IT’S ABOUT CONFLICT. A PIECE OF LAND WITH TWO PEOPLE CLAIMING IT
Page comes at the history question differently, as a latter-day emissary for the missing voice. ‘‘ A lot of black history has come from white man’s diaries and so we get the white perspective constantly,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think the black challenge is not to get frustrated with that, to actually feel what’s been written and then put the black perspective into that, and then somehow reclaim your stories.’’
The Aboriginal choreographer admits his peers were divided over Grenville’s novel. ‘‘ I think that was because it was written from a white perspective . . . At that time you were known as a savage or a native. Those were the type of words that were used to describe the black clan. A lot of black peers want to find the strength to rekindle those stories and put a black perspective on them and help ‘ close the gap of history’, so to speak. I was much more interested in that as well.’’
Bovell wants audiences to identify with Thornhill, a dedicated family man who, under pressure, does a despicable thing. ‘‘ You kind of buy into his desire to create something better for himself and his family,’’ he says. ‘‘ The guy loves his wife, he loves his family. He’s somebody we want to like, as opposed to a murderer from the outset. You’ve got to see him become that, and try and understand the reasons why he’s made those choices.’’ The unsettling question that will ricochet around the auditorium is: What would we have done in Thornhill’s shoes?
Since she introduced readers to the ambitious boatman, a character based loosely on one of her ancestors, Grenville has written two more novels in her trilogy about the early colonial period — The Lieutenant, a prequel to The Secret River, and Sarah Thornhill, the sequel. Neither of these novels has generated the discord and fascination the original did. Asked why Thornhill’s story continues to evolve and draw us in, Grenville says: ‘‘ I think many Australians feel a deep need to try to understand our past, especially the story of black-white interaction on the frontier. It’s not an easy history to acknowledge, and a story that puts a human face to it opens the door to understanding. This is a story about people — black and white — making hard choices.’’
In an email interview, the Orange and Commonwealth Writers Prize winner says she ‘‘ can’t wait to sit there on opening night’’. Nevertheless, she is still feeling bruised from the stoush with historians, judging by her response to a question about whether we have moved beyond the history v fiction debate her novel stirred up.
Grenville replies: ‘‘ Writers have taken the past as the starting point for fiction since Homer . . . without arousing any controversy.’’ She claims ‘‘ the fuss over The Secret River amounted to no more than two historians who had their own axe to grind . . . Historians in general — and readers, of course — have no difficulty appreciating that history and fiction aren’t rivals but good companions.’’
In fact, the public conversation was bigger and noisier than this quote suggests. It included a fiery quarterly essay debate, newspaper articles and opinion pieces, media interviews and writers festival discussions — Grenville pulled out from one such panel in 2007, ostensibly for family reasons.
Among the questions raised by The Secret River and the claims its author made for it were: as historical fiction becomes more popular and formal history less so, where do we draw the line between history and fiction? Does an artist who claims to create a historically authentic work have the right to alter real events? Can a contemporary artist really capture the mores and attitudes of people who lived in previous centuries?
In 2005, in an interview that raised historians’ hackles, Grenville had described her novel as being ‘‘ up on a ladder, looking down on the history wars’’. She said novelists stood ‘‘ outside the fray’’ and could bring empathy and ‘‘ imaginative understanding’’ to ‘‘ those difficult events’’. University of Sydney historian and Manning Clark biographer Mark McKenna claimed ‘‘ Grenville had unwittingly reinforced the stereotype of historians fostered by the history wars, of snarling bands of factgrubbing academics’’.
In her Quarterly Essay, Clendinnen criticised Grenville’s ‘‘ opportunistic transpositions and elisions’’ when drawing on historical sources for The Secret River. Another historian, John Hirst, wrote that Grenville was ‘‘ rather coy about Aboriginal violence’’, given that warfare between indigenous clans 200 years ago was ‘‘ endemic’’.
Grenville responded to Clendinnen and went on to write a book, Searching for the Secret River, in which she revealed how she researched and wrote her novel, which has been translated into 20 languages.
Today, McKenna — who considers The Secret River a ‘‘ fine novel’’ — explains that he spoke out because of his concern that ‘‘ many readers seemed to perceive novels like The Secret River as a more authentic and truthful purveyor of the past than history itself ... History and fiction are two very different disciplines and we should not confuse them.’’
He denies the historians who criticised Grenville had axes to grind. ‘‘ It’s simply not true,’’ he says. ‘‘ If novelists writing historical fiction offer their reflections regarding Australian history in the public domain, then it’s only fair that we engage with those ideas.’’ He further denies the resulting debate was a ‘‘ war’’, and declares: ‘‘ The more novelists and historians can be heard discussing the very different ways they write the past, the better.’’
Neil Armfield, who is directing the play, believes ‘‘ the heat of that debate has lessened’’. He says when dealing with history, artists must ‘‘ try and tell the truth in as responsible a way as you can. Kate just put one foot in front of another in a most caring and creative way ... [ The Secret River] is an exercise in imagining what might have happened, based on a broad knowledge of what did happen. It’s a big story and an important story.’’
Still, Bovell observes that a different kind of history war endures: ‘‘ You can’t get away from the fact that there are still two ways of seeing the past . . . those who regard European history as a process of benign white settlement and development, and those at the other end of the scale who regard it as an act of brutal occupation. Somewhere between those two paradigms, those two poles, one imagines the truth lies.’’
Shading his eyes from the sunlight blasting the harbourside cafe, he says Australians are uncomfortable with, yet more engaged ‘‘ than we’ve ever been’’ by, the story of indigenous dispossession. He reflects: ‘‘ We’ve moved from that sense of silence around the subject. In my parents’ generation it was simply not discussed in polite company, but now we as a culture are writing about it, painting about it, singing about it. That indicates to me a society that’s trying to process something, trying to work it out.’’ He gazes at the harbour’s green, glassy surface and remarks: ‘‘ But it’s not comfortable material. It’s not an easy story.’’
The Secret River opens at the Sydney Theatre on January 8, before travelling to Canberra and Perth.
Andrew Bovell, left, who has adapted The
Secret River, written by Kate Grenville, below left; below, Hawkesbury River at Wiseman’s Ferry