Sarah Thornhill


When The Secret River – a novel about frontier violence in early Australia – appeared in 2005, it became an immediate best-seller. It also caused controversy for its unflinching depiction of Australia’s past. In the follow-up novel, Sarah Thonhill extends the story into the next generation.  This is the story of the youngest child of the family at the heart of The Secret River. 
Although this is a sequel to the earlier book, you don’t need to have read The Secret River to enjoy Sarah Thornhill – this is a stand-alone novel.
Sarah is born in 1816, her father an ex-convict who’s made good in the new colony of Australia. William Thornhill is a man who’s re-invented hiimself. As he tells his daughter, he never looks back. Sarah grows up learning not to ask about the past.
But there’s a secret in the Thornhill family, and when it comes out, as secrets will, it draws everything into its tangles and casts a long chill shadow over life in the Hawkesbury valley.
It’s a chill that can still be felt there today. This is a book about the dark legacies hidden in the past, and how the inheritors of that past might begin to come to terms with it. 

The Many Tentacles of Family History

Like The Secret River, Sarah Thornhill had its beginnings in family stories that my mother told me – stories handed down for five generations, from mother to daughter.
The earliest stories were about our convict forebear, Solomon Wiseman. He was a boatman on the Thames until he was caught stealing timber and, in 1806, arrived in Australia “for the term of his natural life”.  He soon obtained his freedom and, as the family story put it, “took up land” on the Hawkesbury River just outside of Sydney.
To his eyes that land was free to be “taken up”, but the Dharug people had lived on it for millennia. There’s no record of what happened when Wiseman claimed that land, but in other places, with other people, what resulted was conflict.
To illustrate what a tough – even brutal – man Wiseman was, Mum told us that “one of his daughters got pregnant to the riding master and was thrown out of the house. Both she and the baby died.”
This was a poignant story, but when I investigated in the archive I found it wasn’t true. Wiseman had two daughters, but they both married well, had big families, and died at grand old ages.
But as a result of The Secret River being published in the UK, a distant relative from London got in touch with me. One of the family anecdotes she had about Wiseman was that “his daughter fell pregnant to the gardener and died.”
This felt like a nudge in the ribs from the cosmos, so I went back to the archives.
I discovered that Solomon Wiseman’s oldest son, William, was a sealer in New Zealand and, like many sealers, he had a Maori wife, referred to in the records as “Rugig”. In 1828 both William and Rugig were drowned. They left behind two little girls, and Solomon Wiseman sent for them to come and live with him in Australia.  Soon after their arrival they were baptised and christened Sophia and Maryanne.
A few years later Sophia’s death was recorded in the Sydney Gazette of 1840: “Died, at Mr Mitchell’s, Darlinghurst. Sophia Wiseman, aged 13.” Research about “Mr Mitchell’s” suggested that it might have been some kind of maternity hospital (it was on Major Mitchell’s Darlinghurst estate, not the famous Dr Mitchell’s clinic in The Rocks).
It seemed that the family story had only got it wrong by one word: not Wiseman’s daughter, but his grand-daughter.
It was all too easy to imagine it: a little girl of five or six taken away from her Maori community and sent to live among strangers, speaking a language she hardly understood. Finding comfort with someone in the stables or the garden (perhaps Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal), getting pregnant, being turned out by an angry grandfather, and sent away to whatever lay in store for her at Mr Mitchell’s.
My great-great-grandmother, Sarah Wiseman, would have been about fourteen when her half-Maori niece arrived from New Zealand. She’d have watched the whole thing.
(The second little girl from New Zealand, Maryanne, seemed to have disappeared without trace until another distant relative contacted me and we were able to piece together her story. Maryanne’s grandfather Solomon Wiseman died in 1838, her sister Sophia died in 1840, and in 1842 she was taken to London by her step-grandmother, Solomon’s second wife. She married a man 40 years older than she was, had a child, and was dead at 28.)
The story of Sophia Wiseman, “thrown out of the house to die” was a little morsel of the past that raised more questions than it answered. For me, questions are always a more fruitful starting-point for a novel than answers, and I decided to try to imagine my way into the world of Sarah and Sophia Wiseman.
Making the Leap: Family History to Fiction
In the harbour at Auckland there’s an island that’s a freshly-sprouted volcano. I was there for a writers’ festival, and like many other tourists, I decided to visit the volcano. It’s an eerie place – all jumbled black rocks like burned toffee. As I walked up to the top, something about that strange landscape seemed to release a story. All the way up I had to keep sitting on those razor-sharp rocks and jotting down another idea on the only paper I had with me, the brown-paper bag my lunch had come in.
That story-outline, given to me as if by dictation, was about Sarah Thornhill, the daughter of William Thornhill of The Secret River. Like my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Thornhill was born in 1816 (she’s the baby at the end of the earlier novel). When she’s about fourteen, her half-Maori niece comes to live on the Hawkesbury, and Sarah watches the whole sad story unfold.
Several years and twenty-three drafts later, the novel Sarah Thornhill still follows the basic shape of the story on the brown paper bag. Other secrets, other buried stories, and many more characters gradually knitted themselves into what turned out to be a densely-plotted book about knowing and not-knowing and what happens when secrets are uncovered.
Some of what’s in the book is based on events and characters in the historical record. Jack Langland, for example, Sarah’s  sweetheart, is a character inspired by Thomas Chaseland, a New Zealand sealer who was born on the Hawkesbury River, his father an ex-convict and his mother an Aboriginal woman. He sailed with William Wiseman, and was on the ship that went down taking William and Rugig with it. Soon after the shipwreck he made a permanent home in New Zealand as part of the Maori community there.
Thomas Chaseland almost certainly knew Sarah Wiseman, but whether the relationship between them is anything like that between Jack Langland and Sarah Thornhill is something we’ll never know.
The secret at the heart of this book – the evil act committed by Sarah’s father before she’s born – is fiction, although there are many similar events to be found in the historical record.  Like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, this novel takes the recorded past as its starting-point, but it isn’t history. My interest isn’t in reconstructing the past, but to tell a story set in the past that helps us understand the present.
Doing the Research
I’d already done a great deal of research for The Secret River which gave me background information about life in New South Wales in the early nineteenth century. Much of that was relevant for this book.
There were two big new challenges for research for this book: one was information about the lives of women, rather than men – specifically, women who were illiterate (as my great-great-grandmother was, and as Sarah Thornhill is); and women who were not immigrants, but “currency” – born in the colony.
I’m a very amateur researcher, and I may have missed the goldmines that are out there. But by definition such women are going to be hard to find in the written record, not having left any writings themselves.
Historians have combed the archives for whatever can be found about those women, and about other aspects of the past. Their work was insightful and contexualising and this book would not be possible without their expert work. (For a list of the work of some of these scholars, see “Books Consulted” at the end of this section.)
 Guided by the work they’d done, I read a great deal of writing by women of the gentry class, nearly all immigrants or visitors. They left letters, journals and published writings, but on the face of it those writings weren’t all that useful to me. The backgrounds of those women, their attitudes, and their way of life ( even when they were roughing it) and above all their use of language were poles apart from the woman I was trying to imagine. As the daughter of an illiterate ex-convict who’d made good, Sarah Thornhill wasn’t poor, but was very far from being gentry.
But women from lower social classes could occasionally be glimpsed through the writings of these educated women – for example one describes “those dirty women sitting on their doorsteps with their pipes in their mouths”. The writer meant to mock, but for me it was a rare vivid glimpse of another kind of woman. Some of the improvisations of bush life that the educated immigrants described were useful in filling in some of the blanks in the picture of life for country women in the 1840’s.
Occasionally, men and women of a lower social level left something in the written record, and I scoured these for any detail or turns of phrase I could use from the few letters or reminiscences they left behind.
I combed local history museums in the country and walked past case after case full of fancy christening-robes and fine china. It’s everyone’s best that survives, not the ordinary things they used every day. Out the back, among the farm machinery, there’d occasionally be a milking-stool made of a log with three sticks for legs, or an ancient wash-board, giving a hint of the lives of working women.   In Tamworth I spent a long time looking at the details of a slab hut they’ve reconstructed as an early nineteenth-century dwelling, complete with sapling bed and leather-hinged door.
I consulted collections of oral history in libraries, but found the interviewees often inhibited by the formal interviewing process. I did some interviews myself in nursing homes, talking with elderly men and women who’d had country childhoods, and was struck by how many wonderful details of language and life are disappearing, day by day, without being recorded.
The best part of research for me is to walk on the places where the story happened, so I went (again) to the Hawkesbury river. I retraced the road my great-great-grandmother would have taken with her new husband, north to the Hunter Valley. As near as I could, I found where they’d lived – nothing remains of it but a graveyard called “Glenmire”.
The other big new challenge was to learn something about early New Zealand history, and in particular the sealers who worked in Southland and Rakiura (Stewart Island), and who,  in many cases, established families within the Maori communities.
The Maori novelist Patricia Grace, met by chance, told me that the Maori community from which Wiseman’s grand-daughter had been taken might still have oral histories about that event. Through kindly and helpful contacts I was put in touch with some of the community in that area. Unfortunately their searches turned up no information about “Rugig” or her daughters. They did, though, tell me what I’d guessed, that “Rugig” is an Anglicised approximation of her real name, which makes finding information about her even more difficult than it might otherwise be.
Historians and archaeologists in New Zealand are doing painstaking, exact work on the sealing communities of the early nineteenth century, and Australian historians are working on the Bass Strait part of the same trade. I’m grateful without measure for their work.
It was through one of the archaeologists, Nigel Prickett, that I first came across Thomas Chaseland, the character I’ve fictionalised as “Jack Langland”. Nigel seemed to know before I did how important that character would be to the book and how much he’d provide the emotional centre of the story.    Nigel’s work, and the work of Australian scholar Lynette Russell,  gave me new perspectives on those times and people, and showed me the larger significance of stories of men like Chaseland, with one foot in the white world and one in the black.
In Southland and Rakiura I visited as many as I could of the places Chaseland had been. I was especially interested in seeing the place on Rakiura called “The Neck”, now abandoned, but in the nineteenth century a mixed community of Maori/pakeha where Chaseland spent his last days with his Maori family.   This was the place where, in my imagination, Sarah Thornhill came to acknowledge the wrong her family had done.
“The Neck” is Maori land, accessible only by boat, and a permit was needed to land there. I am indebted to the people at Te Manu Adventures who were able to give me permission to go there and let me go with them when they visited. “The Neck” is one of the world’s magically beautiful places. I’ll never forget the serenity of the few hours I was there, and certainly I couldn’t have written the last scenes in the book unless I’d stood on that spot and listened to the sea and the gulls.
Challenges in the writing:
Every book is hard to write, and every book is hard to write in its own way. There were two particular difficulties with this book: voice and plot.   (Nothing big, you understand.)
The voice was difficult because the voice of an illiterate woman of the mid-nineteenth century has mostly vanished from the record. Court transcripts are useful, but have often been cleaned up by the court recorder. Letters and other documents by people only-just-literate point in the right direction.   The voices of still-living people can give a clue. I remembered turns of phrase that my grandfather (a poorly-educated shearer born in 1870) had used, and my mother, the first of her family to get a proper education, had often used colourful terms from her country childhood. Some of those elderly people I interviewed, and occasionally a phrase overheard on a bus or even at the gym, gave me a basis to build on.
Once I could hear the voice, the next problem was how to transcribe it. I didn’t want the book to be a sort of ventriloquism (as Peter Carey had done in The True History of the Kelly Gang) – I didn’t think I could pull that off. So I didn’t want a literal transcription of every bit of faulty grammar and every quirk of an illiterate voice. But the book was always going to be written in the first-person, by Sarah Thornhill, so it couldn’t sound like Jane Austen.
My compromise was to give what I hoped would be a flavour of illiterate speech – for example the use of “of” where “have” would be correct (“I would of liked to of told him”), and some ungrammatical constructions.
The other difficulty with using this voice was that my own vocabulary and stylistic technique as a writer had to be radically reduced.   No more lyrical descriptions ( which I love to do!) of water and bush. No more long complicated sentences with multiple clauses. No elaborate vocabulary. Just plain simple words in plain simple sentences. Within those limitations, making sure the voice stayed strong and interesting was a challenge.
Plot was the other challenge for me. The plot of this novel, as it evolved from the sketch on the brown paper bag, was positively operatic, containing as it did secrets that had to come to light, people getting the wrong end of the stick about various important things, and many interlocking but separate stories. What did x know, and when did he or she know it? If she or he didn’t know it, why not? These were the kinds of questions I wrestled with over twenty-three drafts.
The Trilogy:
The work of historian Henry Reynolds had been a revelation in doing the research for The Secret River. Through his work I began to see some of the complexities of the first fifty years of white settlement in Australia, especially in relation to the ways white and black dealt with each other.
I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but Australia’s early history had a bigger scope than any one story could convey. It’s like the shape of a mountain, that appears to change as you travel towards it. The mountain doesn’t change, only the stories told about it.  Each story – whether from history, archaeology, family stories or oral reminiscences – has something to offer, and each one adds a new perspective.
These three books are a journey around the mountain of our past, from three different perspectives.
White settlement in Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. For the first roughly twenty years the colony was primarily a penal settlement run by the military, and the story of one of those soldiers is the subject of The Lieutenant.
During those earliest years, white settlement was limited in scope: the newcomers took land around Sydney Cove, but not far beyond. They displaced Aboriginal people by doing so, but only those groups around the harbour. Those earliest settlers didn’t think of New South Wales as their new home, but rather as a place they’d soon be leaving.  For that reason, and because there was only limited competition for land and resources between black and white, relations were relatively good. There was violence on both sides, but there were also several recorded instances of mutual friendship and respect between black and white. The Lieutenant is the story of one such friendship, between a soldier and a young Aboriginal girl.
Thirty years later, when the The Secret River opens, things were very different.   New South Wales was still a penal colony, but there was a growing population of free settlers – either people who’d arrived free, or ex-convicts who’d served their time. All these people wanted land, and pushed out from the original settlements, with or without permission. Everywhere they went, they displaced Aboriginal people. Violence between black and white on the ever-shifting frontier was frequent – although seldom recorded in documents.
The Secret River is a fiction about what took place when a man called William Thornhill, an ex-convict from London, “took up” land on the Hawkesbury River in 1815. The events in the novel show a microcosm of every colonial experience: conflict between people defending their home and other people looking for a new one.
Sarah Thornhill is about William Thornhill’s youngest child – the next generation. Sarah grows up knowing nothing of what her father did, and nothing of the history of black and white on the land she calls home. Only when she’s an adult does she discover the dark legacy that her father’s generation has given her, and has to try to work out what she might do about it.
 The writing of these books has been a sometimes confronting, but   deeply satisfying journey over the last ten years. I’m blessed to have had the chance to tell these stories.  I hope you enjoy reading them.
Books & Documents Consulted
For readers interested in the history that lies behind this novel, here’s a list of some of the books I consulted during the research. My debt to the historians, archaeologists, diarists, poets and memoirists who wrote these texts, and to the archivists and librarians who make their work accessible, is profound.
Race Against Time: the Early Maori/Pakeha families: Atholl Anderson
The Welcome of Strangers: Atholl Anderson
Yellow Billy, the Millfield Terror: Brian Andrews
Frontier Conflict: Bain Attwood and S.G. Foster
Mau Moko: the World of Maori Tattoo: Ngahuia Te Awakotuku and others
Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang: Sidney J.Baker
Port Preservation: A.Charles Begg
World of John Boultbee: A.Charles Begg
Making Peoples: J.Belich
Pakeha Maori: Europeans who lived as Maori in early NZ: Trevor Bentley
Lure of the Land: Historic Merriwa: Helen Bettington
Mary Anne Bugg: Kali Bieren (MA thesis)
People and the land, an illustrated history of NZ: Judith Binney
Legacy of Guilt: a life of Thomas Kendall: Judith Binney
Orehu, the survivors: Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin
Kerikeri 1770-1850, the Meeting Pool: ed. Judith Binney
Untold Lives: When the Elders tell their Stories: Judith Binney
Baal Belbora: the End of the Dancing: Geoffrey Blomfield
Wannin Thanbarran: Aboriginal and European contact in Muswellbrook: Greg Blyton
In Those Days: Talking about the past around Murray’s Run: Bill Bottomley
Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne and Ross: H. Brady and W. Maziere
Aborigines of the Hunter Valley: a study of colonial records: Helen Brayshaw
Excursions in NSW: W.H. Breton
Biographical dictionary of Cork: T.Cadogan & J. Falvey
Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880: Judy Campbell
Notes on Early Life in NZ: George Clark
Chaseling Family Papers
Working Dress in Colonial and Revolutionary America: Peter Copeland
County and City of Cork Post Office General Directory, 1842
Cork Street Map, Ordnance Survey, Ireland
Wit and wine: Literary and Artistic Cork in the 19th century: Davis and Mary Coakle
My Reminiscences of the early days: Mrs J.F.Conigrave
Crossing Dry Creeks: 1879 to 1919, Rose Scott Cowan
Young & free: letters of Robert & Thomas Crawford, 1821-1830: ed. Richard Crawford
Story of Wallabadah: Ronal Croker
Two years in NSW: Peter Cunningham
 Protestant Society and Politics in Cork, 1812-1844: I. d’Alton
Women in Australia: an Annotated Guide to Australian records: Kay Daniels
Uphill All the Way: Kay Daniels
Australia’s Women, a Documentary History: Kay Daniels
One for the Road, a history of Tamworth’s Hotels: Annette Davidson and Warren Newman
In the Eye of the Beholder”: Representations of Australian Aborigines in the Published Works of Colonial Woman Writers”: PhD thesis by Barbara Dawson
Two Early Colonials: Margaret de Salis
Mary Thomas: founding mother: Beth Duncan
Aboriginal Mother and other poems: Eliza Dunlop
A Woman on the Goldfields: Edward Duyker
In True Colonial Fashion: What New Zealanders wore: Eve Ebbett
Wollombi, a History: A.P.Elkin
Explorers, whalers and Tattooed sailors: Gordon & Sarah Ell
Merriwa Region Archaeological Survey: Anthony English
Otago Peninsula: Peter Entwisle
Ngai Tahu Deeds: a window on NZ history: Harry Evison
Old Bush Songs: W.Fahey and G.Seal
Squatter’s Castle: G.Farwell
The Fauchery-Daintree collection of photographs, 1858
Oceans of Consolation: David Fitzpatrick
Costume in Australia, 1788-1901, Marion Fletcher
Inns and Hotels 1825-1900: Catherine Foggo
Fatal Collisions: Foster, Hosking & Nettlebeck
The Aborigines of Australia, stories about the Kamilaroi: John Fraser
Push from the Bush, L. Friedman
No Place for a Nervous Lady: Lucy Frost
Old Days, Old Ways: Mary Gilmore
Certain observations of Aboriginal rock-carvings in the Wollombi District: R.H.Goddard
Thomas Chaseland and the next generation: Pamela Goesch
Invasion to Embassy: Heather Goodall
Goonoo Goonoo, Renowned Pastoral Property
Sealers and Whalers in NZ Waters: Don Grady
Economic history of the Wollombi to 1857: J. Grady
Thomas Cook of Turanville: Nancy Gray
Wilfred Green of Gundy: Nancy Gray
Promised Land: Early Settlement in the Shire of Scone: Nancy Gray
Tours of Scone District: Nancy Gray
Creating a Nation: Patricia Grimshaw
The Sydney Traders: D.R.Hainsworth
Book of British Ballads: S.C.Hall
Invercargill Pioneers: F.G. Hall-Jones
Recollections of Sixteen Years’ Labour in the Australian Backwoods: Alexander Harris
Old Stations on the Gwydir: Anne Harris
Wendy Harris, A Coober Pedy Pioneer: Wendy Harris-Yankunytjatjara
Dear Fanny: Helen Heney
Rakiura: a History of Stewart Island: Basil Howard
Journal of John Hunter: John Howe
Memories of Satur Hill: Anne Ibbertson
Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback: Jennifer Isaacs
Jorgen Jorgenson’s observations on Pacific Trade and Sealing and Whaling: Jorgenson, Jorgen
The Colony: Grace Karskens
Kemmis letters, 1827-44
Life in the Bush: Katharine Kirkland
Drawing the Global Colour Line: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
County Cork records for Researching Irish ancestors: David Larkin
The Three Happiest Years of My Life: John Mackie
Old NZ: a Tale of Good Times by a Pakeha Maori: Maning, Frederick
The Oral Traditions of Ngai Tahu: Tau, te Maire
Sex and Suffering: Janet McCalman
Lone Graves, Precious Memories: Tom McClelland
Memories of Days Long Gone by: Mary McConnel
The Old Whaling Days, Robert McNab
Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand: Robert McNab
Notes and Sketches of NSW: Louisa Ann Meredith
Te Puna – a NZ mission station: Angela Middleton
Tamworth: City on the Peel: Roger Milliss
Waterloo Creek: Roger Milliss
Three Expeditions in the interior of Eastern Australia: Thomas Mitchell
The Native-Born: John Molony
Austral English: Edward Morris
Stories about the Kamilaroi: C.Naseby
Clarke of the Kindur: C.Naseby
Study of the Aboriginal sites in the Cessnock-Wollombi region of the Hunter Valley, NSW: Needham, W.J.
NZ Journal of History
Shipping Arrivals and Departures, 1826-1840:Ian Hawkins Nicholson
The Irish in Australia: Patrick O’Farrell
Raw Possum and Salted Pork, Major Mitchell and the Kamilaroi: M.J.O’Rourke
Village on the Wollombi, Millfield: W.S Parkes
Colonial Women: Their Stories, Costumes, Artefacts and Weapons: Edgar Penzig
My Australian Girlhood: Mrs Campbell Praed
Trans-Tasman Stories: Australian Aborigines in NZ sealing and shore Whaling: Nigel Prickett
Maoris of the South Island: T.A.Pybus
The Other Side of the Frontier: Henry Reynolds
Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land: Henry Reynolds
Murihiku Re-viewed: Rhys Richards
Whaling and Sealing at the Chatham Islands: Rhys Richards
The Squatting Age in Australia: Roberts, S.H.
 A Million Wild Acres: Eric Rolls
An Organised Banditti: Colin Roope
Dingo Makes us Human: Deborah Bird Rose
William Stewart, Sealing Captain: John Ross
Royal Australian Historical Society Journal
The Genesis of Queensland: H.S.Russell
“A New Holland Half-Caste”: Tommy Chaseland, Diaspora, Autonomy and Hybridity: Lynette Russell
Little Bird Told Me: Family Secrets, Necessary Lies: Lynette Russell
Two Worlds: Anne Salmond
John Savage, An Account of NZ in 1805, ed, A.D.Mackinlay
Women and the Bush: Kay Shaffer
Making Colonial Costumes: Kerry Schaper
The Southern Districts of NZ: E.Shortland
NZ Sealing Industry: Ian W.G. Smith
John Grono, Our Old Colonial Neptune: Robert Taylor
The Wallabadah Manuscript, William Telfer, ed. Roger Milliss
The Story of NZ, 1859: Arthur S.Thomson
For Friends at Home: a Scottish Emigrant’s Letters: Thomson, James
Bring Plenty of Pickles: comp. Gerry Tomlinson
Visit to Wollombi and Cumnaroy performed in August 1827: facsimile edition
Australian Autobiographical Narratives: Kay Walsh and Joy Hooton
In/visible Sight: the Mixed-descent Families of Southern NZ: Angela Wanhalla
Carrabobbila: Sid J. Ware
Caledonia Australia: Scottish Highlanders on the Frontier of Australia: Don Watson
Titi Heritage: Eva Wilson
Down in the Valley: Settlement in the Hunter River Valley to 1833: W.A.Wood
Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms: G.A.Wilkes
George Rhodes of the Levels, Early Settlers of NZ:
Reminiscences of Bundarra: S.B. Young
“The Hawkesbury was a lovely river, wide and calm, the water dimply green, the cliffs golden in the sun, and white birds roosting in the trees like so much washing. It was a sweet thing of a still morning, the river-oaks whispering and the land standing upside down in the water.
            They called us the Colony of new South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.
            The Hawkesbury was where the ones come that was sent out. Soon’s they got they freedom, this was where they headed. Fifty miles out of Sydney and not a magistrate or a police to be seen. A man could pick out a bit of ground, get a hut up, never look back.
            You heard that a lot. Never looked back.
Pa started a boatman on the Thames. Then he was sent out, what for I never knew. Eighteen-oh-six, Alexander transport. I was a pestering sort of child but that was all he’d ever say, sitting in the armchair smiling away at nothing and smoothing the nap of the velvet.
            When you done as well as Pa had, no one said sent out or worn the broad arrow. Now he was what they called an old colonist. Still plenty of folk who wouldn’t put their feet under the same table as an emancipist or invite him into their house. As far as some people went, sent out meant tainted for all time. You and your children and your children’s children. But for other folk, money had a way of blunting the hard shapes of the past. Dressing it up in different words.
            Pa was Mr Thornhill of Thornhill’s Point now, but he had some habits that were from that past he never spoke about. Of an afternoon he’d get a bit of bread and go out on the verandah. Sit on a hard bench beside the window with the telescope up to his eye. He’d look across the river up at the line of bush along the top of the cliffs. Nothing up there, only rocks and trees and sky, but he’d sit by the house watching and watching, I never knew what for, the leather worn through the brass where his hand clamped round it so hard.
            Will and Jack sailed together on the sealing boats over to New Zealand.  The two of them like brothers, everything about them on a grand scale, both of them deep in the chest and wide across the shoulder.
      Those years split up into the times Will and Jack was away, and the times they was back.  Another kind of day and night, only months long. With them gone it was a dull old time.  I’d wake up early but wished I hadn’t, the day stretching out too long.  So many people in the house, but empty somehow.
       I turned thirteen and started to get a womanly shape.  My body was becoming someone else’s, and my self too, but body and self neither settled yet into their shapes.  I was out of sorts, waiting to catch up with myself.
       Have you got worms, Ma said.  You’re restless as a cat.
       Came at me with the oopening medicine, so I made myself sit still after that.
       I was sitting on the front steps one afternoon, Pa behind me on the bench.  I was staring out at nothing, wishing but not knowing what I was wishing, when I heard the bench fall over, Pa jumping up so quick.
       Will! Will’s home! he shouted.
       When we got down to the jetty we could see the boat, still way off down the end of the reach.  The sail hanging slack from the yard, the people on board no bigger than ants.  One of them must be Will.  And one of the others would be Jack.
       That thought – Jack! – brought something into my throat, as if I’d run too hard.  I knew then what I hadn’t known all those months of mooning about.  It was Jack I was waiting for.
       Give us the telescope, Pa, I said.  So’s I can see.
       I slanted down too fast, missed the boat,  tracked along the blue ripples and there was the old grey wood of Emily, and up on the bow, leaning forward as if to get to us quicker, there he was.  Jack.  Black hair glistening in the sun, beard so thick it hid most of his face.  Looking staright at me.  I waved and he waved back, even though I must of been nothing more than a shape with an arm coming out of it.
       When the boat got up to us at last, Jack jumped across the last yard of water, didn’t wait for them to tie the boat up.  So light on his feet for such a big man.  Landed next to me neat as a cat.
       Well, he said.  It’s Sarah Thornhill, I do believe.
       The same as I remembered, his eyes crinkled up with smiling.
       Still want to marry me, Sarah Thornhill?  The humour of that old joke from my childhood was on Jack’s face, he took a breath, his mouth started the words.  But then he saw the new shape of me and changed his mind.  The words hung between us.
       It was nothing.  A silence the length of a heartbeat, and Jack’s eyes looking into mine.  But it said Everything is different now. 
       When the others walked up to the house the two of us hung back.  We’d walked up that track together a hundred times before but I’d never had to think before how you walked beside someone.  How much space did you leave between you?  Did you touch them as you walked, did your hand brush against theirs as it swung backwards and forwards, and exactly how did you breathe?
        In the parlour I made sure I ended up next to Jack on the sofa, but making it look like chance. When an ember flew from the grate I put out my foot to snuff it.  New boots from Abercrombie’s, buttons up the side, made my feet very small.  Took my time with the ember and when I sat back I saw Jack was smiling to himself.
       They’d had a dangerous time of it. Not enough seals, so they had to stay too long, past the good season, and the storms caught up with them.
       Damn near come to grief, Will said.  That right Jack?
       But Jack was smiling at the fire, and I was the only one who knew why he wasn’t listening, because my hip was jammed up tight against his and where we touched, something was running from his body into mine and from mine into his. “

Radio New Zealand interview with Kate Grenville on 26th August 2011:

Go to and search “Grenville” for several interviews, including  The Book Show with Ramona Koval about Sarah Thornhill, recorded on 26th August 2011 at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

There’s a short video introduction to Sarah Thornhill at (or search YouTube)

and a short reading from the novel at


Ramona Koval talks to Kate Grenville about Sarah Thornhill

Ramona Koval: Hello, it’s time for The Book Show on ABC Radio National. Ramona Koval with you, broadcasting live from the Melbourne Writers Festival at Federation Square today. And it’s my great pleasure to welcome a live audience to us and we’re all here for talk of the latest novel from a much loved Australian writer, Kate Grenville.

It’s the third in a trilogy that began with her novel The Secret River, which won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Community Relations Commission Prize, the Booksellers Choice Award, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize, and the publishing industry Book of the Year award. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Prize.

The Secret River was a historical novel, set in the early years of the settlement of New South Wales and followed the life and times of William Thornhill, who was sentenced in 1806 to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife and children he eventually takes up land on the Hawkesbury River. And it’s this phrase, ‘takes up land’, that Kate Grenville examines, because it’s a phrase that doesn’t instantly invoke the risk and the bloodshed that actually happened. It was a wonderful and disturbing novel, full of detail about life and work in the colony of New South Wales and daring descriptions of the land and the strangeness of the encounters between black and white people.

It was followed by The Lieutenant, where we met soldier and astronomer Daniel Rooke, arriving on the First Fleet to New South Wales, beginning his observations. He was a loner of sorts, taken up with his own interests, going off to his makeshift laboratory—observatory—where he can be alone with his thoughts. And his interest in languages took over when he made contact with a young girl and between them they try to make sense of the place they find themselves—between two cultures.

And in this new novel, Sarah Thornhill, we are between cultures again. Sarah is the daughter of Willian Thornhill, who we met in the first book. She’s an Aussie, Australian born, but what does this mean for her? And how does she relate to the other Australians, the Aboriginal people, also born here?

Please welcome Kate Grenville to the Melbourne Writers Festival.


Kate Grenville: Thank you very much. It’s absolutely wonderful to be here. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this place, the Wurundjeri people, and to pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Ramona Koval: Kate, before we look at the new book in detail I wondered whether we could talk about what happened since one of our last conversations about your work, which seemed to ignite another round of history war talk, in a way—not between the black armband and the white blindfold schools of history, but between historians and novelists, about who could tell the story of history. It was something that surprised me. Did it surprise you?

Kate Grenville: It completely blindsided me. But I think we have to get this in proportion. It was actually two historians—there are many historians in Australia, many of whom have told me that they actually set The Secret River on their courses for their students to read as background reading. So, a storm in a teacup is my attitude to it. Clearly nobody has a monopoly on the past. Some people might like to… We all have something to offer, I think.

Ramona Koval: I wonder, because I saw the epigraph of the new book, which says, ‘It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes. (EH Carr)’ Tell me about why you used that.

Kate Grenville: EH Carr was a historian in the ’30s, ’40s, I’m not quite sure, but I came across this quote and I thought, ‘This says precisely my feeling about the whole notion of exploring the past.’ We all have something to contribute. Each one of us has a different perspective. At one extreme, I suppose, are the scholarly historians; at the other extreme, I suppose, are people with family oral histories, legends which may or may not be true. Somewhere in between are the memoirists and the fiction writers, like myself. So it seemed to me that what he was saying was, ‘Let us have a big, generous take on this. There are many perspectives. None is right, none is wrong. They all add to the truth.’

Ramona Koval: Storm in a teacup, you say, but I wondered whether it affected the way you thought about and even wrote the new novel. Did you have historians behind you, looking over your shoulder?

Kate Grenville: In the beginning I did, because the comments were so vitriolic and kind of personal, they really took me by surprise. They were not at all what I had… and also incredibly inaccurate. They badly misrepresented what I had said about my work. So that kind of astonished me and knocked me sideways, because I have the most enormous respect for historians, I studied history at university. So it did knock me sideways.

But the thing about a novel, certainly about Sarah Thornhill is that a very short way into the process, it simply becomes a private endeavour of such a passionate need to know and joy that all else is forgotten—mercifully.

Ramona Koval: So, a trilogy. Did you imagine that you were going to write a trilogy when you started?

Kate Grenville: No, look, I think if you thought, ‘Oh, now I’m going to write a trilogy,’ you’d be so daunted by the prospect you’d never write a word. I thought The Secret River was going to be it, but then while I was researching The Secret River I came across the material that inspired The Lieutenant; that is, the language notebooks of Lieutenant William Dawes. And I thought, ‘This is a story I would love to try to tell, to try and understand who were the people who took part in this unimaginable, uninventable friendship between black and white.’

And with this book I had known for a long time that there were a couple of mysterious characters in my family history and, again by happenstance, I met a New Zealand writer who gave me the tiny little, you know, like the thread that you pull out of a jumper and the whole thing unravels—except it’s the other way round—who told me that there was something to be chased in New Zealand and in the next generation of that family.

Ramona Koval: Just before we go into the unravellings and the ravellings, I’m sure that the audience would like to just hear a little bit from the new book. Because I wanted you to hear the voice of Sarah Thornhill.

Kate Grenville: This is just the beginning of the book.

[reads from: The Hawkesbury was a lovely river… to … dressing it up in different words.]

Ramona Koval: Kate Grenville there, reading from the very beginning of her new novel, Sarah Thornhill. And you’re on The Book Show, with me Ramona Koval. We’re all on ABC Radio National, broadcasting live from Federation Square here at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

‘We wasn’t new anything, we was ourselves.’ So, that’s how Sarah Thornhill speaks. How did you get her voice, and why does she talk like that?’

Kate Grenville: She talks like this because Sarah Thornhill is very, very loosely based on the few things I know about my own great-great-grandmother, the daughter of Solomon Wiseman. And she was illiterate; I know that because my mother told me so. So that meant that she probably spoke ungrammatically. So as soon as… This book was never in anything but the first person, it was always going to be her story. So I had to think, ‘OK. How would she have spoken?’ An illiterate person is likely to use some ungrammatical turns of phrase.

And of course that gets a writer into a problem, because I didn’t want to write a sort of True History of the Kelly Gang, that kind of ventriloquism of a certain voice, but I wanted to indicate just a flavour of the sort of person this was. So I was fairly consistent, and my wonderful editor Jane Pearson helped me to be very consistent in changing just a few things, so that it wasn’t painful to read. I hate it when you have to kind of plough through, you know, funny talk in a book.

Ramona Koval: That must be pretty exacting, though. If you’re not going to change every ‘we wasn’t’, which ones do you change?

Kate Grenville: Yeah, well, Jane and I talked a lot about this. Most of them are changed, but just now and again—because English is the way it is—occasionally you got into the situation where—I can’t quite think of the example now—but you actually got her talking beautiful subjunctive if you used the incorrect thing. So there were cases when you had to be inconsistent. It was tricky. I did find it a challenge.

Ramona Koval: So she’s part of this new generation of Australians, born in Australia, no grannies and grandfathers, no uncles or anything like that, it’s a different experience of being in a family when that’s your experience. But she’s got to find her place in this new land, doesn’t she? What interested you about that generation?

Kate Grenville: The notion of not having anything behind you. I mean, all those people who came out as convicts, most of them—you know, when you try and research them you can’t go past the transport that brought them out and perhaps the trial. Their lives before that are a blank. So I thought, what would it be like not to have a sense of the family past? I mean, it’s very important to me to have heard the family stories from my mother, five generations back to Solomon Wiseman, in fact.

This is a woman who not only doesn’t have the stories; she doesn’t even have the older family members. I mean, it’s the migrant experience, in a way, except that she was born here. The other thing of course is that in the back of The Secret River is always the possibility… I mean, William Thornhill and his wife are English. They could, in fact, have gone back. Sarah Thornhill doesn’t have that choice. She’s the first generation of Australians for whom Australia is home, it is the birthplace, they have to work it out here, there is no ‘back’ to go back to.

And that’s our situation and because I’m actually writing about the present, that was what interested me.

Ramona Koval: Tell me about writing about the present.

Kate Grenville: The dilemmas we face in the present are… which are many and complex, but among them are how to share this nation with the people who were here before us white Australians. That dilemma has its… it can’t be solved by looking at today. You can actually only solve it—if there is a solution—by looking at how it evolved: why is it like this? And when you look back, you begin to understand that simple answers are not going to do the job, because the history is so complicated. The more you understand of it, the less you think there are any simple answers.

And yet, Sarah Thornhill’s story is actually my story. She didn’t know the dark facts of her country’s history; she found them out; it was a huge trauma for her. And she then had to think, ‘Well, what do I do with the knowledge that I now know?’

Ramona Koval: Was it a huge trauma for you?

Kate Grenville: Oh yes, in writing The Secret River—I mean, in the memoir, Searching for the Secret River I’ve talked about what it was like to discover the facts that modern historians like Henry Reynolds have unearthed about our past, the undeniable facts about massacres and huge systemic violence. Discovering that, after a childhood of having been taught a kind of airbrushed Australian history—you know, the odd boomerang and Aborigines on tea towels, that kind of thing—to discover that searing history and to know that my ancestors had been probably part of it, that was an education for me and not a very pleasant one.

Ramona Koval: Do you feel as if you will be always telling this story?

Kate Grenville: I think that’s probably right. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s a constantly evolving set of thoughts for me. Sarah Thornhill is about someone who decides—about where I am now—the only real thing you can do, the only concrete contribution you can make, is to tell the story, which perhaps hasn’t been told or needs to be told again. So you can tell the story as honestly as you can. But beyond that, I think there are other things one can do and I don’t quite know what they are for me, but I hope to discover them.

Ramona Koval: Sarah Thornhill, just in that reading, never looked back—’never look back’—and it’s a kind of song that’s sung throughout the book. It was important for Sarah’s father, because he was trying to make himself new in this place, in this world. Isn’t almost inevitable that we look forward as human beings?

Kate Grenville: We do, but I think as we get older, many of us want to place ourselves. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that so many people want to discover the facts about their families. Both Australians and also migrant Australians want to discover where they came from to place themselves in that continuity of generations. And it is I think mostly older people who do it and it’s probably no coincidence that I’m the age I am.

So I think you can only look forward. I mean, the future is… the present is shaped by the past and so the future must be too.

Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about that New Zealand connection, because it is a surprise, it was a surprise to me to read the book and find that there was a historical connection between those first colonists and New Zealand. Tell me how you found it and… you described a nudge in the ribs from the cosmos.

Kate Grenville: Yes, one of the mysterious bits of family history concerned a girl who was said to be Solomon Wiseman’s daughter, who got pregnant to the riding master and was thrown out of the house and died. Very dramatic, poignant story, but when I went to the archives I found that this was not so. Solomon Wiseman had two daughters, but they were both well accounted for in the records.

But then there were tiny little other fragments and, as one does when one’s delving into the archives, I put two and two together and discovered that Solomon Wiseman’s granddaughter was actually the child of his son, William, and a Maori woman. Because William was a sealer and like many of the sealers, he actually had a Maori family. So I couldn’t get much further with that

But I went to Auckland, and I suppose it was being in New Zealand and I walked up a volcano in Auckland harbour—I don’t know whether any of you know it, but it’s a mountain that kind of sprung up quite recently, so it’s really sharp, black, nasty rocks. But in spite of the rocks being so sharp, I had to keep sitting down all the way up it and jotting down notes. It was as if the cosmos was telling the story of this book that I must right about the Australian aunt of this little Maori girl and how the aunt is going to go back to where the Maori girl came from and try to meet her family.

It was a very uncomfortable day, and I must say the backside of my jeans was in tatters by the time I went home, but actually I have it here, the brown paper bag. I had no paper to write with, because I was sure I wasn’t going to make any notes, all I had was the brown paper bag that my lunch had come in. So there’s the book; that’s where it started.

Ramona Koval: Can you read us a little bit of the notes, because it’s very interesting to know what suddenly comes.

Kate Grenville: I’ve never had this before of having really the outline of the whole plot given to me—thank you, cosmos.

(Reads from notes) The ‘SI’ story—Stewart Island is the place at the south of New Zealand where this happened. Sarah goes to Stewart Island to find the child’s mother—see, there’s the story right there. Start with arrival of child. No language. Traumatised. She’s given a new name, old one gone forever. Again, as you know, it’s all in the book.

So I even wrote a tiny little bit of the book itself. Suddenly a sentence came to me. It doesn’t often happen like this, so I really did feel I had to get on with this book; it was being given to me very insistently. This was the first sentence I wrote from the book: ‘It was a Sunday when she arrived. Her name was…’ you know, work that out later. ‘None of us could say it, so we called her Betty.’ And I thought that’s the poignancy of that story; that lost girl.

Ramona Koval: Do you think the cosmos is interested in what you’re writing?


Kate Grenville: Well, let’s put it this way: I’m listening to the cosmos because I think the cosmos, the cosmos knows a lot more than I do. And I feel myself to be its—servant is the word that’s springing to mind. I do feel as if… Look, I think I’m a very kind of ordinary person, and it seems to me that things that are of interest to me will probably be of interest to other people. I’m not exceptional, I don’t have exceptional thoughts. So in that sense I suppose that’s what I mean by the cosmos. A culture produces ideas which are being explored, which of interest to that culture at that moment. And I think one of the things a writer can do is to take those ideas and go a bit further with them.

Ramona Koval: So it’s not a religious sense at all.

Kate Grenville: No. No. I wish it was, but it isn’t.

Ramona Koval: Your story has a dashing romantic hero, called Jack Langland. And he’s based—or partly—on the story of a real person, called Thomas Chaseland. Tell me about Thomas Chaseland and then how he has become Jack.

Kate Grenville: Thomas Chaseland, I told you that my, I suppose he’s my great-great-uncle, William Wiseman, was a sealer. When I was in Auckland, the same trip that I wore out my jeans on the volcano, an archaeologist from the Auckland Museum volunteered to give us writers at the festival a backstage tour of the museum. I thought he’d be rushed, but in fact there were two of us out of the hundreds of writers at the festival, so that gave us a chance to chat.

And as it happened—and here again the cosmos intervening—this man, Nigel Prickett, is the world expert on my great-great-uncle, among other things. I said William Wiseman was my blah, blah, blah and I had hardly got the words out when he paled, and I know I paled, when he said, ‘Well, actually…’. He explained this was his life’s work.

Anyway, he said, ‘You may also be interested in…’—at that point I thought, ‘I really have to write this book’—at that point he said, ‘You may be interested to know about this man Thomas Chaseland, who sailed with Wiseman, would have been a good friend of Wiseman, and who grew up near Wiseman on the Hawkesbury. He was… There are a lot of legends about him, still, in Southland, New Zealand; in fact, there are many places named after him—Chaslands Mistake and other places like that. He was obviously a huge, strong man with incredibly good eyesight. He was a whaler and a sealer, so he was a violent man as well as everything else. But he, even through the records, he comes through… you still get the charisma.

In fact, there’s a historian here in Melbourne who’s doing a lot of work about Thomas Chaseland and, again, we met by coincidence. And we’re both, I think, a little in love with Thomas Chaseland.

And when Nigel told me about him I suddenly realised this was what the book lacked, because I had the very sad story of the little girl, I had various rather worthy themes and ideas that I wanted to explore, but what I didn’t have was that passionate engine of two people relating to each other. And I thought, ‘Thomas Chaseland, you are going to be the love interest in my book.’ It was great writing about him.

Ramona Koval: What was he like? How did you imagine him?

Kate Grenville: Oddly enough, I actually met Thomas Chaseland’s great-great-grandson when I was in New Zealand—you see what I mean about the cosmos? And he’s a big, strong, handsome man with—how can I say it?—a certain charisma.

I knew that because he had come through so strongly in the historical records as an individual personality—you know, after 200 years you have to have had quite a personality for that to happen.

The other very interesting thing about Thomas Chaseland is that although his father was a convict on the Hawkesbury, like Sarah’s father, his mother was an Aboriginal woman. And at the end of his life Thomas Chaseland actually went to New Zealand and lived there. At some stage he abandoned his Australian identity and threw in his lot with the Maori, and he actually lived in a Maori community in Southland. I visited the place where he lived and died and I felt very close to him there.

Ramona Koval: And when we spoke about The Secret River I remember us having a conversation about your reluctance to tell any part of the story from the point of view of the Aboriginal people that you were writing about. And I queried you about that and I remember that was a point of real… you felt that it was morally imperative of you not to do that. But you’ve told this story from Jack’s point of view this time. Is that because his father wasn’t Aboriginal?

Kate Grenville: I don’t think I’ve told the story from Jack’s point of view. I hesitate to…

Ramona Koval: I feel like I know what Jack’s on about.

Kate Grenville: Oh, well that’s fantastic, but that’s because Sarah knows him. I mean, this is a first person story in Sarah’s voice and, thank you, it’s a tribute to the power of her insights about Jack. She really knows Jack. They have that kind of instant rapport that sometimes you do with people. And so she understands him very… or at least she thinks she understands him very thoroughly.

Ramona Koval: That question about who do you have a right to speak for didn’t arise in this book for you?

Kate Grenville: No. Because it’s a first person account it was very simple—as it has been in all of them. I mean, The Lieutenant is not a first person account, but it’s third person subjective, everything in the book is seen through Daniel Rooke’s eyes. It’s not exactly a moral imperative, as you mentioned, it’s just that that’s my personal decision about what is respectful.

Ramona Koval: On The Book Show here on ABC Radio National, I’m at Federation Square in Melbourne at the Melbourne Writers Festival, in conversation with Kate Grenville. And we’re speaking about her new book, Sarah Thornhill.

So, Kate, you are a marvellous researcher and we’re going to have to talk about some of the places you’ve found yourself and the books you read. On your website you’ve got… you know, I didn’t count them actually, but there must be a lot of books—maybe 80 or something like that—books that you have referred to, that you’ve read very, very thoroughly.

And you’ve got a scene there about being seasick, and I bet you were seasick. I just have a feeling that you really felt that; it felt like you felt it. What did you put yourself through for this book?

Kate Grenville: I can only say I tried to be seasick. At a certain point I knew that I had to go to New Zealand, like Sarah, to see the place where the little Maori girl, who was part of my forebears, came from. And everybody… The place they came from is Stewart Island, which any of you who know New Zealand will know that it’s the third island; there are two big ones and then a much smaller one at the very southern extremity. Everybody that I said ‘I’m going to Stewart Island,’ they all said, ‘You will be seasick on the boat over.’ It’s about a couple of hours on the boat and it’s a notoriously rough passage, the Foveaux Strait. Well, we got there—my daughter and I—and the sea was like glass.

And I thanked my lucky stars, but I was also kind of disappointed, because I had already planned for Sarah to be seasick. (Laughter) Because I thought, ‘Look, if I’m going to be seasick, I might as well be able to use it in a book, get some value out of being seasick.’ I have been seasick, but I wasn’t on that time. So actually, I had to imagine it. I’m probably the only person ever kind of sorry that they didn’t have a rough crossing.

Ramona Koval: I know that you interviewed old people in homes, I suppose, old people’s homes. I mean, surely they would have been too young to remember particular things, so what were you looking for?

Kate Grenville: Yeah, they were. I was looking for turns of phrase and a sense of a different sensibility, I think, from an earlier time. I mean, my theory was… Look, I was looking for an illiterate woman, a country woman of the mid-nineteenth century. Now, they don’t exist in the written record, by definition. You see them occasionally in the accounts of gentry women, usually English, writing these rather facetious letters back home. And there’s one that I remember, describing women probably not unlike my great-great-grandmother. She says, ‘We passed these dirty women sitting in their doorsteps with their pipes in their mouths.’ And I thought, ‘Ah! You don’t mean to, but you’re telling me about the woman I’m looking for—not you, with your nice teacups, I’m looking for the other ones.’

But I thought, ‘Life changes slowly in the country. The way people speak in the country is still different, sometimes, from the way people speak in the city, so that’s a resource that I can perhaps use.’ So I went to interview people in old people’s homes.

Ramona Koval: How did you find them? How did you select them?

Kate Grenville: Again, the cosmos.

Ramona Koval: What did they think you were doing?

Kate Grenville: The cosmos—thank you, cosmos. I mentioned it to my brother and my brother happened to meet someone at a thing who said, ‘Oh yes, my father went to school in Currabubula,’ which was—long story, but that’s where my mother grew up, so I was researching there—’and he’s in a nursing home there and he has stories about the old days.’

So again it was this… And I’m terribly grateful to her and Ernie, her father. And he did give me a wonderful sense of that world. He told me about his very poverty-stricken childhood out there. All the usual things, you know, bread and dripping to eat, and et cetera. But he gave me some wonderful things. There’s a moment in the book where actually an Aboriginal man has been splitting some timber for firewood and he says to her, ‘It’s called yellow jack.’ And this is something Ernie had told me. Eucalyptus melliodora—what’s it called? One of you must know— melliodora the ordinary name for it is. Anyway, it’s a particular Eucalypt…

Ramona Koval: I’m not helping you here, because I have no idea.

Kate Grenville: No, and nor is anyone else. Anyway, he called it yellow jack. And I knew what he meant, but I said, ‘Why is it called yellow jack?’ and he said, ‘Ah, split it open, it’s yellow as a guinea.’ And I thought, ‘What a fabulous phrase, yellow as a guinea.’ Where else would you hear that, except from a very old person?

Ramona Koval: What else did you learn? What other phrases do you remember?

Kate Grenville: The thing is he remembered my mother—which is amazing—remembered my mother at school. This had nothing to do with the book, but it was… I mean, she’s been dead a while now, but as you can tell I’m very close to her. He said, ‘Ah, yeah. Nance, I remember her. She was one of the big girls.’ (Laughter) So again it was like a little voice saying, ‘You’re on the right track,’ you know, ‘Keep going. Keep doing this.’

Ramona Koval: And were they interested in your writing, or did they know what you’d written, or did they know they were helping you with your ideas for this book?

Kate Grenville: They knew I was researching, he knew that I was researching that time and that place and that I was interested in my mother. But, you know, I think a lot of people like Ernie—who would be not well educated, very much a working man—he’s a very old man, he knows that his story will vanish completely; no one would be interested in hearing it. And someone has come along and said, ‘I am interested in your bit of life,’ not the upper class, not even the gruesomely melodramatically poor, but the people in the middle, whose stories have somehow slipped through the cracks and are not to be found. It’s like they recognise at some level that when they’re gone, their story will go with them and that will be a loss to us all.

Ramona Koval: What about writing the romance and the sex in the book? How did you approach that?

Kate Grenville: You asked me about sex last time! You’re not obsessed are you, Ramona? (Laughter)

Ramona Koval: I’m alive.

Kate Grenville: It’s interesting. I mean, this book has actually got two different love affairs and I thought, ‘Well, two different love affairs, I’d better have two different kinds of sex.’ So… (Laughter)

Ramona Koval: Who’s obsessed here?

Kate Grenville: I’m just alive. So, the first kind of love is the love story between Sarah Thornhill, who of age about 16, falling in love with this big, handsome, strong, dark man called Jack Langland. And that’s the kind of love that I bet everybody in this room has experienced, which is the thunderclap; it’s the completely bowled off your feet by this love, nothing else exists, nothing else matters. And that’s a particular kind of sex—you’ll have to read the book, I’m afraid, to find out what that’s like.

But then of course… I don’t want to give the game away here, but there is a second love affair in this book, which is a man that she marries thinking that this is just [??32:57], you know, ‘This is what I’ll have to put up with.’ And that’s the other kind of love, which is the love that grows very slowly, over perhaps years, through companionship and living with somebody. Probably, I think, the love that often emerges from an arranged marriage, I’ve been told by people who have had arranged marriages. You don’t expect the same kind of thing, so what you find is different. And again, the sex is different.

Ramona Koval: Arranged marriages. How did you research arranged marriages?

Kate Grenville: Oh, I didn’t research that, but I had spent some time in India years ago and I remember I went there as a 25-year-old, thinking, ‘Oh, arranged marriages, isn’t that shocking, isn’t that terrible, no individual freedom.’ And several women explained to me in detail the advantages of an arranged marriage.

Kate Grenville: And they are?

Kate Grenville: We often fall in love with unsuitable people. I’m probably not the only person in this room who has fallen in love with an unsuitable man, or an unsuitable person. And sometimes our parents do know best, actually—not always, but they could pick someone who they could see you have something in common, you can build a life together, which is not always the same thing as falling passionately in love with somebody. But in the long run, if you’re going to have children and a household, making a life together is actually what you need. I was convinced—not that I’ve inflicted it on my own children, I must say. They picked very well.

Ramona Koval: Childbirth in those times—what a harrowing thing. I mean, it’s harrowing in any time…

Kate Grenville: I was going to say, it still is.

Ramona Koval: But without the medical help.

Kate Grenville: Yeah, yeah. Sarah was a bit lucky. She just had an ordinary common or garden harrowing childbirth. She didn’t have any complications. Look, it was another of the gaps that I felt. The more I wrote this book, the crankier I got, actually, at the fact that women like her—the illiterate, country women of the mid-nineteenth century—their whole experiences have gone, and that’s shocking, because there were a lot of them about and they… without them, we would not be here.

And one of the experiences that is not talked about is childbirth. So I thought, I know a little bit about it, I’ve done it twice, let’s put it in the book. Let us have this experience recorded in fiction as battlefields are recorded by male writers.

Ramona Koval: It is a battlefield, isn’t it? So how did you think it through? Did you go to medical museums of the history of medicine or something, or what did you…?

Kate Grenville: Well, no. Because Sarah has what you might call an un-intervened, un-interventionist childbirth I… Look, I was lucky, I had those kinds of childbirths.

Ramona Koval: But there is a feeling of risk in the whole thing that you get.

Kate Grenville: Ah, that’s true.

Ramona Koval: And I don’t know if it’s because it’s remote and there’s the dust and there’s not too many people around, but it really felt, it felt to me like it was dangerous.

Kate Grenville: Yes. Well, look, it still is. Childbirth even today is still dangerous, and in those days most families, many men had several wives because several died in childbirth—it was hideously common. And yeah actually I did read some awful stuff about the original Melbourne Infirmary, or Women’s Lying-in Hospital, in which many young Irish girls were brought. Because they’d had such poor diets, basically their pelvises weren’t big enough to have babies. I mean, it’s horrendous. I mean, every woman that we know who’s had a Caesarean would have been dead, basically, in those days. That’s a sobering thought.

Ramona Koval: I’m thinking about Joan Makes History, that book you wrote a long time ago—I don’t know whether you remember that book, people in the audience here—about your idea that you got annoyed at the lack of women in history and you put Joan in. She was like the Zelig, wasn’t she, sort of this character who, no matter where you looked, there she was somehow. How important is it for you still to tell the story of women in history.

Kate Grenville: Well, as you can tell, very important. Joan Makes History was almost like a… it was like a practice run at a theme which I’ve explored a lot later on. Yeah, I wrote that just before the bicentennial in 1988. I would have started it in 1986, probably. And it seemed to me that the whole hoo-ha about the bicentennial was all about, basically, dead white males—and a lot of live white males too. And I thought, ‘Let’s put the women back in.’ Without us washing the socks and making the dinners, none of the other stuff would have happened, none of the grand stuff that we call history.

My theory was one makes history by being at home washing the socks and making the dinners as much as out on the battlefield, or wherever you are. So, yeah, I obviously have a bit of a one-track mind.

Ramona Koval: So can you imagine… I mean, why stop here? I mean, why not tell the history of the country in each generation?

Kate Grenville: Well, gosh, it’s a tempting idea, yeah.

Ramona Koval: I bet you’ve thought of it. (Laughter)

Kate Grenville: I have, but you know, family sagas… I mean, I do know a certain amount about the five generations of my family that were in Australia, but there has to be more than just telling the story, more than family history. There has to be, for me, to get that engine of the hard work of writing a novel, there has to be a larger I could almost say didactic theme. So it’s got to be more than a story. So with this one obviously there’s a kind of theme about what we might do today and how we might think about the past. So the intervening generations…

But I think there’s a book in my mother. I’m not sure what form it will take, but she spanned the twentieth century and, boy, that was an interesting century, for women particularly.

Ramona Koval: She was one of the big girls.

Kate Grenville: She was a big girl.

Ramona Koval: Do you think that she’s too close to you to write it easily? Do you think you’ll have to wait a bit?

Kate Grenville: I’d better not wait too much longer. Be too late. Possibly, possibly. But when she died and I cleaned up her papers and I realised just how much she had left behind, I thought, ‘I kind of owe this to Mum.’ So even though it’s hard, I’m going to do it.

Ramona Koval: I’m sure that we can hardly wait for the next book in this series and I’m very glad to have spoken to you today for The Book ShowSarah Thornhill, Kate Grenville’s latest book, is published by Text. My thanks to Kate Grenville. It’s been a great pleasure to speak with you again, Kate, to have you here at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and I’m looking forward to our next conversation.

So please thank Kate Grenville for being with us here at the Melbourne Writers Festival.


The Lost Voices:

Kate Grenville has said that one of the things she was trying to do in Sarah Thornhill was to give a voice to people whose experiences weren’t recorded. Their lives have disappeared without leaving any of their individuality behind. In Sarah Thornhill, she’s tried to imagine the experiences of uneducated country women of the nineteenth century. Her own great-grandmother was one such woman.
Do some of you have family stories passed down from generation to generation? If you do, how many of them are passed down along the female line, from mother to daughter? How many of the stories are about the women and their experiences of life?
What novels and stories can you think of that portray the lives of Australian women in the nineteenth century?

How many of them are about well-off women of the gentry class?

Can you think of any books or poems that tell the story of uneducated, Australian-born country women in a way that shows them as fully rounded characters with an inner life? Or do they tend to be flat background characters?

Do you think Kate Grenville is right in thinking that their stories are among the “lost lives” of the past? And if they are, is it a worthwhile project to try to find them and give them a voice?

Do you find the portrayal of Sarah Thornhill as an illiterate Australian-born woman convincing? Do you believe that such a woman would have had the insights and imagination that Sarah Thornhill has? Or do you feel Sarah is too “modern” and too insightful for an uneducated country girl?

Did you find yourself re-drawing your stereotype of “the pioneer woman” as you read?

Part of this novel explores experiences that are rarely described in fiction: for example, childbirth and being the mother of an infant. Why do you think that in the past these big dramas have been mostly absent from fiction?

What about the men in the book – also mostly illiterate? Did you find her portrayal of Jack Langland, William Thornhill, and Dick, convincing as individuals rather than representatives of a “type”?

Challenges in the writing

Kate Grenville has pointed to two particular problems she had in writing this book: the voice and the plot.

Because Sarah Thornhill is a first-person story, it’s told in her own voice. Why do you think it might be difficult to imagine the world of a person who can’t read or write, and to write a convincing voice for that person?

Being literate has obvious disadvantages, but do you think that there might also be some unexpected advantages (remembering rather than relying on writing things down; thinking things through for yourself rather than being influenced by other people’s opinions…?) We live in an age of constant communication – might there be losses to us in that, as well as gains?

The plot of Sarah Thornhill is tightly knitted – all the strands connect and are dependent on each other. (Imagine the book without Rachel, or without Dick, both relatively minor characters, but vital to the plot.)

The classic plot is often thought of as “orientation” (setting the scene); “complication” (something intrudes into the scene that creates a problem); “response” (what the characters do about this problem) and “resolution” (how the problem is finds a resolution or a new equilibrium). Does the plot of Sarah Thornhill follow this pattern? Are there several plots, each working through its own pattern?

Some books tell you what the characters are like, the narrative filling in their background and telling you what they’re thinking. With a first-person story like Sarah Thornhill, the reader sees everything through the narrator’s eyes, and there’s no outside story-telling voice to give the reader a more objective view of characters and events. Do you think this is a weakness in a story, or does it make it more realistic (since in life we only have our own subjective view of things)?

Sarah is about 15 when she and Jack consummate their love. She’s about 18 when she gets married, and is only about 23 at the end of the book. This is a story about a very young women, a teenager for much of the book. Do you think this would be a useful or interesting book for today’s teenagers?

This is a book about a woman, told from her point of view. Do you think this is an obstacle for men to enjoy the book? Do you think men might be put off by such a “woman’s” book? Are women put off by reading books about men?

Underlying themes

At one level, Sarah Thornhill is about love. There’s the “thunderclap” passionate love that Sarah and Jack experience. Then there’s the “slow-fuse” kind of love that Sarah finds with John Daunt. Are these two different kinds of love true to your experience? Do you think that this book has a “happy ending” in the sense that the love Sarah finds with Daunt might be more substantial than the love she and Jack shared? What problems do you think might lie ahead for them, given the differences in class and education between Sarah and John Daunt?

At another level, Sarah Thornhill is about family secrets, and what happens when they come out. Do most families have a secret, do you think? Should they sometimes stay hidden, or is it better to bring the skeletons out of the cupboard? Was it for better or worse that Sarah discovered the secret in her father’s life?

Did her father want the secret to be discovered, as Sarah thinks? Was sending Sarah to fetch Dick really his way of confession?

At another level again, Sarah Thornhill is about the hidden aspects of a nation’s past. The secret in Sarah’s family is the same secret that for generations lay unspoken about in Australian history – the story of the “frontier war” between the first Australians and the colonists, which was largely ignored or forgotten until historians brought it to light towards in the end of the twentieth century.

Do you think that on this level Sarah represents present-day Australians, in that she has to think through what to do with the knowledge she’s just learned?

She reponds by being more generous in giving charity to the indigenous people nearby, and also in making sure the story isn’t lost again. Do you think these responses are appropriate? Are they enough? Is there some other response she could have made? Or do you think that her sense of shame isn’t appropriate, since she wasn’t the person who committed the violence?

The story of Sarah’s niece, taken away from her extended family and her language, has echoes of Australia’s “stolen generations”. Some would argue that children were removed from their indigenous families “for their own good”, as Sarah’s Ma and Pa think. Jack, though of mixed descent himself, agrees. Yet the separation was a disaster for the little girl, as it was for many of the “stolen generations”. When people do the “wrong” thing for the “right” reasons, what attitude might we take towards them? Do you think this book is making a judgement on the characters, or is it exploring the moral tangle they find themselves in?

A “historical novel”?

Kate Grenville has said she doesn’t enjoy reading “historical fiction” because she doesn’t know where the history ends and the fiction begins. She describes Sarah Thornhill as “not a historical novel, but a novel set in the past”. What distinction do you think she’s making?

She’s also said that she’s “not especially interested in the past for its own sake, but in how it’s shaped the present.” Do you think Sarah Thornhill is about the present, as much as the past?

The Trilogy

Sarah Thornhill is the third of a trilogy about colonial Australia. It’s also a stand-alone novel. In terms of the reading experience, what difference do you think it would make to have read either or both of the earlier novels before reading Sarah Thornhill, compared to reading this novel without having read the others? Would one be a stronger experience than the other, or does each have its own adantages?

Do you think The Lieutenant is really part of this trilogy, since it’s not about the Thornhill family, as the other two books are? Why do you think it’s included in the trilogy?
Could there be another book in the series, do you think? What might it be about? Or does this third book “close the circle” set up by the two earlier books?

Australian reviews:

“Sequels are tricky: they must cater for newcomers as well as for those who enjoyed the earlier book.  Grenville clears this hurdle confidently in the first couple of pages of Sarah Thornhill… The pages describing the marriage of convenience between people who have been brought together by necessity are among the best in Grenville’s book, depicted with sure brush strokes…a strong and disturbing narrative.”

Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Riemer


“This is a beautiful book, one that pulses with insight and compassion… Grenville’s descriptions are a delicate fretwork of words that have the extraordinary ability to make scenes that, in anyone else’s hands, might seem drab and commonplace, newly discovered.  Grenville manages to find a voice that is simple and plain, yet strangely lyrical… Not only is Sarah Thornhill gorgeously written, but the love story at its heart is as real and true as it is unexpected.  This is a novel that will be treasured by generations to come.  It is that rare book that manages to wholly engage both head and heart.  Grenville has done a splendid job.

The Canberra Times, Diane Stubbings


“The voice of illiterate Sarah, in which the whole story is told, is Grenville’s great triumph, wonderfully consistent in its slight roughnesses of grammar and diction …The book is a moving double love story – of a wild, romantic love and a slower, more mature, developing variety –  an imaginatively convincing recreation of history and a celebration of country tenderly and beautifully observed.”

Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser 

“In Sarah Thornhill there are two poignant and delicately rendered love stories. Romantic love, however, is not the point of this novel. Coming to maturity, Sarah confronts the crimes of her father…The novel is simply and beautifully narrated. Grenville’s vivid fiction performs as testimony, memory and mourning within a collective post-colonial narrative.”

The Australian, Stella Clarke.


“Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story is one of the books by which other Australian fiction is judged – a stormy sensuous evocation of abuse and madness. Dark Places is its formidable successor. The Idea of Perfection is a superb representation of life that might look humdrum from a distance. Her new book, Sarah Thornhill, is a cleanly written, sometimes poignant re-imagining of early colonial life…it should satisfy the troops of readers who come to Grenville for the blood and drama of her imagining of Australia’s colonial origins…Sarah Thornhill is a moving piece of fiction and Kate Grenville is everywhere alive to the shadows and subtleties of family and putatively of national inheritance….there are plenty of things in it that are powerfully realised and touch the heart…she is a gift of a writer and her work rustles with life.”

Peter Craven, The Age

“Grenville is second only to Nobel-winner Patrick White as the most set Australian author on tertiary reading lists.  The Secret River is the most frequently set text in English courses… like Tim Winton, she tells fast-paced but nationally significant yarns for a wide readership…  Her publishers are doing her no favours with the literary men: the cover of Sarah Thornhill is a dreamy Mills and Boon-style picture of a young woman in period costume looking out across a river.  But the story is pacy and provocative and carefully constructed.

The Australian, Miriam Cosic


“Grenville has completed her magnificent Colonial Trilogy to popular and critical acclaim….Grenville’s treatment of young love and intimacy is so touching it almost renders the early 19th-century setting irrelevant. Almost… In this novel she reminds us of the potency of first love, gives voice to the struggle and endurance of first-generation Australian woman and expresses sorrow over the dispossession of land from Aboriginals by settlers.”

The West Australian, Claire Williams


“Unashamedly romantic, Sarah Thornhill will appeal to lovers of colonial Australian fiction.  Its themes of young love lost and the destructive power of secrets, and Grenville’s clear writing, will also make it attractive to younger readers.”

Bookseller and Publisher Magazine, Fiona Stager

“Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s finest and most celebrated writers.  Her latest novel is proof she deserves all the accolades… Sarah Thornhill is an Australian story.  A great one.”

Weekend Bookworm, Warren Boland

“If you want to be a great novelist, write about great things.  Grenville does, undertaking the hard research, reflection and work of imagining in fiction how traumatic parts of our human story have played out… It’s a case of the hard job well done. Grenville approaches the historical research task meticulously, with the utmost seriousness.”

The Canberra Times, Christine Wallace

Sarah Thornhill is an instantly warmer, less wistful book [than The Secret River].Grenville gives Sarah a likeable, robust voice; not quite historical but engaging the reader with historically rooted urgency. Grenville’s great strength is her sensual fleshing-out of the past, the Hawkesbury’s lovely “surge and bubble”. Her vision of our colonial history is at once compelling and fable-like, as she writes contemporary white self-knowledge back into it.  Like its predecessors, Sarah Thornhill will be welcomed by many readers as just the story we need now.”

 The Monthly, Delia Falconer


“Grenville transforms our history into something immediate and tangible, which gives readers the chance to enter our shared past.  Sarah Thornhill is written from Sarah’s point of view; her voice is strong and true.  The rhythms of her speech alone take this novel a long way. Grenville has an ability to make you see landscape afresh and to experience something of the fear and pleasure that such wild beauty aned isolation evoked in the settlers…the final sequence is starkly poetic. Grenville’s extraordinary trilogy is a major achievement in Australian literature.” 

Australian Book Review, Sophie Cunningham

“Sarah is a compelling character and Grenville occupies her skin with conviction. This  is a novel of irresistible depth and richness.  Every page is a revelation.”

SAM magazine

Overseas reviews:

“Grenville’s Early Australia trilogy comes to a brilliant conclusion with this novel.  Full of fascinating characters, this accessible novel will appeal to a broad audience.”

Ellen Loughran, Booklist (UK)

“A compelling first-person narrative…”

The Guardian, (UK) Robert McCrum


“The power with which Kate Grenville evokes places and people is so remarkable that it was no surprise to discover that Sarah Thornhill’s story is as gripping and illuminating and her father’s was.”

Diana Athill

“It is with marvellous vividness and clarity that Grenville evoke’s Sarah’s world – Sarah, a character of great spirit and determination.”

The Guardian, (UK)Belinda McKeon.

“As Sarah Thornhill cannot read or write, Grenville has to perform an act of ventriloquy similar top that of Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang, but Sarah’s voice has an attractive personality and proves adept at describing the landcape and those who struggle to survive in its unforgiving beauty.” 

The Telegraph, (UK) Mark Sanderson

“Grranville’s great skill as a writer is to take the best of biographical details and spint them into something of intricate moral complexity.”

The Telegraph (UK), Viv Groskop

“A book of tangled histories…Grenville brilliant portrays the socially superior wife undermining the brooding patriarch…this powerful saga of colliding histories blends romance and honesty.  It is particularly resonant for Irish readers, not least because of the Irish emigrants who shaped Australia, but also becuase in Ireland we know plenty about tangled histories.”

Independent (Ireland),Mary Shine Thompson

“Grenville’s early books, Lilian’s Story and Dark Places, are outstanding works that readers should track down.  Her historical novels are important quests that go beyond art: they are actively opening up the past…she knows how to tell a story and has no difficulty in creating a powerful sense of the open spaces of Australia.”

The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby

“Queen Elizabeth keeps her views of literature well guarded, but does read and enjoy the Commonwealth Writers’ prize winners, especally historical fiction by Kate Grenville, Lloyd Jones and Lawrence Hill.”

Newsday, (US)Sarah Weinman

Sarah Thornhill is both brilliant fiction and illuminating personal history.”

The Independent (UK), Arifa Akbar


“A beautifully written novel.”

We Love This Book (US)

“Grenville’s description of the harshly beautiful Australian landscape is unforgettable, more poetry than prose…   and the tragic story will haunt you for a long time.  Getting to grips with Australians’ complex history is a lot easier with a writer as sensitive as Grenville to point the way.”

The Guardian audiobooks (UK), Sue Arnold

“A graceful, passionate story of love, loss and treacherous family histories, written in beautifully measured prose.”

Marie Claire (UK)

Sarah Thornhill provides a wrenching conclusion to a tough-hearted trilogy about the colonizing of Australia. Grenville constructs a plot with as many twists as the river that runs through the Thornhill’s property. This is a novel that can’t be easily categorised – exuberant, cruel, surprising, a triumphant evocation of a period and a people filled with both courage and ugliness.

New York Times, Susann Cokal