Joan Makes History: Readers' Notes
Introduction to 1992 Edition by Don Anderson
In my "Behind the Lines" column in the Books pages of the Sydney Morning Herald in March 1990 I fantasised that I had been summoned to recommend ten titles for the prime ministerial library at the Lodge [the Australian Prime Minister's official residence]. My list included the Annual Report of the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, the Judgments of Lionel Murphy, Henry Reynolds' The Law of the Land, and Kate Grenville's Joan Makes History. Why these titles? Because they are rewritings of dominant Australian narratives - our myths of economic good luck, of justice, of Aborigines and Europeans, and of women, respectively.
Of my Ten Little Australians, only Joan Makes History is a novel, yet it is in fiction that we often meet memorable subversions of dominant myths. Many of us had met Kate Grenville's Joan before, in her 1986 novel, Lilian's Story, itself a rewriting of legend. In that novel, Joan was Lilian's university friend, a tomboy, hoyden, larrikin. She did not impress Lilian's father: "A skinny sort of girl, he said, with not much in the way of womanly graces." Or a bust. In Joan Makes History, the patriarchal control implied by such a necessary standard of womanly graces is questioned again and again. We've also met Joan in another sense. Joan is an Australian Everywoman. To underscore this, Kate Grenville alternates chapters dealing with the twentieth-century Joan, born in the year of Federation, later to become Lilian's friend, later still a mother and a grandmother, with eleven "scenes" presenting as many Joans throughout Australia's brief European history, from Cook's voyages up to Federation, from 1770 to 1901.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
The University of Sydney