In search of things past
THERE is no need to side with novelist Kate Grenville in her battles with such academic historians as Inga Clendinnen and Mark Mckenna as to who writes ‘‘ truer’’ history. However, is it a perceived want of narrative history that has driven so many Australian novelists to fictionalise the national past? (This is to exempt the grand project of novelistturned-historian Thomas Keneally.)
Doing so, contemporary authors are emulating their interwar predecessors who told versions of Australian history in their novels. This was at a time when little of it was written in universities, when the fuller professionalisation and expansion of history departments still lay in the future (as the latter element has now been consigned to the past).
This is to speak of M. Barnard Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, Louis Kaye and Brian Penton among others. Such a return to the Australian past in the fiction of the 1920s and 1930s was also in part a recoil from a world elsewhere, from the shocking experiences of the Great War. Are we maybe in a similar recoil now, from the economic and social, rather than the military travails of Europe? Does such a reaction impel Australian novelists who seek to reanimate and re-examine past times in the national history?
Whatever the belated answers to such questions might turn out to be, two new novels have joined the swelling numbers of recent Australian historical fiction.
They are a first book from Christopher Morgan, Currawalli Street (a diptych, that is it takes place in the outskirts of Melbourne in 1914 and 1972, just before one war and near the end of another), and Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship with Birds, set in the Victorian country town of Cohuna in 1953. This follows her serene and unusual debut, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, which began in 1934, as the Better Farming Train toured Victoria.
Tiffany is an agricultural journalist whose day job enriches her fiction, whether she writes of bee-keeping, soil tasting or a dairy farmer’s order of ‘‘ seven serves of Rosedale Dreaming Fox’’ — semen with which to impregnate his heifers.
Morgan, on the other hand, writes of a landscape, semi-rural at the opening of the novel, where the countryside is increasingly being pushed away by suburbia. His book recalls the similar historical process in Frederick Mccubbin’s triptych, The Pioneer (1904) and the novel that Patrick White wrote in part in response to that