I sobbed, “I was reading a book.”
While my mother was working to support us in the dark back shed, I had been in the sunlit bedroom, staring for hours and hours on end at little rectangles, only stopping occasionally to make myself some Nescafé coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If this wasn’t the high life, then what was? Those books were not making me any smarter, she might have thought. Or even said, because it was something she was always telling me, because she couldn’t read or write herself. The government had closed down her Chinese school when she was in grade one, as the very first step of ethnic cleansing in Cambodia.
My mother called up my father and roared over the phone for him to come home immediately because I’d let my sister roll off the bed and she might be brain-damaged. “If she’s brain-damaged, you’re going to be dead,” my father said to me, before they both left for the hospital with my sister.
I hated my parents at that moment, but I hated myself more. I also hated the Baby-Sitters Club, all of those 12-year-old girls for whom looking after small children was just an endless series of sleepovers and car-washes and ice-cream parties and they even always got praised and paid for it. The only people I did not hate were my siblings. They were blameless.
This fucking reading, I thought, because this is how I thought back then, punctuated by profanity, because this is how I wrote back then in diaries I made at school of folded paper stapled together with colourful cardboard covers that I’d then take home and fill in with pages and pages of familial injustice. Sometimes the pen dug in so aggressively underlining a word of rage that I’d make a cut through the paper five pages deep. And this is how the kids talked at school, and also some of their parents who picked them up from school. But then I also realised, reading’s the only fucking good thing I have going for me.
It showed me parents who were not only reasonable, but indulgent. They were meant to be friends with their kids. They were meant to foster their creativity and enterprise. They hosted parties and baked cupcakes and laughed when their children messed up the house, and sat them down and explained things to them carefully with great verbal displays of affection. But only if the kids were like Kristy or Stacey or Dawn in the Baby-Sitters Club.
If they were anything like me, then they didn’t talk very much. We were refugees in school textbooks, there for edification, to induce guilt and gratitude. The presence of third-world people like us in a book immediately stripped that book of any reading-for-pleasure aspirations. We were hard work. We were Objects not Subjects. Or if subjects, subjects of charity and not agents of charity. Always takers, never givers. No wonder people resented us.
Hell, even I resented us! “Girls are more responsible,” my mother always told me. When my aunties dumped their children, my little cousins, with me, they’d always say, “Alice is so good. We trust her.” What’s one or two or three more when you already have so many in the house? they reasoned.
I imagined if some prying interloper had called the cops on my parents when I was young, seeing our makeshift crèche with no adult supervision around. “If you tell the government what I do,” my mother always warned me when I was a child, “they’ll take me away and lock me up and your brother and sisters will be distributed to your aunts and uncles or be put in foster homes.”
What she did — her 14-hour days in the back shed, working with potassium cyanide and other noxious chemicals to produce the jewellery for stores that would then pay her only a couple of dollars per ring or pendant — she thought was a crime. She got paid cash in hand, so she never paid any taxes. She just didn’t understand that she wasn’t the criminal; she was the one being exploited.
My mother began work at 13 in a plastic-bag factory, after her school was closed down. When all the men were at war, the factories were filled with women and children. One afternoon, she told me, she accidentally sliced open a chunk of her leg with the plastic-bag-cutting machine. She had to stay home for the next two weeks. She spent those two weeks worrying whether she’d be replaced by another little girl. In her whole working life, spanning over half a century, my mother has never signed an employment contract because she can’t write or read.
“People can rip me off so easily,” she would often lament, “that’s why I have to have my wits about me at all times.” She’d always count out the exact change when she went grocery shopping even though it mortified me as a kid, and drove those behind her in line nuts. “If they overcharge me and you’re not here, how can I explain anything to them?” she’d ask, “I don’t speak English.”
She’d memorise landmarks when driving, because she couldn’t read street signs. During elections, she would put a “1” next to the candidate who looked the most attractive in their photo. And she’d ask me to read the label on her prescription medicines.
“Tell me carefully,” she’d instruct, “too much or too little and you could kill me.” The power over life and death, I thought, not really a responsibility I wanted at eight. But power over life and death is supposed to be what great works of art are about. Sometimes, there’s not a huge chasm between being literate and being literary. They are not opposite ends of a continuum.
Sure, I enjoyed the classics, especially that line in Great Expectations when Pip determines that he will return a gentleman and deliver “gallons of condescension”. But the depictions of working children, children treated as economic units of labour, as instruments for ulterior adult ends – this was nothing new to me.
Looking after children is hard work. No one cares when things go right, it is the natural course of the universe. But everyone swarms in when things go wrong. A whole swat team, sometimes consisting of your own extended family members, ready to whack at you like a revolting bug if harm should befall your minor charges. The sad reality is that when you slap a monetary value onto these services, people sit up.
They pay attention. They first splutter about how outrageous it is. Then slowly they accept it. You hope that one day no children will be left at home, minding other children while their parents work, because all working parents will be able to access good, affordable childcare.
Often when people rail, think of the children! they are not really thinking of the children. Otherwise, they would listen to the children, not condemn the parents for situations beyond their control — illiteracy, minimum wages, poverty.
Jeanette Winterson wrote about art’s ability to coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous. It involves just seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. To understand that an eight-year-old can and will take responsibility and care of themselves when left to their own devices requires imaginative empathy, not judgement.
Reading showed me what the world could be. My life told me what the world was. It was not Jane Eyre or Lizzie Bennet or even Nancy Drew that opened my life to the possibility of a better existence. It was Ann M. Martin and her Baby-Sitters Club. That children should get paid was a crazy idea, that they should get paid for babysitting even more audacious.
That a handful of pre-teen girls could start a small business from Claudia’s home — beautiful artistic Asian Claudia Kishi with her own fixed phone line — and that they could muster all the neighbourhood children under their care and largesse was revolutionary to me.
In my life, the miraculous does not involve magic. There is nothing that makes the state of childhood particularly magical. There is a lot that is frightening, brutal and cruel about every stage of life. After all, I know that a single tree can harbour a cradle or a grave. But to be able to do what my hardworking, wonderful mother never could — time-travel, mind-read, even never to mistake dish detergent for shampoo because the pictures of fruit on the bottle are similar — this is a gift I will never take for granted.
This is an extract from The Gifts of Reading: Essays on the Joys of Reading, Giving and Receiving Books curated by Jennie Orchard, with all royalties to be donated to Room to Read (RRP $32.99, Hachette Australia), available now.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, very remote areas, and Indigenous Australians are up to two times more likely to start school developmentally vulnerable than the national average.
In 2018, 21.7% of Australian five year olds (70,308 children) were not developmentally ready when they started school. And in Year 7, nearly 25% of students (72,419) didn’t have the required numeracy and literacy skills.
Our report, Educational Opportunity in Australia 2020, is the first to examine Australia’s performance against the goals set out in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, a national statement agreed to by Australian education ministers in 2019.
The statement aims for a quality education system for all young people, that supports them to be creative and confident individuals, successful learners and active and informed members of the community.
But our report finds students’ location and family circumstances continue to play a strong role in determining outcomes from school entry to adulthood.
Disadvantaged children missing out as school progresses
The Alice Springs declaration sets two ambitious goals:
the Australian education system promotes excellence and equity. In part, this is about ensuring all young Australians have access to high-quality education, inclusive and free from any form of discrimination
all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community. This includes all children having a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity that enables them to manage their emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and physical well-being.
The declaration was signed last year, and builds on previous ones signed in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne over three decades. It recognises the role education plays in preparing young people to contribute meaningfully to social, economic and cultural life.
Our report uses the best available data to paint a comprehensive picture of Australia’s performance against the above important goals.
It shows the gap in academic learning as well as other key areas, such as creativity and confidence, is clear from school entry and usually grows over time.
Analysis in our report tracked students’ learning from when they started school in 2009 to when they were in Year 5 in 2014. It showed that in literacy and numeracy for instance, the gap between the proportion of children from the most disadvantaged and advantaged families meeting relevant standards grew from 20.6 percentage points at school entry to 27.2 percentage points in Year 5.
The report also shows too many students in the senior years of school are not developing key skills. In 2018, 27.8% of 15 year olds (88,314) didn’t meet or exceed the international benchmark standards in maths, reading and science.
While some students receive the support they need to catch up to their peers, many don’t.
A lot of young people are also not developing the qualities needed to confidently adapt to challenges in adulthood and contribute to their communities.
The report shows that in 2017, 28.1% (110,410) of 23 year olds were not confident in themselves or the future and 29.9% were not adaptable to change and open to new ideas. It shows 38.1% (145,056) of 23 year olds were not actively engaged in their community and 33.2% were not keeping informed about current affairs.
Additionally, many young Australians are not being well prepared and supported to find and secure meaningful employment. Overall, according to the 2016 census, nearly 30% of 24 year olds (112,695) weren’t in full-time education, training or work.
Around half of all 24 year old Indigenous Australians, and one in three of the most disadvantaged Australians, were not engaged in any work or education, compared to 15% nationally.
This failure to address educational inequality reproduces and amplifies existing poverty across generations. It saps productivity, undermines social cohesion and costs governments and communities billions of dollars.
On an individual level, it hampers young people’s search for secure employment and is connected to poorer health and lower quality of life.
What should we do?
There are no quick ways to fix educational inequality, but there are several key improvements that will make a difference.
Closing gaps in participation and lifting the quality of early childhood education services — particularly in disadvantaged communities where services tend to be lower quality — should be one of our highest priorities. Early childhood education is critical to giving every child the best possible start. Evidence shows preschool raises children’s chances of being developmentally ready for school in key areas by around 12 percentage points.
Despite efforts through the Gonski reforms, there is still significant room to improve how Australia targets funding and support to schools with the highest level of need. We need to address the imbalance in resources between advantaged and disadvantaged Australian schools, which is the worst in the OECD.
This is not just about money, but building strong leadership and teaching capability in every school. High quality teaching is proven to be critical to improving student outcomes. We also need to support high quality use of data and assessment to tailor teaching to students’ needs, provide feedback and measure progress.
Government projections show 90% of employment growth in the next four years will require education beyond school. This means we must prepare young people for an economy requiring higher levels of skill than ever. We need to rethink existing models of tertiary education to make it accessible to all students.
Addressing educational inequality is as much about what happens outside the classroom as inside. Nurturing every child’s development and well-being is best achieved through a partnership between schools, families, communities and other support services.
Australia cannot afford education systems that fail so many students. That’s not just in economic terms – because the cost of lost opportunity is even greater down the track – but also in human terms. We know the social and health costs of disengaging in education are significant.
Book review: Witness, by Louise Milligan (Hachette).
Louise Milligan’s new book, Witness, is an excoriating critique of the failures of the criminal justice system in sexual assault trials.
Informed by Milligan’s two decades of experience as an investigative journalist, including her specialist work as a court reporter and her sustained coverage of the trials of George Pell, her analysis is enriched by in-depth interviews with prosecutors, defence counsel, solicitors, judges and academics.
Witness is both a gripping revelation of rarely-heard experts’ opinions about the realities and flaws of criminal procedure, and a devastating critique of the system.
The book is further inspired by detailed consideration of the experience of complainants in two high-profile cases, which Milligan had previously covered in Sydney and Melbourne.
These include Saxon Mullins, a young woman who was the complainant in a rape case that involved two trials, two appeals, and judicial errors. Her experience influenced a Law Reform Commission inquiry into the law of consent. She is now working with criminologists and advocates to develop minimum standards in rape laws to better define consent.
Also examined in detail is the case of former St Kevin’s student Paris Street, who allowed Milligan to reproduce a letter he wrote about his experience of being cross-examined at the age of 15.
Witness is informed, too, by Milligan’s own experience of being cross-examined as a witness in the 2018 committal hearing of Cardinal George Pell. Here Milligan displays courage in divulging the personal toll taken.
“You don’t sleep the night before that first day in court …” she writes. “You vomit … Your mind spins … You cry …”
Her visceral description of the attempted destruction of her own character and credibility in cross-examination testifies to the brutality of many witnesses’ encounters with the criminal trial process.
Witness recognises that for many complainants, their experience of the criminal justice system is traumatic. Through multiple case studies of cross-examination, centring mostly on cases in Victoria and NSW, Milligan demonstrates the best known dimension of this brutality, laying bare the chasm between complainants’ expectations of the system, and the reality of its operation.
Complainants, she shows, are stunned to realise the trial process is not about establishing truth. Often, they feel they are on trial.
Milligan recognises this experience is only partly due to the adversarial criminal justice system being centred neither on the complainant, nor on truth. Our system enables prosecution by the state: the complainant is simply a witness, subject to rules of evidence and procedure.
Core doctrines protecting the accused exist to prevent state abuse of power. This systemic environment is overlaid by features of sexual assault trials, which often turn on the complainant’s credibility and word against that of the accused.
Milligan’s book is balanced. Neither she, nor her interviewees object to principles of presumed innocence until proven guilty, or the standard of proof. She accepts counsel’s obligation to strongly defend their client, but focuses on the professional ethic of choice in how this is achieved.
Crucially, Witness emphasises that many defence counsel do treat complainants with dignity and respect, and still defend their client admirably.
But at the book’s core is a justified sense of outrage at those who choose to treat complainants and witnesses with a hostility causing its own trauma; a special kind of systemic abuse.
Tactical shifts and empathy deficits
The interviews in Witness trace fascinating shifts in professional culture. Milligan identifies a change in defence cross-examination tactics from the outright aggression of the past. One interviewee admits “there was a time when you’d just try and eviscerate [the complainant]. And I don’t think juries are impressed by that now.”
Still, Milligan finds much room for improvement. Several defence counsel reveal they changed their approach — not because they have greater understanding about the nature of sexual assault and trauma, or empathy for the complainant, but because it was no longer effective for their client.
Others, still reliant on aggression, rationalise their approach as simply doing their job, to “ask the hard questions”. However, Milligan suggests this is simply a disingenuous cloak for cruelty, starkly contrasting it with defence counsel who do a brilliant job without brutalising victims.
Elsewhere in Witness, she charts the historic male dominance of the legal profession and the limits this places on the capacity for change.
A particularly striking dimension of Witness is its revelation that the adversarial system is brutal for legal practitioners, too.
Milligan’s interviews elicit numerous admissions of excessive drinking to cope with the stress, including the trauma of having to try to break down complainants.
One lawyer describes this activity as requiring “a complete separation of self”.
Milligan’s account of her own cross-examination in the Pell committal by Robert Richter QC is exhaustive and compelling. Reflecting on the experience, she repeatedly references the Evidence Act s 41, which imposes a duty on the court to disallow improper questions and improper questioning, including questions that are intimidating or humiliating, or are asked in an insulting way.
Yet, it is clear she felt insufficiently protected by this section of the Act, and by other laws giving the court control over how witnesses should be questioned.
Virtually every question was asked, she writes, in a belittling or insulting way. By the end of the day, she “had never felt more alone”, despite all her experience, preparation, and team of lawyers. What hope do complainants have, she asks, who lack these resources, and were already traumatised?
An argument for change
Witness eloquently affirms how the criminal justice system is maladapted to meet the needs of complainants.
The system is broken. For sex crimes, rates of complaints, prosecutions, and convictions are persistently low.
Knowing the brutal experience awaiting them, victims often do not complain, or withdraw from proceeding, undermining the rule of law. Because these are qualitatively different kinds of cases, leaders in the field have long argued that sexual assault trials require more fundamental changes.
Yet, even without more radical change, Witness insists a minimum acceptable standard of professional practice – treating witnesses with dignity and respect – is required and achievable, without compromising fair trial rights.
Protections against humiliating treatment of witnesses need to be properly enforced by judges and prosecutors. As one QC admits to Milligan, reforms about judicial directions and improper questioning “don’t mean anything if the prosecutor doesn’t intervene and the judge or magistrate isn’t in control of the courtroom”.
Milligan also suggests complainants would benefit from an expert advisor to assist them in navigating the system, and to protect against unduly intimidatory tactics.
This suggestion is supported by many of her interviewees, including both prosecutors and defence counsel.
Having interviewed so many witnesses, having borne witness to these trials, and having been a witness herself, Milligan is uniquely placed to reflect on the process.
She challenges legal practitioners to be part of the problem, or part of the solution. With Witness, a triumph of intellect and empathy, Milligan has chosen to be part of the solution.
The link below is to a ‘review’ of a new app, ‘Summerian,’ that provides summaries of books, etc.
For more visit:
This is an edited extract from The Palace Letters: The Queen, the governor-general, and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam by Jenny Hocking.
It was cold, mid-winter in Canberra, when I returned to the National Archives in mid-2019 searching for more documents, scouring through the accession records for Sir John Kerr’s papers, where, I told myself, even the most obscure files might turn up something important, something I had never imagined.
And then, quite suddenly, one of them did.
As I waited for the High Court to consider my application for special leave, a file containing letters between Kerr and the queen’s private secretary after Kerr had left office landed in my inbox.
I had requested this file, with the arresting title “Buckingham Palace”, eight years earlier, after which it had disappeared into the archival limbo of “withheld pending advice”.
It suddenly reappeared in a “decision on access” email, with no explanation for the eight-year delay, with its cache of letters providing a jaw-dropping account of royal intervention in Kerr’s autobiography, Matters for Judgment, which was soon to be released.
The supportive exchanges between Kerr, Prince Charles and the queen and [her private secretary, Sir Martin] Charteris, which had been so welcome before the dismissal, soon became a major concern for the palace, which feared losing control of both the increasingly erratic Kerr and their letters.
As the outcry over the dismissal showed no sign of abating even a year later, including demonstrations and angry placards, and paint thrown at the vice-regal Rolls-Royce, pressure was building on Kerr to resign.
Under siege, he began to agitate for the release of the palace letters, which he felt would bolster support for his actions. This began with careless comments about the letters and “the attitude of the Palace” at the time of the dismissal to friends and colleagues.
Word of Kerr’s indiscretion, his boasting of the queen’s approval of “the way that I am going about things”, soon reached the palace itself, to great alarm. It grew to a crescendo soon after Kerr’s resignation as governor-general took effect in December 1977, with his visit to the queen’s new private secretary, Sir Philip Moore, to plead his case for the release of the letters.
Kerr was intent on using the letters to garner support for his action in dismissing Whitlam if he possibly could – and what better place to do it than in his autobiography, which he was finalising in self-imposed exile in England? His book was being eagerly, and in some quarters nervously, awaited, since Kerr was loudly proclaiming that he would now report “the facts of the happenings of 1975 […] in the interests of truth”.
With publication looming, and with it the prospect that Kerr might reveal their secret discussions, the queen’s private secretary contacted Kerr directly and asked for a copy of his draft manuscript.
“Buckingham Palace has evinced an interest in the manuscript and all parts of it which touch directly upon the Queen’s position and the Palace’s position will need to be thought about,” Kerr wrote to his lawyers in Sydney. Kerr dutifully sent his manuscript to the queen’s private secretary, and it was soon “in safe keeping now at Buckingham Palace”.
“It will make fascinating reading,” Moore assured him, “I will get into [sic] touch with you again as soon as I have finished it.”
Moore’s brief comment on the book arrived three weeks later, and if you thought the historical dissembling about the dismissal must eventually reach a natural end, think again.
The queen’s private secretary thanked Kerr for excising any references to his discussions with Charteris about “the controversy”:
I am grateful to you for being so scrupulous in omitting any reference to the informal exchanges which you had with Martin Charteris. I know that you have throughout been anxious to keep The Queen out of the controversy and I much appreciate the way in which you have achieved this in the book.
Which shows Kerr to be as unreliable in print as he was in office.
Kerr could scarcely hide his delight at this royal approbation of his expurgated history:
I did my very best of course to omit any reference to the exchanges between Martin Charteris and myself. It is particularly gratifying to me to know that the result is satisfactory.
These letters not only confirm Kerr was in contact with Charteris regarding the dismissal, but they also reveal that the palace and Kerr then agreed to keep these “exchanges” hidden by omitting any mention of them in Kerr’s “autobiography”.
Matters for Judgment duly contained no mention of his “informal exchanges” with Charteris, nor any details of Charteris’s “illuminating observations” and “advice to me on dismissal” that Kerr had noted in his journal.
Despite Kerr’s claims his book would present “the truth” and “facts” about the events of November 1975, it was a tawdry exercise in historical distortion by omission – a royal whitewash of history.
Most shocking in this latest revelation of ongoing royal intrigue was the clear example it provided of the mechanism through which the secrecy that drove the dismissal – the collusion of Kerr with others, and his deception of the prime minister – continued in the construction of its history. It shows the involvement of the palace in the construction of a flawed and filtered history about one of the most contentious episodes in Australia’s history.
It was a shameful episode in that shared history, the details of which were still emerging.