David Scott Mitchell Memorial Lecture


Hunters and Gatherers: A Novelist’s Debt to the Mitchell Library

This lecture was delivered on 11th of September 2010 in the Mitchell Reading Room at the State Library of NSW.

I’m honoured to be asked to deliver this lecture. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening – thank you all for coming.

There are a few spots in Sydney where, if you half-close your eyes, you can imagine what this place must have been like when the original Australians lived here, before Europeans arrived. Dawes Point, out on the harbour, is one, and this hill is another. I imagine it would have been a much-loved spot for those first Australians, as it is for those of us who came later. I’d like to begin by acknowledging those traditional custodians of this land on which we’re meeting today, and to pay my respects to their elders, past & present. We’re here tonight to celebrate a hundred years of one kind of Australian culture, but that other Australian culture has enriched this continent for very much longer than that.

Not long ago I was in Ireland where I discovered to my surprise how inhospitable their public libraries are. Even to enter the room and sit at a desk in a place that would be roughly the equivalent of this one – the National Library of Ireland – you need to fill out a form and supply two forms of ID, two passport photos and a letter from someone to vouch for you. That’s before you even think about asking for a book.

How different from this welcoming institution, where any old person can wander in off the street, and frequently does. Wander in, sit down, and read the books freely available on the open shelves.

The “Mitchell” has been part of my life ever since I can remember. I first came here as a small child with my mother, who always stopped at the doors and loudly brought my attention to the bronze bas reliefs on them. They are magnificent – they acknowledge the world that was here before Europeans arrived. She was right to admire them, but I was paralysed with embarrassment, because the people on the doors are mostly naked.

Years later, when I was at Uni, my boyfriend and I had the dubious distinction of being thrown out of the reading room for necking behind the maps catalogue.

One way and another, this building holds lots of rich experiences for me.

One of the urban myths about the Mitchell Library is that somewhere in here is a big card catalogue with the names of all the convicts. Nowadays it’s chic to have a convict forebear (I’ve got three, how chic is that) but the story goes that in the bad old days, when we were ashamed of our past, people used to come into the library, find the card with their family’s name on it, and rip it out.

It’s a dramatic story and one we’ve all probably heard dozens of times. There’s only one small problem – there has never been any such catalogue.

But like most apocryphal stories, its literal untruth carries a metaphoric truth. In this case, the story says: the archive matters. That urban myth is a tribute to the power of the historical record.

Which, now I think about it, might be why Ireland has a problem. The archive is never neutral.

My own epiphany about the power of what’s been preserved came when I was researching one of my convict ancestors, Solomon Wiseman.

Like everyone researching their convict ancestor – and is there a single person in Australia who isn’t? – it wasn’t a matter of going to one vast oily card catalogue, but something like eight or ten different kinds of catalogues. Like all other researchers in those arcane organising systems, I’d like to take this opportunity of thanking the librarians and pay homage to their endless patience with dummies like me who need to be led by the hand through the maze.

Wiseman was a lighterman on the Thames who, in 1806, pinched some valuable timber and was sent to NSW for the term of his natural life. Starting from nothing, he died a rich man. (Unfortunately for his great-great-great granddaughter, the next generation lost the lot.)

There were plenty of entries about Wiseman, and I worked through them all: mostly rather dull stuff about his business dealings. Wiseman was illiterate but he knew the power of the written word and employed a clerk to write his various bullying and begging letters for him, and had learned to make a shape on the paper that bore some relationship to his name.

It was clear that somewhere along the line there must have been one decisive, life-changing moment while he was in Sydney that let him make the shift from poor man to rich man. But there seemed no record of that moment, whatever it was.

In the last distant corner of the last catalogue was an entry that sounded utterly uninteresting : Promissory Notes 1814/1815, AW47. I expected yet another reel of microfilm, another not-very-interesting detail to do with buying and selling boats and cedar.

Instead, what arrived on my desk was a brown folder holding a small slip of flimsy cheap paper, this sort of size: a printed IOU form. It was dated October 15, 1814 – a couple of years after Wiseman earned or bought his Absolute Pardon. The blanks on the form were filled in in faded old brown ink and revealed that “Four months after date I promise to repay Alexander Riley Esq the sum of three hundred and sixty one pounds, nine shillings and five pence sterling. Signed, Solomon Wiseman.”

Then there was Wiseman’s signature. Not the firm up and down that I’d got used to seeing on the other documents. This was a pale, wavery, uncertain shape. You could see that the man who’d held the pen and made those marks was trembling. His hand was shaking so much that the words had become a tremulous squiggle.

In that second, Wiseman became real to me. There he was, an illiterate man who’d never owned more than the hat on his head and the coat on his back, signing his name to a debt that must have been huge – more than enough to ruin him. This was the very piece of paper he’d held. His hand would have touched it just there, where you’d steady it to sign your name.

That piece of paper told me exactly the kind of richly contradictory and enigmatic thing a novelist needs to know: this was a man who was scared to death – but he was going ahead anyway.

That very day I went home and started work on the novel that became The Secret River. The reality of that scrap of paper had done what no amount of reading and learning had done – it had freed my imagination to feel the reality of that distant man, signing his life away with a trembling hand.

For the whole of the writing of that novel, I blessed David Scott Mitchell and all those like him, and I also blessed the generations of librarians who’ve preserved and added to what he collected.

What struck me was that that promissory note was no gorgeous manuscript on parchment, no exquisite leather-bound book. It wasn’t even a personal letter, where you could hear the voice of someone long dead. In other words, it wasn’t obviously precious.

It was the merest scrap of the crummiest paper, something you wouldn’t look at twice before tossing it in the bin. A dozen times between Wiseman signing it, and it being part of a collection that David Scott Mitchell bought, someone could have looked at it and thought, oh, this old rubbish, we don’t need this. Yet – a series of someones had made sure it didn’t go in the bin. The kind of someones who just kept things.

Then a couple of decades later, the ultimate Someone-who kept-things, David Scott Mitchell, came along and made sure that it would be waiting for a middle-aged novelist doing some family history research.

There’s a wonderful humility about that sort of keeping. Mitchell didn’t assume that he knew what would matter in the future. He just hung onto the whole lot. At a time when the convict taint was something people went to great lengths to conceal, he said of the convict records: “I must have the damned thing, if only to show how bad it is. The main thing is to get the records. We’re too near our own past to view it properly, but in a few generations the convict past will take its proper place in the perspective … ”

Mitchell’s work is the ultimate justification for all of us who live surrounded by clutter. He sets a precedent for hoarders. But Mum, don’t throw that pizza box out!

Good thing he lived when he did. These days he’d be diagnosed as having obsessive-compulsive disorder and be medicated into normalcy.

Every generation re-invents its past and writes the story of itself with a different emphasis, a different meaning. But beyond all that telling and re-telling, all the massaging of evidence and the convenient omissions, a body of historical material such as this lets us go back to the sources and see for ourselves. Having as much as possible of the past represented in the archive – not just selected highlights – is what keeps a culture honest.

When you start to look for David Scott Mitchell, one thing stands out – the irony that this obsessive collector and keeper left almost nothing of himself behind for future researchers – for what Patrick White called the ferrets. Few letters, no journals, no diaries. What he did wasn’t about ego. He didn’t want a marble bust of himself, just a permanent place for his collection. In not leaving anything of himself behind, he’s telling us that this is all we need to know about him. This is his monument.

Having said that, if the spirit of Patrick White will forgive me, I’ll go into ferret mode for a moment.

David Scott Mitchell was born in 1836 into a comfortable middle class family. His father, James Mitchell, was a farmer’s son from Scotland – James’s way up was by becoming an army doctor and that’s how he came to Australia. James Mitchell became one of Sydney’s top doctors, for a time the chief medical officer of Sydney Hospital. He left that post under circumstances that suggest he was no shrinking violet and not afraid of a public stoush.

Consistent with that character, James Mitchell was also an entrepreneur of extraordinary vigour and variety – I imagine him somewhat in the Alan Bond mould. Whatever kind of business was going on in the Colony, he had a finger in its pie: land speculation, banking, coal mines, a tweed factory, the Australian Gas Light Co, the Legislative Council, a salt works. James Mitchell comes across as an outgoing public man with an endless appetite for new ventures.

Like many another bold entrepreneur, James Mitchell ran into problems. He was sacked from his post as the head of Sydney Hospital in controversial circumstances; he was bankrupted by bank failure; and on his deathbed he was taken in by a con-man & left his whole estate to him.

His is a story, then, of extremes: spectacular success and failure.

I’m telling you all this because the man that David Scott Mitchell became must have been shaped at least in part by his family circumstances, as we all are. Before he was thirty, David Scott Mitchell had seen his father’s public standing evaporate once, and his money evaporate twice. (To get their inheritance back, James Mitchell’s children had to challenge the will in long-drawn-out litigation.)

An armchair psychologist might say that the father’s volatile fortunes made some sense of the son’s compulsion to collect and keep. Pile it up! Hang onto it all!

David Scott Mitchell seems to have been an unremarkable student at Sydney University (he was among the first intake there). At one stage he was accused of “culpable and wilful negligence” in his studies and handed in a blank examination paper in Physics. However he came good and won some prizes for science and mathematics and he graduated as a barrister, although he never practised. Until he was about 30 he seems to have spent a blameless but unexiting life dallying gallantly with various love-interests, engaging in amateur theatricals, and playing a handy game of cricket. He was also, apparently, a dab hand at whist and dominoes.

At this stage of his life he wrote some love-poems. I think the ghost of David Scott Mitchell would cringe if I read them aloud. Suffice to describe them as frivolous doggerel.

When he was 33, his father died. His mother died two years later.

Shortly after that he moved into a house in Darlinghurst where he lived very quietly for the rest of his life and devoted himself to collecting. The cricket and the terrible poetry and the whist all went by the board. He made himself more or less invisible, sitting in his house with his armchair and his revolving bookcase and his piles of books. He never married, and if there were any other love-interests they don’t appear anywhere in the record.

One of his acquaintances, the bookseller James Tyrell, later made a tremendous virtue of this. “ … the great Australian & NZ collectors remained bachelors … the thanks of the community are due to the ladies who left them alone to indulge their love for books.”

His whole adult life was spent in the same house in Darlinghurst. He lived there with a housekeeper, a white cockatoo, and tens of thousands of books. For many years his diet was two lamb chops taken morning and night.

We will probably never know why he chose to live the way he did. Like Patrick White, another great Australian also accused of being a misanthropic recluse, Mitchell has been the subject of various mean-spirited tabloidy rumours which, as far as I can see, have no basis in fact. I suspect they spring out of the malice directed against a person who chooses not to waste time with time-wasters.

His dominoes team might have been the poorer for his choice of life, but the rest of us can be grateful.

Mitchell’s collection started in the conventional way of that time, with English literature, and he dabbled in a few other lines of collecting. Then he discovered what he was put on Earth to do: collect everything and anything to do with Australia. Books, manuscripts, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, leaflets, pictures, miniatures, relics, coins, tokens, medals and bookplates.

If there’d been pizza boxes in 1860 he’d have scooped those up too.

Every Monday morning he’d go around the bookshops – the cabbies called him “old four hours” – that’s how long it took to do the rounds. He was said to drive a hard bargain and was ruthless in his pursuit of an item. Another collector refused to part with an item that Mitchell wanted, so Mitchell simply bought the man’s entire library.

Not everyone loved Mitchell. The Public Librarian of the time, HCL Anderson, was in competition with Mitchell to buy books for the Public Library. In his memoir he leaves this picture of Mitchell: “One important branch of our operations – the collection of Australiana – was ‘cribbed, cabined and confined’ by the maleficent actions of a dreadful human bogey, whose lair was in 17 Darlinghurst Road. He got the first choice of everything rare and valuable, gave extravagant prices, kept his treasures locked up in his dungeon, refused access to visitors and was a mere bibliomaniac who collected without knowledge or discrimination for the mere pleasure of owning.”

Anderson’s frustration is understandable – and he wasn’t to know, when he felt all that spleen, that Mitchell’s collection would eventually be donated to the Public Library. In retrospect we can say that it worked out well: Mitchell bought those expensive items with the money from his father’s coal mines in the Hunter Valley, and saved the taxpayer’s hard-earned cash.

After 30-odd years of this life he died, of pernicious anaemia. He left his housekeeper a pound a week for life and he left the nation a priceless collection from which all the histories and many of the fictions of Australia have been written ever since.

His will makes interesting reading. Even beyond the grave, Mitchell was determined to micromanage his collection. Reading through the thickets of legalise, a passionate anxiety sounds like a foghorn.

It wasn’t the individual items that he was worried about so much as the collection as a whole. Like some living creature that he’d brought into being over the course of all those years, the collection was to be housed in “a special wing or set of rooms to be called the Mitchell Library.” He instructed that it should “be permanently kept separate from and so as to avoid intermixture at any time with any other books or collection or collections.”

I think he’d forgive any intermixture that’s happened since 1910.

He also left a bequest so that his thoroughbred could be inseminated with suitable breeding material as opportunity arose.

“It being my desire that the purchase of rare or valuable works of Australia literature may be made if and when opportunity may arise irrespective so far as may be possible of cost.” Even beyond the grave, David Scott Mitchell was still collecting.

Because the facts of his life are so meagre, and the possibilities of his inner, private, personal life so entirely unknown, the novelist’s imagination has nothing much to work on: only the gigantic, overwhelming fact of that passion for collecting.

Most of us at some stage have collected something. As a child I collected the empty snail shells that I found under the ferns in our garden. I also nursed an ambition to collect every book by my favourite author, Captain W.E. Johns, so that I’d own every single Biggles book.

Like every other facet of human behaviour, collecting has now been studied. I recently read an article by a group of neuroscientists called: “A neural basis for collecting behaviour in humans.”

They begin by acknowledging that “collecting behaviour is commonplace in the normal population …” which is reassuring to those of us with collections of snail shells in our pasts. But they go on say that collecting can assume pathological proportions, leading to a “massive and disruptive accumulation of useless objects …” This pathological kind of collecting they describe as “repetitive and indiscriminate acquisition behaviour and impaired discard behaviour …”

It’s thought to result from damage to the “mesial frontal region, including the right polar sector and the anterior cingulate”.

An unsympathetic person could well have seen Mitchell’s collection as “impaired discard behaviour”. After all, in 1860, Solomon Wiseman’s promissory note would definitely have looked like a useless object.

Forget the medication, these days the poor man would’ve gone under the knife.

But the evolutionary advantages of the collecting urge are obvious. The person who collected more berries in summer would be less hungry in winter. Bowerbirds do it as sexual showing off: I may not be big and strong but boy can I accumulate.

It’s also a way of keeping chaos at bay – a way of controlling the fearsome vastness of the world. Autistic people, with problems with boundaries, often collect facts such as the height of tides at a hundred points around the coast of Great Britain.

The world is full of the eccentric and magical results of the collectors’ urge. Sir John Soane, whose London house is now a museum, had a scatter-gun approach, everything from alabaster Egyptian sarcophagi to muzzle-loaders. Sir Joseph Banks risked his life to collect, for example, a case full of dozens and dozens of almost but not quite identical seashells. Narcissus Marsh in Dublin stuck to books, but some were so precious that you had to be locked into a special little wire cage to read them.

Some collectors just want to acquire but not protect. I was an acquaintance of a well-known Sydney collector who filled an enormous house with precious books and paintings, but when he died many of them were found to have been soaked with rain, trodden on, broken into pieces or piddled on by his cats.

Books in particular seem to attract extreme kinds of behaviour. When does the urge to own every Biggles book become the medical condition known as bibliomania? And what about people who are compelled to steal books (bibliokleptomania), bury books (bibliotaphy) and even eat books (bibliophagy)?

As you can see from this collection of Useless Factoids About Collecting, novelists and collectors have a great deal in common. Both obsessively hunt and gather – in the case of novelists, it’s characters, stories, the kind of detail you need to write fiction. If you were being rude, you could describe a novel as nothing more than a massive accumulation of useless words.

My current novel takes as its starting point a bit of family history that again involves Solomon Wiseman, but is mostly about his daughter and grand-daughter. Once again the Mitchell Library has been the engine that got me going with this story. Oddly enough, long before I was invited to give this lecture, it also led me directly to David Scott Mitchell. Or at least appeared to. More of that in a moment.

The trail began with some fragments about Wiseman’s children.

The first is a bit of family legend – a persistent family story is that “one of Solomon Wiseman’s daughters got pregnant to the riding master and was thrown out of the house and died”. This was a dramatic story but made no sense since both Solomon Wiseman’s daughters were well accounted for in the record and neither had been thrown out of the house etc.

Thank you, Mitchell Library, for keeping that record of the births, marriages and deaths of those blameless daughters.

The other fragment is about Solomon Wiseman’s son, William Wiseman, who became a sealer in New Zealand. Thank you, Mitchell Library, for keeping a record of shipping movements in the early nineteenth century.

William Wiseman had a wife in Australia, but he also had a wife in New Zealand. He and his Maori wife had a daughter, and when he and his wife were drowned, the little girl was sent for by her grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, and came to live on the Hawkesbury. Thank you, Mitchell library, for access to Baron von Hugel’s New Holland Journal.

This girl was baptised with the name of Sophia Wiseman. Her real, Maori name, is lost.

Then she died, as recorded by the Sydney Morning Herald: “Wiseman, Sophia, age 13 – mother Rugig a New Zealander – died December 9th 1840, after a lingering illness, at Mr Mitchell’s Darlinghurst.” Thank you, Mitchell Library, for your archive of historic newspapers.

The family legend about the girl who got pregnant and was thrown out of the house – it makes perfect sense, of course, if the girl was not Solomon Wiseman’s daughter but his granddaughter, this Sophia. Now the hunter-gatherer novelist has a story. There’s the child from New Zealand, taken away from her home and culture. She’s miserable, finds solace with the riding master, becomes pregnant. Solomon Wiseman throws her out of the house and she dies at this rather sinister sounding place “Mr Mitchell’s Darlinghurst”.

The novelist has a vivid picture of Mr Mitchell’s – some squalid place where pregnant girls were sent to be relieved in one way or another of their babies. Bare boards, dirty beds, miserable girls in trouble … the picture of course is collected from other novels. Thank you Mr Dickens.

Then the hunter in the novelist went looking for “Mr Mitchell’s Darlinghurst”. I discovered that one celebrated “Mr Mitchell” in Sydney at that time was James Mitchell, father of the more famous son. As I then learned, and you now know too, he was one of Sydney’s top doctors and he ran a posh private clinic.

So the novelist had to discard her treasured collection of Dickensian squalor. Not bare boards and overflowing chamber pots, but cosy chintz and a kindly distinguished doctor with a sweet bookish son of 4 years old called David. And not Solomon Wiseman the monster who threw his granddaughter out to die, but Solomon Wiseman who was willing to pay top dollar for her to be looked after by the best doctor in town.

The hunter should have stopped there. But she went on and found an inconvenient fact: James Mitchell’s posh private clinic wasn’t anywhere near Darlinghurst, but at the other end of Sydney, in Cumberland Place in the Rocks. Thank you, Mitchell Library, for keeping the Sand’s street directory for 1850 – even though just that once it would have been easier for me if you’d lost it.

My picture of Dr Mitchell looking after Sophia, with little David running around downstairs, was so enticing that for a long time I was prepared to think there’d been some mistake. Someone had said Darlinghurst when they meant Cumberland Place. Easy mistake to make.

But the honest dealer in me (as opposed to the novelist) couldn’t buy that.

There was, of course, another even more celebrated “Mr Mitchell” in Sydney at that time, and he did live in Darlinghurst. It was not Mr Mitchell, but Major Mitchell, surveyor and explorer and (as far as I know) no relation of the Mitchell in whose honour we’re here tonight. Major Mitchell owned a large estate in Darlinghurst and a mansion there called Craigend. Darlinghurst was then an extremely exclusive part of town. Thank you, Mitchell Library, for keeping the land sales records for the 1830s.

So the record – as far as I’ve been able to trace it so far – gives us this scenario: Sophia Wiseman, the pregnant half-Maori granddaughter of an ex-convict on the Hawkesbury, ends up at Major Mitchell’s luxurious mansion fifty miles away and dies there. Lingeringly.

Sounds like a nineteenth century opera. All I need is a bit of cross-dressing.

None of it makes sense. This hunter and collector has hunted and collected too much for her own good.

But not really. The point of all that research is that, from being nothing more than a nameless reference in a family story, easy to dismiss as just one of those inventions that family stories spawn, Sophia Wiseman now has some kind of existence. Thanks to the work of collectors like David Scott Mitchell and all the archivists and librarians and curators who’ve followed him, that girl has been plucked back from complete oblivion. Thanks to them, we can now give her small life some kind of particularity.

Well, so what, we might say. All lives have had particularity. But the shape and details of a particular life give us a way to think about bigger issues than that individual, they open up larger meanings.

Sophia Wiseman’s story points towards some of those larger meanings. About people of mixed ancestry in the nineteenth century. About children taken away from their cultures. About secrets and lies. Above all, about stories remembered and stories forgotten, stories kept and stories lost.

If, as a novelist, you were inventing a narrative to “illustrate” those themes, you’d be inclined to invent something less ambiguous. Who felt what and why, who did what and why, would all be clear. If you weren’t careful, what you’d end up with would be abstract and stereotyped. It would be a kind of sleight-of-hand – making up evidence, if you like, to bolster the argument you wanted to make: the kind of dishonest dealing that, for me, can give fiction a bad name.

The story of Sophia Wiseman is one that you wouldn’t be likely to invent. It’s full of loose ends and things that don’t make sense. The facts of the historical record make it impossible to construct a neat bit of narrative algebra.

I can’t pretend to myself that Sophia Wiseman died at Dr Mitchell’s in Cumberland Place, with all the meanings that that would imply, because the record tells me that wasn’t so.

Of course, I’m a novelist – I can make my character die wherever I like. But being forced to think about why and how she might have died at Mr Mitchell’s in Darlinghurst, and nowhere else, presents the challenge of going beyond any simplistic invention and cliche. The obstinate facts of the historical record are precisely what can break open the easy boxes of meaning that we yearn for. They stand there blocking the way, telling you no: you have to think further, imagine more deeply.

Truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s truer. To me, both as a reader and as a writer, pure invention isn’t of much interest. What is interesting is to look at something – some bit of human behaviour – that really did happen. The challenge then is to understand it – to imagine a scenario that can make sense of that behaviour. Whether the scenario is “correct” is often something we can simply never know. But searching for it forces us to burrow below the surface, below the stereotypes, below the simplicities that – when it comes to human behaviour – can only be false.

We’ll probably never know anything more about Sophia Wiseman, dead a hundred and seventy years. But the almost-transparent ghost of her story, as preserved in this library, has been the engine driving the novel I’m now writing, in which a girl like her plays a central part.

That novel will be the third in a trilogy about colonial Australia. All three novels take the historical record as their starting-point. The Secret River began with me holding that IOU in my hand and looking at that wobbly signature. Wiseman really did borrow that huge sum – really did take that colossal risk. I’ve held the bit of paper, seen that wobbly signature. What sort of person does that? Where does that act come from, and where might it lead? Trying to answer those questions is where the novel started.

The Lieutenant began with an extraordinary archival document – a notebook that records, word-for-word, the friendship that blossomed between Lieutenant William Dawes of the First Fleet and a young Gadigal girl called Patyegarang. I’ve held the little blue notebooks in which he wrote down their conversations word for word. Who were those two people, capable of bridging the gulf between their cultures? It’s a story you’d never think to invent – it seems unbelievable.

The fictions I’ve built around those moments of recorded reality are just that – fictions. Only a historian has ever mistaken them for history. But they would never have been written without the treasures preserved in archives and libraries, particularly this one.

Whatever it is that motivates collectors, I’ve of the view that their right polar sectors and their anterior cingulates should be left well alone. The gift David Scott Mitchell made to us is the gift of our stories – our histories and also our fictions. He gave us the gift of ourselves.

What that means is that, a hundred years later, a person can wander into his monument, look up the catalogue, and hold in her hand an object that gives life to the empty expanses of the past.

David, I hope you’re in some vast book repository in heaven, sitting in another of those armchairs you had here on earth, with another revolving bookcase beside you (perhaps containing The Secret River). You’ve given us a priceless gift, and we thank you for it.


Kate Grenville

September 2010