In search of things past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

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

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