Kate Grenville was interviewed on the most recent Guardian Books Podcast, a good choice of guest as the subject was historical fiction, and her last three books – The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill – have been tales of the early years of the colony of New South Wales.
It must be irritating to Ms Grenville that every time a journalist talks to her about her colonial novels, they raise the matter of the ‘attacks’ on The Secret River by ‘historians’. And that’s what happens in this podcast. Asked about the response to The Secret River, KG says in part:
We all kind of knew that things had happened, but people of my generation were brought up with this illusion that, you know, the reason there were no Aboriginal people left in many parts of Australia was that they all got measles, and had no resistance to it. We all kind of knew that this was wrong and The Secret River gave people a way of starting to think about it, I think. And because it’s fiction, it wasn’t too confronting. With fiction you can always reassure yourself that after all this is just made up. …
A couple of historians, with The Secret River, were cranky that I was writing something that they felt was their territory. You know, this is hard stuff to think about. Here we are as white Australians living incredibly privileged lives and we’re doing it on the back of 2oo years of oppression and misery and murder, basically. To actually look that fact in the face is extremely confronting, very difficult. So I think when those historians really diverted the debate away from what I’d been writing the books about, which is the massacre and what the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge, I think they felt that this was a chance to divert the debate into something more comfortable – which is the debate of is it history, is it fiction, how far should novelists go in writing historical fiction.
OK, the only reason for a novelist to appear on the Guardian podcast is to promote her own work, and the dismissal of any number of other novelists who have tackled the subject (Thea Astley comes immediately to mind, and surely there are others) can be forgiven as loose talk. It’s absolutely true that the subject of ‘massacre and what the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge’ is difficult and confronting and, I would add, of high priority (though it’s an open question whether the book actually goes to the question of the beneficiaries). It may even be that the criticisms of The Secret River had the effect of diverting attention from that question. But really ….
The only historian I’ve read on this subject is Inga Clendinnen, who made some astringent and, yes, cranky remarks about The Secret River in her Quarterly Essay, Who Owns the Past? But her gist, as I remember it, was that on many points the novel distorts the history – for instance, by moving a key incident from the first years of the colony to a couple of decades later – and in general it lacks any sense of actual engagement with the times she was writing about. Clendinnen herself could hardly be described as ‘heavy duty’ in the sense of inaccessible. And it would be hard to read her writing about the early colony as comfortable.
Evidently Kate Grenville is still smarting from the criticism, but this is fighting dirty. Inga Clendinnen is not Keith Windschuttle, yet anyone learning about her criticisms from this podcast would assume she was near allied.