The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of book acquisition for the world’s libraries throughout history.
It’s one of the more bizarre episodes to have seen the light of day since the #MeToo movement got going late last year. In November 2017, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that the mother of a schoolboy who had brought home a copy of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty was calling for the text to be banned. The reason she gave was that the heroine could not have consented to the kiss that released her from her enchanted sleep.
This news story emerged in the aftermath of the revelations of serial sexual harassment allegations against numerous Hollywood stars, generating the #MeToo hashtag, with which millions of women worldwide shared their experiences of sexual molestation and objectification.
Yet despite the headline – “Mother calls for Sleeping Beauty to be banned” – when you actually read the piece it turns out that, in fact, the mother had suggested that rather than ban the story, the tale might be used as a starting point for discussing personal consent and bodily autonomy with children.
This didn’t deter plenty of media outlets from jumping aboard the bandwagon – whether in support of the proposition that the fairy tale be banned or updated, or scoffing at the notion as needless censorship. And, of course, there was a follow up on the problems with other fairy tales.
While fairy tales have existed for millennia as oral folktales, they first entered print in their recognisable form in the 17th century – and initially among the aristocracy. Over the subsequent 300 years or so, fairy tales have frequently been a source of controversy and ideological battle.
A cursory glance at only a few examples illustrates the variety of ways in which they have caused anxiety and consternation. The Neapolitan courtier, Giambattista Basile first produced his collection of fairy tales (including Rapunzel and Cinderella) in 1634. A little later, the French académicien Charles Perrault published his Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (1797), containing such prized tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Blue Beard – and Sleeping Beauty. Written for an educated and urbane courtly readership, Perrault’s tales smuggle in risqué innuendo under the veil of moralism.
In Britain, one of the first and most influential critics of fairy tales was the philosopher John Locke. In his seminal treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Locke cautioned parents against allowing servants to frighten their children with tales of “Raw-Head and Bloody Bones”.
As a Rationalist, Locke feared that peasant superstition would damage the healthy development of children. In this period, fairy tales in Britain were circulated in the rude tradition of “chapbooks” (rough almanac prints sold by itinerant “chapmen”) and made little distinction between children and adult readers.
It was the pioneering publisher John Newbery (among others) who fused Locke’s respectable suspicion of rude chapbooks with an entrepreneurial appreciation of the potential market for children’s books. His A Pretty Little Pocket-Book (1744) cleverly replicated entertaining aspects of chapbooks – but shorn of their cruder elements in order to appease middle-class parents. This trend continued into the 19th century, when such celebrated authors and adaptors of fairy tales as Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, all tailored and censored their writings to avoid causing upset.
The Romantic generation of artists and writers venerated fairy tales for inspiring childhood fantasy and wonder and as texts that opposed the rationalism of the Enlightenment. But, in the wake of the French Revolution, political and literary culture came under immense scrutiny in Britain from a newly energised Conservative government and press.
With the increased policing of culture for signs of dangerous Jacobins and Democrats, conservative evangelical educationalists including Hannah More and Sarah Trimmer undertook the role of castigating children’s writers deemed politically and religiously seditious. One of their main targets was the anarchist philosopher – turned children’s publisher – William Godwin (the widower of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein). In order to escape censure, Godwin often published anonymously, or under a series of comical pseudonyms, such as Theophilus Marcliffe.
Godwin was involved with many Romantic-era writers now considered illustrious, but who at the time were often obscure figures. Two of these friends – the poet William Wordsworth and the essayist Charles Lamb – Godwin endeavoured to involve in his publishing, with revealing controversies.
Charles Lamb and his sister Mary are best-known for their highly popular Tales from Shakespeare (1807), which was published by Godwin. But when Godwin commissioned Charles to write an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey for children, the two got into an argument over Lamb’s initial refusal to tone down the gory scene in which the cyclops Polyphemus vomits the remains of Odysseus’ crewmen whom he had consumed. Godwin feared losing custom from a squeamish middle-class readership.
In 1811, Godwin wrote to Wordsworth – who had in youth briefly been his protégé – asking him to translate Beauty and the Beast from the French. Wordsworth’s cantankerous response is extraordinary (in part, he was irate for having to pay the postal fees). The poet responded to the philosopher that he could not bring himself to the task as:
I confess there is to me something disgusting to me in the notion of a human Being consenting to mate with a Beast, however amiable his qualities of heart.
Wordsworth was, in middle age, moving increasingly towards Toryism, and his astonishing response may be interpreted as underlining his rejection of Godwin’s radicalism. It also seems to indicate Wordsworth’s growing religious conservatism, as he justifies his statement by quoting from the poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost – describing Adam as set apart by God from animals: “Among the Beasts no mate for thee was found”.
Throughout their history, fairy tales have caused consternation and outrage among the religious and the secular, the progressive and the conservative, wrestling over what goes on in the minds of growing children.
South Africa has produced two must-read thrillers in the past week. They are non-fiction, yet are as gripping and readable as any page-turner.
Veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s “The President’s Keepers” has, within a week, become a global best seller. It has had the advantage of the best available marketing push by South Africa’s State Security Agency, under the illusion that they were going to stop the book. The State Security Agency sent a cease and desist letter to a defiant Pauw and his publisher, claiming the exposé is in violation of the Intelligence Services Act.
Take some courage
I recommend you read them together. It will take some courage, as they are a most unsettling combination, but worth it.
Pauw’s book takes you on his journey to uncover the nature of Jacob Zuma’s presidency and its impact on South Africa, a trip that begins in the small Western Cape town of Riebeek-Kasteel and goes, via Moscow, to the Tshwane coffee bars where he meets his sources. Much of what emerges has been reported in bits and pieces elsewhere, but he weaves it together with great storytelling skill, and adds some important new revelations.
It is the most comprehensive picture of the rot at the heart of the Zuma presidency and the toll it has taken on important state institutions. Once he has worked through the tax collector, the South African Revenue Service, the National Prosecuting Authority, and the police, one is left gasping for air at the scale and depth of the destruction.
I don’t think it is necessary to weigh up the accuracy of his much-detailed and well-documented story, except to say that Pauw is a veteran muckraker whose credentials for getting sources to talk, putting his hands on the evidence, weaving all this into readable horror-stories, and withstanding the attacks of those who would stop him, are well established. So much so that the onus is on his detractors to disprove what he is saying. Even if half of it is true, it is chilling.
Oil for the ANC’s political machinery
Olver’s book might be even more important. It’s an insider’s view of how corruption has become the oil that keeps the ruling African National Congress’s political machinery working. Olver was sent in by ANC leaders to help clean up the metropolitan Nelson Mandela Bay region on the country’s east coast and pave the way for local politician and national football boss Danny Jordaan’s 2016 mayoral election campaign. At the same time, Olver was commissioned by then Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan to clear out the rot in the city structure.
Olver’s story of how he identified and drove out the worst culprits in the city’s corruption, is heartening. He shows that it can be done when you have the political will, and Olver’s toughness. But he also describes how every cent raised to fund Jordaan’s campaign was exchanged for a job or a tender.
The ANC political engine runs on the fuel of transactional politics; without the offerings of jobs and tenders, the machine grinds to a halt. His tale provides rare insight into how the party funding system works as a driver of corruption.
Olver himself starts off as a knight in shining armour, but finds himself increasingly compromised as time passes, until he loses his political backing and flees the region.
Both these writers showed great courage. Pauw left the peace and quiet of running a country restaurant in Riebeek-Kasteel, knowing that this book would bring him the kinds of threats and harassment he experienced in the 1980s when he exposed the dark heart of apartheid’s police hit squads. Olver had to have a bodyguard at his side, so tough was the fight to regain control of the party and city.
Pauw’s book is a triumph of investigative reporting, but also contains a worrying critique of some of its practitioners. Pauw details at least three instances when his fellow reporters have allowed themselves to become part of the partisan mudslinging aimed at driving the good people out of state institutions, and protecting the venal. It is striking that some of the same names come up in all three instances, and all are centred around the local Sunday Times.
While South Africans can celebrate the important role investigative reporters have played in exposing state capture, they should be reminded that some have facilitated it, wittingly or unwittingly.
April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today.
Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.
Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”
These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.
Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.
Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.
In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.
Do children have a history?
A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.
But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.
Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.
Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.
There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.
These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.
The moral of the story
By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.
More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.
By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.
Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.
We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.
Susan Broomhall, Director, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, Researcher, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, Lecturer in medieval and early modern history, University of Western Australia
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of the audiobook.
The link below is to an article that explores the history of the much beloved ‘Little Golden Books.’
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.
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?
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”.
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.
Judith Wright and historical awareness
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.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of Harlequin, the romance publishers.