The Lieutenant


The Lieutenant was inspired by a real story hidden for two centuries in the pages of a couple of shabby blue notebooks stored in a London manuscript library. The notebooks belonged to William Dawes, a soldier in the first days of the Colony of New South Wales, and they record his efforts to learn the language of the indigenous people of Sydney.  Between the lines they reveal an extraordinary friendship – warm, playful and respectful – between him and one of his teachers, a young indigenous girl called  Patyegarang. 

Reading the conversations in the notebooks – what she said, what he said – you long to know who these two remarkable people were, who could reach out across gulfs of difference and form a friendship that still blazes off the page two centuries later.  Those conversations were the starting-point for the novel.   I didn’t change any of the words in those conversations, but tried to draw a picture of the circumstances in which they might have happened.

This is a novel, but it stays close to the historical events.  They bring up issues that are still with us.  How do we value difference, and learn to communicate across it?  How do we learn how to listen as well as speak, and how do we respond when life presents us with a moral choice that leaves no room for evasion?

The Lieutenant has been an enormously popular book in Australia (where it featured on many prize lists and is a school text), the UK, the US and Canada. It’s been translated in many languagers, including German, French and Greek.

The Lieutenant: Extract

…One of the women was walking towards the doorway of his hut. He made exaggerated ushering gestures. Come in, come in, welcome, I am pleased to see you! He was glad there was no one there to watch him. The woman did not respond to the pantomime. Her dignity made his eagerness seem false.

She went into the hut and glanced around as if it were not so very interesting. She called back over her shoulder to the others, a few curt syllables, and they crowded into the hut. They inspected his domestic arrangements, murmuring to each other. One of the women picked up a corner of the grey blanket over the bed and held it to her cheek, exclaiming, he thought, at the scratchy texture. They ran their long-fingered hands over the gleaming wood of the table, touched at the brass hinges where the legs folded. They lifted the cover of Montaigne and turned the pages.

He wondered if they were saying: Look, he has bark here in a little square.

Would they have the idea of square? Would some wild Euclid among them have pondered the marvels of the triangle?

Even in that tight space they had a remarkable way of not meeting his eye. They moved around him and he guessed that they were not speaking out loudly because he was there. And yet he was not there.

His first day at the Academy, Lancelot Percival had told him scornfully, Rooke, in polite circles you do not speak to a person to whom you have not been introduced!

The children had been hiding themselves behind the legs of the women, peeping around at Rooke and retreating if he looked at them. Now he caught the eye of a little boy, a sturdy fellow of five or six, who ducked back behind his mother’s leg but then looked out again. Rooke smiled and even tried a wink, and by degrees the boy grew brave enough to dart out and touch one of the brass buttons on Rooke’s jacket, dabbing at it as if it might be hot. Discovering that the button did not bite, he lost his shyness entirely, dancing around Rooke, plucking at his sleeve, pulling at his buttons and by the look of it shouting something to the effect of, What are these? What are they for? Where did you get them? Can I have one?

The women became bolder, holding things up to show each other as if they were goods at a market to be exclaimed over. They spoke to him, finding it hilarious to say the few words they must have already learned from the people in the settlement: `Goodbye! Goodbye! How do you do! Mister! Missus!’

`Good morning, good morning,’ Rooke replied, making them laugh even more. `I do very well, thank you, and you?’

Hi shaving things lay on the table and one of the women – tall, full-figured, so magnificent in her nakedness that Rooke was a little shy – picked up his razor and bent it open. He sprang across the hut to snatch it away from her and all the amusement stopped on the instant. He tried to show them how sharp it was, cut a twig from beside the fire with the blade and kept up a stream of words – sharp, you see, very sharp, it will cut anything, I use it to shave, see here? – out of some instinct that speech was less frightening than silence.

The hut, ill-lit at the best of times with its single window, grew dark. Rooke saw that clouds had gathered low and black, and it began to rain, fat drops hitting the shingles hard enough to make them rattle. A smell of cold mud rose up from the ground.

He went to the doorway and looked out. The rain hurled itself down against the rocks so violently it created a sort of spume. Under its force the bushes lashed about and the water of the harbour was almost invisible, the rain as thick as fog. He caught a few drops on his palm, held it out to his visitors.

`What is this, how do you say wet?’

The two young girls had hung back up till now, but one came forward and touched at his palm with the point of an index finger. Rooke looked into her face. She was perhaps ten or twelve years old, skinny and quick, with a long graceful neck and an expressive mobile face. He thought he saw in her the same impulses he was feeling himself: excitement tempered by wariness, the desire to explore held in check by the fear of making a wrong move.

She looked straight into his eyes and her mouth made a wry pout, equal parts frustration and amusement. He felt his own lips form an answering shape and saw her watching him – his eyes, his mouth, the look on his face – reading him in just the same way he was trying to read her.

She was like Ann had been at ten or twelve, was his instant thought. Dark-skinned, naked, she was nothing like Anne, yet he recognised his sister in her: old enough to want to look into another’s eyes, one human to another, and still young enough to be fearless.

She touched his palm again, this time with all her fingertips, stroking his skin as if to test its texture. Over the roar of the rain she said something. Like a deaf man, he watched her lips moving around the stream of words. Then she stopped and waited, her teeth resting on her lower lip in a way that said, more clearly than words, Well? What do you make of that?

He strained to separate some of the sounds, snatching at two that had surfaced clearly enough to be repeated.

`Mar-ray,’ he tried.

She smiled, her entire face involved in the act. He had thought her eyes black, but now he saw they were the deepest brown. To look so freely into the eyes of another felt as dangerous as leaping from a height. He was amazed at such recklessness in himself.

`Marray,’ she said again, pointing with her chin towards the rain beyond the doorway.

Marray. What did it mean? Wet, something like that?

So close to her, with the water cascading over the shingles above the door and pouring onto the ground, it seemed awkward to say nothing.

`What a downpour,’ he said, raising his voice against the din. `Have you ever seen such weather?’

He listened ruefully to the drawing-room sound of that. It was the sort of small talk he could seldom manage when it was appropriate, yet here he was, doing it as deftly as Silk might have, for an audience of six naked women and children with whom he shared, so far, one word.

Forthright, fearless, sure of herself, she looked to him like a girl who had already mastered whatever social skills her world might demand.


He could hear the way she was speaking slowly, making it easy for him. He tried to turn the sounds into syllables but could only get as far as the first few. She repeated each one and he said them after her. It was like being taken by the hand and helped step by step in the dark.


Even when he had it, it did not sound quite the way she said it. There was something smothered or woolly, a slurring or legato quality to the word as she said it, that he could imitate. He could hear it, but his mouth did not know how to make it.

Still, everyone smiled and nodded at him and cried words that he assumed were along the lines of, Well done! Congratulations!

So that was the word, or perhaps words. But what did it, or they, mean? Something to do with the rain, but what, exactly? What a downpour! Have you ever seen such weather?

The rain eased and stopped as abruptly as it had begun. The little boy pushed past Rooke’s legs and ran out. Two of the women followed more slowly. Rooke and the girl watched them splashing up the track, now a streaming torrent that gleamed in the rays of sun already emerging from the clouds.

`Yen-narr-abe’, the girl said. `Yennarrabe.’

`Yennarrabe,’ he repeated.

Her mouth twisted, perhaps in amusement at the way he way it sounded. They said it to each other a few times. For the moment it was enough to pass the echo backwards and forwards. Even without knowing their meaning, the fact of exchanging words was a kind of message: I wish to speak with you.

The girl’s face was so expressive, the sense of her personality so vivid, that Rooke’s instinct was to take a step back and look away. But he did not. With a reckless sense of taking a leap, he laid the palm of his hand on his chest.

`Rooke,’ he said. `Daniel Rooke.’

She caught on straight away and made a good approximation of his name. Then she put her hand flat on her own bony chest. Uttered a couple of syllables he could not properly catch.

`Ta-ra,’ he tried.

Over at the fire the other girl laughed behind her hand and he heard her mimic his effort.

He rolled his eyes, grimaced. Yes, what an idiot I am, but harmless.

He tried again and the girl went slowly until the shapeless sound resolved itself into syllables: Ta-ga-ran.

The word he was making was still not quite the same as the one she had said. But he saw her face open with the pleasure of hearing her name in his foreign mouth, and at having been the one to teach him.

Her name and those two other utterances were in his mind now, but, as sounds not connected to anything, they would soon lose their shape in his memory. They were not Wind or Weather or Barometer, but like those, these words were part of the climate of the place, data that ought to be recorded.

He got down an unused notebook from the shelf, felt the girl watching as he sat at the table, dipped the pen in the ink and opened the book. On the first page, in his neatest astronomer’s hand, he wrote:Tagaran, the name of a girl. Marray, wet. Paye wallan ill labe – he hesitated – concerning heavy rain.

He read the words back to her, his finger under each syllable, stumbling through. She smiled, her face transformed, every part of it involved in the great beam of delight.

The old woman was calling out something. It might have been, Come children, time to go, because they all left soon after. At the foot of the rocks, Tagaran turned.

`Yenioo! Yenioo!’ she called, and he called back.

`Goodbye, goodbye!’

What else could she have meant?

`Come again,’ he called. `Come again soon, you are always welcome!’

But they were gone. He was farewelling the grass tossing in the breeze.

(p 144-151)

‘Supremely good’ – Granta (UK)

‘It glows with life: imaginative in its recreations, respectful of what cannot be imagined, and thoughtful in its interrogation of the past…Grenville’s most intellectually sophisticated novel to date.’ – The Age (Australia)

‘Grenville inhabits characters with a rare completeness…she occupies the mind of Rooke with a kind of vivid insistence, and his isolation – and moral dilemmas – become ours…She writes with a poet’s sense of rhythm and imagery.’ – the Guardian (UK)

‘A compelling narrative… an intelligent, spare, always engrossing imagining of first contact.’ – Times Literary Supplement (UK)

‘A particular kind of stillness marks Kate Grenville’s characters out as uniquely hers… Between the words and among them, this is a profoundly uplifting novel.’ – Independent (UK)

The Lieutenant compels as a historical novel… but Grenville’s most thrilling achievement is to filter a lesson in social acceptance through the computational consciousness of a man whose head is in the stars.’ -LA Times (US)

‘Another dazzling and disturbing achievement… Grenville’s descriptions of the encounters between Rooke and the Gadigal, especially a young girl called Tagaran, are wonderfully shimmering and authentic…The Lieutenant is a gripping, fastidiously written tale and I couldn’t put it down.’ Weekend Herald (Australia)

The Lieutenant is…the richly imagined portrait of a deeply introspective, and quite remarkable, man.’ – Sunday NY Times (US)

‘Grenville’s reflections on the relationship of language to life, perspective to meaning, literature to truth all sprout from the seeds of historical record and twine enticingly throughout the novel.’ Adelaide Advertiser (Australia)

‘The Lieutenant is an outstanding story… completely absorbing… Grenville’s observations of Rooke’s inner world and the amazement of the landscape and brutality of the settlers elevates this novel to modern classic status’ – Independent Weekly (Australia)

‘Grenville’s portrait of the obtuse yet engaging Rooke and her description of this strange territory are marvellously evocative.’ Boston Globe (US)

The Lieutenant has a potency and beauty that lingers in both the heart and mind’s eye… the scenes between Rooke and Tagaran are superbly writtten, and Grenville conveys not only the sense of true kinship that grows between them, but also the euphoria of connection and understanding between two people from different universes.’ Sunday Telegraph (UK)

‘…a triumph of imaginative history. Grenville’s book has a sense of humour – and its power, like that of all great novels, derives from the author’s deep and abiding affection for all concerned.’ -The Monthly (Australia)

‘An extraordinary adventure into the nature of language, culture and human communication.” Listener (Australia)

‘Grenville’s craft is, as always, astounding, deftly melding subject and metaphor, story and image… The Lieutenant succeeds beautifully.’ – Canberra Times (Australia)

‘The lasting impression of her novel is not of drama, but of a lovely, watchful stillness: a sort of astronomy of the human heart.’ -Sunday Telegraph (UK)

‘In lucid prose and perfectly measured strides, Grenville lays down her riveting tale.  A novel aglow with empathy, its author’s capacious visions still deliver an elemental thrill.’ -Daily Mail (UK)

‘This novel is a triumph. Read it at once..’ The Times (UK)

Ramona Koval talks to Kate Grenville about The Lieutenant

Ramona Koval: In Kate Grenville’s new novel The Lieutenant, soldier and astronomer Daniel Rooke arrives on the First Fleet to NSW and begins his observations. He’s a loner of sorts taken up with his own interests, often going off to his makeshift observatory where he can be alone with his thoughts. His interest in languages takes over when he makes contact with a young girl named Tagaran and between them they try to make sense of the place they find themselves in, between cultures.

This book follows her most successful novel The Secret River which won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, also set in the early years of the settlement of NSW, that one on the life and times of William Thornhill who was sentenced in 1806 to be transported to NSW for the term of his natural life. It was a book that looked at the idea of him taking up land on the Hawkesbury River, and this phrase ‘taking up land’ that Kate Grenville examined because it’s a phrase that doesn’t instantly invoke the risk and the bloodshed that actually happened.

It was a look at the encounters between black and white people, a very different one to the one that’s described in The Lieutenant. That book sparked a debate in Australian literary circles on the role of fiction as history, and so by writing The Lieutenant Kate Grenville must have honed her ideas on this topic as well as on many others. She’s in our Sydney studio. Welcome to The Book Show, Kate.

Kate Grenville: Thank you very much Ramona.

Ramona Koval: This book had its genesis, I understand, when you came across an extract from a notebook a few years ago. Tell me about what sparked you.

Kate Grenville: Yes, I was researching The Secret River, and I glanced at a book put together by Tim Flannery which was extracts from all the diaries that the many First Fleet people had kept. One of them was a few pages from the language notebooks of William Dawes. Dawes learned the language, as you said in your introduction, but the way he wrote it down was not just wordless, he recorded entire conversations, short exchanges between him and in particular the young girl Patyegarang.

What Tim Flannery did in his book was to quote some of these astonishing conversations, between the lines of which it’s obvious that a friendship quite extraordinary and remarkable was developing, and that the idea of a young soldier in 1788 having kind of relationship absolutely electrified me. I knew also that he had been forced later into a terrible moral decision when he was sent out on a punitive expedition which was ordered to kill Aboriginal men who may well have been related to Patyegarang. So I had on the one hand characters and a relationship, on the other hand this plot thing of the moral dilemma that he was thrust into.

Ramona Koval: And then you knew what happened to him in the end because you researched his life, is that right?

Kate Grenville: That’s right, I went away and did such research as I could in his life, and I discovered that after he’d left NSW under a bit of a cloud he devoted the rest of his life to the abolition movement, to abolish slavery, and in fact really gave the rest of his life to slaves and former slaves.

Ramona Koval: So you’ve got a trajectory of a life and you’ve got some questions.

Kate Grenville: A lot of questions. I love to write a book out of questions, in fact I think it’s the only way my writing can operate, if there’s something I don’t understand. I found that relationship across such unbelievable gulfs, not just of language but culture and background and everything between the young soldier and the young Aboriginal girl incredibly puzzling, absolutely charming and appealing but also quite puzzling. I also found his moral choice at the end very suggestive, it brought up all sorts of questions about altruism, morality, on what basis should we conduct ourselves, is self-interest the only way to make decisions.

Ramona Koval: Let’s begin by reading where you begin. Can you read that first reading from the beginning of this book?

Kate Grenville: Yes.

[reading from Daniel Rooke was quiet, moody… to …out of step with the world.]

Ramona Koval: Kate, you have made him into…there’s an element of a slightly Asperger’s child with a talent for numbers in your young Rooke.

Kate Grenville: Yes, several people have mentioned the Asperger’s possibility. To me, Rooke is simply an extremely bright, what we could call these days gifted child who has been unlucky enough to have not yet found any fellow souls or anybody who can understand. And so his emotional and social life is completely undeveloped. But I don’t think of him as anything more than a very bright kid, a normal kid in other words. He has all the potential for full emotional development, which of course later takes place.

Ramona Koval: Yes, at a later stage he sort of blurts his interest, he gets obsessed and he doesn’t notice that people around him are a bit bored or…and that’s why I thought he’s not making an emotional connection very well with these people.

Kate Grenville: No, he’s a bit socially gawky, there’s no question about that, but, you know, all of us who’ve had kids have known kids like that. Several at my kids’ primary school spring vividly to my memory as being completely incapable of working out what was appropriate socially, going on and on and on about some subject they were obsessed with. Nothing wrong with these kids, they were just brighter than everybody else and the penny hadn’t quite dropped that not everybody else was equally interested in these subjects.

Ramona Koval: So in your imagination then…you know what Rooke was like because you made him up but Dawes didn’t have any inclinations like this.

Kate Grenville: Very little is known about the real William Dawes. We know a fair bit but we don’t know things like that. He left some letters behind as well as the notebooks and one or two little fragments of other sorts of official letters.

Ramona Koval: But there was no Mrs Bartholomew there, was there.

Kate Grenville: I think there probably would have been some version of that. I kind of backtrack from what we did know, which was that he was an astronomer. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to come to grips with the way the planets and the solar system and the galaxies all hang around together…

Ramona Koval: I’m very impressed with people who do.

Kate Grenville: Well, so am I, because when I started to investigate these things, thinking, oh well, he’s set up an observatory, he was an astronomer, I’d better get a bit of a handle on this, it requires a very high level of that kind of mathematical brain. So someone who’s good at mathematics…I mean, we’ve all known a couple of those too, I certainly can think of a couple of mathematicians I’ve known, they have a particular sort of aura about them. I thought that working backwards from what I know, that he was an astronomer, I can extrapolate and think, okay, he may in fact have the slight oddness that a lot of mathematicians have.

Ramona Koval: What about an interest in music? That does go hand in hand with mathematics. But what about you? Are you interested in mathematics and music?

Kate Grenville: I was going to quickly say no because I can’t do arithmetic to save my life, but I do love music and the structures of music fascinate me. I don’t know much about it but I love that, and while researching this book I read a lot about mathematics, not about arithmetic but about the large theories of mathematics. And although I could only…look, I couldn’t even pretend to follow it, but I began it glimpse what it was that fascinated people, I began to see what was fascinating about it, even though I couldn’t actually do it. And certainly the music and mathematics thing, and fugues…I’ve given Rooke an obsessive interest in fugues because fugues are a particularly pure, remote sort of music, but they are described in terms of voices. Each thread of a fugue is called a voice. This is a book about conversations, so it seemed terribly appropriate that a fugue should be the particular sort of music he loved.

Ramona Koval: At one point very early on I think that he describes language as a machine for thinking. So he’s interested in languages and how they work. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of language in this book?

Kate Grenville: Yes, there’s a great saying (one of your listeners can probably tell me who said it), ‘With every language learned, man gains a soul.’ My mother used to quote that. She went back to university at age 50 and learned French and Italian and she was very convinced that that was correct, and I think so too. Each language has its own take on the world, that’s why a translation can never be absolutely exact, and therefore when you enter another language and speak with its speakers, you become a slightly different person, you learn a different sort of world. And that’s interesting if you’re like me, Anglophone, who’s learned a little bit of French, that’s quite interesting, but to be someone like Daniel Rooke, an 18th century soldier who is having these conversations with a young Aboriginal girl with no dictionary to guide him, that struck me as the most extraordinary leap into the unknown, a leap of imagination by him.

Ramona Koval: In fact he’s looking at the stars and he’s learning things about the universe from first principles and he’s doing the same, he’s actually creating his own dictionary, isn’t he.

Kate Grenville: Yes, that’s right.

Ramona Koval: So this relationship with this girl, when you look at the notes, are all the quotes that you had this young girl saying and the words they discussed, that’s from the journals?

Kate Grenville: Yes, one of the rules I made for myself with this book is that I would not invent any dialogue between Rooke and any of the Aboriginal people, and there were plenty of conversations and plenty of words in the notebooks, I didn’t have to invent and I wouldn’t and I couldn’t. So that gave me at once a freedom and a boundary, which I think writing is always improved by a bit of a boundary. So I took some of those conversations which are simply recorded and sometimes there’s a tiny little bit of context that Dawes wrote down, and working backwards from that I tried to invent a moment which would give rise to such a conversation, a context out of which that particular exchange of words might have happened. Everybody who read those notebooks probably has a slightly different context which they invent, but it is interesting looking at the notebooks, the urge to immediately put them in a time and a place and give them a face and body is overwhelming because they leap off the page, those notebooks. So my challenge as a fiction writer was to try to keep the raw power of what’s recorded in the notebooks but embedded in a matrix of narrative where it could shine.

Ramona Koval: That brings us to the second reading I want you to do, and this is a scene between Tagaran and Rooke. Do you want to just tell us what’s happening and then read it?

Kate Grenville: Yes, they know each other a little bit at this point, and Rooke at this point has figured out a little bit of the language. He’s figured out a bit and it’s given him a rather confident feeling that he understands more than he probably really does. He’s got very fond of Tagaran. She is in my book somewhere between 10 and 12, he thinks, which is perhaps a tiny bit younger than the historic Patyegarang, but that suited my purposes, to make her pre-pubescent.

[reading from Tagaran ran into the hut one afternoon… to …Tagaran was no longer shivering.]

Ramona Koval: Kate, listeners can’t see that a lot of the text there is in italics and presumably that’s straight out of the notebooks, that’s what you had to deal with, and then you invented the context, as you said before. But I was really interested to hear you say just before that, ‘it suited my purposes to make the young girl younger’. I just think that’s so interesting because you’ve got this young soldier in his 20s, they’re having these little meetings, there are lots of discussions and talks, and you are very determined to make this a sisterly relationship. You say that it was like a big brother who thought he knew best and would reflect on his sister. In fact very early in the book you introduce his sister who’s a very important character to him in his life, and you don’t want there to be any suggestion that there’s any sexual relationship here. Why?

Kate Grenville: That’s right, because what I was interested in in their relationship was the friendship aspect of it. What you feel between the lines of their relationship is noting like romantic love and sexual attraction, what you feel reading the actual notebooks is a relationship of huge affection, great mutual respect, but above all playfulness. These two people, while sharing about six words, could actually have jokes and very sophisticated little ironic exchanges between each other.

These were two people who simply really enjoyed each other’s company, and looked at each other simply as another wonderfully interesting human being. That was what I was interested in in the book because to take the larger view, this shared history that we have in Australia, its best part, it seems to me, is something like this relationship which is not…I was going to say ‘clouded’ but that’s not quite the right word…it doesn’t have a sexual dimension which immediately lays another level of complication in it.

This is a relationship between two people who come together because they really enjoy each other’s company and minds and souls rather than there being any suggestion of sexual exploitation. If I had made that a sexual relationship it would have raised all sorts of questions about the imbalance of power between a white soldier and a young Aboriginal girl. It would have introduced a whole…it would have been a completely different book.

Ramona Koval: But you were on the lookout for a hero though, weren’t you, and it wouldn’t have made him a hero. You were looking for a kind of relationship which was different in a way than the relationships that you wrote about in The Secret River. That’s my sense of it. But why did you make her younger? Why didn’t you make her 14 and still have a friendship? Did you think that was not believable?

Kate Grenville: I thought it would be…I mean, look, how many books about a man and woman who have a deep friendship aren’t about a sexual relationship? I felt that as a writer I had to work quite hard, I had to use all the weapons I could to say we’re looking at a different sort of relationship here, not a sexual one. So making her younger just helped that a little bit. If she’d been 14 and him 26 then she would definitely have been a young woman rather than a child…

Ramona Koval: She may have been a wife in Aboriginal society.

Kate Grenville: She may well have been a wife and she may well have been a promised wife even at 10. I’ve given Rooke a very satisfying although very sketchily sketched sex life because I also didn’t want it to seem like…

Ramona Koval: And you’ve made him very well endowed, Kate, too. In fact, all of the chaps in your books are extremely well endowed, have you noticed that?

Kate Grenville: I haven’t. I’m interested that you’ve been through and searched…

Ramona Koval: I have, I’ve underlined them. Where do you think that comes from?

Kate Grenville: Well, in this book I wanted him to be well endowed…partly because it gave me a nice line, a kind of slightly funny line for the woman to remark on, his endowment, but also for there to be no doubt that there were no problems with his sexuality, he’s got a perfectly robust sexual identity which doesn’t need to be displaced or sublimated or any of those sorts of words onto a relationship with a young girl. The thing that I most dreaded is that this book might be read as a sublimated paedophilia sort of relationship. That would have undone everything I was trying to do.

Ramona Koval: You’ve got this character called Silk who is loosely based on Watkin Tench, is that right?

Kate Grenville: Yes, that’s right.

Ramona Koval: Why do you call him ‘Silk’?

Kate Grenville: When I decided to change all the names, I looked up…isn’t Google wonderful? You can look up the Portsmouth parish records for the 1760s when these blokes would have been born, and it gives you a list of names. I went through them and in a very random intuitive sort of way thought what will I call my characters. The real Watkin Tench is a very suave, sophisticated, very attractive man, so when one of the names in this list was ‘Silk’ I thought perfect. He is very silky, yes.

Ramona Koval: He’s smooth.

Kate Grenville: Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ramona Koval: Oh no, I’m not criticising him. Don’t you get defensive with me, I’m not criticising your character! But he’s a writer, isn’t he, and he’s a more suggestive kind of chap, he’s very sophisticated, he’s got a kind of worldly sort of metropolitan view about what’s going on.

Kate Grenville: Indeed he does, as did the real Watkin Tench. In fact I’ve quoted a little bit from Tench’s actual narrative of Botany Bay that he published in 1790 or whenever it was, because the language is so attractive. He’s an incredibly attractive man. Text Publishing was brilliant a few years ago when they retrieved that book out of the archives where only historians ever looked at it, and republished it. It’s now become a bestseller, 1788; such an attractive amiable voice comes through it.

Ramona Koval: But he’s got a different kind of view to Rooke about what’s going on around him.

Kate Grenville: He does, yes. I have a scene where Rooke has written down all these notes, including this one about standing by the fire naked, and Silk, who is a good friend, happens to come across it. Silk, with his much more cosmopolitan and perhaps slightly cynical view of the world, immediately reads it sexually. I wrote that scene partly because it gave me a moment of great drama between the two men, because it’s also a book about the friendship between the two of them, but it also gave me another chance to demonstrate what was going on in Rooke’s head, which is he for a while didn’t quite understand what Silk was getting at. He is so innocent that he doesn’t even realise that the things he’s written down in the book could possibly have a sexual interpretation.

Ramona Koval: So they could have had a sexual interpretation?

Kate Grenville: Well, when you read them in the journal, some of them do leap off the page. In our prurient 21st century eyes…

Ramona Koval: Because she’s naked and he says put your coat on and she says no I don’t want to, it’s better like this, and you’ve decided that’s not sexual.

Kate Grenville: That’s right, yes. Because we know very little about Patyegarang and not that much about Dawes, people who know more about this historically than I do are slightly divided on it but most people think that she probably was fairly young, and in fact that the relationship probably wasn’t sexual. The other thing about it is that in 1788 there was no shortage of available women for the officers. When you read the documents…

Ramona Koval: There were a lot of ‘damned whores’ and everything.

Kate Grenville: They weren’t all damned whores, a lot of them were quite nice women I think.

Ramona Koval: And God’s police of course.

Kate Grenville: And God’s police of course. But all the officers or many of them had mistresses, so there was no shortage of available women.

Ramona Koval: The other thing that’s really interesting is this idea of language and the fun of learning languages, and what a particular language might tell you about what’s the world view and in fact the soul of the people who are talking and speaking it. Language as supple as Sophocles or Homer. Tell me about that.

Kate Grenville: When I was doing the research…I don’t know anything about languages really, but a person who does know mentioned to me that Dawes has actually written down in his notebooks that the language was inflected and that it used (and I may not have the right term) the dual plural. In other words, they didn’t just say…inflected, first of all, like Latin so that in the one word you’ve got all things that the verb might be, but the dual plural is something that we don’t have in English, though I think we used to back in Old English.

It means that when you say ‘we’ you may mean just yourself and the person standing next to you or by using another word you can say ‘myself and everybody on this side of the fence’ sort of thing. In other words, you can be very discriminating in just exactly which groups of people you mean by ‘we’. It’s a very closely calibrated little pronoun which we don’t have.

And apparently, I’ve been told (and I don’t know if this is true) ancient Greek has the same incredibly sophisticated thing. As an educated man of the late 18th century Rooke would certainly have known ancient Greek and Latin very well, so it gave me a chance to reveal his innocent excitement, and also to say what in fact linguists do feel about many Aboriginal languages, that they are extraordinarily sophisticated grammatically.

Ramona Koval: We’ve had this conversation before about your decision that you can’t portray an Aboriginal character unless…well, in this case you had the actual words that were said, but you actually have portrayed something beyond the actual words. Does that mean you’ve shifted a little bit?

Kate Grenville: No, but having the conversations gave me a huge window into those moments. With The Secret River I did make the decision in the end not to attempt dialogue between white and black. I tried and failed, and as a writer I think you have to admit when it’s not working. With this book I had the conversations, and because the book is all through the eyes of Daniel Rooke, certainly he makes interpretations about the Aboriginal people which may or may not be correct, it’s his view, it’s not mine. I’m not saying that they think whatever, it’s Rooke. This is very much a book about one man and his interior development, his transformation from that gawky emotionally stunted little boy to a man of absolutely full, robust, rich emotionality and a sense of morality, his sense of his place in the human society.

Ramona Koval: Although he retains that sense of an outsider, doesn’t he, that he had as a boy.

Kate Grenville: Yes, it gives him the courage to act as many more conventional people wouldn’t act. So that outsiderdom stands him in good stead in many ways; first of all it makes him quite a good listener, as he perceives at one point, and when you’re learning a language from first principles, the ability to actually listen and absorb and open yourself to that experience is vital. And because he’s a good listener and not all that great with people, he recognises that this is actually quite a good qualification for doing what he’s trying to do.

Ramona Koval: Were you a bit in love with him?

Kate Grenville: It’s interesting you say that because since the book has been out, various other people have told me that…quite a few people besides me are or have been interested in William Dawes and a lot of them use that phrase, ‘being in love with Dawes’. No. I’ve pictured him as a very…he’d be quite hard to deal with, I think, socially. Hard going, a bit laborious. On the other hand I really admire him and respect him for the sort of person he is.

Ramona Koval: He doesn’t do much wrong though, he doesn’t set a foot wrong, does he.

Kate Grenville: Well, he doesn’t have much chance. He certainly sets plenty of feet wrong socially. Do you mean morally?

Ramona Koval: No, I mean he’s a real hero.

Kate Grenville: Well, this is a novel!

Ramona Koval: We don’t get too many of those these days, we get antiheroes again and again.

Kate Grenville: This is a novel with a proper lovable hero with something resembling a happy ending. Is it unusual, isn’t it!

Ramona Koval: I know, what are you doing to us?

Kate Grenville: I’m glad you feel like that about Rooke because I wanted him to thoroughly likable and Tagaran too to be thoroughly likeable, people that you want to live with for the time it takes you to read a book.

Ramona Koval: But that does get me to ask, you’ve invented them for a purpose, you wanted this to be a perfect relationship or a mighty fine one in contrast to the kinds of relationships you’ve written about before.

Kate Grenville: I wanted it to be an exploratory relationship. I don’t really think it’s perfect. Rooke does make mistakes with his relationship. For example, the scene I just read where he comes up a bit too close and touches her, that’s a mistake, so what we’re watching is somebody fumbling towards his understanding of actually what is right, and he very nearly blows it several times. And in fact it’s sometimes she who retrieves it from possible disaster and misunderstanding. So it’s not so much that I’m showing a perfect relationship as that I’m showing two people with extreme goodwill and in both cases very clever and subtle people building together towards knowing each other and relating to each other. That seemed to me not a bad project to undertake.

Ramona Koval: Not a bad project indeed. The book we’ve been speaking about in The Lieutenant and it’s published by Text, and Kate Grenville, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.


An Interview with Kate Grenville

Q. Like The Secret River, The Lieutenant tells a story of a European newcomer’s interaction with Australia’s indigenous people. What drew you to return to this period of our history?

When I was researching The Secret River I was struck by how that period was full of human dramas of love, hatred, ambition and intrigue. The early days of settlement in Australia seem to have been “the best of times and the worst of times”, bringing out both the glorious and the terrible in people. For a novelist, those powerful stories are irresistible – they cry out to be told in a dramatic form.

In The Secret River I told a rather dark story about that period in which settlers came into conflict with indigenous people. But there were many different kinds of settlement and many different kinds of settlers. The Lieutenant gave me the opportunity to explore a more positive side of that period – so that the two books form a mirror-image of each other, a kind of ying and yang.

In The Secret River, most of the settlers are unable to engage with the indigenous people. It’s a story about a conversation that never gets off the ground. The Lieutenant is about two people who find a way to start speaking to each other and together make an indestructible bond.

One is a young lieutenant, a soldier with the First Fleet. The other is a child from the Gadigal people, a young girl who teaches him her language. In the extraordinary world of Sydney Cove in the first years of settlement, these two people forge a friendship like no other. When the young man has to make a choice between the world of His Majesty’s service and the world of the Gadigal, he realises he’s changed. There’s no going back.

When I came across the germ of this story in historical sources, I knew I had to try to tell it – I wanted others to feel the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement I was feeling about these two people and what happened to them.

Q. The story is a re-imagined account of the real life experience of First Fleet astronomer William Dawes. Can you tell us a little about how you researched Dawes’ story and the process of weaving fact into fiction?

In Tim Flannery’s marvellous book The Birth of Sydney I came across an extract from the “Sydney Language notebooks” of William Dawes. Dawes was a young lieutenant with the First Fleet. He was also the astronomer to the expedition, and set up the first observatory, on what’s now Dawes’ Point in Sydney. He was also something of a linguist, and set out to learn the local Gadigal language. He wrote down word lists and grammar, but he also wrote down verbatim conversations with the Gadigal – and especially with a young girl called Patyegarang. Between the lines of these conversations a most extraordinary relationship can be heard developing – affectionate and warm, but most of all, playful. Even when they only shared a few words, these two people were able to share irony and wit in a way that makes the notebooks electrifying to read.

When a settler was fatally speared, Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered to go out on a punitive expedition, presenting him with a terrible choice: to do his duty as a soldier, or to be loyal to a friendship that had changed his view of the world.

The challenge I faced was to keep the raw drama of Dawes’ real story, while making a fiction that could enlarge its scope and significance.

Because the real story was so powerful, I kept the real names and the actual time-frame for many drafts. I found it hard to let them go, but when I did, I realised I could shift the story into another gear and enlarge its scope and significance.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing The Lieutenant was that my main character was an astronomer and mathematician, so I had to try to come to grips with enough Kepler and Newton and Euclid to make sense of him – although I myself can barely add two and two.

As I did with The Secret River, I spent a lot of time on the places where the story happened: Dawes Point (Dawes’ observatory is long gone, but archaelogists have excavated what they think are the foundations) and Botany Bay, where the punitive expedition took place. In both those places I was very aware of the spirit of the first Australians. The story of Dawes and Patyegarang came to represent not just the past, but the present and future too, and the conversations we might all have.


Q. The Secret River is a book that has been embraced not only in Australia, but has been loved and lauded right around the world. How has the reaction of foreign audiences differed from that of Australians to this very Australian story?

The Secret River IS a very Australian story, but it’s also a universal one about belonging. All over the world, communities are made up of people who were born there, and people who came there. The tensions, and also the riches of that mix are familiar to many societies in this global village of ours. How do you make place for yourself? What does it mean to belong somewhere? What happens if two sets of people want the same place? How do we learn to live together?

As I wrote The Secret River I wasn’t thinking of it finding a readership beyond the culture in which it’s set, but the book has been translated into many languages and finds a readership in cultures as different as Canada and Israel, Italy and Germany. That’s made me think about my own culture in a different way – the issues we face here spring out of our history, but they’re global too.


Q. At the end of the novel there is an incredibly poignant description of a ship leaving Sydney harbour, looking back at the country it is reluctantly leaving behind. Do you have any plans to return to the early settlement period of our history again in the future?

There are still so many amazing stories to tell! My family history gave me the starting-point for The Secret River and another family story is niggling away at me, wanting to be told, about that time. It may come to nothing – sometimes what looks like a great story turns out to be just a grand empty room when you try to bring it to human life. We’ll see. I’m still on that ship, I think, still living with that lieutenant and his world.


These days we can hop on a plane and be on the other side of the world in the time it takes to watch a few bad movies and eat a few bad meals.  But for the first settlers to Australia in 1788 – a thousand-odd prisoners and their guards – it must have been unimaginably weird and scary. 

One of them was a nerdy young lieutenant from Portsmouth, keen on astronomy and Latin: William Dawes.  Because he was an astronomer, he was allowed to set up an observatory away from the main camp, and because he was interested in languages, he decided do learn to speak with the Aborighinal people when they started to visit him there.

What happened next is recorded in two little blue notebooks which are now in a London manuscript library.  When I first read them, I knew I’d come across an amazing story.

Being a man of science, Dawes started by collecting nouns and verbs in alphabetical order and getting excited about the ablative case.  But he soon abaondoned system and simply wrote down conversations between himself and his visitors, in English and the corresponding Gadigal. One visitor in particular began to dominate the notebooks: a young girl called Patyegarang. 

Between the 26-year-old lieutenant and the 12-or 13-year old girl an astonishing (and I believe platonic) relationship is recorded in those worn little books.  They came from different planets, and yet these two people had an extraordinary rapport.  Even though they knew so few words of each other’s language, they were able to have real conversations, sharing ideas, confiding with each other, joking together.  The pleasure they took in each other’s company still blazes off the page after two hundred years. 

It was the puzzle and the power of that relationship that I wanted to explore: that, and the consequences for Dawes.  After a settler was speared, the governor sent out a punitive expedition against the local Aborigines.  The soldiers – among them Dawes – were ordered to kill six men, decapitate them and bring the heads back to the settlement.  Hatchets and bags were thoughtfully provided.  

For the young lieutenant it was a life-changing moment.

This was the story I began with, a story full of gaps and mysteries because of the sketchiness of the historical record. But gaps and mysteries are a novelist’s delight. 

I took the conversations in the notebooks as my starting-point, because the human drama between Dawes and Patyegarang was the emotional heart of the story.  I kept the conversatiions word for word, only inventing a context in which they might have happened. 

Trying to understand Dawes, I looked for help in the landscape itself, in the place where the story happened.  One of the first things I did was to walk from the bay where the first camp was established, out to the point where Dawes lived in his little observatory.  I could see that getting there in 1788 would have been a scramble up a steep rocky hillside, and he’d picked out the one place on the headland that was hidden from the settlement. 

Standing there, I felt I could work backwards from the place, to the kind of person who might choose it.  I thought he might have been a man who enjoyed his own company, and had no fear of being alone in this foreign landscape. That made sense of the man in the notebooks: earnest, yet eager to experience the new world and courageous enough to let himself be drawn into it. 

Exploring the congested streets of Old Portsmouth, standing on the ancient stones of The Hard and walking about the navel dockyard, I had the same sense of discovery.  It was easy to imagine a serious and rather isolated little boy growing up there, hemmed in by the narrowness of his life but hoping that somewhere out there, beyond the harbour and the sea, his future was waiting for him.

Daniel Rooke isn’t William Dawes.  My interst in him wasn’t about reconstructing history, but in telling the story of a man growing into his full humanity.  It was about exploring ideas of communication, about the choices we make when confronted with the strange and the foreign.  How do we speak to each other across gulfs of difference?

Dawes has fascinated other writers before me, and no wonder: when he did was astonishing and the record he left of it in those little notebooks is unique.  As a starting-point for a work of imagination, the story of his friendship with Patyegarang – something no novelist would dare to invent – seemed a gift from the cosmos. 

[I’m indebted to Tim Flannery for first alerting me to the notebooks, and to the library of the School or Oriental and African Studies, London, for permission to look at the originals.]

How the idea for the book came about
In 1788 a fleet of British ships arrived in Australia to establish a penal settlement: around 800 prisoners and some 200 marines.

One of those marines was a young lieutenant called William Dawes. Although nominally a soldier, he seems to have been a scholar rather than a fighting man – an astronomer, a mathematician and a linguist.

He set up an observatory on an isolated point of land, and the local indigenous people – the Gadigal – visited him there. He began to learn their language, recording what he learned in two small notebooks.

When I came across an extract from these notebooks in 2003, I was galvanised by the amazing story they suggested.

William Dawes
Dawes seems to have begun his language studies with scientific precision, listing verb forms (“I eat, thou eatest, he she or it eats…”) and pages for alphabetical word lists. But these grids remain largely blank. What happened instead is that he began to record entire conversations between himself and the Gadigal people, and particularly a young girl named Patyegarang. Scientific detachment was swept away in something much more personal.

Between the lines of those conversations, an astonishing and perhaps unique relationship is recorded. Dawes and Patyegarang clearly enjoyed each other’s company and the play of each others’ minds. Across gulfs of culture, language, age and perhaps even personality, they forged a friendship that was affectionate, playful and witty.

The emotional intensity that emerges between the lines of the conversations is so powerful that some have thought that their relationship must have been a sexual one. For various reasons, my own feeling is that it was not. Dawes was in his middle twenties: Patyegarang’s age is uncertain, but she was probably between about ten and fifteen. My reading of their conversations is that they enjoyed the kind of friendship that sometimes happens between a clever, subtle, confident child and an adult.

At some point in their friendship, one of the settlement’s `gamekeepers’ was fatally speared. The governor sent a party of soldiers out to punish the tribe from which the attacker was said to come – neighbours of the Gadigal. Their orders were to capture and bring back six indigenous men, but if this proved `impracticable’, then six were to be killed and their heads cut off and brought back. Hatchets and bags were provided for the purpose.

Dawes was one of the soldiers ordered out on this expedition. He refused to go; was warned of the consequences of disobeying, and agreed to go; but on his return ( the party having not made a single capture), he announced that he would refuse to obey any similar order if it were given. For this insubordination he risked court-martial and severe punishment.

He had earlier expressed a wish to stay in the settlement beyond his tour of duty, but he was sent back with the rest of the marines and never returned to Australia. He spent the rest of his life working for the Abolition movement in London, Africa and the West Indies. When slavery was abolished he set up schools for former slaves and died in Antigua.

So much for the historical record, sketchy and partial as it is. As a novelist, I was gripped (as Jane Rogers and Paul Carter had been before me) by the human drama of what’s suggested by it. The rapport between a young indigenous girl and one of His Majesty’s marines was extraordinary one – reading about it, it’s impossible not to wonder what these two people were like. They spring off the pages of the notebooks not as historical figures but living, breathing human souls.

The choice that Dawes made when ordered on the punitive expedition – a choice between his future prospects and some emotional or moral imperative – is richly enigmatic. Why did he risk severe punishment and disgrace, when doing so made no difference to anything?

Reading the notebooks, there’s a strong sense of a person being transformed before our eyes. A man of science discovers another, more fluid way of engaging with the world; a detached observer becomes deeply involved not just intellectually but emotionally; a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s service decides he can no longer be part of the imperial machine. In coming to know the Gadigal people, William Dawes was irrevocably changed.

History becomes fiction
All this, then, was the raw material I had to work with in writing a novel. Without the notebooks I would never have thought to imagine a friendship like the one between Dawes and Patyegarang. Even if I had thought such a thing might have happened, I wouldn’t have attempted to write it. How would you even begin to invent those unimaginable conversations?

The notebooks excited me because, for all their gaps and mysteries, they recorded, verbatim, conversations around which I could build a story. I’d have to invent the context for the conversations, and I’d have to speculate about the people who spoke the words, and I was uncertain about how appropriate it was to do that. But in the end I felt it was important to try, because this story was one that recorded an aspect of our past – shared between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – that was hugely important. It records a moment in that shared history where mutual goodwill and generous curiosity created real understanding.

The relationship between this novel and the real events that inspired it is complex – as the relationship between any work of imagination and the world must always be.

For the first several drafts, I stuck closely to the historical sources and used the names of the real people. This was partly because the real story was more intriguing that anything I could have invented, but also out of a sense of respect for the real people and the real events. It was important to me to go as far as I could in understanding what had been recorded before branching off into speculation.

I found as many references to Dawes as I could in the historical record, and researched his life as far as I could. I read his meteorological journal and his letters to the Astronomer Royal in which his voice could be heard. I researched eighteenth-century telescopes and rain-gauges, examined engravings of marines’ uniforms, read a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.

While in the UK on other business I spent time in Portsmouth, where Dawes was born, and at the Greenwich Observatory. I spent a great deal of time on the point in Sydney where Dawes had his observatory. I retraced on foot most of the path the punitive expedition had probably taken, and spent time by night as well as by day on the shores of Botany Bay, where the soldiers had tried to ambush “the Botany Bay tribe”.

To try to feel something of the texture of life for the First Fleet, I pored over objects in museums – a pencil repaired with string, for example, or a chipped enamel basin – and asked a botanist friend if he could find the plant called “sweet-tea” by the first settlers. Drinking the tea I made from the leaves he sent me, with its delicately astringent aniseed flavour, made 1788 very real.

But `real life’ – whether in 1788 or 2088 – is not the same as a work of literature. Life is full of gaps of time in which nothing much happens; events which lead nowhere; events which are woven in with other events in a dense inseparable mass. To make this story work as a novel, it would be necessary to streamline, focus, and omit. It would also be necessary to go beyond the record, inventing events and imagining characters.

In moving from the historical record into a work of the imagination, I set myself two broad guidelines. The first was not to invent any dialogue between the Gadigal people and the lieutenant. I would use only what was recorded in the notebooks. The second was – as far as my knowledge went – not to invent out of nowhere. I would omit events that had really happened, I would adapt and alter real events, and I would invent beyond what was recorded, but I would – as far as possible – take the historical record as a starting-point.

So, for example, I telescoped time considerably (the main story in the novel take about two years while in reality it took about four; the real expedition took three days where in the novel it takes two). I made no mention of important historical moments ( the spearing of the Governor or the arrival of the Second Fleet, for example). I moved events that had happened at one time or place to another ( the first encounter between black and white is based on an encounter that happened in Botany Bay, not in Port Jackson). I speculated about characters, taking what was known about them as a starting-point but imagining beyond what was recorded. Readers familiar with the accounts of first settlement may recognise aspects of real people in many of the characters and will recognise some recorded events.

As a novelist I have latitude to speculate, to add, to omit, to guess and even to invent. But I also have available to me all the richness of the historical record. In a tradition that goes back to Homer and beyond, I’ve taken events that took place in the real world and used them as the basis for a work of imagination.

This is a novel, then, not history. But I hope that it might encourage readers to seek out the history of those extraordinary years of first settlement, and to see the continuities and discontinuities between that time and our own. The past may be a foreign country, but we can all try to learn its language.