Lilian’s Story


Lilian’s Story, Kate Grenville’s first published novel, is part of a loose trilogy that includes Dark Places and Joan Makes History.

Lilian Una Singer starts life at the beginning of the twentieth century as the daughter of a prosperous middle-class Australian family. She ends it as a cheerfully eccentric bag-lady living on the streets, quoting Shakespeare for a living. This book traces the progress of her life’s journey, and why she made the choices she did. 

She’s a person large in spirit as well as body, who wants to invent her own story, rather than allow it to be invented for her. Life presents her with obstacles: the fact that she’s a woman, and the sinister advances of her father – but in spite of all this she succeeds. Triumphantly she makes her life her own, savouring every moment with the reminder that “everything matters.”

In 1984 Lilian’s Story won the Vogel/Australian Prize for an unpublished manuscript.

Dark Places, a companion novel to Lilian’s Story, tells the story of Lilian’s incestuous father, from his point of view. In Joan Makes Historya third novel in this loose triology, Lilian is a friend and fellow-adventurer of the everywoman Joan as she travels through history.

Lilian’s Story is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.

A Beau up a Tree
In spite of my alphabetically arranged books and my notebook becoming dog-eared from my bag, although not filled with notes, I was still not permitted to decline those tennis parties. “You must not close off your options,” Father said, and tweaked at one of the unflattering frills on my dress. “Options should always remain wide open, Lilian.” With a tearing sound he ripped his fingernail out from where it had become caught in a frill of bodice.

On the lawns, fringed by every colour of azalea, lives were beginning to be arranged. The mothers looked away now when Ursula and Rick disappeared into the shrubbery to look for balls, and after so many years Ursula’s mother had put away her black dresses and had taken to mauve.

There were new faces on the lawns now. Duncan was someone’s cousin from the west, learning something at the university. His vagueness about his studies was pathological when the urbane young men, secure in their well-fitting striped blazers, asked him jovial questions. He was the kind of victim to whom fathers could hold forth as the ice in the whisky melted, but they did not respect him for that. “A feeble kind of a lad,” they would say impatiently later, tipping back the glass for a last drop. “Not much get up and go.”

Duncan’s smile reminded me of the country. It was probably so many freckles. Even his lips were freckled, and his mouth was a wide one. Duncan was tolerated on these lawns because of all the cows his father owned. “A big man in beef,” I had heard someone say of his father. Duncan had been to one of the right schools, although it did not show, and wore the right kind of blazer, but was as awkward and sandy as if fresh from the bush. His hair was the colour of the dust of a dry river. When Ursula asked him for a lemonade or Rick joked about tennis with him, Duncan brushed the hair back from where it hung, and exposed a forehead so pale and bare of freckles it was like something shocking and private.

I saw that he hated the lawns and lemonade as much as I did, and was no better at banter than I was, but he hated it all with the recklessness of someone who would come into beef in a big way one day. In the meantime, the girls pointed at the way his wrists showed below the cuffs of his blazer.

He was the only young man to slip and come up with a green bottom during the desultory cricket game. He did not run languidly like the others, but panted as if he really cared, and pelted up and down the pitch, losing his cap as he ran, becoming red in the face, sweating visibly under the arms.

When he spilled the pink ice over a section of Ursula’s new daffodil-yellow dress, it was easy to see he would have liked to be dead. But he had to stand and dab hopelessly with a napkin until someone stopped him. Later, Ursula could laugh it off and speak to Duncan again, but it was the first time she had worn the daffodil yellow that everyone agreed did so much for her, and she could not forgive straight away.

We were paired off together at croquet more than once, Duncan and I, but we did not take to each other any better for knowing that we were together in failing to meet standards.

On the wide sloping lawns, lace fluttered in the afternoon breezes, shoulders were very straight in stripes, and pools of light gathered around each mallet. When Duncan picked up one of those clumsy tools and took a crooked swing at a ball, he struck a hoop instead, somehow caught his thumb painfully, and stood holding his thumb and swearing. Ursula, who had smiled and approached, preparing to be gracious, changed her mind. I heard a clucking noise from someone. “Pardon the French,” Duncan said to me, as being the closest. “But it hurts like buggery.”

But Duncan was the one who spoke to me when I dropped my slice of cream pie on the flagstones. Someone’s mother tinkled the bell for someone to come and clean up the mess I had made, and everyone looked away and made a circle of silence around me and the shameful spatter at my feet in which shards of expensive plate could be seen. But Duncan stood beside me and said, “Where would you like to be, Lil?” I tried not to shout as I answered, “Up a tree,” and felt my nose beginning to run, and remembered that I had no hankie. Would I ever be invited back if I wiped my nose on the hem of the white dress that made me look like a badly wrapped parcel?

The maid cleaned cream pie off stone and put shards of plate into her dustpan as if gawky girls did this every day. She was no older than I was, but pretty, like some small night creature with tidy habits and paws. “Here you are, Miss,” she said, and handed me another slice on another plate, and in the moment that she took me by surprise and I fumbled for the plate, it was easy to imagine how tight my hostess’s mouth would become at the sight of another slice of cream pie and another plate lying on the stones.

I could not eat it now, although cream pie was one of my favourites, and stood holding the plate tightly by its edge. Duncan took it out of my hand while the mothers watched, frowning for their daughters who were unwilling to overlook enough for the sake of prosperity in beef. “Then we will do that,” he said, and ran with my hand across the lawn. His feet came down heavily on the grass, loose on their ankles, his knees seemed about to poke through his flannels. He was all awkward corners like a hard problem in geometry, but he urged me up into the silky oak.

In the tree it was possible to feel better. The mothers shaded their eyes and made gestures up at us, but we looked away at where the shrubbery was like moss from this height.

Behind bushes, invisible to everyone but us, John sat in the depths of the vegetation, picking his nose. “That is my brother,” I told Duncan, in case he did not know. “My brother John.” Duncan nodded and spurred his branch into a canter. “He is picking his nose,” he said, and the day had so far been so bad that it was no anguish to agree. “You and me, we are the ringers,” Duncan said, and up on my branch I agreed. He was not ashamed of the truth.

He had let me climb further into the silky oak than he had, to leave all those giggles behind. “Lil,” he said when we were settled on our branches, “you are a real sport.” He was flushed with this declaration, and when he handed me up one perfect leaf as a gift, I realised I had an admirer. “By jeeze, Lil, it is better up here.”

The girls in white, in pink, in daffodil yellow, and so many straw boaters, seemed miles away. There was a breeze up here, and if Duncan cared to look up my skirt to the white bloomers, I could not have minded. He did not, however, but handed me perfect leaf after perfect leaf until I could hold no more. “Stop, Duncan,” I had to laugh. “I have too many now.” Duncan laughed, too, and was a happy person there on his branch. “I wanted to give you,” he exclaimed, and I held them all tightly, not having been given too many tokens before.

His shoulders were very wide from my view above him, and the sandy hair grew up straight on the crown of his head so I could see pale scalp. His freckles, when he looked up and grinned, were the kind that are with a man for ever. “Duncan,” I said, teasing, “why are you not with one of the pretty ones, eh?” Duncan spent a long time showing me the crown of his head, while below us the pinks and the whites strolled and tittered hand in hand. “You are pretty to me,” he said at last, looking up at me.

He met my eyes fiercely, as if alarmed by my bloomers. “You are preferable.”

What Duncan Said
On the lawn below, everyone posed and sauntered. Sometimes, when there was nothing better to do, they would stand underneath our tree and try to coax us down. “Come on,” Ursula’s thin voice floated up. “Be a sport, Lil.” At this height, Rick, beside her, looked as squat as she did while he echoed her. “Yes, be a sport, Lil.” Duncan and I found that they lost interest in the end, and we would continue what we had been discussing when those below had started to shout.

“Well, Lil,” Duncan would say and flush, his neck mottling like marble. I watched the delicate skin of his ears fill with blood, like a soft wafer of something that would taste good. I waited as he thought of another word, more at home astride a branch chewing the end of a leaf than on a lawn. The blood glowed under his skin as he remembered another word.

“What is it, Duncan?” I insisted each time, and explained each time that I would not be shocked, and that I would not think worse of him for knowing such words, but better. “Come on, Duncan,” I had to wheedle, “be a sport.”

He had begun by whispering when the words had not been too much for him. Now, when only the worst of the words remained unsaid, he was unable to utter them in cold blood. “Here, Lil,” he would say, and would hand me up a leaf on which he had scratched the word with a twig. Or he would hold out his hand for mine, and write the word letter by letter in my palm. “Now, Duncan,” I would have to say, “that is too fast, and he would start again and spell the word out, letter by rude letter.

“But what is it, Duncan?” I asked. “What does it mean?” In the beginning the words had been enough, but after a while I wanted to know what they meant. “Well, Lil,” Duncan would finally say in a thin voice, trying to be matter-of-fact, “it’s when they do it in your arsehole.” I had to keep asking, “Do what, Duncan?” because Duncan could not believe I remained so ignorant at twenty. “Oh, come on, Lil!” He would shake his head like a reluctant animal. “It is just that you want me to talk dirty, eh, Lil?” His grin up at me from under his sandy eyebrows was the nearest I had ever been to intimacy.

I had words for Duncan, too, that he enjoyed, and understood as little as I understood his. “I do not know one of my sex! No woman’s face remember, save, from my glass, mine own, nor have I seen more that I may call men, than you, good friend, and my dear father.” Duncan watched my mouth carefully as I spoke and nodded and nodded, so that his branch shook under him. “That is beaut, Lil,” he would exclaim when I had finished. “Just beaut.”

When we slid down the trunk at tea-time for scones and lemonade and I prepared myself for all the comments on the rip or stain that was inevitable on my dress – “Oh, Lilian, and it was so pretty” – it was reluctantly, drawn only by those scones, those crisp Anzacs, the succulent cream pie. “Bit of a let-down, eh?” Duncan said when we stood together at the table, eating steadily. It was unusual for us to speak together, though, unless we were in the tree.

Sometimes I met Duncan under the arches of the quadrangle at the university, but so much stone and so much tweed, all those purposeful scholars striding along the paths, made us uneasy. “They make me feel dense, most of them,” Duncan confessed, “with their long words and Latin.” His smile stunned the too-green grass when he spread a large hand over his heart and exclaimed, “I am just a simple bush bloke, you know, Lil,” and that smile stayed with me through a long afternoon.

The Person with the Pup
The person with the pup at university was called Joan and we had somehow become friends. Up close her hair was no longer a kind of green but more a kind of purple shot with light, and the roots were brown. It was cropped short at the back like a man’s so that her neck shone with the clipped hairs and the strong pale tendon was exposed.

Her bobbed hair was miraculous for me and her trousers a scandal. Joan was not like anyone I had ever known. Joan did not ask me what school I had been to, or show interest in Father’s profession or Mother’s family. She did not copy her lecture notes neatly into a bound black book, did not admire anyone’s dress or exclaim how well blue suited them. It was not possible to imagine Joan knitting baby clothes for anyone’s sister.

In the mornings, when Joan and I sometimes caught the same train, we walked together through the slums to the university. Grey-faced children wiped the snot off their upper lips and stared, or shouted at us in hoarse voices. I had been shouted at before, but it was different in company, and Joan made the quite street ring when she shouted back, and exchanged banter with men who came to doorways to stare. “Smile and wave, Lil,” she said, and nudged me, and smiled and waved when women looked over the shoulders of the men, frowning. “Come on, Lil, smile and wave, like royalty.”

Joan’s smile showed no dimples, but short pointed teeth. She showed me her teeth as we crossed the quadrangle. “I have vampire teeth,” she said. “My grandmother is from Transylvania, do you believe me?” I would have believed anything of Joan, and admired the long sharp canines she was baring at me. “I had an ancestor who was burned as a witch,” I told her, but did not add, “Do you believe me?” in case she said, “No,” in her blunt way. But it did not seem to matter to Joan whether it was true or not.

“Lil, there are women of destiny,” she cried, “and we are two of them!” She shouted at a man in tweed who had stared, “We are women of a different ilk!” The carillon tried to silence her, snarling out from the bell tower, but she did not wait for the din to stop before she shouted, “And fuck the lady with the lamp!” There had been no one like Joan before.

“Kate Grenville has transformed an Australian myth into a dazzling fiction of universal appeal. It is a pleasure to be able to praise a true novelist.” (Patrick White)

“Here is someone who can really write.” (Peter Carey)

“The heroine of this very good Australian first novel . . . is bright, loud and fat. What makes this book special is the wild, bleak poetry of Lilian’s inner life.” (The Times, UK)

Lilian’s Story is spellbinding.” (She Magazine, UK)

“Grenville’s descriptions are eccentric but concise, and make vivid the conflict between Lilian’s useful desires and the restraints of genteel family life.” (The Times Literary Supplement, UK)

“We are plotting the course of a woman destined to become a mad old lady, a sour theme, but entirely lightened by the intensity of Kate Grenville’s imagination. In its candour, lack of conventional judgement, acceptance of the peculiar nature of things and general jettisoning of the corsets of the social novel, Lilian’s Story . . . takes you into another world, which is rare. (The Guardian, UK)

“This novel from Australia is a work of considerable beauty and power. Written in the first person in a sumptuous style, it . . . has an uncompromising vision behind it, and is told with honesty and virtuosity.” (The New York Times Book Review, US)

“With this strikingly original first novel, Grenville joins the ranks of Australian women writers of remarkable strength and assurance.” (Ms Magazine, US)

“This is a mesmerising tale of persecution, suffering perseverance, and strength of character. Lil is stupendous and unforgettable.” (Booklist, US)

Lilian’s Story is a work of pure dramatic imagination.” (The Washington Post, US)

“Lil Singer is an original, with her courage, spirit, and humour, and so is Grenville, who writes with an elegant intensity that pulls the reader in from first to last.” (Kirkus Review, US)

“Grenville’s prose is breathtaking and her novel is a miracle of characterisation . . . This is a rare and beautiful book.” (The Boston Globe, US)

Lilian’s Story arrests, entertains, instructs and illuminates, reaffirming life and art at the same time. (Kansas City Star, US)

“A remarkable achievement.” (Publisher’s Weekly, US)

“Nothing in fiction is more beguiling than those characters who burst forth with an originality all their own . . . Lilian Singer is such a character. This fine novel is full of crackling wit and fanciful insights.” (Boston Herald, US)

“Among the Australian novels of the last twenty years, Lilian’s Story must have as high claims as any to be considered a classic . . . one of the grander pieces of Australian writing since the heyday of White and Stead. (Australian Book Review, Aust)

“Grenville’s prose is breathtaking and her novel is a miracle of characterisation. A rare and beautiful book.” (The Australian)

” Kate Grenville has brought Lilian to brilliant life, in a vigorous galloping lifting vivid prose that shouts out the power of the imagination.” (Canberra Times, Aust)

“A stylistically adroit writer with a considerable talent for luminous prose . . . the book is consistently and sometimes extremely funny.” (Age Monthly Review, Age)

“Lilian tells us her story in taut and witty prose. Grenville’s wit and cleverness are of that kind which can remain affectionate to the foolish.” (The Bulletin, Aust)

” It is admirable, both for the boldness of its imaginative aims and the assuredness of its achievement.” (National Times, Aust)

“A novel of memorable images, witty lines and fine phrases. And it reads as though it were a delight to write.” (The Weekend Australian)

“A beautifully told story.” (The Age, Aust)

“The surprises and flourishes are in the evocative and poetic writing . . . the characters leap from the essence of their own words in this very moving and sometimes funny novel.” ( Sydney Morning Herald, Aust)

“The exuberant story of a woman who is larger than life, both literally and in the spirit with which she strides through it.” (Cleo, Aust)

“A stunning first novel. Intensely imagined and original.” (Observer, UK)

Lilian’s Story tells the story of a woman born at the turn of the twentieth century who begins her life in a respectable middle-class family, and ends it as a famous eccentric on the streets of Sydney.

Where the idea came from:
Lilian’s Story
 is very loosely based on a famous Sydney eccentric, Bea Miles. She was an old woman when I was a university student and from the safe distance of a bus I often saw her sprawled massively on the church steps at Railway Square in army greatcoat, tennis visor, and split sandshoes.

Like everyone else who grew up in Sydney at that time, I know a few things about her: that she was from a respectable middle-class family and had gone to one of Sydney’s top schools; that she had briefly gone to university and dropped out under mysterious circumstances; that she had been institutionalised as insane; and that on her release from the asylum had made money by offering recitations from Shakespeare ( sixpence for a sonnet, a shilling for a scene from a play).

There were enough contradictions in these stories about her to be intriguing. A nicely-brought-up university student with a love of Sakespeare had somehow turned into a huge, loud, uninhibited eccentric bag-lady, with no fear of what people thought, and no sense of what she “should” be. What story could make sense of that shift?

I wasn’t terribly interested in the real person of Bea Miles, but the few things I knew about her seemed to provide a framework through which I could explore other issues, such as:

What was it like to be a clever woman born at a time when women were not even supposed to go to high school, much less university? What effect would that limitation have on you?

What does it mean to refuse the life-story that has been prepared for you, and choose another of your own making? Bea Miles should have grown up to be a conventional wife and mother but had forcefully re-written the script for her life.

Once you step outside society’s norms and aims, what alternative structure can give your life a sense of purpose? What might you put in place of motherhood, comfort, the trappings of a pleasant middle-class life?

I didn’t do any research about Bea Miles before I wrote the book because I felt I didn’t want to know too much about her – I was only using her story as a catalyst. I was afraid that if I knew too much about the real person, I wouldn’t be free to explore the issues I wanted to, and to invent whatever I needed for that exploration.

The book took about two years to write, part-time, around a part-time job. During that time my first book, a collection of stories called Bearded Ladies was published.  Lilian’s Story wasn’t quite finished when I submitted it to the Australia/Vogel prize, but the prize has an age limit which I was just about to exceed, so while the judges were deliberating I finished it.

When I won, I could hardly believe it. I’d written several other unpublished novels and published the book of short stories, but this book was different.  Rather than planning it in detail beforehand, I just plunged in to a subject that had captured my imagination, and let the subject lead the way.  It was an immensely enjoyable book to write – it was the first time I’d written a book “just for me” – without any thought of doing it according to the how-to-write books, or pleasing a readership.

Paradoxically, a book I thought i was writing just for myself has found a wide readership.  It’s taught in schools and universities as far away as Italy, from where I often receive student letters about it. When the film of the novel was made it had a good run, partly because of its three great stars – Toni Collette, Ruth Cracknell and Barry Otto.

The writing process
With earlier books I’d made a plan in advance, but I’d found that although a plan is reassuring it can also stifle your imagination. With this book I decided to write in a much more unstructured way and see what happened. I used the few facts I knew about Bea Miles like navigation points – peaks of known events – and I’d invent a scenario that would make the journey between them convincing.

I didn’t start at the beginning. Each day I’d write another “fragment” based on whatever trigger I had found that day – a photo of Sydney at her time, my personal memories of the places she’d frequented, stories people told me about her. I also found I could use some details from my own life and give them to her – for example her schoolyard has a lot in common with the playground of my own primary school. I discovered the great freedom of writing about things I knew about, without having to write about myself.

Taking a real person and the events of her life as a starting-point proved to be a tremendously energising way to work.  It freed me from the question “What happened?” and let me explore the more interesting one of “Why did it happen?” As I wrote, I had to imagine answers to that question that would be plausible, and would at the same time suggest the larger issues I was interested in: ideas about women and their power – or lack of it  – in the world. 

The answer I arrived at ( and I was now completely in the realm of invention) surprised and rather shocked me.  Looking back at the book over twenty years later, I can see that it explores issues that recur in all my other books: ideas about power – who has it, how might you get it, and what price you might have to pay for it.

It’s also about the way each of us constructs a narrative, a picture of ourselves. When I’d finished Lilian’s Story, I realised I’d only told one side of the narrative, only one part of a bigger picture. 

With something of a sinking heart, I realised I was about to embark on the other side of the story.  Lilian’s life is shaped by an act of sexual abuse perpetrated on her by her father.  The real mystery, I began to see, was not those who survive incest, as Lilian does, but those who commit it. What narrative are they telling themselves, by which they justify what they do?   Exploring that most difficult and confronting world would be the task of my next novel, Dark Places. 

Lilian’s Story was an intensely enjoyable book to write.  Although Lilian is bent by what is done to her, she is never broken.  She re-creates herself, not in the image her culture expects of women, but in the image she chooses for herself.  She seizes  with both hands every joy and adventure offered to her, and in the end she, not her father, is the powerful one.  At the end of her life, after experiencing love as well as hate, delight as well as despair, she can say “I am ready for whatever comes next”.