In our latest opinion piece, Richard Trembath steps into the always-contentious debate about history, historical fiction and ‘narrative non-fiction’, prompted by the publication of Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves.
Kate Grenville’s latest novel set in early colonial New South Wales, A Room Made of Leaves, was published in July this year to positive reviews though it attracted less publicity, and considerably less controversy, than its predecessor, The Secret River (2005). This is scarcely surprising. COVID 19 social restrictions put paid to book launches and personal appearances (at least for the time being), while it is unlikely that the intense debate generated by The Secret River could occur twice in an author’s lifetime. The furore fifteen years ago was provoked by Grenville’s supposed claim that her saga of the Thornhill family was somehow ‘history’ as well as historical fiction. Heavy hitters from the academy including Inga Clendinnen, John Hirst and Mark McKenna rushed to protect Clio from fact free fiction and a fine time was had by all. The new novel prompts me to revisit some of the issues in what I have called the border wars between history and the creative imagination.
In her Author’s Note, Grenville states that A Room Made of Leaves ‘isn’t history’. Well, yes, of course, it isn’t. What would one expect? A treatise on astronomy? It is historical fiction, the important part of speech here being the noun, not the adjective. Austere university friends tell me that Grenville is issuing an apology for earlier sins. She is not. She is being tongue in cheek while resiling, it seems, from earlier incautious remarks about the authority of a novelist in dealing with the past. And despite what her defenders say, incautious she was. When interviewed by the ABC’s Ramona Koval in 2005, Grenville referred to the history wars as personified by Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds and said that her preferred position was ‘up on a ladder’, looking down on the ‘fray’. The novelist did not have to adopt one or the other of ‘these polarised positions’ for she possessed an ‘understanding, actually experiencing what it was like, the choices that those people [settlers and Indigenous] had’ in the past. A special insight, born apparently of ‘imaginative understanding’, which can place us in the minds of people far different and long dead. All rather doubtful and incapable of proof.
So, let us look back rather than perching on some imaginary ladder. Inga Clendinnen’s 2006 Quarterly Essay, ‘The History Question’, which criticised Grenville for confusing history and fiction, was, as one might expect, sharply argued and well written. It is also a sustained overstatement and an unnecessary extension of dreary culture conflicts. Yes, Grenville conflated some events and left out others. Big deal. The Secret River is a work of creative imagination and in that realm, invention holds sway. The book’s real fault in my opinion is literary: big themes, such as the role of women in a settler society, and frontier violence, are dealt with in a portentous fashion. Clendinnen also wrote that one benefit of historical fiction is that it might direct readers towards ‘some knowledge of their past.’ True, though it would also be useful if historians could be directed to what fiction does have to offer – lessons in style and the ability to communicate with an audience are two possibilities. Then we might get closer to what Clare Wright would call ‘narrative non-fiction’ though not all history can fit under that rubric.
Historians themselves are not above employing devices which fill in those irritating things – gaps in the record. For example, those influenced by Anna Haebich, or Natalie Zemon Davis (author The Return of Martin Guerre, 1983). with her ‘informed imagination’, might be tempted to some fanciful reconstruction of the past and its missing bits, especially when those missing bits took place in someone’s head. It is one thing to pose the question, ‘What was she thinking (or saying) as she left the court room?’ when we have no clue one way or the other. It is a gigantic leap to then offer – ‘Here is my version of what she was thinking (or saying) as she left the court room’ and pretend that it is history. I would leave that to the novelists; they tend to do it better.
I think historians also should be wary of adopting, if only in a speculative manner, theories and models which threaten the evidentiary foundations of the discipline. I admire Clare Wright’s, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2013) for several reasons but not for her flying a kite about the possibility of heated sexual congress between miners and their wives on Eureka eve. There is no evidence that occurred and, if it did, attributing it to ‘lunar menstrual synchrony’ is a seriously wrong step. Menstrual synchrony amongst humans is at best unproven and dubious, but lunar menstrual synchrony is simply pseudo-science. History will always have blanks. If we did not have the blanks, we would not have history. In a period when our Federal government places prohibitive costs on studying the humanities at a tertiary level, it is time to remind our leaders that history may be (merely) a social science, but it is still a science with all that involves – empiricism, evidence, elegance.
And I thought A Room Made of Leaves was a better book than The Secret River.
With thanks to Kiera Lindsey. We may differ on some things, but our friendship is never affected.