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Kate Grenville

The Novelist as Barbarian

Many creative writers have used historical material in their work. Kate Grenville reflects on her own use of such material and on issues which this has raised. How important is historical accuracy to the creative process?

When Jill Roe said of history "Getting it right means you canít make it up", it was a reminder to novelists like me that, although we might use history, we also have to respect it. Itís all very well to play fast and loose with historical truths, but there comes a point when you have to get it right, or try to at least.

As a novelist, my relationship to history has always been pretty much the same relationship the Goths had to Rome. ( Wait - was it Rome? Was it Goths?) History for a greedy novelist like me is just one more place to pillage.

What weíre after, of course, is stories, and we know that history is bulging with beauties. Having found them, we then proceed to fiddle with them to make them the way we want them to be, rather than the way they really were. We get it wrong, willfully and knowingly.

But perhaps you could say that the very flagrency of our "getting it wrong" points to the fact that all stories ≠ even the history "story" ≠ are made. They have an agenda, even if itís an unconscious one. Perhaps there are many ways to get it right.

The interesting parts of history are probably always whatís not there. My own special area of interest about whatís not in history is the women. As you would all know, by and large theyíre sadly absent from the historical record.

However, Iím lucky to be the recipient—custodian, even, if that doesnít sound too grandiose—of a rich oral history handed down from my mother, who got it from her mother and so on back down the line. Sheís told me family stories from every generation since our family first came to Australia—in the form of our wicked convict ancestor Solomon Wiseman, in 1806. Sol is supposed to have murdered his wife, and turned his daughter—pregnant to the riding-master—out of the house to starve. (But perhaps, the novelist in me thinks, she didnít starve , but went on to have, well, a storyÖ) There was "Uncle Willie with the red hair" who was "killed [by falling] off a horse when he was eighteen and broke his motherís heart." There was her own mother, in love with a Catholic boy—a love as unthinkable as between a Montagu and a Capulet ≠ and was forced to marry a good Protestant boy. You should see the look on her face in the wedding photos.

This oral history, handed down in a series of formalised anecdotes from mother to daughter, leaving rich areas for speculation in between is, I suspect, one of the things thatís made me a novelist.

It was stories about the Sydney eccentric Bea Miles that led me to write Lilianís Story. Every Sydney cabbie, even ones who couldnít have been born when she was in her heyday, have their Bea Miles story. Each one swears it was his taxi that she ripped the door off, that it was he who made her take a bath in the Archibald Fountain. They all own her history, theyíve made it ≠ by a sort of historical sleight-of-hand their own. All I had to do, as a novelist, was to take some of those stories and extrapolate from them, turning them to my own purposes. Those purposes probably didnít have too much to do with the 'real' Bea Miles. What I found interesting in her story was not so much the real woman herself, but more the idea that, in a time when women were supposed to be the passive objects in the stories of men, she wrote her own story on the blank pages of her city.

Writing Lilianís Story gave me a taste for re-writing history for my own purposes. With Joan Makes History I went the whole hog. It was supposed to be a parodic history of Australia—our history re-made in the image of the women rather than the men. I was indignant with history, on behalf of all the women it belittled or by-passed. I thought I agreed with Ford that history was bunk.

I came to mock history, but stayed to pray. My epiphany albeit a humbling one, was reading Manning Clark. Here was a historian not hiding behind a mask of "objectivity" but being shamelessly personal. If I thought, in my ignorance, that I was going to put the "story" back into "history" I had to recognise that he had already done it, with a breadth of vision and depth of knowledge no novelist could match.

Dark Places could function as an example of history as smokescreen. This is a book about a man who violates his daughter—a subject almost too awful to look at straight-on. Setting the story in the early decades of the twentieth century gave the writer—and also the reader—enough distance on the story to make it bearable, and to let the larger theme be heard.

That book is about history in another way too. The book is told in the voice of the violating father, and what we hear his voice doing is willfully misreading the facts of the world around him. He distorts everything he sees and hears so that he thinks heís justified in doing what he does. In a way the book is not so much about an individual monster as about the idea of subjectivity of the dangerously seductive power of distorted truth.

The Idea of Perfection is about a little country town split down the middle on what you should do with history. On one side are those who want to keep the crummy but picturesque old Bent Bridge, and the tatty old bush quilts that everyoneís granny used to make. On the other side are the ones who want to whack in a nice tidy concrete bridge ( no rot, no mess, see you right for years) and take the smelly old quilts to the tip. In those circles thereís a kind of shame about history: its messiness, its jumble of good and evil, nobility and pettiness—in a word its human-ness. Theyíre right—it is tricky, finding a way to live with history, to accommodate its reality with the image we like to have of ourselves.

Thereís a love story going in the book between two people who, like the bridge and the old quilts, are far from perfect middle-aged people with the usual amount of baggage theyĎd rather not have. ( For a while I thought the book might be called "Frumps in Love" but my publisher talked me out of it. ) Theyíre burdened with their own personal histories ≠ perhaps thatís why they both find their way to defending the history they find in Karakarook, NSW, population 1734.

The frumps come to see that the idea of perfection is a dangerous one. Youíre better off just being human. Itís the very fallibility of these two—all their history—that brings them together. As Leonardo said about bridges, and which is also true of human relationships: "An arch is two weaknesses that together make a strength".

The the bank managerís wife is taking the other tack. She was born pretty and has always been pretty—until now. Now sheís forty ( only just forty, she tells herself), and her history is starting to show on her face, the way it does. But sheís not going to let it. By sheer force of will sheís detemined to stop the slightest suspicion of wrinkles ever appearing on her perfect face. She goes to grotesque lengths, deciding, for example, to cut down on wrinkles by limiting her smiles. Two a day seems perfectly adequate.

Well, Felicity Porcelline can try, Canute-like, to hold back the tide of history on her face, but things squashed down too hard tend finally to erupt in a nasty way. Poor old Felicity comes to a sticky end.

Not long ago it was a shameful thing to have a convict in your family tree, but things are different now—our history has moved so far that thereís now a kind of "convict-chic". Iím not sure if this is any better than the urge to hide the "taint" in our family trees.

I donít know if there is a story somewhere in Sol Wiseman, but my writing fingers are getting itchy to try it out. Iíve always worked in a certain amount of chaos—writing bits and pieces and putting them together in an exploratory way until a novel finally emerges. But inside every slob is an obsessive waiting to get out. The Sol Wiseman story may be the one where, finally, I get to live out what I think of as the Card Index Fantasy. Iíll get myself organised. Iíll be orderly and systematic. Iíll find out everything there is to know about Solomon Wiseman. Iíll write it all on numbered index cards. Maybe Iíll even colour-code them.

In fact, of course, I suspect Iíll do my usual smash-and-grab raid on history. Iíll research only until I find something juicy, and then Iíll run off with it and turn it into something else.

My justification for doing this has always been that, in distorting the details of "real" history, I was serving a larger good—giving flesh and form to an idea. When I wrote Lilianís Story it seemed perfectly all right to invent for my character whatever history would best dramatise my idea about women and their stories. So I invented a monstrous father, and then went on to write his book as well as the book of his daughter. From the tiny germ of truth sprang an entire family tree of fictions. These fictions seemed to carry ideas that needed airing, seemed justifiable because they made readers consider ideas they might not otherwise want to deal with. One truth was distorted, but another was revealed.

Now Iím not so sure if this is really justifiable. The trouble is that germ of truth at the root of the fictional tree—does the novelist really have the right to take that and graft fabrication onto it, so that the border between the invented and the real becomes blurred?

Perhaps we should stick to pure invention ≠ except that I suspect thereís no such thing. Itís real life, and real history, that provides all the best ideas. Anything we can invent will only be the palest imitation of the richness of reality.

I think all we as story-tellers can do is to pay tribute to history and acknowledge it as the first great story. And when we start to get too big for our boots we can remind ourselves that history, and the recounting of history, will go on after our novels are forgotten.

In closing, Iíd like to thank you for the opportunity to be here today. Itís been fascinating to hear historians talk about what they do. Iím full of awe and admiration. Thank you all.

 

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