A criminal record: women and Australian true crime stories

File 20170822 13685 w0sgkd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The pyjama girl mystery, as featured in Famous Detective Stories no. 6.
State Library of New South Whales, CC BY-ND

Rachel Franks, University of Newcastle

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 Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Vol. 1, No. 1, 5 March 1803 (Front Page).
Call number: DL F8/50, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, CC BY

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.

Kate Leigh’s mugshots and prison form.
State Archives of New South Wales, CC BY

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.

Florence Linda Agostini (née Platt; 12 September 1905 – 27 August 1934) was known posthumously as the Pyjama Girl.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

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.

The ConversationCrime 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.

Rachel Franks, Conjoint Fellow, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Historians and novelists fight turf wars – let's flip the narrative

Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

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 Conversation

Christopher Kremmer is Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Historical texts as literature? We do well to praise EP Thompson

Ann Curthoys, University of Sydney

This article is the third 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 two here.

Of the vast number of historical texts available to us, only a few acquire a reputation as literature. Older examples include Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1782) and Thomas Macaulay’s The History of England (1848).

A more recent example is EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963. What is it about this text that leads so many to praise its literary qualities?

Vintage Books

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.

Character studies

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.

An 1831 portrait of William Cobbett by George Cooke.
Wikimedia Commons

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 based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the third in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

The Conversation

Ann Curthoys is Honorary Professor in History at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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On the frontier: the intriguing dance of history and fiction

Tom Griffiths, Australian National University

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.

Rewriting history

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.

Eleanor and Eric Dark in Paddington, Sydney, 1922.
Blue Mountains Local Studies/Flickr

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.

Judith Wright and historical awareness

By the 1970s historians were catching up with Dark’s imaginative leap – Henry Reynolds, Lyndall Ryan, Raymond Evans and others were investigating “the other side of the frontier”.

And one of the first and best frontier histories to be written was by a poet, Judith Wright.

In the 1970s, Wright was embroiled in intensive political campaigning for Aboriginal land rights and was a foundation member of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee. This committee, led by H C “Nugget” Coombs, called for “an Aboriginal treaty, within Australia, between Australians”.

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.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the second in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

The Conversation

Tom Griffiths is William Keith Hancock Professor of History at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Top Ten Books on the British in India

The link below is to an article that lists what it believes to be the top ten books on the British in India.

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Book Review: Iron Kingdom – The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark

The ‘Iron Kingdom – The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947,’ by Christopher Clark is a somewhat massive work at 820 pages. It is a book that I wanted to read right from the moment I came across it, which wasn’t all that long ago. You see, I didn’t know all that much about Prussia. I knew it was tied up with the history of Germany, that Prussia fought the Napoleonic French forces at Waterloo and that the Napoleonic French forces had earlier defeated the Prussians. What I didn’t know about Prussia, this book soon made me aware of – as well as reminding me that I actually knew a lot more about Prussia than I had thought.

Doubtless 800+ pages seems somewhat daunting to many readers, many of whom would baulk at the size of this work and move on to much smaller books that can be completed in less time. Having said that, this book isn’t too difficult to read at all. I spent a bit longer than a week reading it and enjoyed it immensely. I read somewhere someone say that this book reads like a novel, which though I don’t think it is a description that is entirely accurate, it certainly points in the right direction as the book is really quite easy to read. I found myself quite caught up in it all, as I followed the development of the Prussian nation and empire and its eventual transformation into a greater German nation and empire, before it was destroyed by the Nazis and the defeat of World War II, following which the Prussian state basically ceased to exist as an allied retaliation for the war.

The book doesn’t just follow the military history of Prussia – indeed it could be said that the military history is somewhat sparse on the ground in this work with very little time really devoted to the wars of Prussia, though each one is treated within the body of the work. This history of Prussia digs into all facets of Prussian history, including the development of the monarchy and nation, the culture, education, the politics, the social welfare development and policies of Prussia, etc. It is more of a thorough introduction to the history of Prussia, a work that whets the appetite for more and perhaps encourages a deeper research of Prussian history. The experience of reading the Iron Kingdom has me wanting to research more the 30 Years War, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a number of the other wars involving the Prussians and perhaps more detailed biographical works regarding the Great Elector, Frederick the Great, Bismark, etc.

So my overall impression after reading the book was that I wasn’t disappointed in it at all, even though I would have liked to have found out more about the various wars. Certainly I am the richer for having read the Iron Kingdom and it is a book I could see myself reading again at some point. I highly recommend the Iron Kingdom, especially to those interested in the development not only of Prussia and Germany, but also of Europe. A great read that I really enjoyed.

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Book Review: The Tin Ticket – The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, by Deborah J. Swiss

This is going to be a book review with a difference, though not entirely different for At the BookShelf. In times past I have passed on my thoughts concerning a book chapter by chapter, which is what I plan to do with The Tin Ticket. Why? Well I’m not going to be reading all of the book at the same time. I’ll be breaking it up by reading other books as well, so it will be difficult for me to keep my thoughts together and provide a coherent review at the end of the book, whenever it may be that I actually finish it. So I’ll be posting instalments of my varied thoughts as I go along.

I came across this book in the most unlikely of places really, for I found the book in a Killer Whale Museum in Eden, on the New South Wales south coast, in Australia. I wasn’t expecting to come across a small, but healthy Australian history bookshop there. I didn’t even intend to buy myself a copy of this book, though I did intend to buy it for my mother as a birthday gift when I spotted it. I have since found it to be far cheaper at Amazon and you will find it via the link at the bottom of the post. Anyhow, I packed the book away after the holiday to the south coast (about 4 weeks ago now) in preparation to pass it on to my mother when I saw her next.

A couple of days ago I was speaking to my mother on the phone and the subject of her birthday gift was raised, in a roundabout way. I like to make her guess what the gift might be by dropping clues that I know will result in her having no idea, but leave her intrigued at the end of the conversation. The somewhat cryptic clues all resolved around a tin ticket, so the gift being a book I’m sure was never arrived at. She is keen to know what the gift is now though. Sons that like to tease their mothers, how cruel children can be 🙂

The conversation got me to thinking though – I would like to read the book myself, but without pre-using the gift I had bought my mother. So I thought about an ebook version that I could get for my Kindle and went online to check out the Kindle bookshop at Amazon. Sure enough, there it was – so I bought myself a copy. It wasn’t just that I had purchased a traditional version for my mother and wanted to read what I was giving her. I am something of a student of history, especially Australian history, so once the book had passed my eye back in Eden it was really only a matter of time before I got myself a copy – I did almost buy two copies in Eden, but stopped myself because I prefer digital books over traditional books these days – book space is an issue at my place as I have hundreds and hundreds of them all over the place in bookcases.

Though reading a number of other books at the moment, I couldn’t resist having a look at The Tin Ticket any longer, so last night I started to read it. I did cut myself off having read just the acknowledgements and the introduction. That was quite a feat of self discipline let me tell you.

The introduction is a pretty good read and a great way for the book to open I thought. It really has me keen to find out more about these convict women who were treated so poorly by an English justice system that was so quick to have petty criminals shipped off to the colonies in Australia. So my interest has been aroused by the author’s own awakening interest in the women convicts of Australia as described in the introduction. Just enough of a glimpse is given in the introduction to whet the appetite and tease my natural curiosity.

However, I must wait to read more until I complete at least two of the other four books I’m currently reading – which shouldn’t be too much longer. Certainly no longer than a week. Surely I can last a week before reading more? I guess time will tell.

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