James Sykes Battye Memorial Fellow Lecture 2015
Fig. 1: The restored Mill site, South Perth, as it is today.
Whizzing across the Narrows Bridge, thousands of Perth commuters every day go right past one of Western Australia’s oldest colonial structures—and most hardly notice it, let alone know what poignant stories belong to it.
The Old Mill and adjacent cottage, built 180 years ago for William Shenton on the spot now called Mill Point, share a colourful history. Though the initial function of grinding grain into flour was short-lived, the place served several other purposes over the years, from an ignoble interlude as a chook farm to a station for river police and a meeting-place for artists associated with Lady Margaret Forrest, wife of the Premier and inheritor of the Mill property, which had been mortgaged to her father by the original owner.
Changing features of this historic South Perth site are well represented in photographs and paintings, collectively covering most of its lifetime. Many of these came together in 2005 for an exhibition at Heritage House in South Perth, curated with a fine catalogue by Christine Sharkey.
The Battye Library holds a large number of photographic images of the Old Mill, and the following select assortment merely indicates something of their variety. (I gratefully acknowledge that these are sourced from the collections of the State Library of WA and reproduced with permission of the Library Board.)
Fig. 2: Mill Point seen from Mt Eliza, c. 1864. (Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 6909B/23)
By 1862 the Mill had already ceased to produce flour. Standing idly on a peninsular tip of the Swan River’s southern bank, it must have seemed forlorn to anyone looking across from the hillside above Perth. Yet, only a few years later, a talented trouble-prone ex-convict, Thomas Browne (nicknamed Satan), boldly converted this derelict site into a resort hotel and recreational park, which he called the Alta Gardens.
Fig. 3: Mill precinct with Satan Browne’s 1880 Alta Gardens renovation. (Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 006177d)
Of all the Mill’s phases this Alta Gardens scheme fascinates me most, providing one of the storylines in my new novel The Mind’s Own Place. With its verandah balcony and upper viewing platform, it remained for decades a curious spectacle, visually arresting. Long after Satan Browne’s venture came to an end, his idiosyncratic reshaping of the Old Mill still brought occasional visitors, often with camera or paintbrush. Gradual dilapidation made it no less attractive, as the next few photos show.
Fig. 4.1, 4.2: Becoming decrepit, early 20th century. (Images courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 014711PD and BA470/56)
Fig. 5: Picturesque from a distance, 1905. (Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 2908B/76)
Fig. 6.1, 6.2: Viewed through romantic and realistic lenses. (Images courtesy State Library of Western Australia, BA2186/156-175 and 3528B)
Fig. 7: Venue for WA centenary commemoration 1929. (Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 3373B/25)
In the 1950s the peculiar superstructure devised by Satan Browne was obliterated. Restoration work turned the building back into a semblance of its original form, equipping and surrounding it with miscellaneous pioneering memorabilia donated by people from all over the state. It became a folk museum, funded by the manufacturing company Brisbane and Wunderlich as a public service.
Fig. 8: Restored and turned into a folk museum, 1958. (Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia, 144493PD)
Then, further conservation under National Trust auspices in the 1990s removed most of the extraneous folk-museum items and brought the property into line with new heritage guidelines.
What does all this have to do with relationships between history and fiction? I see the Old Mill’s chequered evolution as embodying the process by which things, happenings and people from earlier times continue to lend themselves to new uses and interpretations. The changes this building has undergone can serve emblematically as a reminder that the past is not an immutable edifice; it gets reconstructed in response to different needs. The idiomatic expression ‘grist to the mill,’ meaning something appropriated for a useful purpose like wheat transformed into flour, is particularly apt here: historical facts, far from being permanently fixed, can always be incorporated into new stories, including stories that are mainly fictional. In the process of being reinvented, the past will often shed new light on the present, and in turn be freshly illuminated itself.
Or does that generalised way of talking about the history/fiction nexus seem too glib?
Two centuries ago, in a preface to his novel Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott asked himself whether readers might think that by ‘intermingling fiction with truth, I am polluting the well of history with modern inventions, and impressing upon the rising generation false ideas of the age which I describe’. But Scott had no serious misgivings about this, and made a confident case for fiction’s capacity to enable us to experience the past in a way that carries emotional force. Tendentiously, he addressed his comments to a caricatured scholarly figure, Dr Dryasdust, who frequents library archives for ‘toilsome and minute research’ into ‘musty records and chronicles,’ and whose writings are ‘trammelled by the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity’.
The problem cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Ethical issues still hover. Do novelists have a right to play fast and loose with facts drawn from times past? If real personages and events are involved, shouldn’t there be responsible constraints on the freedom to invent? What is a writer of historical fiction trying to achieve anyway? To surpass the work of scholars and offer a superior kind of truth about the past? Kate Grenville’s acclaimed historical novel The Secret River was attacked at the time of publication by touchy academics who regarded this fictional work as a presumptuous, rivalrous intrusion into the territory of professional historians.
Can a novelist who wants to use history’s grist for fiction’s mill be creative in a way that’s grounded in a proper respect for fact? Posing such questions in abstract terms won’t take us far. I’ll now consider specific cases, starting with The Mind’s Own Place.
Fig. 9: Cover image reproduces Thomas Browne’s painting ‘Rose Hotel Bunbury 1863’ (watercolour and black pencil), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: The Wordsworth Collection, purchased 2010.
The cover and title page proclaim this new book of mine to be a work of fiction. Yet an Afterword explains that substantial parts of it rest on a factual framework. Though the main characters are largely imaginary, each has an historical counterpart. The idea for my novel began when, researching the history of the Old Mill as a heritage consultant, I read about the remarkable Thomas Browne, whose own extant paintings, drawings and letters whetted my interest further. His watercolours and sketches of colonial scenes are held in places like the National Gallery in Canberra, Art Gallery of WA and a collection of the Royal WA Historical Society. My book’s cover reproduces one of his pictures, while a photo of the mill after he modified its structure appears inside it.
My main published source for information about Browne was a volume of convict biographies edited by Rica Erickson, The Brand on His Coat. This led me to original documents in the Battye Library and State Records Office. So I had at my disposal various historical records, pictorial and textual, concerning the versatile Satan Browne and his ambitious project of turning an abandoned mill into something grand. The thought of writing a novel based in part on his fluctuating fortunes sat in the back of my mind until I read an absorbing account by Sandra Potter of one of Browne’s contemporaries, another white-collar convict. Through her article on Alfred Letch, in a volume called Building a Colony, edited by Jacqui Sherriff and Anne Brake, I began to see how to integrate Letch and Browne within one tale. Their careers had striking similarities, differences and intersections.
In what was shaping up as a set of interlinked stories, a further component emerged from a passing reference to a certain Detective-Sergeant Rowe as someone who befriended Browne. Rowe himself, on whom I found details in Mollie Bentley’s fascinating book Grandfather was a Policeman, turned out to be a significant but puzzling figure in his own right. Delving deeper, I uncovered intriguing links between that trio and some other colonists. Given such a rich treasure trove of information about those times, and my desire to write about real people, why not adhere to the unembroidered facts? Why embark on a novel instead of keeping within the sober discipline of strictly historical research, as biographers, genealogists and scholarly chroniclers do?
I wanted to go further into nineteenth-century minds than fact alone could possibly take me: to explore, with speculative scope, the innermost workings of people’s lives; to trace connections between individual motives, family dynamics and wider social patterns of that period; to weave several narrative strands together into an aesthetically satisfying configuration in which every element had a meaningful place. So I had to be selective in my use of factual material and take the liberty of departing from it. I invented a back-story for each main character, adapting actual experiences and fabricating others because plot development made certain demands. For the sake of a cohesive theme, I discarded some biographical particulars about the historical counterparts of my characters, designing the early chapters to focus on personal impacts of the industrial revolution in various districts of England. This raised numerous practical questions. How long did it take in 1833 to travel from London to West Lancashire by coach? In the 1840s, what songs might a rural Essex family sing at home, and what were the everyday realities of working-class existence in a Staffordshire Potteries town? What were the procedures in a Quarter Sessions trial? Research for The Mind’s Own Place involved many such aspects of ordinary life during that period of socio-economic upheaval, a period when some individuals were abruptly displaced, ending up together here as flotsam and jetsam on the western shore of a strange land.
In stark contrast to their lost home country, the Swan River Colony must have seemed nearly pre-industrial. Instead of England’s expansive symbiosis of capital and labour, instead of its burgeoning railways and other mighty engineering feats, instead of urban agglomerations and swollen towns and dark satanic mills, this antipodean settlement was underpopulated, underdeveloped, dwarfed by a vast and vacant-looking hinterland. Perched tentatively on the sand, the port of Fremantle and upriver town of Perth comprised a mere scatter of makeshift buildings. In the early decades, there was little capital to invest, and even less labour available to hire.
Even after shiploads of convicts began to arrive, the Colony remained for some decades a small jumble of people who, though divisible into obvious social groups (bond or free, impecunious or well to do, shady or respectable), could turn out to be closely linked. There were only a couple of degrees of separation between some noteworthy people who came here at that time. I began to invent a story around a core of actual connections and coincidences.
My general intentions were like those described by one of our eminent historical novelists, Nicholas Hasluck, in a comment on his admirable story Our Man K:
In writing Our Man K I had no wish to usurp the process of historians. If readers are interested in the true facts of the matter then they will turn to the texts approved by scholars for enlightenment. What is of constant fascination to the novelist is the mystery of character and the way in which haphazard events in the past resonate in the future (n.p.).
Non-fictional historical writing, to be sure, is also replete with mysterious characters and clangorous chains of events. Novelists do not monopolise the power of narrative to imbue human experience with meaning. Historians often show us how everyone inhabits a story-shaped world, and through their meticulous work we can peer into causes and consequences in the flesh-and-blood actuality of individual lives. Nevertheless fiction can take us beyond the scope of non-fiction.
Consider a handful of examples. Alexandra Hasluck’s book Unwilling Emigrants, a ground-breaking account of the convict system in our state, contains several diligently researched tales, perhaps the most memorable being that of William Sykes, whose wife sent him from England a number of touching letters. Discovered fortuitously long after his death, preserved by the Royal WA Historical Society and the Battye Library, and then amplified by Alexandra Hasluck’s work, those letters make audible the otherwise unheard voices of a desolate couple. Another historian, Graham Seal, has written about the case more recently and fully in his book These Few Lines. From what Seal calls the ‘tattered remnants of a long-forgotten relationship’ (viii) he reconstructs the Sykes story and conveys its sadness eloquently, but concludes by conceding that ‘the jigsaw remains incomplete’, (xii) as all strictly historical accounts must be. To penetrate their inner lives, we would need the capacities of fiction.
Another instance: this Anzac centenary year reminds us how abundant is the information about the 1915 campaign—documents contemporary and retrospective that show not only something of what happened at Gallipoli but also something of what it meant for combatants and their families, then and afterwards. In themselves, however, even soldiers’ diaries and correspondence can seldom take us into the deepest recesses of human experience. To feel what it could have been like for people from our region to take part in that war, and then, if they returned, to struggle through its aftermath alongside people grieving for the ones who didn’t return, we should read Brenda Walker’s novel The Wing of Night, which draws with great skill on a range of historical resources including Battye Library items to create a moving tale about those who fought and those they left behind, evoking beautifully the resonance of linked events and the mystery of character.
A third example: to learn about the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, we can go to sources such as the Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia, of which Jenny Gregory was Editor-in-Chief, or to informative publications arising from the National Trust’s ‘golden pipeline’ heritage project. To learn about the brilliant person who engineered the scheme, we can read biographies of C.Y. O’Connor. But to be transported into the inward dimension of goldfields lives in that period, so that we palpably inhabit their attitudes and sense the emotional texture of their perceptions, then we must turn to Robert Drewe’s novel The Drowner.
A few actual identifiable people do appear in those novels (such as C.Y. O’Connor in The Drowner, John Antill in The Wing of Night) but they are not central. The protagonists don’t carry the labels of real individuals. In contrast, you may think there is something impertinent about exploring the mystery of character in the way I do in The Mind’s Own Place, purporting to tell at length the stories of Browne and Letch and Rowe while also conferring on a number of minor personages the same names and experiences as other historical figures, such as Toodyay pioneer John Acton Wroth, jeweller Henry Seligson and charismatic Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly.
Is that an ethical transgression on my part? Can one write fiction based on real people from the past while keeping a clear conscience, or is it unavoidably intrusive to sift through archival material with an eye to exploiting it for one’s own narrative purposes? David Whish-Wilson begins a recently published essay with these words:
I’m sitting in the climate-controlled archival room at the Battye Library in central Perth, reading through old Police Gazettes. With a fifty-year buffer maintained to protect the dignity of extant convicted criminals, the gazettes begin in 1905 and end in 1964. The journals record job availabilities and relate general policing news, but it’s the recording of arrests and accompanying mugshots – pictures of wanted men and missing women and children – that I am interested in (150).
He describes these mugshot faces: they are ‘often gaunt and angry: the eyes are hard and the clothes are grimy and threadbare. Many of these men would have had grandparents, even parents, who were convicts and of whom many were still alive’ (152). I won’t presume to speak for Dave and his well-researched crime fiction, but when I sit in the Battye Library and glimpse the pathos of people whose lives have left little more than a few sad documentary traces, I feel torn between a wish to resuscitate them by amplifying their stories and a pang of compunction at disturbing their bones.
In Amanda Curtin’s novel The Sinkings, one of the main characters is a present-day Perth-based researcher, Willa, who tries to piece together an understanding of a life—an actual convict’s life—that was brutally extinguished during the colonial period. As Willa sits in library reading rooms, fiddles with microfilm machines and handles brittle archival documents, a sense of trespass troubles her. If this research activity makes Willa uneasy, it must also pluck at the conscience of Willa’s creator Amanda, who is not only working on the same records but bringing invented material into the mix as well.
In contrast, scholarly historians like Jenny Gregory, avoiding the temptation of fictional embellishments, presumably feel no twinge of discomfort about what they do. Yet, even in non-fictional work, writing about actual people is always a delicate task. Reading Geoffrey Bolton’s magisterial portrait of Sir Paul Hasluck, I admire the attention to detail and the principled avoidance of anything for which evidence is lacking. A sage biographer knows to tread lightly. However, in deciding what to bring in and what to leave out, authors of biographies and other historical studies still engage in storytelling, and are therefore partial. No story can tell the whole story.
Similarly, an essayist wanting to evoke the distinctive features of a particular place will usually reach beyond static description into narrative, which implies arbitrary omissions. Both Jenny Gregory and David Whish-Wilson, in books about Perth, include memorable anecdotes to enliven the portrayal of our city. I’m thinking for instance of how much Jenny conveys through her vignette of the acrobatic vagrant Percy Button, and how much Dave conveys in relating the escapades of Moondyne Joe. Yet chosen stories always push other stories aside.
For the hybrid genre of historical fiction, these challenges are more acute. Any of us who write novels about real individuals from the past will probably pause at some sensitive point to wonder whether our subjects should be left to punctilious genealogists, cautious biographers, conscientious essayists and circumspect historians. Besides, some of those subjects may have living descendants; so are we infringing any rights of family ownership?
My choice to use the real names of real people from the past in my novel has a simple justification: those actual nineteenth century figures (such as Alfred Letch, Satan Browne and their wives Amelia and Polly) are fascinating in their own right and deserve the attention of twenty-first century readers, but only through carefully researched fiction will more than a handful of specialists ever know anything about them. Provided that the writer of historical fiction not only indicates factual sources but also declares plainly that much of the final product is invented, surely it can only be beneficial to engage a wider readership with well-researched stories about bygone times. A few readers may even be motivated to find out more about the underlying facts, and can then do so within the strict discipline of historical enquiry; but the rest will at least have acquired some awareness of particular colonial people and events and social processes, which would not otherwise have touched them.
Consider more closely the historical counterparts of my main characters, starting in 1850, when the still diminutive colony was reaching its twenty-first birthday and what we call the Old Mill was just a teenager. At that stage, no sustainable economic structure had emerged, and there seemed little prospect of establishing it without a quick increase in population. So, in 1850, convict transportation to our shores began. On the second ship was a twenty-seven-year-old from a respectable family: Alfred Daniel Letch, guilty of theft from his employer.
Alfred soon received his ticket of leave. Inheriting money, he leased a shop under the concocted surname De Leech, established a successful drapery and grocery business that would continue for three decades, prospered rapidly, bought and sold land in rural areas, ran a daily passenger service to Guildford, and secured a government mail contract for the Perth-Fremantle route. In 1863, he married a free immigrant (I’ll return to her later), and within another six years his standing as a mercantile entrepreneur was such that he was invited to give a public lecture on the topic of success. Those are all documented facts; but they don’t reveal much about the mystery of character. What kind of man was he? What was he like in his private self? Did anything trouble him? We’ll never know—yet it is possible, through fiction, to devise a conjectural person resembling the real Alfred and see how his experiences might conceivably have affected him and others.
Reverting to the 1850s, let’s pick up the story of the clever but luckless Thomas Browne, who was older than Alfred Letch and whose fall from grace came later in his life. At the time when Letch was sentenced to transportation, Browne seemed to be doing well professionally. Mixing with prominent figures in the rail industry, he practiced as an architect and civil engineer in Manchester and London. Then his career crashed in 1862: convicted of forgery, he was shipped to Fremantle. Gaining his ticket of leave in 1865, he painted a few commissioned pictures before becoming a schoolteacher in a village inland from Bunbury. So while Alfred Letch, aka De Leech, was enjoying public esteem in and around Perth as an exemplar of commercial success in his mid-forties, Browne (already in his fifties) was languishing in a low-paid low-status job in a rustic location. He had lost not only his professional reputation but also all ties with his family in England, whereas Alfred, in contrast, had acquired community standing and substantial assets, with a young wife and children for company.
Later the two men came into close contact, and when Browne, financially stressed, was touting for custom, he knew that Letch’s business continued to thrive. Between the lines of this pair of advertisements, juxtaposed in the same newspaper column, we can discern a telling contrast: Browne’s anxiety, Letch’s confidence.
Fig. 10: Adjacent notices by Browne and Letch: The West Australian, 27 Feb 1880
In 1868 the last convict ship reached Fremantle, bringing political prisoners—Irish Fenians—along with the usual contingent of criminals. Among the Fenians were highly literate men such as John Boyle O’Reilly. Also on board was someone called Thomas Rowe—or perhaps two people called Thomas Rowe: here again, I discovered an enticing detail of the kind that sparks a fiction writer’s imagination. The London Metropolitan Police sent a certain Thomas Rowe on this voyage incognito to keep an eye on those hotheaded Irishmen, and subsequently he became the first detective in Western Australia. But the ship’s manifest makes no mention of such a person among the warders or passengers, though there is a Thomas Rowe listed among the prisoners! Encountering such an odd discrepancy, pure historians would pursue the facts, which could turn out to be irresolvable or merely dull—while a novelist might pounce on this opportunity, seeing it as potentially part of a thematic pattern of shifty nomenclature and identity. Thomas Browne was nicknamed Satan (and my story gives him other appellations too); Alfred Letch changed his name to Alfred De Leech; a number of other convicts acquired pseudonymous monikers—and so, fanciful though this may seem, I liked the idea that a police sleuth called Thomas Rowe could masquerade as a prisoner of the same name in order to carry out more stealthily his task of surveillance. For good measure I conferred a nickname on him as well: Runty. A creative writer’s license surely permits such liberty.
I also endowed him with a sensitive conscience and a capacity for scrupulous restraint in his detective work. Instead of clinching an investigation or uncovering the full story, my Runty Rowe sometimes draws back out of compassion. A detective figure can generally stand for the roles of both writer and reader, so perhaps this hesitant quality in Runty can suggest one’s own ambivalence about the world of historical fiction.
Be that as it may, the real Rowe had plenty to occupy him soon after his arrival in Fremantle. During one month in early 1869, two linked happenings required police action. First, the Duke of Edinburgh visited the colony, raising security concerns because a would-be assassin—an Irish republican—had already targeted him in Sydney. Who better to keep watch on the Duke in Perth than the spy from Scotland Yard? We know from official correspondence that at precisely this time the Western Australian Governor wrote to London’s Downing Street expressing concern about the ‘misconduct’ of Fenian prisoners. Then, a few days after the Duke’s departure, when law-abiding folk were breathing sighs of relief that nothing had gone wrong, and just before the recidivist escapee Moondyne Joe was caught after two years at large, John Boyle O’Reilly slipped away from a prison working party to be spirited off overseas. O’Reilly became lionised by Boston society, wrote a novel about prison life in Western Australia called Moondyne and masterminded the audacious rescue of half a dozen Fenian colleagues from Fremantle Prison, daringly snatched away by an American vessel, the Catalpa, in a benign reversal of their previous experience of transportation. This episode is often retold but enters my novel from an unusual angle because I found that (in reality) Detective Rowe was again in the thick of things, coordinating the police response to the Catalpa getaway, which raised questions for me about what might go through the mind of his fictional double, Runty. Police Occurrence files contain merely external details. How would someone with the personal background I’ve given to Rowe view the Fenians’ escape? Might his boyhood experiences, combined with observation of the Irishmen during and after the voyage out here, have made him secretly sympathetic to their cause? Could I also find grist for my fiction’s mill in the fact that Rowe remained on good terms with Satan Browne, who, having received a conditional pardon in 1872, became a land agent and handled a transaction for Rowe?
Meanwhile Browne continued to struggle. While this colony’s smallness allowed him to exercise some of his talents, set up a business, become friendly with a notable policeman, engage in debates about public works, put forward progressive schemes such as building a Fremantle/Perth railway, and marry (as we’ll see) into the family of a free settler, on the other hand it imposed limits to social acceptability. Browne’s criminal record debarred him from Mechanics’ Institute membership; civil service positions were not available to him; and attempts to get a hearing for his infrastructure proposals were undermined by the director of public works and other officials. Wherever he turned, he met obstacles and defamatory put-downs.
Such things are discernible in surviving documents, but tell us little about what made him tick. His sense of still being constrained, for instance: was it largely self-wrought, as in William Blake’s image of ‘mind-forged manacles’? Barriers to ex-convicts were not so rigid for men less abrasive than Browne, less disputatious, less openly resentful. Alfred Letch, at a time when expirees were generally considered unsuitable for civic positions, was elected a Perth City Councillor in 1875 and re-elected for three terms. So, even if sheer luck played a part, differences of character surely explain something of the disparity between their careers. And this is a novelist’s domain.
I won’t continue to summarise how things turned out for the real or imaginary Browne or Letch or Rowe. But it’s necessary to add one thing, because The Mind’s Own Place is by no means just a story about men. I’ve mentioned that Alfred Letch married a young woman; a free settler, her name was Amelia. The historical record also shows that in 1875 Satan Browne married someone thirty-three years his junior, Mary Ann (known as Polly) Letch—the niece of none other than Alfred Letch, who had persuaded his brother George to migrate here with his wife and children a few years earlier. George’s diary of his family’s voyage out here, held in the Battye Library, gave me glimpses of his daughter Polly—just enough for a fully-fledged character to develop gradually in my mind. A difficulty for any writer who stays within the bounds of documentary evidence is that most women in the Swan River Colony are half-obscured on the shadowy fringes of history, visible only as adjuncts to men. That isn’t quite true of all female experience in that period; but even on the few prominent colonial women, like Georgiana Molloy or Lady Margaret Forrest, there is relatively little information. Amanda Curtin has written a compelling short story about Margaret Forrest, ‘Live Forever,’ which pivots neatly on the fact that much of that talented woman’s life remains unknown.
For Browne’s wife Polly and Alfred’s wife Amelia there was scant material in the public record: a marriage notice for Polly and two years later a death notice for her infant daughter; for Amelia, just a terse gravestone inscription.
Fig. 11: Women often leave only faint footprints in the factual record.
So, wanting some of my novel’s action to be seen through their eyes, I had to imagine what they might have been like. In dealing with times past, a novelist can give fuller scope to female experiences and points of view than is usually possible through scholarly labour alone.
After all, what writers of historical fiction hope to achieve is not the solidity of history as such; it is verisimilitude, the likeness of reality, the plausible illusion of taking readers inside the mind of this or that character in a particular period and place. Yes, extensive groundwork is necessary to convey this in a way that carries conviction, and I’ve done my best to be a diligent investigator. We make grateful use of all sorts of material in order to create an impression of authenticity. For this, the Battye Library is a wonderful resource. Yet novels set in the past involve more than meticulous research; they aspire to offer complex characters, strong narrative momentum and intricate patterns of meaning, themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated. Having sometimes written non-fictional history myself, I respect the discipline of adhering faithfully to what is verifiable. But strict fidelity to fact can result in a lopsided, inconsequential or inconclusive account. In contrast, a fiction writer’s manipulation of historical material may produce more rounded insights into the lived experience of men and women from a bygone era.
I take encouragement from remarks by Australian historian Cassandra Pybus, which can provide here a peroration. Acknowledging ‘the limitations of history as a narrative form’, she goes on to say this:
Not even a master of the popular history genre, such as Simon Schama, can construct a past world as rich and satisfying as the parallel universe the novelist can imagine, nor create characters who are revealed to us in their most intimate and private thoughts. The historian remains tied to concrete evidence, which is patchy at best and never allows access to the inner workings of the human psyche.
The thrill of the historical novel is in the resurrection of the dead; the capacity to breathe vibrant life into the static characters frozen in the formal portrait, official documents, newspaper articles or court reports that are the staple evidence of the historian. (16)
Ian Reid is the James Sykes Battye Memorial Fellow for 2015. His latest book is The Mind’s Own Place (UWA Publishing, 2015), available at: http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-minds-own-place
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