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
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