‘Death of a Notary’ by Donna Merwick

I read in the newspaper this morning that Donna Merwick (1932-2021) has died. Donna Merwick was an American-born historian who worked as a Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne between 1968 and 1995. She entered the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1953, and completed her M.A. and Ph.D as a sister until leaving the order in 1968 to take up her position at the University of Melbourne. She is known as one of the members of the ‘Melbourne School’ of history comprising her husband Greg Dening (a former priest), and La Trobe University historians Rhys Isaac and Inga Clendinnen, although in an interview in The Australasian Journal of American Studies published in Vol. 34 No.1 (July 2015), she questions the idea that there was ever such a ‘school’. It’s an interesting interview, combining personal and professional academic considerations (albeit referring to academics of the 1970s and 1980s in a very different academic environment) and is available through JSTOR at State Libraries. She has an entry in the online Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia. While I could never in any way hope to emulate it, the history writing of this ‘Melbourne School’ (her skepticism about its existence notwithstanding) has been a huge influence on the way I read and appreciate history.

I read her Death of a Notary back in 2008, before I started this blog, and so I dug out my reading journal to see how I responded to it then. I was obviously mightily impressed. Reading it now, what I like is that in prefiguring some of the current trends in history writing of imagination and extrapolation from other sources (particularly in books written for a wider, popular rather than academic audience), she justifies and delineates where the sources start and finish, revealing her thinking as a historian. Here’s what I said at the time:

1999, 186 p. text and 51 p. ‘Notes and Reflections’

What a brilliant and original book! It is in effect two books. The first is a conversational, present tense, rather speculative narrative that pieces together the small documentary fragments that refer to Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam. The British renamed it ‘New York’ and incorporated it into the British common law tradition, introducing the English language and British colonial bureaucracy. It is largely chronological, told in dated episodes, that change their focus from father to son, and from New Amsterdam to Amsterdam and then back to Albany again. She incorporates observations from parallel, but different experiences that have been documented to supplement where Janse’s record is silent, and she invents, drawing on this other data to give the narrative life and image.

In the second, ‘Notes and Reflection’ section, we see the historian with her hard-hat on. Every ‘invention’ in the first part is sourced and validated; every assumption is justified, and every source is credited. The sheer volume and perspiration is here for all to see in this second part with its more clinical and measured tone.


My rating (then) 10/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library. I see that it is available online through the Internet Archive too, although I’m not sure how much of it you are able to access.

10 responses to “‘Death of a Notary’ by Donna Merwick

  1. This sounds right up my alley… like Kitty’s War which taught me not just some interesting history but also something about learning to think like an historian.

  2. I’ve just ordered a second-hand copy for just under $30 including postage — which compares very favourably with those I saw advertised for $85+ !!

    • I´m glad you could find it. I wasn´t sure how available it would be. I hope it lives up to my praise from all those years back!

  3. artandarchitecturemainly

    This reminds me very much of my Professor of Art History at Melbourne Uni during the same years, Dr Margaret Manion. A Loreto nun who wrote beautifully about illuminated manuscripts etc and gave lectures that I still remember 30 plus years later.

    Now I will look for Death of a Notary.

  4. Well, here we are in November, and the book has arrived!

    • I hope that you enjoy it. After I talked it up so much, I hope that it doesn’t disappoint.

      • Actually, it makes a nice complement to my current novel. Islands by Dan Sleigh is an historical novel about the settlement of the Cape in South Africa. Its author is an archivist and his research is prodigious. So it will be interesting to read about the early days in the US too.

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