The Secret River
The Secret River is set in the early nineteenth century, on what was then the frontier between British colonists and Australia’s indigenous people: the Hawkesbury River, fifty miles from Sydney.
Many of its details are based on my own family history. Like the character William Thornhill, my great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman was an illiterate Thames bargeman who was transported to Australia in 1806 for stealing a load of timber. Within a few years he was pardoned, and “took up land”, as the euphemism goes, on the banks of the Hawkesbury. The land made him rich beyond anything he could have dreamed of in London. There was no going back.
I’ll probably never know how he dealt with the fact that he had taken – stolen – land that belonged to the indigenous people of the area. The documentary record is completey silent on that matter. But the work of historians makes it clear that there was violence between black and white on the Hawkesbury, even if Solomon Wiseman wasn’t part of it, and that was the story I had to try to tell. The story of one set of people taking over the territory of others is a universsal one, and it can’t be evaded.
The Secret River caused controversy when it first appeared, and become a pawn in the “history wars” that continues to this day. How should a nation tell its foundation story, when that story involves the dispossession of other people? Is there a path between the “black armband” and the “white blindfold” versions of a history like ours?
The title is a quote from W.H.Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lecture, where he says: “A secret river of blood runs through Australian history”. He’s referring, of course, to the often-brutal relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the past.
From its tumultuous beginnings, The Secret River has enjoyed a long life. It won many prizes, has been translated into around twenty languages, has been adapted as an acclaimed TV mini-series, and had sell-out runs ( including at the Edinburgh and Adelaide Festivals) as a stage play adapted by Andrew Bovell.
The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Now it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales. There was hardly a door, barely a wall: only a flap of bark, a screen of sticks and mud. There was no need of lock, of door, of wall: this was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.
Thornhill’s wife was sleeping sweet and peaceful against him, her hand still entwined in his. The child and the baby were asleep too, curled up together. Only Thornhill could not bring himself to close his eyes on this foreign darkness. Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.
When he got up and stepped out through the doorway there was no cry, no guard: only the huge living night. The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.
He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature.
Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the Alexander was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.
Above him in the sky was a thin moon and a scatter of stars as meaningless as spilt rice. There was no Pole Star, a friend to guide him on the Thames, no Bear that he had known all his life: only this foreign blaze, unreadable, indifferent.
All the many months in the Alexander, lying in the hammock which was all the territory he could claim in the world, listening to the sea slap against the side of the ship and trying to hear the voices of his own wife, his own children, in the noise from the women’s quarters, he had been comforted by telling over the bends of his own Thames. The Isle of Dogs, the deep eddying pool of Rotherhithe, the sudden twist of the sky as the river swung around the corner to Lambeth: they were all as intimate to him as breathing. Daniel Ellison grunted in his hammock beside him, fighting even in his sleep, the women were silent beyond their bulkhead, and still in the eye of his mind he rounded bend after bend of that river .
Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone. He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return. It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss. He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.
He had not cried, not for thirty years, not since he was a hungry child too young to know that crying did not fill your belly. But now his throat was thickening, a press of despair behind his eyes forcing warm tears down his cheeks.
There were things worse than dying: life had taught him that. Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.
It seemed at first to be the tears welling, the way the darkness moved in front of him. It took a moment to understand that the stirring was a human, as black as the air itself. His skin swallowed the light and made him not quite real, something only imagined. His eyes were set so deeply into the skull that they were invisible, each in its cave of bone. The rock of his face shaped itself around the big mouth, the imposing nose, the folds of his cheeks. Without surprise, aas though he were dreaming, Thornhill saw the scars drawn on the man’s chest, each a neat line raised and twisted, living against the skin.
He took a step towards Thornhill so that the parched starlight from the sky fell on his shoulders. He wore his nakedness like a cloak. Upright in his hand, the spear was part of him, an extension of his arm.
Clothed as he was, Thornhill felt naked as a maggot. The spear was tall and serious. To have evaded death at the end of the rope, only to go like this, his skin punctured and blood spilled beneath these chilly stars! And behind him, hardly hidden by that flap of bark, were those soft parcels of flesh: his wife and children.
Anger, that old familiar friend, came to his side. Damn your eyes be off, he shouted. Go to the devil! After so long as a felon, hunched under the threat of the lash, he felt himself expaning back into his full size. His voice was rough, full of power, his anger a solid warmth inside him.
He took a threatening step forward. Could make out chips of sharp stone in the end of the spear. It would not go through a man neat as a needle. It would rip its way in. Pulling it out would rip all over again. The thought fanned his rage. Be off! Empty though it was, he raised his hand against the man.
The mouth of the black man began to move itself around sounds. As he spoke he gestured with the spear so it came and went in the darkness. They were close enough to touch.
In the fluid rush of speech Thornhill suddenly heard words. Be off, the man was shouting. Be off! It was his own tone exactly.
This was a kind of madness, as if a dog were to bark in English.
Be off, be off! He was close enough now that he could see the man’s eyes catching the light under their heavy brows, and the straight angry line of his mouth. His own words had all dried up, but he stood his ground.
He had died once, in a manner of speaking. He could die again. He had been stripped of everything already: he had only the dirt under his bare feet, his small grip on this unknown place. He had nothing but that, and those helpless sleeping humans in the hut behind him. He was not about to surrender them to any naked black man.
In the silence between them the breeze rattled through the leaves. He glanced back at where his wife and infants lay, and when he looked again the man was gone. The darkness in front of him whispered and shifted, but there was only the forest. It could hide a hundred black men with spears, a thousand, a whole continent full of men with spears and that grim line to their mouths.
He went quickly into the hut, stumbling against the doorway so that clods of daubed mud fell away from the wall. The hut offered no safety, just the idea of it, but he dragged the flap of bark into place. He stretched himself out on the dirt alongside his family, forcing himself to lie still. But every muscle was tensed, anticipating the shock in his neck or his belly, his hand going to the place, the cold moment of finding that unforgiving thing in his flesh.
Prizes awarded to The Secret River:
1. The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Australasia/South Pacific Region
2. The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Overall Winner
3. The NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction
4. The NSW Premier’s Community Relations Award
5. The Australian Booksellers’ Award
6. The Australian Book Industry Award for Literary Fiction
7. The Australian Book Industry Prize for Book of the Year
8. The Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Prize for Fiction
It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the Kibble Award, the Victorian Premier’s Award, Age Book of the Year, and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
“One of the most entertaining, accomplished, engaging novels written in this country… it will live on as a classic.”
“Grenville does it with such inventive energy, descriptive verve and genuine love of revitalising history that you’ll bite the hand that tries to haul you away from this book… The Secret River is fabulous historical fiction.”
(The Weekend Australian)
“A book everyone should read. It is evocative, gracefully written, terrible and confronting. And it has resonance for every Australian.”
“Grenville has a reputation for elegant prose that cuts to the very heart of her subject matter with breathtaking precision. With The Secret River she has done it again in spades.”
Grenville’s new book is beautifully imagined and executed… subtle and satisfying.”
“Such is the power of Grenville’s imagination that everything seems newly minted.”
“Settings are vividly evoked… minor characters are striking, memorable figures. But the distinction of this in some ways courageous novel resides in its central characters…Grenville has exercised the writer’s privilege of allowing the reader to penetrate the minds and souls of those we are inclined to condemn.”
(Sydney Morning Herald)
The Secret River stands out as a work of sustained power and imagination, of poetry and insight. No truer piece of fiction has been written about the Australian past.”
“This wonderful story about ownership and identity is filled with images that transports you immediately to its heart.”
“With The Secret River Kate Grenville has surpassed herself. The relevance of this tale of early transportation and contact with the Aboriginal people spreads far beyond Australian borders…a profoundly important book.”
(Listener – New Zealand)
“In spare, unpretentious prose, Grenville charts the brutal truth that violence breeds violence. Splendidly paced, passionate and disturbing.”
(Sally Vickers, The Times)
“This is a moving account of the brutal collision of two cultures; but it is the vivid evocation of the harshly beautiful landscape that is the novel’s outstanding achievement.”
(Simon Humphreys, Mail on Sunday)
“A vivid and moving portrayal of poverty, struggle and the search for peace.”
“Grenville shows again the excellent form that won her the Orange Prize.”
“An outstanding study of cultures in collision… a chilling, meticulous account of the sorrows and evils of colonialism…Kate Grenville is a sophisticated writer.”
(Jem Poster, Guardian)
“This is not your standard historical novel. There is real tenderness and sympathy.”
“She gives a fiercely intelligent portrayal of a clash of cultures…in consequence the novel works on two levels: the historical and particular, and the philosophical, bringing into question the extent to which it is possible to own anything, even one’s life.”
(Times Literary Supplement)
“A richly layered tale of a fierce and unforgiving backdrop, the quest for its ownership, and the brutal price paid by those who would colonise it it vividly described… this is a dramatic, beautiful work – on a par with Patrick White or Sally Morgan – that will ensure Grenville’s place on the international market.”
(Scotland on Sunday)
“Grenville writes prose which is immediately engaging. There are overtones of Macbeth in this study in how a man, not inherently evil, can be corrupted by circumstances. Grenville’s skill is to turn what could have been too obviously a representative moral fable into a rich novel of character.”
“A few sentences of Grenville’s makes one realise that much of the writing one encounters in a novel these days is thin and perfunctory. Reading The Secret River may put you off anything less accomplished for a while.”
“The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written.”
A revelation… an engrossing account of early Australian history… she has written honestly and credibly about the complexity of the relationship between Aborigine and white settler.”
(Sunday Tribune, Dublin)
“Grenville controls terrifying material without resorting to polemic. Her sense of humanity elevates her work beyond simply rage or sentimentality. This is why she is a major writer and, with Peter Carey, a worth heir of Patrick White.”
“Kate Grenville, an Australian writer of impeccable talents, conjures up this new South Wales as few writers could – with sentences so astonishingly muscular and right that readers will dream the landscape at night… the Secret River is a masterwork, a book that transcends its historical fiction and becomes something deeply contemporary and pressing. Nothing save for pure genius can explain the quality of this book. Against every measure by which a book might be judged, this one transcends. It deserves every prize it already has received, and every prize yet to come.”
“No fingers are pointed: we understand only too well what brought these people together and then thrust them apart, and the story’s resolution achieves genuine tragic grandeur. Grenville’s best, and a giant leap forward.”
(Kirkus Reviews (starred))
“For the Australian pioneer of Kate Grenville’s hugely filmic The Secret River, a land of opportunity becomes a moral wilderness worthy of Conrad.”
“Grenville earns her praise, presenting the settler-aboriginal conflict with equanimity and understanding, sharp prose and a vivid frontier family.”
“There are books which when you have turned the final page leave you unable to speak or move from the place you have been reading; this is just such a book… a riveting story of forging a new life on a breathtakingly described Australian frontier, the conflict between the new arrival and the aboriginal population, and the price of success.”
(The Boston Globe)
“This novel is a perceptive and masterful portrayal of the lives of some of Australian’s earliest European settlers… the clash between the old and new worlds is elegantly conveyed, as is that between the native Australians and the settlers.”
(Independent Booksellers Book Sense Picks)
“Grenville’s psychological acuity, and the sheer gorgeousness of her descriptions of the territory being fought over, pulls us ever deeper into a time when one community’s opportunity spelled another’s doom.”
(The New Yorker)
“The stage is set for a confrontation that seems inevitable but never predestined. Grenville is too sly a writer for that. Grenville’s admirably plain novel is equally subtle in its portrait of what a man is and what – to his own horror – he can become.”
(The Boston Globe)
“Grenville is a fine, poetic writer who takes a lot of risks… What’s remarkable about the novel is not how it recreates time and place, but the way Grenville manages to make us understand Thornhill’s state of mind… the story hones towards violence and retribution, retaliation and escalation like a thriller.”
“The most remarkable quality of Kate Grenville’s new novel is the way it conveys the enormous tragedy of Australia’s founding through the moral compromises of a single ordinary man. Grenville’s powerful telling of this story is so moving, so exciting, that you’re barely aware of how heavy and profound its meaning is until you reach the end in a moment of stunned sadness.”
(The Washington Post)
“Americans will find Grenville’s eloquent pioneer story at once foreign and stunningly familiar.”
“Plotting and characterisation are so skilful that the book’s tragic climax seems inevitable. Grenville writes lyrically, especially in her description of the Australian landscape, while her gift for the telling phrase – one that conveys a paragraph of description in a few words – enlivens an essentially dark narrative.”
“I consumed Kate Grenville’s The Secret River in one sitting… it is so darn good, a powerful novel told in the unique language of Australians. Want a satisfying, memorable read, one that you can recommend to family and friends? The Secret River will not let you down.”
(Sun Times Review)
Grenville masterfully creates distinct and entirely believable worlds. The strength of her writing lies in her ability to create setting… her depiction of the aboriginals is fascinating and insightful.”
“An astounding novel.”
A Close Read
The riverbank seemed to undergo a change of air. The old man’s face closed down into its creases of shadows. His hand reached around and got the curved wooden club from the string round his waist. The younger man took a step forward, the spear up in his hand, poised on the balls of his feet, his face grim. From the trees Thornhill heard the scrape of wood on wood and knew it to be the sound of spears being fitted by invisible hands along spear-throwers. He heard Sal give a squashed cry as she heard it too, and a wail from Johnny cut short with her hand over his mouth.”
(From The Secret River)
This paragraph , with the word poised at its centre, depicts anticipation perfectly. Every sentence pulses with an active verb – seemed, closed, reached and got, took, and heard – while at the same time the specificity of detail forces the scene into slow motion. The club doesn’t suddenly appear in the old man’s hand, but is systematically retrieved in a sentence that indirectly – with the words around, curved and round – suggests the menace of circling. Although the description of the young man is as taut as the man himself – a series of discrete observations crisply separated by commas – it is also thorough. Grenville allows time to examine him up and down, from hand to feet to face. The spear fitting, too, is drawn out: first comes the sound, then the interpretation. The suspense builds as it shifts from the metaphorical in the initial two sentences to the real, and continues to crescendo as Grenville moves from the old man, whose threat may be mainly gestural, to the young man, whose spear could certainly kill Thornhill, to the invisible hands that could easily wipe out all of Thornhill’s family, to the poignant representatives of that family – his wife and infant son – whose very cries are “squashed” and muffled, so as not to upset the exquisite balance of this moment and cause the spears to fly.”
(Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly)
Reviews from Germany
” A masterpiece. Can there be any other historical novel as totally convincing as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River? Can we hope for another novel explaining landscapes and human interaction with such a sensual precision? I dare to doubt! It’s questionable that there is a novel this season as thrilling and gripping as this literary masterpiece….
Today Kate Grenville is one of the important narrative writers in the whole Anglo-Saxon world. She has found a unique was of describing the elemental confrontation of an unsophisticated white man with the eerie, positively fascinating Aborigines and their frightening, `primitive’ culture.
She gives this historical novel a deep and impressive literary dimension.”
Deggendorfer Zeitung, Deggendorf
`…This book can’t undo all the suffering the original inhabitant had to endure, but it can build a bridge between different cultures. It can make a contribution to understanding human responses to extreme situations…’
`a fascinating novel showing “down-under’ from a completely different angle.’
`This book is a thrilling novel with heaps of historical sources and gripping pictures of Australian settlement.’
`It’s difficult to escape the way this novel draws the reader in – full marks!’
`Thrilling, passionate, stirring…’
` Subtle and critical, Grenville weaves the success story of her ancestors around the historical tragedy which is still an important part of Australian society today.’
(NZZam Sonntag, Zurich)
` A great project, highly praised and prize-winning. The book is well-researched, generously narrated and strives to understand the injustice done towards the Aborigines.’
(Die Welt, Berlin)
`This is the story of the battle between two very different cultures, with only one loser. Yet Grenville shows, in her grand novel, that the acknowledged winner cannot get away without scars.’
`Kate Grenville uses beautiful terse language to describe in an outstanding way the poor living conditions in early London. A tense, emotional novel.’
` A thrilling book, but written with great sensitivity. Simply and vividly told.’
`William Thornhill is Kate Grenville’s very real model for her book – he is her great-great-great grandfather – exiled as a convict to Australia, struggling to survive, taking up land and finally being buried as a rich man after a rise to success.
But Kate Grenville doesn’t glorify her ancestor, instead she shows in detail the price the settlers and Aborigines have to pay – that violence creates more violence. Kate Grenville creates an oppressive atmosphere filled with fear in which the white intruders have to live and where they bring guilt upon themselves…a book which one day had to be written.’
(Monika Burghard, Radio Berlin)
`Kate Grenville was highly praised for The Secret River, and with good reason. The book is oppressive and tragic but also an informative historical novel, based on the colonization of Australia without a romanticised `adventure story’ view of those times. Kate Grenville defends the Aborigines, but she doesn’t moralise. Her narrative is sensitive and urgent, describing the lives of settlers and Aborigines living together.
Over a long period of time, William and Sal try to make a peaceful livelihood. They become rich, but guilt stays like a shadow over their new good fortune…A thrilling and gripping Australian novel.’
`Kate Grenville creates with fantastically described scenery and vivid characters an impressive picture of an unknown world. She points out how hunger, dirt and illness affect humans: the result is frequently brutalisation and cruelty. William and Sal resist that with strength, endurance and love.
The novel takes the reader into a past epoch, but through the theme of the loss of values due to poverty it also has a contemporary relevance.’
In the 19th century, British convicts were part of the first white settlement in Australia. The fate of these, the poorest of the poor, who expelled the Aborigines to gain freedom for themselves, has never achieved enough attention until now, in Kate Grenville’s view.
The book, honoured with the Commonwealth Prize 2006, is qualified to fill in a blank place in the history of colonisation.’
`Kate Grenville writes compellingly about life in the British penal colony – about misery, love and the struggle to survive. She describes how land was taken at that time and doesn’t conceal the atrocities done against, and by, the Aborigines.
A deeply moving book which stimulates reflection – a book you simply have to read.’
Ramona Koval talks to Kate Grenville about The Secret River
Ramona Koval: This week, a conversation with Kate Grenville, whose new long-awaited novel, The Secret River, has been well worth waiting for.
Kate’s last novel was The Idea of Perfection, a love story about two shy and not conventionally attractive people in a small town, and it won for her the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK. It was a long-time best-seller in Australia and the UK, and was published to acclaim in the USA. A film adaptation of the novel is currently being made.
The Secret River is a very different book. It’s an historical novel set in the early years of the settlement of NSW, and follows the life and times of William Thornhill, who was sentenced in 1806 to be transported to NSW 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 bloodshed that actually happened.
It’s a wonderful and disturbing novel, full of detail about life and work in the colony of NSW, and daring descriptions of the land and the strangeness of the encounters between black and white people. And when Kate Grenville spoke to me recently, I asked her to read from The Secret River.
Kate Grenville: [reading from As they neared the heads… to …into another geography altogether.]
Ramona Koval: Well, I think anybody listening to that must be particularly impressed with the language and the technicalities of the work of the lighterman turned sailer, I suppose, in the colonies. How did you find these ways to express this kind of work?
Kate Grenville: I began with years of research. I suppose it was about a year and a half of research before I started writing. So I read everything I could read about everything that was relevant to the book, even obliquely relevant, including boats and ships. But, of course, you can only get a certain amount out of books. Basically you’ve got to go out there and experience it, so the scene in which they first turn in to the Hawkesbury River from the ocean; I took the ferry across from Palm Beach to Ettalong one day, and it happened to be really rough, and it’s just a public ferry, it’s no big deal. But I was terrified. I was gripping the gunwale like Thornhill, and I suddenly tasted the salt on my lips, and I realised that I was more frightened than I had been for many years. One part of me was frightened, and the other part was cold-bloodedly taking notes in my notebook. This is what fear feels like. So as much as I could in the book, I did everything that I had to describe. I’m a great believer in the experiential theory of writing.
Ramona Koval: You’ve got, for example, Sal, who’s William Thornhill’s plucky wife, who is on the same transport as he his. His death sentence is commuted to the term of his natural life in the colonies, where we live, but his wife gets to go on the ship too. Did that happen?
Kate Grenville: It happened from time to time. The authorities in England had a real dilemma; if they only sent the men out, then there were a lot of what they nicely called ‘unnatural acts’ going on in the colony, and of course they didn’t want that. On the other hand, if they sent the women, then it wasn’t actually much of a punishment. So at different times the authorities back at the home office in London made a different decision, and it just happened that when Thornhill was sent out (and the real-life model for Thornhill) the authorities were more afraid of unnatural acts than they were of the convicts having a good time. So, quite a few wives were sent. It was almost regarded as a great privilege and a very rare indulgence, but it did happen to a surprising extent.
Ramona Koval: So this is based on your relative; did his wife come out as well?
Kate Grenville: Yes, my ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, was, like Thornhill, a lighterman on the Thames who pinched some timber and was caught, and was sent out with his wife. It’s probable that on arrival…I mean, he was the convict, the wife was a free immigrant, basically…so he would have been assigned to his wife, and the master of an assigned servant had total power, almost of life and death, over the assigned servant, which would have made for a really interesting husband and wife relationship, I think.
Ramona Koval: And they play with it in your book, don’t they?
Kate Grenville: Yes, they have a good time. They make it a nice joke, but it’s a joke with a slightly sour edge, too, and for many people it would not have been a joke at all.
Ramona Koval: While we’re talking about the writing process, I wanted to talk about the language that you use, because I found some of the language just beautifully poetic. Then I thought to myself, why is it poetic? What do I mean by that? And then I read it aloud to myself, and then I heard the poetry in the reading. So let me just read this sentence: ‘There was nothing he would have called a path, just a thready easing that led through the daisy lawn and up the slope, between the tussocks of grass and the mottled rocks that pushed themselves out from the ground.’ When I read that, I saw those poetic rhymes in it, and I just thought, do you actually read aloud, and do you change the words according to the rhythms of it? Does that ever happen?
Kate Grenville: Oh, all the time. I would never write a sentence that didn’t have a nice rhythm, or at least I wouldn’t leave it to be published like that. It seems to me that prose mustn’t be prosaic. I read a lot of poetry and I love what it does with language. I love music, too, and I think there’s probably no coincidence there, that the rhythm of the words is almost as important as the words themselves, and when you can get the two working together, which usually takes me about 20 goes, I feel a huge satisfaction. At about draft 18, I start reading it aloud, and at that point I rewrite nearly every sentence, not in a major way but just a little way; maybe replacing a comma, or putting a full stop, making it into two sentences. Of course, with this book I had the advantage of a magnificent editor, Michael Heyward at Text Publishing, who understood precisely about the music of the sentence and could tell me where my ear had gone tinny and got it wrong, and so we could work together to just get it perfectly right. It was a real privilege to work with him at that level of detail and minutiae.
Ramona Koval: What about the use of italics for direct speech? That’s the solution you’ve chosen in this book; any time somebody says something it’s in italics, and you don’t have to go away from the descriptive paragraph before or after. It seems part of the music of the text. Why did you decide to do that?
Kate Grenville: I’ve always had a problem with conventional punctuation of dialogue because it does seem to me to set it off too much from the narrative. I mean, in life, things don’t stop while somebody says something and then stuff starts up again, it’s all happening at once. Now, that simultaneity is not something that you can really describe in words because words go one after the other. But what a writer, I think, is always trying to do is get the illusion of that simultaneity, that you are feeling things and hearing things and touching things, and dialogue is going on at the same time. So I’ve tried a lot of different things. I think almost all my books have a different technique for trying to do it. In Lillian’s Story, my first novel, I used italics for dialogue, and I felt happy with it. It seemed to me to allow you to get away from the done social realism aspect of dialogue. You could let the dialogue be poetic in a way that the narrative was trying to be, too.
Ramona Koval: How do you choose the tone and the language of the narration to give us a sense that we’re steeped in a historical period different from our own? It’s not quite the same thing as getting the people speaking like they did at the time. In the narration…I thought there’s something about the narration that makes me think we’re not looking back on…you’re not telling us a story from a 21st century perspective.
Kate Grenville: Yes, I had to have a lot of goes at getting the narrative tone right. It’s not a first-person account but it is a fairly subjective third-person account. It’s basically Thornhill’s perception of the action. So I needed a voice that was kind of plausible for Thornhill, so it couldn’t be the kind of 18th, 19th century voice that we’re familiar with from literature which is a very literate, educated voice…that wouldn’t be right for an illiterate Thames bargeman. On the other hand, I didn’t want to sacrifice the possibilities for poetry and beautiful language and a richness of lyrical force, so I was in a bit of a quandary. What I ended up with was something that was fairly plain. The vocabulary is quite plain, the syntax is quite plain, but I hope that by arranging quite plain words in perhaps slightly unusual ways, I would get a slightly antique feeling and also a plausible voice for this Thames bargeman. I did a huge amount of research into late 18th century, 19th century language, and of course I came up against all those incredible expressions that people like Dickens were full of, wonderful Cockney slang and so on, and I was tempted to use a lot of that. In the end I didn’t because it draws attention to itself but every now and again I drop in a slightly antique word like ‘britches’ or ‘vittles’ and hope, also, that that gives a kind of antique flavour without being literally ‘ye olde’.
Ramona Koval: You’ve got some great words there. I suppose everybody knows what ‘tholepin’ is…
Kate Grenville: Oh of course!
Ramona Koval: I had to look it up. Tell us what a ‘tholepin’ is.
Kate Grenville: A tholepin is what you used instead of rowlocks before you had rowlocks…
Ramona Koval: Oh yes, the old rowlocks, we all know what rowlocks are…
Kate Grenville: Okay, well, let’s go one step further back; when you need to row a boat you stick the oars in a little metal bracket called a rowlock, but those metal brackets cost money, and the cheaper way is to simply have two little wooden peg things to hold the oar in place to stop it just slithering up and down the side of the boat, otherwise known as the gunwale, and these things are called tholepins. They had them in the old days because it was cheaper, and the labour to make the tholepins was much cheaper than the cost of the steel to make a steel rowlock. I mean, that’s how poor the whole thing was. ‘Tholepins’ was one of the few really obscure words that I allowed myself to leave in.
Ramona Koval: You could actually build one of these boats now you know all these things. It’s very useful, all the information you’ve got now.
Kate Grenville: Ask me anything about 18th century boats.
Ramona Koval: Well, let’s move from the writing to the ideas in this book. I think the title comes from a line in Stanner’s Boyer Lecture of 1968, ‘There is a secret river of blood in Australian history,’ which is the history of our relationship with the Aboriginal people, the river of blood. The Secret River is the title of your book.
Kate Grenville: Yes, I certainly didn’t want to call the book ‘The River of Blood’ because that would give, I think, a wrong impression about the book. What I wanted to describe or suggest was the fact that Australian history does have a series of secrets in it. There are cupboards in Australian history that we have just drawn a curtain over; we sort of know they’re there but we sort of don’t want to look at them. Other parts, we’ve drawn the curtain back with great pride-Gallipoli, the first planting of the flag by Captain Cook, the gold rushes-all that stuff. We’re happy to look in those cupboards, but there are other cupboards that make us uncomfortable, and for 200 years we’ve just chosen not to look at them too closely. So this is a book, in some way, about those cupboards, it opens a couple of those cupboards and looks into them in a judgment neutral way, but I hope a clear-eyed way, because my feeling is that until we are prepared to look at all those slightly hidden, slightly secret places in our history, we can’t actually make much progress into the future.
Ramona Koval: There’s a description of scarring in the book, and it says here, ‘On a lag’s back, the point about the scars was the pain that had been inflicted and the way they marked a man to his dying day. The scars on Scabby Bill’s chest [and Scabby Bill is an Aboriginal man] were different. It seemed that the point was not so much the pain as the scars themselves. Unlike the net of criss-cross weals on Daniel Ellison’s back, they were carefully drawn, each scar lined up neat next to its neighbour, a language of skin.’ So you show, really, the scars worn by both the black and the white proponents in this struggle for land, and the very fact that there is a shared scar but, in fact, the meaning of the scar is completely different for both people. There, I think, is a really good example of the kind of world views that clash and just have nowhere to meet.
Kate Grenville: That’s right. In doing all the research for this book, what I came away with overwhelmingly was the feeling that there had been no particular ill-will on both sides, at least in the beginning, but a complete inability to communicate. It wasn’t just language that the settlers and the Aboriginal people didn’t share. I mean, the Aboriginal people picked up English quite quickly and some of the settlers learned a bit of the local Aboriginal language, so it wasn’t the literal language, it was, as you say, a world view. The Aborigines, for example, had a culture in which individual competition, individual striving, individual ownership were not part of their world view, and they were unable to understand the way settlers marked out a bit of land for themselves individually, put a fence around it and called it theirs. The settlers, likewise, just couldn’t understand that the Aborigines had just as great a sense of territory as they themselves did but they didn’t need to build a fence of a house or a road to have that. So it was a tragic, tragic inability to communicate across a gulf of culture.
Ramona Koval: The Aborigines were regarded by the settlers, though, as non-human. That’s a bit of a barrier to understanding if you decide that the being across the fence is not a human being. Was it hard to write from this point of view, and how did you do it?
Kate Grenville: Well, I think not many of the settlers regarded the Aborigines as not being quite human. A few of them did, and I’ve got one of them in the book, a man called Smasher who certainly regards them as…he describes them as vermin, ‘Good only for manuring the land,’ which is a quote from a real settler. I think, though, that those settlers were probably in the minority. It seems to me that most settlers would have understood perfectly well that the Aboriginal people they met were, in fact, absolutely human beings, they often had a great deal of respect for them in many ways, although not much understanding. They allowed themselves to get into a kind of rationalisation about the Aborigines’ attitude to land. They allowed themselves to pretend that because the Aborigines were nomads they therefore had no particular attachment to place. But it was a real schizophrenia because at the very same moment…when you read the research you see this double-think going on…they could also recognise that Aborigines burst into cries of joy when they were retuned to their own place, and when taken out of their own territory they were as nervous and as uncertain as the white people. So I think there was a huge double-think going on, which is kind of tragic. You want to go back 200 years and say to the settlers, ‘Look, this is how the Aborigines are,’ and to the Aborigines, ‘Look, this is why the settlers are behaving the way they are. Let’s understand this. There’s no need for all this brutality.’
Ramona Koval: You use terms like ‘outrages’ and ‘depredations’, and these in the book are the public euphemisms and, in fact, exaggeration of the dangers of living side-by-side with Aboriginal people, the way that myths and stories are compounded in the telling, which happens in the book too. But they did have a basis in fact; people were killed by Aborigines…not to the extent that the stories became in the retelling, but you paint this picture of fear; men feared for their women living alone on their land while they went upriver and did things that they had to do with trading. So there was a fear built up about what was going to happen, that you were going to be scalped, you were going to be eaten, your children would be killed. Tell me about coming across the evidence for that sort of feeling.
Kate Grenville: I think when you don’t understand another set of people, it’s very easy for that lack of understanding to turn very quickly into fear. I think that fear of the ‘other’ is universal, we all feel it. We look at someone with a different shaped face, a different skin colour, a different kind of covering on their head, and we think, oh, I don’t understand this person. And the next instinct is, should I be worried about this person? So I think a lot of that happened, and these perfectly ordinary people from the Thames who had no education, no understanding, no breadth of world view, were plunged into this situation that they had no way of understanding. In a situation of ignorance like that, it’s awfully easy for people to orchestrate feelings, to manipulate people’s emotions. The accounts in the newspaper of the outrages and depredations always have this tone of surprise. It’s as if they can’t understand why the Aborigines might be robbing the white men or burning their crops or spearing their sheep and cattle. There’s this thing of puzzlement; these must be really irrational child-like people because we can’t understand why they would be spearing our cattle and burning our crops. Now, we can understand it perfectly well at a distance of 200 years. They couldn’t understand it, or at least they pretended not to, and so it was very easy for them to whip up this hysteria of Chinese whispers, so that a spear flung towards a white man, over a couple of tellings, would become a white man speared like a pin-cushion, scalped and eaten. We’re all familiar with that kind of Chinese whispers, and I think that happened a lot.
Ramona Koval: Is there a danger though, that by writing well about the mindset of the settlers at the time-the fears, the choices made by William Thornhill-that you end up justifying the slaughter of the people who were in the sights of the settlers, the massacred ones? I mean, how did you navigate that matter?
Kate Grenville: That was tricky because what I didn’t want to do was to step into the heads of any of the Aboriginal characters. I think that kind of appropriation…there’s been too much of that in our writing. That didn’t seem to me appropriate. So what I had to try to do was to let the reader know what was happening, even though Thornhill sometimes didn’t. There’s a scene, for example, in which the Aboriginal people light a fire and burn off some ground, and the white people can’t understand why, and just by coincidence, it seems, a week later it starts to rain, and a week after that there’s this wonderful meadow of soft green grass which is attracting the kangaroos, whereupon the Aborigines come and spear them and have some considerable BBQ feasts on it. Thornhill watches this, and he’s not a stupid man, and he suddenly realises, he has this insight that the Aboriginal people, he says, are farmers, just as much as the white man. Instead of building a fence though to keep the animals in, they make a patch so enticing that the animals are drawn to them. So he does have that insight, which I want the reader to understand. I’ve tried to be very even-handed. There is a gruelling scene of a white man speared, and his slow agonising death, but there is also an equally horrible scene of a young Aboriginal boy whose entire clan has been poisoned by arsenic in their flour. So I have tried to say, look, it happened on both sides, and on both sides it did not happen because these people were just bad people or evil, it happened because when you have a complete lack of understanding and you have two different sets of people needing the same resource (that is; good riverside land), it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to have violence. Unless the people involved have enormous insight and imagination, it’s going to be quite hard to avoid violence, but neither side were simply evil specimens of humanity.
Ramona Koval: You said before that you thought that you didn’t want to step into the minds of Aboriginal characters, and I think you used the word ‘appropriate’ there. Now, this surprises me, for a novelist to say that. I mean, shouldn’t everybody…every character, every animal, every chair and table be something that you could write about? Why not?
Kate Grenville: Sure, if another writer wanted to do it I would say good luck to them. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable about doing it. That was just a decision I made, and I suppose it’s not so much a matter of principle as realistically seeing my own limitations, and also that the subject of this book is actually white settlers, it’s the white settler response to the fact that the Aboriginal people were on the land they wanted to settle on. It’s not actually about the Aboriginal response to the white settlers. That’s not a story I could tell. I do believe that you have to draw on what you know to write well, and I don’t pretend to understand or be able to empathise particularly with a tribal Aboriginal person from 200 years ago; that’s beyond me.
Ramona Koval: So where would you put your book, finally, if you were laying out books on the history wars? Whereabouts would you slot yours?
Kate Grenville: Mine would be up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. I think the historians, and rightly so, have battled away about the details of exactly when and where and how many and how much, and they’ve got themselves into these polarised positions, and that’s fine, I think that’s what historians ought to be doing; constantly questioning the evidence and perhaps even each other. But a novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. You can set two sides against each other and ask which side will win, the Windschuttles of the world or the Henry Reynoldses of the world? Which is going to win? The sport analogy, if you like, about history. Or you can go up on the stepladder and look down and say, well, nobody is going to win. There is no winner. What there can be, though, is understanding, actually experiencing what it was like, the choices that those people had. And once you can actually get inside the experience, it’s no longer a matter of who’s going to win, it’s simply a matter of; yes, now I understand both sides and, having understood, the notion of one side being right and the other side being wrong becomes kind of irrelevant. So that’s where I hope this book will be. It stands outside that polarised conflict and says, look, this is a problem we really need, as a nation, to come to grips with. The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?
Ramona Koval: Kate Grenville. Her new novel, The Secret River, is published by Text. And that’s all from Books and Writing this week, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Michael Shirrefs.
Solomon Wiseman and William Thornhill
Along the veins of family story like a virus, the rumours about my great-great-great grandfather travelled for 200 years. Violence, anger, love, ambition: the stories circled but never settled.
I researched with fear of what I’d find, and came upon a bigger story than I’d expected: nothing less than the hidden, unspoken, half-erased history of the place where I belong. I found not just one man, but a whole family ripped out of one world and catapulted into another, terrifying one. And I found the people into whose lives they exploded: the original, dark-skinned Australians, the ones on the front line of the colonial war.
My great-great-great grandfather’s story opened up the past of my own place for me. It’s been both a confronting and a liberating experience. And it opened up his place for me, too: the London that he carried within him, even in the remoteness of the Asutralian bush, and the Thames that he never forgot, even on the wild banks of the Hawkesbury.
Where the book started
I’ve always been sceptical when writers spoke about stories “taking them over”, but I’m hereby prepared to eat my words. The Secret River took me over entirely for the five years of its writing – to the point where my children threatened to leave home if they heard the word “history” one more time.
The book started innocently enough, as a search into my family’s past. My mother had told me stories about the first of our family to come to Australia – my great-great-great grandfather was a lighterman on the Thames, pinched a load of timber and was transported for the term of his natural life. Within a few years of arriving here, he’d become a free man and “taken up land”, as the euphemism goes – on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. He went on to become a wealthy man and was buried – so the story goes – in top hat and tails, with a box of sovereigns at his feet. (Unfortunately for his great-great-great grand-daughter, the next generation proceeded to lose the lot.)
Once I started looking, it was surprisingly easy to find out quite a bit about his early life in London and his crime. The picture of his life in Australia was much sketchier. I could find plenty of information about his business wheelings and dealings, but not much else.
It was all interesting enough, but my imagination wasn’t stirred by any of it – until the day of the Reconciliation Walk across the Harbour Bridge. I was there for the same reason I suppose most people were – we were sorry about what had happened in the past, and wanted to acknowledge it. The Walk was only a gesture, a piece of symbolism, but it was better than silence.
Near the end of the walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman watching the march, and we exchanged smiles. It was a warm moment.
But that moment opened a door I’d never known was there. As our eyes met, I thought, `Her great-great-great grandfather was here when mine was. They might even have met. ‘ That led to the next thought: `What kind of meeting would it have been? Would they have smiled at each other, the way we just did?”
I thought that wasn’t very likely, and suddenly that bland phrase in the family story – “he took up land” – started to split open. He didn’t just “take up” land, he actually “took” land, from people who’d been living on it for forty thousand years. What had happened when he did that?
It was all very well to know about my ancestor’s business dealings, but what had gone on, exactly, up on that hundred acres on the Hawkesbury? In those days ( about 1810) the river was the very limit of settlement – the frontier. Perhaps he’d been granted the land, or perhaps he’d just selected it and worried about the paperwork later. He’d sailed up the river, he’d pushed the boat in among the mangroves, he’d struggled through them to dry land – and then what?
How had the local Aboriginal people taken the entry of this man and his family onto their traditional land? What had it been like, that very first day – what had happened when the Aboriginal people came out of the bush towards the Europeans? What had they done, and what did my great-great-great grandfather do? Had it been friendly (as of course I hoped) or distrustful, even violent?
I was afire to know – but my search was a frustrating one. There was no information – none that I could find, anyway – about his relationship with the Darug people around him: nothing, not even a passing reference.
This could mean that nothing happened: either that the Darug had gone from that part of the river by the time he “took up” land there, or that he found a way to co-exist with them.
Or it could mean that things happened – but things that it was in no-one’s interest to record.
As I scoured the records, it became clear that I would never know.
was my forebear one of the honorable settlers who respected – at least to some extent – the original owners of the land, or was he was on the man who treated them brutally? Or did he occupy some middle ground?
But as my research took me far beyond my family story, into the larger story of black/white relations in early Australia, it stopped mattering. Whatever the individual man Solomon Wiseman had been like, he was part of the wave of British settlers who dispossessed the indigenous people.
History to Fiction
Like my ancestor, William Thornhill began his life beside the Thames, was sent here as a convict, and prospered. Beyond that any resemblance ends. Thornhill became a living, breathing, feeling creature for me in a way the figure in the family stories had never been. Thornhill was a man of strong feelings, quick to anger, a hard man, but one with a fierce love for his wife and children. I’d met men just like him.
Thornhill’s wife stepped out of the shadows of the past and introduced herself, too: Sal, a woman whose life had been turned upside down when her husband had been sent to the end of the world and she had followed him. A spoiled only child, she had become a strong woman out of the necessity of her life. She was shrewd, passionate and honourable – eaten away with homesickness, but slowly coming to understand the new place.
These two people, along with five children and a crowd of minor characters, took up habitation within me as well as on the banks of the Hawkesbury. The story I wanted to tell was of people thrown into a situation unlike anything they’d had to face before, and for which nothing in their experience could have equipped them.
They were confronted by choices that must have seemed impossible. The Thornhills, like most of the other freed convicts, couldn’t go back to their life of grinding poverty in London. Who in their right mind would choose that, when staying in Australia meant wealth and a place in the new society? But in staying here they were on land that belonged to other people – people who were willing to fight and kill for it. There was no getting away from that fact: the choice they had to make was how they dealt with it.
Reading letters, journals, newspapers, official documents and histories of the time, it was clear that settlers responded to that choice in very different ways. Many found ways to co-exist peaceably with the Aboriginal people. Others regarded them as not quite human, and shot them for sport. Between these extremes were most settlers: ordinary people like the Thornhills, wanting nothing more than to get on with making a life for themselves.
The pressures that might push a person towards one response or another was the heart of the story. Fear, compassion, government policy, peer pressure, miscommunication, self-interest – all these went into the mix. Would the Thornhills live as peaceable neighbours with the Darug, or would they join the settlers who went out with guns to “disperse” them.
I did an enormous amount of research. This book isn’t history, but it’s solidly based on history. Most of the events in the book “really happened” and much of the dialogue is what people really said or wrote.
Research, rather than family stories, provided the material for the second half of the book.
Wherever possible I based events in the book on recorded historical events, sometimes adapting and changing them as to exact date, exact place or exact individuals involved. For example, Thornhill’s first meeting with the Aboriginal people on the Hawkesbury, where he slaps an “old man”, is based on a similar incident involving the first Governor. The incident in which Captain McCallum fails to ambush a group of Aboriginal people is based on many accounts of similar failures by the military. The Proclamation which gives settlers permission to shoot aboriginal people is taken verbatim from Governor Macquarie’s Proclamation of 1816. The massacre scene takes many of its details from eyewitness accounts of the Waterloo Creek killings in 1838.
Some characters are also loosely based on historical figures, and some of their dialogue is taken from their own mouths. Smasher, for example, quotes the early settler William Cox when he suggests the Aboriginal people should be shot and used for manuring the ground. Blackwood is based on accounts of particular settlers who protected Aboriginal people and fought for their rights. Mrs Herring takes some of her qualities from Margaret Catchpole, an indomitable early Hawkesbury settler.
I relied for much of this information and inspiration on the work of historians. Without the expert, informed, painstaking work of many historians, a novelist couldn’t hope to enter the often-inaccessible world of the past.
It was important to me that the incidents and characters were solidly based on history, but as a novelist I drew on the historical sources loosely, as a starting-point for the work of the imagination.
Imagining the Past
As a novelist, my challenge was to put flesh on the bones of history and make all that research come to life. I had to feel what it was like to be at the bottom of the English class system with no hope of ever rising. I had to imagine what it was like to be illiterate. I needed to know what the texture of daily life was like – what did those first settlers eat, for example? Did they have footwear or were they barefoot in the bush? What was a bark hut actually like to live in? What exactly is a “slush lamp”, and what kind of light does it give? What happens, exactly, when a spear or a musket ball enters a human body?
Above all, I wanted to know the individuals, to get into their heads and their hearts. In all their variety of personalities, they must have been like people I knew and like myself – not heroes and not devils, but just human beings, stumbling from one small decision to the next and in so doing, without really planning it, creating the shape of their lives. As I wrote, I kept coming back to the central question: what would I have done in their place?
The past as a way in to the present
It’s not always comfortable to ask that question, because none of us can be sure of the answer. There’ll be people who won’t like what I’ve done in this book. There’ll be those who prefer to hang onto their preconceptions about “pioneer days” and who feel in any case that it’s all so long ago, what’s the point of dredging it all up again?
My feeling is that there’s a sense of unfinished business in our history – it’s probably why the “history wars” go on making headlines, why family research is booming, and perhaps even why 17,000 people went to Gallipolli recently to think about something that happened a lifetime ago. There’s no going back and replaying the hand the history dealt us, but we can go back and tease the story out so we can feel what it was like to live through it. Understanding is the first step – without that there’s no way to go forward.
In writing this fiction, I didn’t have a message or an axe to grind. I wasn’t interested in judging those people, only in getting into their lives. I hoped to create an experience for a reader in which they could understand what that moment of our past was really like. The great power of fiction is that it’s not an argument: it’s a world. Inhabit it for a while – say 300 pages worth – and you’re likely to come out a little changed.