Joan Makes History


Women were part of all the big moments of history – but reading history books, you wouldn’t think so. This is the story of an “everywoman”, Joan, who was present at all the famous moments of Australia’s European history. She gives her irreverent version of what went on, filling in the blanks that more solemn historians leave. Joan “makes” history because she was there too, but she also “makes” it by telling it afresh.

The events in Joan Makes History concern Australian history, but Joan, as the invisible side of official history, is an international phenomenon. In a light-hearted way, this book explores the idea of history itself – who gets written into it, who gets written out, and why.

Lilian Singer, the protagonist of Lilian’s Story, has a minor but colourful role in this book, accompanying Joan on one or two of her adventures.

Joan Makes History is published in Australia by University of Queensland Press.

P r o l o g u e

In the beginning was nothing much. Vague things swirled and whirled, impulses grouped and dissolved, light came and went. It was a fluke, or a leap of faith: but there it was all at once, the first atom, and everything else was just a matter of time.

Imagine the stars burning their hearts out in brand-new galaxies! Imagine the time when bundles of hot gas decided to draw together and be Mars or Earth! Imagine the first rain sizzling down on the first hot rocks, and starting the business of the land and the sea! What aeons of racket there were, of magma squirting up and lava gushing out: what tumult as the globe heated, froze, cracked, drowned: as rock wore away to sand that ebbed and flowed on the floors of warm seas. What convulsions there were, as the bottom of the sea became the top of a surprised mountain steaming in the sun and melting away again, until at last it formed the shapes of Africa and Iceland and the Great South Land!

Imagine dew forming, sun scorching, winds whipping: lichen grasping the side of a rock: grass sprouting and dying, small flowers holding their faces up to the sun. Imagine saplings thickening, putting forth leaves and dropping them off: imagine them swelling at last beyond the strength of the roots and crashing back down to the ground, and from their ruin new trees springing.

Consider the extravagant excess of nature, providing every different bit of earth with its particular kind of life: with Pale Prickly Moses, with the Leafless Milkwort, with the Spoonleaf Sundew: with the Gregarious Stick Insect, with the Sugar Ant, with the Small Green-Banded Blue Butterfly, with the Pie-Dish Beetle, with the Yellow Monday Cicada and the Shining Swift Moth: with the Yellow-Bellied Black Snake, the Sulphur-Crested White Cockatoo, the Frill-Necked Lizard: with the Crest-Tailed Pouched Mouse as well as the Flat-Headed Pouched Mouse: what an unnecessary prodigality of supply!

Imagine, too, those formless jellies from which they say we come: something – what was it? – made them desire history, clustering together and becoming particular: You be skin, I will be legs. What a journey it was, from the trilobite, the graptolite, the pterygotus, to the pterodactyl, the brontosaurus, the tyrannosaurus rex! Things with teeth where their ears should have been, things with four mouths and seven feet, things with eggs the size of houses and tongues as long as tree-trunks!

They trundled and hopped, slithered and leaped, swam, flapped and waddled, and after them came the humans who left footprints in the dust. So many births: imagine them, born every second of every day, year after year: now, and now, and now, and now, just now there are three, four, five new humans in the world, I cannot speak quickly enough to outstrip them. They are pink, brown, or yellow, angry or solemn, arching in a midwife’s hands or staring around in a knowing way: bursting forth with a roar, or being lifted astonished out of cut flesh. They suck blindly at nipples, they whimper or crow, they lie in possum-skin rugs or a proud father’s arms. Imagine them in their millions, all driven by the same few urgent promptings: to suck, to grasp, to kick, and at last to smile, and with that smile to begin their public life.

So many lives! Being explorers or prisoners of the Crown, hairdressers or tree-choppers, washerwomen or judges, ladies of leisure or bareback riders, photographers or mothers or mayoresses.

I, Joan, have been all these things. I am known to my unimaginative friends simply as Joan, born when this century was new, and now a wife, a mother, and a grandmother: Joan who has cooked dinners, washed socks and swept floors while history happened elsewhere. What my friends do not know is that I am also every woman who has ever drawn breath: there has been a Joan cooking, washing and sweeping through every event of history, although she has not been mentioned in the books until now.

Allow me to introduce myself: Joan, a woman as plain as a plate, and devoid of bust, a grandmother you would pass on the street without a glance. Allow me also to acquaint you with a small selection of those other Joans, those who made the history of this land.

I will begin in the beginning, with myself.


J o a n

My conception: It was not night, no, Europeans have no shame and do not trouble to wait until dark for lust. It was the middle of a hot afternoon in the first year of the century, with the sun blazing down outside on planks steaming and adding their salt dampness to air that was already too thick to breathe. It was afternoon, and the rhythm of a thin woman and a thick balding man was attuned, after so many months, to the restless rocking and shifting of the boat under the mattress – oh, that mattress and its manifold rustlings! – on which they coupled.

This was a ship built for the transport of many in cheapness rather than of a few in luxury. It was a mean and cramped ship, a ship of tiny airless cabins with peeling walls, cracked ceilings, and dripping pipes in the corners that conveyed other people’s plumbing with a rush and rattle late at night.

Those seedy cabins had occasionally heard the roiling and difficult syllables, the guttural hawkings and strange sibilances of some of Europe’s lesser-known languages, and had echoed even more to the ingenious obscenities and sly rude wit of many folk from Lambeth, Bow and Cheapside. They had echoed to the sighs of gentlewomen in reduced circumstances, weeping into embroidered lawn and hankering for home: weeping, but knowing that their chance of husband and hearth, livelihood and life worth living would not be found in the genteel squalor of some seedy out-of-season Brighton boarding house, but here, in this savage new land that wanted everyone: carpenters, cooks, governesses, dentists and hopefuls of no defined skill.

In many languages, the voyagers squeezed into their cabins had spoken of hope, of futures, of the blank sheet of new possibilities waiting for them. They had left behind the squalor of cities so old the very cockroaches were descended from those that had been crushed beneath the buckled feet of Goethe and Shakespeare: they had come with a few plates or bits of embroidered garments, leather-bound books with silverfish in the endpapers, or an engraving or two of Tower Bridge or the Danube, with a pair of candlesticks or their grandfather’s chased silver double hunter, with their love of dumplings and pale ale, with their heads full of things in dark forests and wolves on cold plains, or of the way the Thames looked on a spring morning at Wapping: with all this useless baggage they had come, bursting with hope, to the Antipodes for a new life in a new land?

And what a land! Here, they had been told, the sun rose on the wrong side of the sky, stones lay upside down and the trees grew so thick together you could walk for miles along their crests. Now, on this glassy afternoon, their tiresome ship was passing between the headlands that were the gates to that new life, and all those weary folk were gesticulating at the foreign gum trees and asking their hearts what the future held.

My coming into existence was the main thing that made that day so special, but I am a person of magnanimous turn of mind, not one to hog the stage of history. Up on deck those muddles of mixed people gaped at their first sight of their future, but down below in their cabin, my thin woman and her brown-eyed man celebrated their new life in the way they loved to celebrate anything at all, or nothing in particular.

That balding man whispered in an oily language to that thin woman under him: Darling, he whispered, and caressed the bit of cheek beside her mouth, that favourite bit of his wife’s face. Darling, we have arrived, he said, and for the last time they heard the mattress rustle and creak under them, and the pipes in the corner mocking them. It was an episode appropriate to such a significant moment: while my father groaned and my mother wept with the storms of pleasure he gave her, a vigorous questing tadpole was nosing into the skin of a ripe egg waiting to be courted, and in that moment’s electric interchange, I, Joan, had my beginning.

Those two humans who had come together with lewd and effortful noises to conceive me, who were they, making history in a sound of sighs? Well, there was a thin woman, and a man chunky like a block of chopped wood, and balding so the dome of his cranium was egglike. The thin woman was thin by nature, not design, was in fact not in any way a woman of design, her long face, with its tanned-looking skin, having only its own features for adornment. She was a woman of narrow mobile lips with fine creases at their corners from years of finding things funny. When she smiled or laughed, gold glittered in that mouth, for back in the country they had left behind, that tiny country of werewolves and vampires, the father of the thin woman spent his days peering at molars, and loved nothing better than a bit of fine work on a gold inlay.

And the balding man, who was he? Just another stocky man in a lumpy cheap suit, with his father’s signet ring on his little finger. He had always had a way of clutching at the handle of his heavy leather briefcase that had made the thin woman love him, there was such determination, and such innocent hope and purpose in that grip. In the briefcase, she had learned, was not much: a clean handkerchief, a notebook for great thoughts as they occurred, and a few bits of paper relating to enterprises that flickered and smouldered but never caught fire.

My love for you is hunger, he had whispered to the thin woman on the dentist’s slippery couch, which during the day was the place where anxious folk squirmed and waited with their toothaches. My love for you is hope.

What is your thinking about a new life in a new land?

The thin woman loved this man in his suit that bulged and buckled, had loved him for a year or more, and had long ago decided that this was the man she wished to spend her life with. She was impatient with dentists and their cautions, their painstaking days fiddling with the endless decaying molars of folk stiff with the apprehension of pain, and was even willing to undergo the rigours of being foreign, and go to a new land on the bottom of the earth, to be with this man.

He was a man of wit, a man given in a mild way to the extravagant gesture, and he was a man of intense brown eyes and a mouth that made most things plausible, but it was for none of this that the thin woman loved him. It was for his adoration of her that she loved him, knowing she would never again meet with a love like his.

My pink-scalped father panted, then, and groaned with the pain of adoring his wife, that no amount of penetrating her flesh could assuage, and while he panted and history was being made in the interior of a thin woman, other kinds of history were also being made.

In the new land they were approaching, men with frockcoats and small knowing eyes spoke of the birth of a nation, and thought with satisfaction of their fertile acres and the cash in their strongboxes. These were starchier folk, not eaters of garlic or wearers of rustic embroidery, they were folk who had never had to confront jellied eel, or the bailiff on an empty stomach. They were folk made uneasy by gesticulation and suspicious of too much hope: they were men in frockcoats and side-whiskers that hid the shape of their faces, they were women with heavy cheeks made bland by privilege.

The birth of a nation, the men brayed, from their mouths concealed under heavy moustaches that smelled of mutton. Our debt to the mother country, they intoned, and turned up their small eyes piously. They thought, or said they thought, that this was the moment at which this barbarous land was entering into its glory after a long and squalid beginning. In their folly they thought that was history. But the real history of that moment was known only to myself, where something as real as a human was being made.

No book has yet recorded that event, though whole forests have been sacrificed to all those men with their frockcoats and to princes burdened with frogging. The books are strangely silent on all that matters, so here I am to put them right: watch, and you will see history being made in front of your eyes.

 “A writer of quite extraordinary talent, slipping between the centuries with a fluid and vigorous prose style.” (Literary Review)

“Like Woolf and Weldon, Kate Grenville is expert at bringing to light facets of female experience that usually remain ignored or denied, but she has a sexiness and a generosity all her own.” (New Yorker)

“A good novelist, entirely in control of her matter.” (Glasgow Herald)

“Powerful . . . Grenville is a writer of talent” (The Guardian)

“Kate Grenville’s prose is robust, full of verve and energy.” (The Irish Times)

“Her writing is as pithy as a proverb. A powerful storyteller.” (New York Times Book Review)

“A first-rate teller of stories. Turn to any page and what you find is a sharp, edgy, nervous prose. A strong talent . . . Joan Makes History is a good and true book.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“Ms Grenville’s realism is often painful, yet hope flourishes through a comic tone that is comforting.” (Baltimore Sun)

“Delightful stories of women’s adventures and conquests.” (Los Angeles Times)

“Consistently, inspiringly engaging to read, a purposeful jeu d’esprit of a novel. Kate Grenville has a feel for imagery, for the telling, casual details that capture the essence of a vanished time or a place. “ (Washington Post Book World)

“Grenville at her most ambitious yet. She’s a mercurial writer, capable of pulling off just about every tone she tries, from the lyric to the ribald . . . a virtuoso performance by a writer from the Antipodes who belongs at the center of the fiction map.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“This fanciful feminist epic is funny and sometimes piercingly poignant.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Australia is colonised – but from the female point of view. Joan, who is Everywoman, is observant, calm, tender, angry, despairing. An imaginatively crafted novel, effortlessly fluid. Kate Grenville understands the comic poetry of suffering.” (Thea Astley)

“Joan Makes History is a clever idea beautifully executed” (Ken Inglis)

“A joy to read . . . Joan Makes History provokes thought while it entertains, and should become a classic.” (Dale Spender, The Melbourne Herald)

“Joan Makes History is a funny, moving, brilliant, contrived story about the ‘Everywoman’ unsung by straight historians . . .” (The Age)

“The narrative voice ranges Australia’s couple of centuries with a supreme and smiling dominion, writing Joan back into history . . .” (Brian Matthews, The Age)

“Very few recent novels have the audacity and range of Joan Makes History.” (The Australian)

“This is a novel of amazing richness, of ideas, of attitude towards people and events, and of language. Don’t miss reading this book – it’s wonderful.,” (The Dominion)

“Tremendous fun . . . the book has to offer the rich lush energy of its prose. Joan is irreverent, iconoclastic, a regarder of things from their undersides and deflator of the pompous.” (The Canberra Times)

“Hugely entertaining. It is impossible to resist Grenville’s warm and affectionate wit. We follow Joan’s rich and complex story with a profound sense of engagement.” (Courier Mail)

“This novel reclaims history as an act of the audacious imagination. Apparently mundane events are set alight by wit, humour and sympathetic insight.” (The Weekend Australian)

“Joan Makes History is a wise, funny and often tender book, a fascinating and immensely readable tale, pierced with sly, wry humor in strongly feminist, but never proselytising, vein.” (Sunday Times)

“Joan Makes History is a lively, witty, very wise look at the role of women in our society. Kate Grenville is a writer who knows about those things which belong to eternity” (Manning Clark)

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.

This book, first published in 1988, was funded by the Australian Bicentennial Authority to celebrate 200 years of history. So, Joan “makes” – the verb is ambiguous – “history” her story. After all, “history” derives from the Greek “histor”, wise man, or judge. So, Joan makes history by living and (re)inscribing it, and Kate Grenville rewrites it. With a novelist’s fine disrespect for “facts”, Kate Grenville has her Joan be, by turns: wife to Captain Cook; a female convict whose feet are the first white ones to land at Botany Bay in 1788; an Aborigine who encounters Bass and Flinders in 1795; a free settler in I839; a washerwoman during the gold rushes of 1851; a witness to the poisoning of Aborigines by emancipist farmers; an indolent and unfulfilled lady in 1855; an intrepid traveller on Cobb & Co.; a woman helping to photograph the Kelly family in 1878; a sufferer in the terrible Depression of the 1890s, but one who looks set to be painted into Frederick McCubbin’s “On the Wallaby Track” (1986); a mayor’s wife present at the opening of the Australian Parliament in 1901. And she is, of course, in alternate chapters, our twentieth-century Joan.
In an interview with Candida Baker, printed in Yacker 3: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Picador, 1989), Kate Grenville throws light on choices she made in creating Joan. “At another level, although Elizabeth Cook wasn’t there [on board the Endeavour], women were actually on board those old ships much more often than you’d think. It seems they only get mentioned in the log books when they die . . . Which is exactly what Joan the book is about – to acknowledge the fact that they were there . . . I wrote the book for a reader ignorant of Australian history, but on the other hand I’ve tried to plant images that people might remember from their primary school Social Studies, so they can have that pleasure of recognising and remembering . . . A fictional story [has] its own compulsions . . . I know Joan in real history couldn’t have stepped on a bicycle in 1870, but I needed Joan in fiction to do so.”
Despite taking such fictional liberties with the brute facts of historical reality, Joan Makes History operates in a manner comparable to the French Annales school of historians (Femand Braudel, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby’s A History of Private Life, for example). Like these scholars, Joan insists upon the importance of the so-called “trivia” of everyday life in the making and writing of history. So the 1851 Joan tells us that “women who wash other people’s soiled garments learn a thing or two”. The Joan of 1901, the mayor’s wife, reflects or, can I say, rhapsodises: “I had made sheets of the cheapest unbleached calico, and made them last by turning sides to the middle, and had spent my evenings darning George’s socks and turning his collars, and patching the children’s clothes and running string along the inside of hems for when they needed letting down: I had grated up carrot to make cakes stick together when eggs had been scarce, and knew how to make scrag end into a good meal.” Our twentieth-century Joan recognises the “ingenuity” of the women’s work displayed at the Royal Agricultural Society Show, even if it is not for her: “serrated carrots, diamonds of sliced pale beans, onions and purple cabbage all packed like jewels in gleaming jars”. These passages are the New Australian Poetry, the “poetry of pure fact”, as the American Ronald Sukenick calls it in his story, “The Birds”.
Such facts of existence are not to be demeaned. As Kate Grenville wrote in an unpublished letter: “Women are Joan’s main interest because she is one: she (and her maker) believe that women ought to be truly free (which they still aren’t) to choose any life-stories they wish for themselves. And if they choose the life-story so many women do, of domesticity, motherhood, etc., then that work should be valued and honoured, not belittled and trivialised.” I believe that Kate Grenville would sympathise with Helen Garner, who said of The Children’s Bach (1985): “I think most important things happen in societies that aren’t actually in a state of war, but even in those that are, the most important things happen in kitchens and bedrooms.”
And at the writer’s desk, surely. For we need to attend to the intimacies of Kate Grenville’s sentences in order to attune ourselves to her radical revisions. Many women believe that language itself is a masculinist construct, a tool of patriarchal oppression. Thus such clichéd locutions, used (unconsciously?) by Joan, as “birth of a nation”, “mother country”, are ideologically loaded, but not as loaded as the commonplace that explorers (male to a man) “penetrated the country”. Is Joan unconscious of her linguistic ironies? (Grenville, of course, is not.) When Joan speaks of her conception, she does so in these terms: “It was an episode appropriate to such a significant moment: . . . my father groaned and my mother wept with the storms of pleasure he gave her.” (Emphasis added.) Does Joan know that she is not merely echoing, but inverting, the opening lines of William Blake’s “Infant Sorrow”, one of his Songs Of Experience?
My mother groan’d, my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Blake’s poem was published within a decade of 1789, the momentous year of the French Revolution. Joan’s inversion of Blake is no less revolutionary an act, as she is appropriating history, and literature. Thus the washerwoman Joan, in 1851, washes the linen of the onanistic Mr Knightley, who shares his name with the hero of Jane Austen’s Emma (1814-16). But Joan’s antipodean Mr Knightley is nothing like Austen’s. It is significant that not only is the convict Joan the first European to set foot on Australian soil, but that she can boast: “mine was also the first foreign laugh to sound out, sharp and rude, across the waters of Botany Bay”. And what is more subversive than laughter, which signifies “the world turned upside down”, the antipodes, the ironies, of radical rewritings? Which is why Joan Makes History is written in the spirit of comedy.
I admire the intellectual toughness of Kate Grenville’s ironies, of her making of (fictional) history, her refusal to gloss over the facts. And the facts are that women have, in our history as in our histories, been marginalised, bit-players on the stage of men’s dramas, domestics, vapid ladies, waitresses, and mothers. Kate Grenville and her twentieth-century Joan recognise the inevitability of what Ernest Hemingway called “the biological trap”. “I was, ” Joan muses, “a prisoner of the tadpole inside me.” Yet Grenville told Candida Baker that “having a child made me feel part of history, the kind of history that is an interlocking series of births and deaths”. Unlike Hemingway, Joan and Kate Grenville do not accept that biology is a trap.
One of the challenges of Joan Makes History is that one must resist the temptation to say its various Joans do not make history, and claim rather they exemplify “biology is destiny”, and are the victims of a material determinism. Both the Joan of 1901 (the mayor’s wife) and the Joan born in 1901 (the Joan of the alternate, twentieth-century chapters) happily embrace marriage, domesticity, motherhood, and being a grandmother. But this does not contradict the novel’s title; rather, it is true to history, to many women’s history. I conjecture that Joan, born in 1901, “weary and old now, pushing a squeaking pram and considering my life . . . hav[ing] made history”, is doing so, in the novel’s final paragraphs, in January 1950. That fits the novel’s chronologies. In October 1950, Kate Grenville was born. In 1956, the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published; in 1970, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch appeared; in 1975 Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police was published. Kate Grenville, author of Joan Makes History, has lived through a revolution of consciousness unavailable to all her Joans. May I humbly suggest that the tertiary-educated, liberated, feminist Kate Grenville is the contemporary Joan, heir to all those earlier Joans, and that she, in writing this book, makes history.

Don Anderson
The University of Sydney
October 1992