PAST IM­PER­FECT

Kate Grenville’s The Se­cret River in­fu­ri­ated his­to­ri­ans. Un­de­terred, the au­thor draws heav­ily on our colo­nial his­tory in her lat­est novel, The Lieu­tenant, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

FOR all the crit­i­cism that Kate Grenville was play­ing fast and loose with the facts when she wrote her novel The Se­cret River, for all the hurt she felt at per­sonal at­tacks she thought mis­rep­re­sented her un­der­stand­ing of the nov­el­ist’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards the past, the writer’s en­thu­si­asm for Aus­tralian his­tory has not waned one jot.

She is wary of reignit­ing the de­bate as the launch of her new novel, The Lieu­tenant, draws near. Sit­ting in the Na­tional Li­brary in Can­berra, close to some of the sources that sparked her in­ter­est in the story of a First Fleet marine of­fi­cer who struck up an ex­traor­di­nary friend­ship with a nine- year- old Abo­rig­i­nal girl, Grenville says with a tight smile: ‘‘ This is not his­tory. I’d bet­ter say that in words of one syl­la­ble: this is not his­tory.’’

Yet the many read­ers who were charmed, warmed and ag­i­tated by what we per­ceived as glimpses of our shared his­tory in The Se­cret River, a re- imag­in­ing of the life of a freed con­vict, may be af­fected even more by The Lieu­tenant. No, Grenville’s geeky new pro­tag­o­nist, Daniel Rooke, is not William Dawes, the man who set out to write a gram­mar of the Abo­rig­i­nal Gadi­gal lan­guage. But know­ing that his story par­al­lels that of the real Dawes adds a great deal to the read­ing plea­sure.

Why this should be so is mys­te­ri­ous and con­tentious, and con­tin­ues to be the topic of many a writ­ers fes­ti­val ses­sion. But, for Grenville, the im­pulse to write th­ese nov­els about the past is too ur­gent and too ob­ses­sive for her to back off just be­cause some his­to­ri­ans have de­clared her writ­ing in­fu­ri­at­ing.

Mel­bourne- based his­to­rian and writer Inga Clendin­nen, in par­tic­u­lar, took Grenville to task for what she called the ‘‘ ca­sual trans­po­si­tion’’ of events from his­tory into a nar­ra­tive imag­ined by the nov­el­ist. She called Grenville’s se­lec­tion of events wil­ful and ques­tioned her abil­ity to em­pathise with peo­ple who lived cen­turies ago in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture.

If Grenville’s book about her writ­ing process, Search­ing for the Se­cret River, made it clear she was not about to aban­don her method­ol­ogy, forged through decades of writ­ing and teach­ing, The Lieu­tenant is decisive proof.

What she has backed off from, she says, is talk­ing about the dif­fer­ence be­tween writ­ing his­tory and writ­ing a novel in a nu­anced way. Grenville has de­cided to call what she writes about ‘‘ the past’’, not his­tory. ‘‘ It’s un­for­tu­nate when his­tory be­comes a nar­row church and peo­ple are warned off, when the turf wars start to hap­pen,’’ she says. ‘‘ The past is such an ex­traor­di­nar­ily enig­matic place, and the more peo­ple we have bur­row­ing into it, the bet­ter.’’

Read­ers think so, too. The Se­cret River was passed over for the Miles Franklin Award but won a swag of other lit­er­ary awards, in­clud­ing the Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize, and was short- listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. It has sold about 500,000 copies world­wide, con­firm­ing Grenville as a sig­nif­i­cant nov­el­ist.

Grenville cred­its her mother with in­spir­ing her to write The Se­cret River, which be­gan with the writer’s de­sire to un­der­stand what hap­pened once her an­ces­tor Solomon Wise­man set­tled on the banks of the Hawkes­bury River in the early 19th cen­tury.

But Grenville ad­mits it took many years be­fore the end­less talk about her fore­bears and their ar­rival in Aus­tralia fi­nally snagged deep into her heart and set up the in­sis­tent beat­ing of an idea for a novel. ( The Se­cret River re­volves around trans­ported con­vict Will Thorn­hill and life in the em­bry­onic NSW set­tle­ment, in­clud­ing

some­times mur­der­ous con­fronta­tions with in­dige­nous peo­ple.)

Grenville de­scribes the gift of a ready- made idea for a story as luck and as­sesses her per­for­mance as a nov­el­ist in hum­ble terms. ‘‘ I’m not an imag­i­na­tive writer,’’ she says. ‘‘ I’m a recorder. If I haven’t been there and done it, hope­fully tasted it and smelled it, I know the writ­ing will be thin and un­con­vinc­ing.’’

This is why all of Grenville’s books, with the ex­cep­tion of The Idea of Per­fec­tion, are set for the most part in and around Syd­ney Cove ( and The Idea of Per­fec­tion is set in a place not too far away). ‘‘ With The Lieu­tenant , I spent a great deal of time un­der the south py­lons of the Har­bour Bridge, which is where Dawes’s ob­ser­va­tory was,’’ she says. ‘‘ While the ob­ser­va­tory is long gone, the view is the same. You can stand there and think, ‘ This is ex­actly what Daniel Rooke saw, the seag­ulls would have sounded the same, the way the wind feels.’ ’’

Rooke — or Dawes — also would have drunk a sweet tea made from an ‘‘ in­con­spic­u­ous lit­tle creeper’’ vine that grows in the bush across Syd­ney, so Grenville has supped on the same tea. The de­tails must be au­then­tic, Grenville says, be­cause they pro­vide the spring­board for ‘‘ think­ing be­yond the record’’.

What is on the record is scant and sketchy but so as­tound­ing that it would have been im­pos­si­ble for it not to have ex­cited a writer such as Grenville, fresh from the tri­umph of The Se­cret River.

Among the pa­pers of a 19th- cen­tury lin­guist named William Mars­den, held at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, were found, quite re­cently, the note­books of Dawes, as­tronomer as­signed to the Sir­ius, part of the First Fleet that sailed to NSW in 1788. How those note­books came to be in Mars­den’s pos­ses­sion is not known. But Dawes must have handed them to some­one for safe­keep­ing be­fore he headed to An­tigua in 1813, af­ter sev­eral stints in Sierra Leone and Eng­land. Th­ese ad­ven­tures fol­lowed his ap­par­ently re­luc­tant re­turn from NSW in 1792.

For 23 years in An­tigua, Dawes worked first against the slave trade, then to set up schools for re­leased slaves. His pa­pers from that time were de­stroyed in a hur­ri­cane. Dawes’s note­books dat­ing from his time in Aus­tralia, parts of which Grenville uses ver­ba­tim in her novel, were his at­tempt to record the Gadi­gal ( or Cadi­gal, as he called it) lan­guage in a sci­en­tific way. He was try­ing to cre­ate not just a dic­tio­nary but also a gram­mar of the lan­guage, and it is this work that Grenville sees as the cat­a­lyst for a great trans­for­ma­tion, a kind of epiphany.

‘‘ What I saw when I first started this book was a man trans­formed,’’ she says. ‘‘ I knew it had to be about a man who be­gins as one thing and ends as some­thing en­tirely, un­ex­pect­edly dif­fer­ent. This is a man who, in the course of his re­la­tion­ship with the in­dige­nous peo­ple, and par­tic­u­larly with this one young girl, grad­u­ally be­comes some­one else. He learns how to be­come fully him­self, I think, fully hu­man.’’

We meet Rooke as a five- year- old on his first day at school in Portsmouth, where his quiet clev­er­ness sets him aside as an anom­aly among bois­ter­ous chil­dren. Grenville says that when she handed the first draft of The Lieu­tenant to her pub­lisher and ed­i­tor at Text, Michael Hey­ward, the story be­gan, in the same way as The Se­cret River, with a short, sharp scene from down the track, a teaser of what was to come, in the best tele­vi­sion drama style.

‘‘ It was a ter­ri­ble mess, but the ba­sic shape was there,’’ she says of that draft. ‘‘ In the last six months I’ve thrown out heroic quan­ti­ties of stuff, re­ar­ranged it, changed ev­ery­thing, but fun­da­men­tally the story has not changed.’’

The chal­lenge was to keep the reader in­ter­ested in the story of an odd lit­tle boy from 18th- cen­tury Eng­land long enough for the book to ‘‘ an­nounce its real in­tent’’. ‘‘ If the book is about trans­for­ma­tion, you have to set up what he was be­fore in or­der to see why it was so dra­matic,’’ she says.

The book is also about al­tru­ism, which is where Grenville, once again, may come into the line of fire of his­to­ri­ans. It is known that Dawes ‘‘ re­fused to do duty on a puni­tive ex­pe­di­tion’’, as his en­try in the Aus­tralian Dic­tio­nary of Bi­og­ra­phy, writ­ten by Phyl­lis Man­der- Jones, puts it. ‘‘ He rec­on­ciled his con­science to ac­com­pa­ny­ing the party only af­ter dis­cus­sion with Rev Richard John­son, and later in­censed gov­er­nor ( Arthur) Phillip by stat­ing pub­licly that he ‘ was sorry he had been per­suaded to com­ply with the or­der’.’’

Much of this Grenville trans­poses into The Lieu­tenant, while ‘‘ tele­scop­ing time’’ and ‘‘ leav­ing out enor­mously im­por­tant events that did hap­pen and fill­ing in blanks where noth­ing has been left on the his­tor­i­cal record’’.

Rooke be­comes, per­haps even more so than the char­ac­ters in The Se­cret River, a man whose mo­ti­va­tions, pon­der­ings and re­al­i­sa­tions are grad­u­ally sketched, then drawn, then coloured in for us. But Grenville stops short of fix­ing him as a por­trait, still and com­plete.

‘‘ The de­ci­sion he makes at the end of the book is a de­ci­sion be­tween his self- in­ter­est and a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple,’’ she says. ‘‘ I don’t still quite un­der­stand why a man makes such an al­tru­is­tic de­ci­sion. I hugely ad­mire it, and it’s what kept me writ­ing the book, not un­der­stand­ing. Why did he do that? Why did he sac­ri­fice his ca­reer for a prin­ci­ple? Would I have drawn that line? I’m not sure.’’

There are other puz­zles to think about within the story, and Grenville in­vites the reader to ac­com­pany her as she ‘‘ bur­rows be­tween the lines’’. With a brav­ery that can have come only from a writer as ex­pe­ri­enced as Grenville, The Lieu­tenant fo­cuses on the re­la­tion­ship of this de­cent and clever man with an equally clever child, the Gadi­gal girl who pro­vides him with the re­sources to be­gin to com­pile his lex­i­con and gram­mar.

‘‘ It was one of the dif­fi­cul­ties of the book,’’ Grenville says. ‘‘ I needed to say not only is this not a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship but it’s not a sub­li­mated or re­pressed sex­ual re­la­tion­ship ei­ther. This is some­thing else, an un­usual re­la­tion­ship be­tween a very clever child and a young adult. I’m sure that hap­pens all the time.’’

If it does, and if it did be­tween those first Bri­tish vis­i­tors and in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, there is lit­tle record of it, which is why Grenville was so as­tounded and ex­cited by her dis­cov­ery of Dawes’s note­books, ex­tracts from which she first read in a book by Tim Flan­nery.

‘‘ I thought, this is the mir­ror im­age of The Se­cret River, which was a book where all pos­si­bil­ity of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween in­dige­nous and non- in­dige­nous peo­ple is closed down. In this new book, on the con­trary, con­ver­sa­tion opens up into the most ex­traor­di­nary and unimag­in­able re­la­tion­ships. If it hadn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pened, you wouldn’t dare make it up. You’d say, ‘ This is sen­ti­men­tal clap­trap.’ A lieu­tenant of the marines hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship like that with a nine- year- old in­dige­nous girl? Don’t be ridicu­lous. Pull the other one.’’

Grenville calls her­self a slow learner as a writer and says she needed to ‘‘ get through all the in­ter­me­di­ate books’’ — Lil­ian’s Story, Dreamhouse, Joan Makes His­tory, Dark Places, The Idea of Per­fec­tion, as well as her how- towrite man­u­als — be­fore she ar­rived at the last two, where she was able to com­bine her ‘‘ longterm fas­ci­na­tion with Aus­tralian his­tory and my love of wan­der­ing’’.

She’s think­ing that th­ese two will be joined by a third, mak­ing it a tril­ogy about white set­tle­ment in Aus­tralia and the his­tory those peo­ple share with in­dige­nous Aus­tralians. It will be about women’s his­tory, she thinks, and she an­tic­i­pates that find­ing source ma­te­rial in the archives will be even more dif­fi­cult. Only ed­u­cated women, mar­ried to men in po­si­tions of power, left be­hind them records of their lives.

Her way into each novel has al­ways been, she says, ‘‘ can you make it work as fic­tion?’’, and she rules out at­tempt­ing to write from the point of view of the in­dige­nous Aus­tralians who are so im­por­tant in the nov­els she is writ­ing. ‘‘ There are all kinds of things you know you wouldn’t do well,’’ Grenville says. ‘‘ To write a novel, as Peter Carey won­der­fully says, is to find a cor­ner of your own ex­pe­ri­ence that you can adapt to that other per­son, your char­ac­ter. With the in­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence I know I would get it laugh­ably and in­sult­ingly wrong, and at this mo­ment in Aus­tralian his­tory there are also still those eth­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons not to do it.

‘‘ On the other hand, the whole story of white Aus­tralia deal­ing with in­dige­nous peo­ple has hardly been touched, so it’s not as though we’re short of sto­ries.’’

About the past, not his­tory: The Lieu­tenant

Con­flict­ing view­points: Kate Grenville, op­po­site page, and Inga Clendin­nen, above

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