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MHS Library | The Secret River


Historians and novelists fight turf wars - let's flip the narrative (The Conversation)

"In 2006, at the height of the mudslinging that began when Kate Grenville allegedly claimed her novel The Secret River (2005) was a new form of historiography, historian Inga Clendinnen countered that the novelist’s only “binding contract” with their readers was “not to instruct or to reform, but to delight”.

The message was clear: if it’s reliable history you’re after, trust the experts (historians), not liberty-taking literary artists.

But is the line between truth and fiction really so clear when it comes to history? And if not, is there scope for historians and novelists to re-engage, with a view to learning from – rather than bludgeoning – each other?" (Read more in the article.) (This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the fourth in The Conversation's series, Writing History

The novel generated a lot of critical debate when it was first published about the rights and responsibilities of novelists working in the genre of historical fiction. In deciding to imaginatively re-create what life may have been like for the early settlers based on a range of records, some historians and critics questioned Grenville’s approach. Some of the questions asked were, ‘How can we ever know how people thought and behaved in the past, when the evidence is drawn mostly from official records and a few letters and personal accounts? Can we ever hope to understand the contextual complexities of another time, place and people?’

However, it is worth considering that when we read novels set in different cultures and at different times, we can often empathise with the characters, despite never having experienced their lives and the choices open to them. Were these early white settlers so different to us in their expectations and attitudes and behaviours that it is impossible for us to imagine how they thought and behaved?

In 2005 Kate Grenville said, I’m not a person who likes conflict or public debate, but I feel very passionately that this book is probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like. This is a story that absolutely needs to be told. We are ready for it, perhaps for the first time*.

The details of the extent and nature of the racial conflicts between early white settlers and Aboriginal Australians are still strongly contested by historians. Others maintain that we in the 2000s can not accurately re-imagine the attitudes, behaviours and lives of people who first came to Australia, often as convicts, dirt poor, uneducated, untravelled and unaware of anything much outside the lives they led in Britain. They were the lowest members of a class bound society, reviled by all and with little opportunity to change their status.

Grenville has always said that The Secret River is a work of fiction inspired by real events and people. It is dedicated to ‘the Aboriginal people of Australia, past, present and future’. Grenville said she wanted to base the novel at every point on whatever historical veracity I could find. She explains on her website that she did an enormous amount of research. This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in this book ‘really happened’ and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.

See for further information from Grenville about her sense of the importance of historical fiction.

(Source: ABC Study guide)

"Grenville’s commentary on her novel addressed this context directly. “The voice of debate might stimulate the brain”, she declared in 2005, “the dry voice of ‘facts’ might make us comfortable, even relaxed. It takes the voice of fiction to get the feet walking in a new direction.”

Her hunger for a new direction in the adversarial political debate was widely shared – and the solution she offered was “the oblique voice of fiction”.

But to Grenville’s frustration, she found herself questioned about history and fiction rather than frontier violence. And to her surprise, she found herself criticised by the very historians she might have expected to share her political quest, especially the two whose books had been shaped by the same public conversation.

She expressed dismay and a sense of betrayal, and commentators relished a “turf war” between history and fiction."

Read more - On the frontier: the intriguing dance of history and fiction (The Conversation)