The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2021 NSW Premier’s History Awards.
Following the July 7, 2021 assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse and after one Haitian official requested that the U.N. and U.S. send troops to help stabilize the nation, many Haitian activists and artists recoiled at the prospect of yet another outside intervention.
The Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat is one artist who has repeatedly railed against past U.S. occupations of Haiti. In her foreword to Jan J. Dominique’s “Memoir of an Amnesiac,” she highlights a tension that exists in Haiti’s collective memory – pride over the revolution for freedom and independence from France in 1804, and frustration over continuous foreign meddling, brought to a new height with a 20-year occupation by the U.S. military starting in 1915.
“Never again will foreigners trample Haitian soil, the founders…declared in 1804,” Danticat writes. “Yet in 1915, the ‘boots’ invaded,” which meant that Haitians like the father of the narrator in Dominique’s tale would “never truly know a fully free and sovereign life, having had not just his country but his imagination invaded and occupied by the Americans.”
A specialist in Haitian literary and historical studies from the University of Virginia, Marlene L. Daut has selected four Haitian-authored novels that sit with this contradiction, along with many others.
By guiding readers through Haiti over the past century, she shows how these contemporary writers magnificently paint the entanglements of memory, history and imagination that make Haitian art, from all times, so enduring and brilliant.
1. Évelyne Trouillot, “Memory at Bay” (2010)
In “Memory at Bay,” Trouillot explores the ruthless juxtaposition that exists between Haitian President-turned-dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, called “the Deceased” in her novel, and Haiti’s subjugated position in the Western world.
Many years after the death of Duvalier and the fall of his successor and son, “Baby Doc,” the Deceased’s bedridden wife tries to cast her husband as both a protector of the Haitian people and a target of the West’s quest for revenge.
“After all, how could the Western countries ever forgive or forget Napoleon’s debacle, the sorry defeat of the French army … and the rout of the French colonizers at the hands of an army of former slaves?” the Deceased’s wife thinks. The widow attempts to paint her husband as having been the only one to stand up to the “former colonialists, the one-time occupying power, and all those who wanted to use the country as a springboard for their ambitions.”
The attendant caring for her in a nursing home in France has a different memory of the Deceased and his legacy. Coming from a family devastated by the Tonton Makouts – Duvalier’s murderous henchmen responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians – the nurse finds herself disgusted at having to care for an integral culprit in her country’s devastation.
“So many overlooked stories of men and women just guilty of having been alive at the wrong moment, in the wrong place,” she thinks, as she briefly contemplates whether to kill the widow. “My father, my uncle, the resister whose grandchildren will never know him, Madame So-and-So’s husband, the grocer’s cousin, his friend’s godfather, the mother of the little girl who will not be born, the boy who should have been born.”
2. Dany Laferrière, “Down Among the Dead Men” (1996)
Set in 1996, after the fall of the Duvalier regime and during the United Nations’ occupation of Haiti, this partly autobiographical tale tells the story of a never-named protagonist – a stand-in for Laferrière – who decides to come home to Haiti for the first time in 20 years.
Haiti has changed a lot during his exile in Montreal, where he was making his living as a writer. He no longer recognizes the capital, Port-au-Prince, which has seen massive migration from the countryside into the city. The result is overcrowding, famine and generalized misery.
In a chance encounter with a shoeshine man, the narrator is told that these changes mean “All the people you see in the street, walking and talking, most of them died a long time ago and they don’t even know it. This country has turned into the world’s largest cemetery.”
Such commentary encourages the narrator to write a book about “the other world.” He wonders “[i]s it here or elsewhere?” After unwittingly accepting from a powerful Vodou priest “the most terrifying offer anyone could make a writer: to take him to the kingdom of dead,” the narrator meets in succession the Vodou god Papa Legba, master of the crossroads, and Ogou Feraille, the god of war.
Ultimately, the narrator ends up as disappointed with the spirit world as he is with the mortal one. “This was hardly Dante’s inferno,” he remarks. “I’d been expecting…a universe so powerful and rich in symbols, so complex that it would have helped me… Instead, I ended up with a giggling adolescent goddess and the complaints of her father, the supposedly fearsome Ogou Feraille.”
All of this happens parallel to searing political commentary about the punitive and insulting measures forced upon Haiti by the world powers after the 1991 military coup that unseated President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. For example, along with U.N. “peacekeepers,” a comical cast of foreign investigators arrive to study why the people of the northwestern town of Bombardopolis do not need to eat for months at a time. The foreigners conclude that it is because they are all plants, and not human beings.
The irony of course is that foreign meddlers are the ones who have caused the starvation. “Hunger remains the most effective weapon,” one character wryly remarks.
Sometimes the sardonic humor stings a little too much: “When everyone starts joking in a country, you know that all hope is gone,” the narrator’s friend Manu complains. “Humor is the weapon of desperate people.”
3. Edwidge Danticat, “The Farming of Bones” (1999)
In this work of historical fiction, Danticat transports readers to the Dominican Republic, to the border town of Alegría. There, Haitian workers are living “a cane life” – engaged in the brutal work of planting and cutting sugar cane, “travay tè pou zo, the farming of bones.”
Hewing closely to the historical record, Danticat captures the horrors of Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo’s massacre in 1937 of tens of thousands of Haitians living and working along the border. The more fictional sections follow the escape of Amabelle Désir, who had many years before witnessed the death by drowning of her parents, both migrant herbal healers, as they tried to cross the Dajabón River separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Amabelle will eventually lose her lover, Sebastien Onius, to the troops of the “Generalissimo,” after Trujillo gives orders “to have all Haitians killed.”
As Haitian characters are tortured or executed because they cannot trill their Rs to pronounce “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley, Haiti’s glorious revolutionary past seems to fade into the background of the torturous present.
“When Dessalines, Toussaint, Henry, when those men walked the earth, we were a strong nation,” one man who escaped the massacre states. “Those men would go to war to defend our blood. In all this, our so-called president says nothing…nothing at all to this affront to the children of Dessalines, the children of Toussaint, the children of Henry; he shouts nothing across this river of our blood.”
4. René Depestre, “Hadriana in All My Dreams” (1988)
Near the end of “The Farming of Bones,” a guide taking visitors to King Henry’s famous Citadelle says, “Famous men never truly die…It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air.”
Beginning in 1938, just one year after Trujillo’s massacre, Depestre’s “Hadriana” trails the life, death and reemergence of a white French woman born in Haiti named Hadriana Siloé, who appears to mysteriously die while saying her wedding vows. She is then suspected of having been transformed into a zombie when her body goes missing from its grave.
During her funeral-turned-carnival, historical figures from different eras join the masked wake, as “historical memory” has gotten “mixed up to the point of ridiculousness.”
And so readers are treated to scenes of the Haitian emperor Jacques the First, who ruled Haiti from 1804 to 1806, playing table tennis with his partner, Joseph Stalin, while Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar dances alongside King Henry Christophe, who became king of northern Haiti in 1811.
“This masked occasion had convoked three centuries of human history to [Hadriana’s] wake,” her childhood friend Patrick says. They “had come together to dance, sing, drink rum, and refuse death, kicking up the dust on my village square, which, in the midst of this general masquerade, took itself for the cosmic stage of the universe.”
In the end, it is not just history but all of life that appears to be one large carnival as the contours of death come alive on the streets of the living.
This tale has a happy ending, though. Decades later, Hadriana is revealed to be alive after all and describes how she miraculously escaped from the botched attempt to turn her into a zombie. She even gets married, not to her original fiancé but to Patrick, who has chronicled all that took place in her absence.
The true romance here may be that unlike so many of those who have disappeared in yesterday’s and today’s Haiti, Hadriana and Patrick live to tell their story.
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The link below is to an article that takes a brief look at the history of reading.
For more visit:
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.
Social movements, virus
From the role of video and social media in sparking and documenting protests to companies and educational institutions that moved online en masse in a matter of days this past March, 2020 will be a year that will be understood through digital media.
With coronavirus isolation, digital media has been enormously important for our interactions with colleagues, friends and loved ones.
Some trends: Zoom’s daily meeting participants went from 10 million in December to 300 million in April and we “doomscroll” through social media feeds before bed. As The New York Times explained: “The virus changed the way we internet.”
Because in part the British Library is empowered to collect millions of their web pages every year through the use of “legal deposit” power, a historian in the U.K. will have a rich record to explore.
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?
The British Library has, since April 2013, been “entitled to copy U.K.-published material from the internet for archiving under legal deposit.” In practice, this means that it annually archives websites of the U.K.; it also supplements this archive through curated collections such as the earlier mentioned one around global pandemics. Those tweets, blogs, health websites and so on all form part of the historical record — and once archived, there is no legal ability to retroactively delete them.
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?
The link below is to an article reporting on the Gandhara Scroll, an historically important Buddhist manuscript, that has been made available online.
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.
Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” seems to contain scant new information.
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.
Indeed, he was: Another secret history, Andrew Marvell’s “Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England,” described the backstory of the Secret Treaty of Dover, in which Charles II accepted large sums of money from the French king in exchange for promising to return England to Catholicism.
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.
Kerry Greenwood, known for crime fiction and true crime, has curated two important volumes On Murder (2000) and On Murder II (2002). Rachael Weaver, in The Criminal of the Century (2006), offers a rigorous exploration of colonial serial killer Frederick Deeming. More recently Alecia Simmonds has written on the terrible consequences seen when drug use, violence, masculinity, and psychosis collide in Wildman: The True Story of a Police Killing, Mental Illness and the Law (2015). A dominant force on the landscape of true crime writing is Helen Garner with several compelling works including Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (2014).
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.