It was fitting that I should read this book so soon after finishing Ann Curthoy and Ann McGrath’s book “How to Write History that People Want to Read“. Nicholas Shakespeare certainly can write and his book did quite well as I recall. So, two out of the three. But I ask myself- is it history? I suspect not, despite the “History/Travel” designation on the back page- or at least, it’s history in the same way and to the same extent that the television program “Who Do You Think You Are?” is.
In fact, the “Who Do You Think You Are” television series came to mind several times while reading this book: there’s the quest story for an ancestor; the findings; and some sort of meta-narrative that ties it together. As with the television show, there’s an emotional and partisan sympathy for characters solely on the basis of their blood-relation to the narrator: a large and all-encompassing historical tragedy only becomes real once it can be centred on an individual who happens to be related. And as with the television show, the voice and perspective of a professional historian who weighs in with an objective, distanced observation rescues you as reader/viewer from the fug and too-close identification with an ancestor.
Shakespeare himself is a recent immigrant to Tasmania, and part of his own sense of belonging in Tasmania is tied up in the identities of two ancestors, from different branches of his family tree, whose destinies- as one might expect in a small island community- run parallel with occasional points of connection. Anthony Fenn Kemp, the army offer and merchant is a linch-pin figure whose ubiquity enables Shakespeare to bring in Alexander Pearce the cannibal, Tasmanian Tigers and other riffs on Tasmanian history. The other ancestor, Petre Hordern was a failed alcoholic from a wealthy family, who submerged himself in the bush and dragged his family into poverty. These two characters form the book-ends of his narrative, and Shakespeare meanders throughout history and his current-day genealogical quest.
Shakespeare speaks to historians, and reads the histories they have written, but he cites only conversations. His intent springs from the personal, and he excavates the primary material he has unearthed, literature and other writers, and family lore as his richest lode. His eye is always on the story as story. Nonetheless, it is beautifully written, human and textured- but it’s not necessarily history.