I come from a family of miners. The last person to work down the pit was my paternal grandfather, who dug coal from the subterranean tunnels hidden deep below the Welsh Marches, which lie along the English border. In comparison to the innumerable collieries that made south Wales at one point the biggest coal-exporting region in the world, ours was the forgotten coalfield.
My grandfather was a proud miner, but he was adamant that none of his children would follow in his footsteps. Thatcher’s obliteration of mining communities was conducted in an appalling manner, but reinstating the industry was not the answer. However, when I moved to south Wales to study, I was conscious of a different attitude towards our national heritage.
Shortly after beginning my master’s degree at Cardiff, I attended an event with a panel of ex-colliers. During the Q&A session, one audience member expressed a desire that mining should return to the area, which was met with approval from others. I was aware that this reflected the reality that large parts of south Wales have never fully recovered from the abrupt removal of industry, but also conscious that, on that occasion, there was hardly anyone arguing the contrary.
The price of coal
Admittedly, the coal industry brought employment, community and a strong sense of identity to parts of Wales. However, this came at the cost of widespread ecological destruction, and, despite the current coronavirus pandemic, the most significant threat to our survival remains climate change. As people, we have a natural tendency to look at the past fondly, but in order to avoid regressing, it is important to remember the negative aspects of history.
Literature about Welsh coal mining has attracted a healthy degree of critical attention over the years. Yet, little consideration has been paid towards the way writers depict the environmental impact of the industry.
Over the past three years, I have examined a series of texts published in the 1930s, a decade that saw an increased demand – beyond Wales – for literature about the harsh realities of life in mining communities. This Welsh industrial writing, as it became known, is usually viewed as a social document of that era. In my view, we should reclassify these writings as early articulations of the man-made changes that have created today’s climate emergency.
Writing environmental catastrophe
Wales was devastated during the 1930s by the Great Depression. The coal industry was in decline and by 1932, nearly half of all men were unemployed. This economic desolation is mirrored by literary depictions of environmental degradation in Welsh industrial writing, which was going through a boom at the time.
Collieries used local rivers to wash coal, whilst also treating water sources as a deposit for waste. As a result, river ecology suffered for generations. Jack Jones’s Black Parade (1935) communicates the deadly reality of this river pollution in Victorian Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Throughout Jones’s novel, the presence of the contaminated local river haunts the characters. Human and industrial waste combine to create intolerable living conditions where rats rule supreme.
Throughout the period of industrialisation, large areas of Welsh forest were cleared to produce the wooden props that were used to create underground tunnels for coal mining. In Idris Davies’s extended poem, Gwalia Deserta (1938), the poet draws parallels between the loss of Welsh trees to industry and the deprivation of the local population during the Depression. Davies’s poem serves as a stark warning of what a place becomes when it loses its trees.
Widespread air pollution was a major consequence of Welsh coal mining. BL Coombes’s autobiographical text, These Poor Hands (1939), describes how collieries created innumerable quantities of dust that blackened the natural landscape and nearby communities, whilst below ground, miners were subjected to abject working conditions that caused fatal respiratory diseases.
During the mining of Welsh coal, large amounts of waste material were also removed from the earth and placed on the surface. This resulted in enormous heaps of black dirt, known as spoil tips, which littered the Welsh landscape.
Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) is criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of mining communities, but as the most widely read account of life in the Welsh coalfield, it deserves attention. The novel focuses throughout on the menacing spoil tip that looms above the protagonist’s house. Published almost 30 years before the Aberfan disaster, in which a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, Llewellyn’s text is unsettlingly prophetic.
Given the urgency of reversing the global climate catastrophe, it is important that we end our reliance on fossil fuels. In Wales, we can be proud of our industrial heritage whilst acknowledging its ecologically destructive realities. Literature, in its ability to engage people, can help us remember the negative aspects of our past, so we avoid taking regressive steps in the future.
A seasonal change is in the air. With a minimal amount of nostalgia about the dwindling days of this unique summer, let’s turn to how we can make the most of the rest of 2020 — clearly a year for the history books.
As a historian, what concerns me is: What will our history of this unprecedented year look like in a quarter century? As the world is reshaped by COVID-19, as well as ongoing protests on a nearly unprecedented scale against racism and police brutality in the United States, Canada and around the world, it’s clear that this will be a year for future historians to make sense of.
A child today will be a historian of 2020 in the future. What sources will they turn to? How will they verify scattered memories? How will people tell the story of the tumultuous times that we’re living in today? 2020 may be a year for the history “books” but of course, the record we leave behind will be digital in manner.
But right now, Canada, unlike many other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and others, doesn’t mandate its national library to capture a comprehensive digital record of Canadian life. This needs to change so we can ensure historians of the future have all the sources possible to write a rich, equitable and robust historical record.
For example, what did Britons think of senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ 418-kilometre trip from London to Durham while his wife was unwell? A researcher will be able to visit the British Library (in most cases, an in-person visit is required due to legal reasons) to consult not only social media feeds of everyday researchers, but news websites, U.K. blogs and beyond.
They will be able to draw on nearly everything published on the U.K. web in 2020. Right now a researcher can already view thousands of pages — and, most importantly, these are stewarded by the British Library for future preservation.
This information will be accessible to our future researcher thanks to the power of legal deposit. Legal deposit is defined by the International Federation of Library Associations as a “statutory obligation [that] requires publishers, distributors and, in some countries, printers, to freely provide copies of their publications to the national collection,” and is a power that builds the collections of national libraries including Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
What this has meant in practice is that when a book or publication is published, there has been a legal requirement to deposit the book with a national library.
What happens when a publication moves online? What about blogs? Should they have a similar responsibility to deposit their material? And, critically, does a national library have a duty to preserve this information at scale?
Crucially, sweeping collections of material under legal deposit means that material is being amassed that does not seem important today — but could be invaluable to a historian in years to come.
Canada should aggressively follow
The remarkably forward thinking Library and Archives of Canada Act of 2004 gives Library and Archives Canada similar powers. One section of the act, for example, gives the institution the power to take a “representative sample of the documentary material of interest to Canada that is accessible to the public without restriction through the internet or any similar medium.”
These laws, however, aren’t used to their fullest. Canada’s national library doesn’t carry out a comprehensive snapshot of the entire Canadian web domain, meaning that countless voices will be lost for future historians.
This is not to paint too dire a picture. Library and Archives Canada does a great job of capturing material of interest. During COVID-19, it has selectively captured some 38 million digital assets related to COVID-19 by July 2020, which add to their robust web archives including the Government of Canada web archive, which collects and maintains a comprehensive record of federal government’s websites.
Increasingly, it’s making collections, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s collection, available online. In doing so, Library and Archives Canada is explicitly noting its collecting powers under the 2004 act, suggesting an increasing willingness to share these materials.
We should laud this great work, and use it as a launchpad for the comprehensive collection of all Canadian material.
Patchwork collecting: not enough
While Library and Archives Canada has been collecting material for COVID-19, including social media hashtags as well as media and non-media related websites, even 900 websites being regularly collected is patchwork compared to the sheer amount of information published by Canadians online every day.
To do justice to what’s happening around us, and to make sure that historians of the future can understand this moment, the institution and policy-makers need to move quickly.
We need to aim to collect the entire Canadian web domain on an ongoing basis, both during and after COVID, to enable future researchers to understand our country. This will require additional funds to Library and Archives Canada. But, at what better time?
New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.
This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.
1. Climate histories
Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.
This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.
Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.
Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.
2. How we view nature
Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.
When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.
Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.
Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.
3. Ways of thinking
Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.
But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.
Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:
In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.
At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.
Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.
Like Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” it portrays President Donald Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader,” whose senior staff struggle to contain his most dangerous impulses.
This same view of Trump was reiterated in a Sept. 5 anonymous New York Times op-ed, which, as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse observed, is “just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.”
But whether “Fear” tells us something new matters less than the fact that the book is yet another broadside against Trump’s image. It adds more fuel to the suspicions many have about the president’s behind-the-scenes behavior.
In fact, Woodward’s “Fear” – together with Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Omarosa Manigault’s “Unhinged” and the anonymous op-ed – is part of a long tradition of political “secret histories,” a genre that recounts salacious and scandalous details about the dealings, relationships and temperaments of those in power. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and it’s one that my co-editor and I explore in our book “The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820.”
Secret histories tend to take two forms. There is the plain-spoken, just-the-facts approach, similar to Woodward’s “Fear.” Then there are novelistic accounts with major figures depicted using pseudonyms, as in “Primary Colors,” a lightly fictionalized dramatization of the Clinton White House.
But the secrets unveiled in these works usually don’t come out of nowhere. Instead, they contain anecdotes that have long been whispered or suspected. The goal of secret histories is to emphasize embarrassing stories about a ruler or government – to propel the drumbeat of negative coverage in order to strengthen the opposition and, in some instances, to even topple governments.
Secret histories date back at least to the sixth century, when the military historian Procopius wrote down sordid anecdotes about Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, in a work that became known as “Anekdota,” which translates to “unpublishable things.” Ten centuries later, it appeared in Latin as “Historia Arcana,” or “Secret History.”
As a military historian, Procopius had helped create the myth of Justinian’s greatness in his eight-book treatise “The Wars of Justinian.” But in his “Anekdota,” Procopius finally told the ugly backstory of Justinian’s reign: his lust, his seizure of others’ property, his petty vengefulness and his persecution of non-Christians. The work was almost certainly circulated in manuscript scroll among Justinian’s enemies. While it probably damaged his standing, Justinian was nonetheless able to retain his grip on power.
After French and English translations of Procopius’ “Anekdota” appeared in 1669 and 1674, secret histories in the same style began to appear about King Charles II of England.
These tended to focus on his mistresses – particularly the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, who manipulated Charles for over a decade, persuading him to grant her land and money and bestow titles of nobility on their illegitimate children.
These reports, which read like tabloid-style gossip, were never just about sex.
Readers of one account, titled “The Amours of the King of Tamaran,” likely realized that if the king could be duped and controlled by his powerful mistress, he was also susceptible to being influenced by England’s adversaries.
These publications didn’t bring down the politically skilled Charles II, who was glad to take Louis XIV’s money but savvy enough to decide against changing his country’s religion.
They did, however, sow suspicion towards Charles II and his family. After Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic younger brother, James, ascended the throne in 1685, instilling fear that England would return to Catholicism. Seven Englishmen wrote to Prince William of Orange – who was a Protestant – pleading that he invade England. In the Glorious Revolution that ensued, James II fled to France, and Parliament declared William and his wife, Mary, joint monarchs of England.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 helped inspire American colonists to rebel against another British monarch, with the not-so-secret history of George’s III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
Some might disparage Woodward’s book as “anonymously-sourced gossip.”
But gossip has always been important to humankind. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in “Sapiens,” his best-selling account of early human history:
“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”
Those who dismiss Woodward’s book underestimate the power that gossip and behind-the-scenes revelations wield over politics – and the way it has shaped the course of human history.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.
This article is the fourth in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here, part two here and part three here.
We all love history. It helps us get our bearings, comforts us with the knowledge that we are part of the larger human narrative. But our love of history is often a jealous one that seeks to control the story and license those permitted to write it.
In 2006, at the height of the mudslinging that began when Kate Grenville allegedly claimed her novel The Secret River (2005) was a new form of historiography, historian Inga Clendinnen countered that the novelist’s only “binding contract” with their readers was “not to instruct or to reform, but to delight”.
The message was clear: if it’s reliable history you’re after, trust the experts (historians), not liberty-taking literary artists.
But is the line between truth and fiction really so clear when it comes to history? And if not, is there scope for historians and novelists to re-engage, with a view to learning from – rather than bludgeoning – each other?
It is difficult for many to imagine a solution to any practical difficulty arising from within the annals of literary theory. Yet the work of two great scholars with a literary bent – the late Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and the very much alive historian and critic Hayden White – provides scope for a rapprochement.
Let it be said immediately that a large measure of contention is a healthy thing in intellectual and public discourse. In a sense, that is the point that this reading of Bakhtin and White’s work on historiography seeks to make.
For White, historians should be more mindful of the effect their use of narrative storytelling techniques adapted from fiction can have on their non-fictional stories about the past. Narrativisation, in White’s words:
represents a mode of praxis which serves as the immediate base of all cultural activity … even of science itself. We are no longer compelled, therefore, to believe – as historians in the post-Romantic period had to believe – that fiction is the antithesis of fact (in the way that superstition or magic is the antithesis of science).
Put simply, a set of ten facts may be capable of sustaining a variety of meanings depending up how they are narrativised and interpreted. The facts of a long-lost past do not speak for themselves. Though the archive is rich, it is patchy in parts and full of lacunae. If we can’t know all the facts, how can we know the whole truth?
White resists the assertion that only historians have a legitimate role. Novelists, poets and playwrights too have a concern with observable events of the past, but unlike historians they also deal with “imagined, hypothetical and invented ones”. He calls neo-historical fiction “the dominant genre and mode of postmodernist writing”.
Openness to history’s failings and the possibilities of historical fiction is often associated with a kind of anti-historical nihilism ascribed to postmodernist thought.
A reading of White’s Tropics of Discourse (1985), in which he pillories Michel Foucault’s approach to history as an attempt “to destroy it as a discipline, as a mode of consciousness, and as a mode of (social) existence”, suggests this is not necessarily the case.
Celebrated critic David Lodge once suggested the work of Mikhail Bakhtin could provide a way out of the opposition between humanist and postmodernist thought.
Bakhtin challenged the structuralist concept of language as a system of signs, positing it instead as a social activity in which the meaning of words is generated in the flux of human polyphony.
Along the way, he insisted that dialogic discourses were impossible unless orientated towards referential objects, such as the events of history. He lauded the novel as a revolutionary successor to the anachronistic epic with its “single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences”.
Taken at face value, Bakhtin’s dislike of epic literature seems contradictory. Is not epic another legitimate voice? But his real grouse was his view that epic expunged inconvenient or dissenting viewpoints. Our recent orgy of commemoration of the abortive attack on Turkish territory at Gallipoli in 1915 – and the sacking of a journalist who dissented from it – would, to Bakhtin, have seemed emblematic of the dark side of epic history.
This month’s premiere of the television adaptation of The Secret River is a timely reminder that once the binary concept of true and false histories is admitted, history “wars” inevitably follow, eerily mimicking the real wars that histories chronicle.
In truth, most historians and novelists admire each other’s work, and well understand how it differs and what it shares in common. But headline-grabbing history warriors have conveyed a different impression, conflating what should be thoughtful discussions about the many ways we write history with existential anxieties about postmodernism.
It is galling, but inevitable, that the work of a good historian who cannot write well will enjoy less salience than that of an amateur historian who happily constructs and publishes heavily mythologised epics. The ability to narrativise is the key to literary, social and political power, for better or worse.
Rather than engaging in turf wars, historians and novelists might more usefully share a dialogue about that.
This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the fourth in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.
The Making of the English Working Class tells the story of how English working people, who between 1790 and 1832 were experiencing the effects of the agrarian and industrial revolutions and of an authoritarian and oppressive political system, gradually came to have a sense of identity as a working class.
It is a historical drama, in which people find their old collectivities challenged and dispersed under conditions of massive technological, economic, political, and cultural change, and respond by forming new ones.
Against both sociological conceptions of class as a static category and economic determinist forms of Marxism, The Making of the English Working Class asserts the primacy of human action, or agency, in specific political, economic, and cultural contexts. Part of the attraction for generations of history students lies in the flow and rhythm of the writing, so wonderfully quotable in an essay:
The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.
I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.
Like any other relationship, it [class] is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure.
Yet Thompson’s Marxism leads him into questions of structure, too, especially the changing character of the economy and its complex relations with politics and culture.
Just as frequently quoted are Thompson’s warnings against teleological and moralistic readings of history: of writing history too rigidly in light of our current preoccupations. In what have become The Making’s most memorable sentences, he writes:
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying.
Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.
There has been no more stirring call to respect the aspirations, and to attempt to understand the experiences, of the people of the past.
Where narrative meets analysis
One of the most striking features of The Making is the way it mixes narrative and analysis. The text moves constantly from one to the other.
This happens in two ways. Sometimes the text begins with an anecdote, or story, about an individual person or event, and then pulls back to draw out the broader implications and context of this story, to illuminate some large-scale social processes.
In chapter one, for example, we read about the first meeting of a radical group called the London Corresponding Society in 1792, learning about its individual members and its rules. Then the text quickly widens the focus to comment on the nature of class relations at this time: the protagonists were, he writes, “rehearsing in curiously personal encounters the massive impersonal encounters of the future”.
Thompson’s technique here is similar to that of the historical novel, pioneered by women writers such as Maria Edgeworth and made famous by Walter Scott.
As often, though, the text reverses this process, and immerses us in a historiographical debate, perhaps even a discussion of problems of sources, before giving us a detailed narrative of particular events.
In the book’s extended section on Luddism, for example, we have a lengthy meditation on the limitations of the sources and the ongoing contest over the meaning of Luddism before we have any detailed story of the Luddite outbreaks. Whichever comes first, there is continual movement between the individual case study and the broad sweep of history.
Readable history is novelistic and filmic, requiring not only plenty of action, a sense of agency, but also of character. For the narrative to matter, we have to care about what happens to these historical actors, and get a sense of their individuality and aspirations, their quirks and passions.
The Making has many characters, some well known, others not.
For some, such as William Cobbett, journalist and leading radical reformer of the first few decades of the 19th century, we have extensive information and the reader gets to know Cobbett well through the book.
For others, there are only brief references, such as attendance at a meeting or participation in a riot. Yet whether mentioned fleetingly or in considerable detail, these historical figures are always treated as characters, influencing the course of history in some way.
Quotations short and long appear throughout the text, bringing the narrative and the characters to life and reassuring the reader of the plausibility of its interpretation.
One of the charms of the book, to my mind, is its welcoming of historical disputation, seeing historical explanations as necessarily provisional and always open to revision.
It acknowledges the essentially collaborative nature of history, where historians develop knowledge and understanding jointly, bit by bit. “I by no means suppose that […] I have always uncovered the truth”, Thompson writes in the 1968 postscript.
“No single historian can hope to cover, in any detail, all this ground.” These are attractive ideas for a historian, perhaps for any non-fiction writer: share with your readers the nature and sources of your knowledge and the processes of exploring and extending it.
The Making’s focus was firmly on England and it assumed considerable familiarity (perhaps too much for many readers) with English history. Subsequent commentary has pointed to its limitations in giving so little attention, for example, to the wider British imperial context, even though it concerns a period in which imperial adventures were flourishing.
Thompson did, however, see English history as relevant beyond England’s borders, hoping his book would provide lessons for the developing world as it underwent industrialisation. “Causes”, he wrote in the preface “which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won”.
As it turned out, the lessons readers have actually drawn from The Making have had less to do with industrialisation than with historical method and conceptions of class and culture.
Even while we may challenge its particular arguments, and some of its lacunae on questions of empire, race, and gender, we can admire a text that combines originality of argument, depth of scholarship, and captivating writing. Little wonder, then, that it has become an enduring and inspiring international classic.
This article is the second in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here and part three here.
At the Brisbane Writers’ Festival some years ago, novelist Peter Carey responded to relentless historical questioning about his True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) by sinking in his chair and saying “I made it up”.
But the thing is, he didn’t.
As his title declares, Carey was playing a game with “truth”. He had long been fascinated by Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter and his book was both a reworking of a real historical person and a conscious extrapolation of a real historical document. The stakes were high.
Peter Carey was trading in the power of a well-known past, and so his novel invited commentary on historical grounds as well as literary ones. He expected us to evaluate the authenticity of the voice and his ability to get inside the famous helmet.
He was playing with a past that he knows we know – indeed, our independent knowledge of the “true” history provides the grounds for his game.
I don’t think he could have written that novel until historian Ian Jones had written his 1995 biography of Ned Kelly, and equally, I think we cannot now write the history of the Kelly outbreak without learning from the extraordinary ventriloquism of Carey’s novel. This is the intriguing dance between history and fiction.
Let me describe this dance – this intertwining of history and fiction in a quest for understanding – as it has shaped debates about violence and dispossession on the Australian frontier over the past century.
From the 1930s it was novelists who led the way in imagining the other side of the Australian frontier.
Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) was probably Australia’s most influential historical writer in the 20th century. Her trilogy of historical novels, especially the first volume, The Timeless Land (1941), grew out of long hours of research in the Mitchell Library.
Dark found herself sickened by the complacency of Sydney’s celebration of the sesquicentenary of British settlement in 1938. Aborigines, convicts and women were forgotten or suppressed in a triumphal national story that celebrated white free male pioneers planting the flag on a virgin continent.
Professional historians, the few that existed, were doing little to unsettle this complacency, applying their expertise mostly to imperial history and to situating Australian history as a footnote to it.
Dark wanted to write a more radical historical account, one from the inside, looking out at the swelling tide of invasion. Her novel began with an Aboriginal man, Wunbula, and his son, Bennilong, standing on an eastern headland scanning the horizon, watching for the return of the great ship with wings, the one that had visited briefly years before.
It was a stunning imaginative leap from the ships to shore, to the view from the edge of the trees.
Dark was decades ahead of Australia’s historians in realising that the big story about the British colonisation at Port Jackson was that of the encounter between settlers and Aborigines.
The adversarial context of Wright’s campaigning drew from her a different kind of writing, something that went beyond metaphorical or poetic truth. She needed words that would be legally and historically defensible.
Twenty years after the publication of a novel about her forebears, The Generations of Men (1959), she returned to her family story and transformed that semi-fictional pastoral saga into a dispassionate and deeply researched history called The Cry for the Dead (1981). Her book gave a secure scholarly foundation to the political campaign of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.
I think this turn to history is a fascinating moment in the career of a great writer.
Wright needed unique, grounded and localised truths that she could go out and do battle with. She had to be able to show that this happened exactly here, precisely then. So in the 1970s this poet and one-time writer of fiction chose history as her art for conveying truth.
Like Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright carefully set about becoming a historian. She read her way through the pastoral histories and the local pioneering chronicles. She was especially interested in the new work by historians on the frontier and she trawled the regional archives and newspapers.
“My reading and research”, she wrote in The Cry for the Dead, “took me into dark places, into which historians are only recently beginning to throw some light”. Over the next 20 years, historians would transform our understanding of Australia’s forgotten war.
Contested histories at the turn of the century
By the late 1990s, frontier conflict had become accepted in Australian historiography and there was a conservative backlash, seeking to discredit a generation of research.
Conservative critics initiated a fight over footnotes and tried to count the precise number of Aboriginal and settler dead on the frontier as if it decided the ethics of the issue.
It was the moral vacuum created by this critique that invited, indeed demanded, works such as Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002), Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003), and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005), all published in the early 2000s, and all stories that aimed to remind us of the intimacy and familiarity of the frontier, of its visceral, violent reality, and also of its alternative human possibilities.
These three books, two of history, one of fiction, sought to enlarge our capacity for compassion, to win back ground for tolerance and understanding.
Grenville’s commentary on her novel addressed this context directly. “The voice of debate might stimulate the brain”, she declared in 2005, “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.”
Her hunger for a new direction in the adversarial political debate was widely shared – and the solution she offered was “the oblique voice of fiction”.
But to Grenville’s frustration, she found herself questioned about history and fiction rather than frontier violence. And to her surprise, she found herself criticised by the very historians she might have expected to share her political quest, especially the two whose books had been shaped by the same public conversation.
She expressed dismay and a sense of betrayal, and commentators relished a “turf war” between history and fiction.
Grenville had expected and wanted a debate with the conservative critics of frontier conflict. But the targets of conservatives at that time were historians, and the debate was about the precise, grounded, evidenced truths of history.
In order to be a combatant on that ground, you needed time, place and specificity – just as Judith Wright had found in the battle over land rights in the 1970s.
Grenville’s “oblique voice of fiction” offered a new direction precisely because it was oblique. The Secret River was not a work of logic and argument, and it was never going to attract the counting-the-dead conservative critique because it didn’t deal in contextual, documented truth.
By “pillaging” the past, as she put it, and by moving incidents out of time and place, Grenville distilled a parable. “This is a story about all settlers, and settler psyche, in all places, throughout the colonial period”, historian Grace Karskens said of Grenville’s novel.
The Secret River was taken intravenously by its reading public and was a timely, powerful public intervention in exactly the way Grenville must have hoped.
But Grenville’s method, which contrasted with that of Eleanor Dark’s contextual historical fiction, left her outside the political debate.
In her public commentaries, she seemed to want it both ways – to wield the oblique power of fiction and the cachet of a researched past. She wanted to join the game of history but to play by different rules.
It’s not surprising or unreasonable, then, that historians would voice opinions about her historical methodology, as set out in her interviews and memoir, especially at a moment in public culture when they constantly had to defend their craft and explain the sources and methods of good history.
Thus Grenville unwittingly found herself in the middle of a debate that goes to the heart of the discipline of history, that matters very much in public affairs, and that was fundamentally not about her.
This debate over The Secret River concealed the sympathy and symbiosis that generally exists between history and fiction.
History and fiction journey together and separately into the past; they are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem. They can be uneasy partners, but they are also magnetically drawn to one another in the quest for deeper understanding.
History doesn’t own truth, and fiction doesn’t own imagination, but there are times when the differences between history and fiction are very important indeed. At such times it is incumbent on historians – those who choose at certain moments to write history – to insist and reflect on the distinction.
Such explanations should not be misinterpreted as defending territory.