The Many Tentacles of Family History
Radio New Zealand interview with Kate Grenville on 26th August 2011:
Go to ABC.net.au 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
http://youtu.be/CpHuZsPv1Lg (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 Show. Sarah 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.
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?
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?
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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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