Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 completed!


Well, as the year draws to a close I learn that the Australian Women Writers Challenge is gearing up again for 2014.  Will I gird up again? Probably.

I nominated myself for the ‘Franklin’ level (read 10, review 6) and exceeded that. I also vowed to focus on female historians in particular.   Here are my reviews, and yes, this is why I haven’t finished my thesis.  “But it’s all FEEDING the thesis” I bleat in self-defence.


Susan Johnston ‘My Hundred Lovers’

Margo Lanagan ‘Sea Hearts’

Cate Kennedy ‘Like a House on Fire’

Amy Espeseth ‘Sufficient Grace”

Kate Grenville ‘Sarah Thornhill’

Courtney Collins ‘The Burial’

Drusilla Modjeska ‘The Mountain’

Janette Turner Hospital ‘The Ivory Swing

Histories and Life Writing

Gillian Bouras ‘A Stranger Here

Kim Torney ‘Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image’

Pamela Burton ‘From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story’

Bev Roberts ‘Miss D and Miss N’

Janet Butler ‘Kitty’s War’

Yvonne M. Ward ‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’

Lynette Russell ‘Roving Mariners’

Desley Deacon, Penny Russel and Angela Woollocott (eds) ‘Transnational Lives: Biographies of Global Modernity 1700-Present’

Susan Mitchell ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’

Suzanne Falkiner ‘Eugenia: A Man’

Barbara Caine ‘Biography and History’

Christine Wright ‘Wellington’s Men in Australia’

Sheila Fitzpatrick ‘A Spy in the Archives’

Alice Pung ‘Unpolished Gem’

Judith Lucy ‘The Lucy Family Alphabet’

Kirsten McKenzie A Swindler’s Progress

‘A Swindler’s Progress’ by Kirsten McKenzie


2009, 303 p. & notes

A couple of weeks ago I thought that I had finished the best book that I would be reading during 2013.  I was premature in my declaration.  This is the best book that I have read this year, and in this case, I have no qualms at all about the  behaviour of its author as a professional historian.  Kirsten McKenzie’s earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is one of the books that has shaped my approach to my own research.  Her portrayal of colonial life in the early nineteenth century as a criss-crossing of networks and connections between different colonies across the globe rings true for ‘my’ judge and the other officials that he encountered during his career, as a quick glance through the Australian Dictionary of Biography will attest.  She writes clearly, with humour, and interweaves human stories into a robust and insightful theoretical framework.  She’s the sort of historian I wish I could be.

In fact, as she explains in the epilogue,  it was her concern as a professional historian with the accuracy of her footnotes just as Scandal in the Colonies was about to roll off the press that brought her to writing this book.  As part of the History Wars of the Howard era, Keith Windschuttle challenged the historiography of aboriginal/settler conflict, largely on the basis of the accuracy of footnotes.  Like many historians, I should imagine, McKenzie became increasingly “twitchy” (as she puts it) over her own footnotes, and so, suffering “footnote paranoia”,  she returned to the story with which she opened Scandal in the Colonies and found it even more fascinating than when she encountered it the first time.  It was the case of  the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts.  He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. As part of his ruse as Commissioner of Inquiry, ‘Viscount Lascelles’/John Dow eloped with a young woman and ended up in the Sydney Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from her parents who had reclaimed her, only to see her married some time later to the nephew of the future Chief Justice Dowling who heard the case. He was subsequently returned to the Supreme Court after his deception was discovered- where, yes! he encountered ‘my’ Judge Willis!  In Scandal in the Colonies, the anecdote takes less than two pages. In A Swindler’s Progress it effortlessly fills 300 pages.

The distance and dislocation of the colonies gave scope to false identities and reinventions.  There are many famous ones both in literature and in real life: Robyn Annear’s book The Man Who Lost Himself about the Tichborne Claimant springs to mind. But this book is much more than the story of an antipodean imposter. McKenzie shuttles between the real Earl of Harewood and his son, bringing in parliamentary politics in 1807, West Indian plantation ownership, elopements and disinheritances, and the imposter son Viscount Lascelles and his deceptions in England, Scotland and New South Wales.  The real skill of her book is integrating the two stories, on opposite sides of the globe to explore the way in which the British world was convulsed in this period by debates about identity, wealth, demeanour and masculinity.  Note that it is “the British world”- an arena which interweaves both metropole and peripheries as a conceptual transnational whole:

As I began my hunt for Dow and the Lascelles, scholars of empire were calling for histories that recognised that developments in British and colonial societies were part and parcel of the same process.  The problem was: how to write it? How could this miracle of synthesis be achieved in anything like a readable manner?  How could you show it was happening? And how could you show what it was like to be caught up in these interconnected events?  Here I had the story of two men: of one who had come to vanish, and another who had stolen that identity to pursue his own ends.  But their fates were part of far bigger events. (Epilogue, p. 296)

Her earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is a tapestry of such stories, woven between Sydney and Cape Town between 1820 and 1850.  It has many theoretical insights that make you stop, reread, and realize that things are falling into place.  In this second book, she makes this theory come alive as she meanders along a story that crosses years and oceans, looping back on itself, with deceptions and evasions and disappointments and anxieties in multiple settings.  It is not necessarily a straightforward chronology, first in one country, then the other, although the structure of the book does support this rather simplistic approach.  The book is far more discursive than this, stopping to explore phenomena and events only tangentially connected with the main narrative thread. It is far more a ‘life and times’ of a phenomena than a biography of Lascelles in both his authentic and false identities.

Her epilogue betrays a slight defensiveness about her use of narrative to explore these all-too-human responses in the face of sweeping social change:

Is narrative simply a way for historians to smooth over the mess that is the past; to re-arrange it into comfortingly familiar patterns that have beginnings, middles and ends?  and yet, for all our scholarly suspicion of the neatening effects of stories, they still possess a powerful explanatory energy.  What was it like to be buffeted by those forces that were transforming so profoundly the British imperial world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Those caught up in them would not live their lives according to the synthesising arguments of scholars.  Rather, they would act according to the dictates of narrative and plot: finding opportunities, being thwarted, experiencing greed, hope despair.  To follow these twists and turns is to highlight the way their world was changing.  It is luck and chance and swindles and lies and unexpected opportunities that direct lives and fates. (p.298)

She need not be defensive.  She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholar enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings.  This is the best book I’ve read all year.

My rating: A big fat, unequivocal 10

Read because: I enjoyed Scandal in the Colonies so much and I can reassure myself that at least I’m reading about the 19th century British empire this time

Sourced from: my shelves- a Christmas present from my husband in 2009.  Hmmm…… it took me a little while to get round to reading it.

awwbadge_2013This will be, I think, one of my last postings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

A tale of two memoirs

By chance I found myself reading two memoirs concurrently over the last week.  The first, Unpolished Gem was for my bookgroup and the second, The Lucy Family Alphabet was just a bit of fluff to read on nights when I was too tired to read anything else before going to sleep.

I must admit that I’m not completely sure of the difference between memoir and autobiography.  I think of a memoir as being a more consciously constructed thematic work than an autobiography.  A memoir mounts (perhaps a bit strong– suggests?)  an argument and the experiences written about are selected to support the overarching theme that the author/narrator has chosen.  There’s often a central motif that drives the work (gem, alphabets…)  I wouldn’t want to be held too strictly to the distinction between the two, though.


Alice Pung: Unpolished Gem, 2006, 280 p.

“This story does not begin on a boat. Nor does it contain any wild swans or falling leaves” announces the blurb on the back cover.  Well, thank heavens for that, say I.  The world certainly doesn’t need yet another Asian three-generation book written by a Westernized daughter.

Alice Pung was twenty-five when this book was published to great acclaim. It tells of growing up in Braybrook as the eldest daughter in a Chinese/Cambodian family who had arrived in Australia in the wake of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.  Her father owns a nearby Retravision store and her mother is an outworker making jewellery which she sells to retail stores.  Her paternal grandmother lives with them, Alice has several younger sisters and brothers, and there are blood aunts and other nominal ‘aunties’ within the Vietnamese/Cambodian  community in which they live. Interwoven with her own chronology of primary school- secondary school- university there are flashbacks to her parents’ early experience in Australia.  She is very conscious of her status as eldest daughter in a family fighting hard to find their own place in a new society.  As a daughter, she is an ‘unpolished gem’ compared to the highly polished lustre given to eldest sons, and during her final year at high school she suffers a breakdown under the pressure of her own high educational expectations, the drudgery and imposition of looking after her younger siblings, and her own attempt to fit in with her Australian peers and yet remain the ‘good’ girl.

This was the second time that I have read this book.  I had been rather lukewarm about it when I read the first time,  just after it had been published, and I wouldn’t have chosen to re-read it except that it was a bookgroup selection.  I think that I appreciated her writing more the second time around. Her story is told with insight and humour, although I (again) found myself becoming increasingly annoyed at the italicized internal dialogue as she grew older.  Just as I did the first time, I  again thought that the epilogue was clunky and rather too mannered in an attempt to bring what is truly an unfinished memoir to a close, given that the author was only several years older than the self she was writing about in the closing pages.  And so…. to the other memoir.

The Lucy Family Alphabet by Judith Lucybook cover.

Judith Lucy: The Lucy Family Alphabet , 2009, 296 p.

I don’t really know why I picked this book up, given that I’m not particularly keen on the comedic persona that Judith Lucy has created.  I must admit that I find the exaggerated, world-weary drawl rather wearing, and the constant mining of her own life for material a little tedious and self-indulgent.  So to willingly subject myself to more seems rather perverse.  On the other hand, the chapters were short (most about 2-3 pages in length) and not particularly chronological, so that I could dip into it at will.

Like all good Alphabets, the book starts off with A…. for adoption, and the chaotic Xmas family dinner at which she learned that she was, in fact, adopted. Normally in a straight autobiography this bombshell would come near the end of the book but she plops it onto the reader in the opening pages, then shuttles back and forth around this revelation, letting the letters of the alphabet supposedly drive the narrative rather than chronology.  The alphabet structure is rather artificial- there are, for example, six letter ‘A’ stories- and although the stories seem random, the longer you stay with the book, the more layered her anecdotes become.  There is more of an ending than just reaching the letter ‘Z’.  And even though the narrative voice is just the same as that distinctive drawling voice you’re likely to hear on a comedy show on the ABC, there’s more than just a string of acerbic, pointed anecdotes.  At times it is poignant and yes- wise (even though Judith Lucy the comedian would probably snort at such a description).

Judith Lucy wrote her book at about the age of 40; Alice Pung would have been in her early twenties.  Can an author write a memoir in her twenties, I wonder? I tend to think maybe not.  Or, rather, even though it might lose its immediacy,  I think that perhaps it would be a better memoir left to marinate for a few decades more.

awwbadge_2013Two memoirs- two Australian women writers.  I must add it to the Challenge!

‘A Spy in the Archives’ by Sheila Fitzpatrick


2013,  345 p.

I have been the first person in my immediate family to go to university, although several of my cousins did as well.  I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to grow up as the child of academics and intellectuals. Part of my fascination with this book was reading about the child of historians becoming a historian herself.  Sheila Fitzpatrick’s father was the left-wing historian and public intellectual Brian Fitzpatrick and her mother Dorothy Fitzpatrick taught history at Monash University.

This book is the second memoir written by Sheila Fitzpatrick, noted Soviet Historian, and now Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney after a long academic career overseas. Her first memoir was called My Father’s Daughter  which, from the title,  I assume explores the generational issue further.

In this second memoir we are taken on the first steps of the author’s academic journey as she travels first to Oxford University to undertake her doctorate in Russian history. Her dissertation topic was Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunarcharsky, the Russian author and politician who was appointed Commissar of Enlightenment between 1917 and 1929.  Her thesis was titled ‘Lunarcharsky as Philosopher  and Administrator of the Arts’ and it ended up being published by Cambridge University Press as The Commissar of Enlightenment in 1970.  It was the stepping stone to Fitzpatrick’s eminent career as a historian of Russia.

It was not surprising that a daughter of Brian Fitzpatrick would be attracted to such a topic, but she claims that “Becoming a Soviet historian wasn’t a foregone conclusion, even with a left-wing father and a bit of Russian” and that from the age of about 13 she had become “less of a true believer in my father’s causes than earlier” (p.7).  Fitzpatrick’s father had died by the time she embarked on her academic career, and yet one senses that she continued to have an intellectual argument with him in her head at least.  The book is not so much a ‘ coming-of-age ‘story , as a story of  ‘coming-as-historian’ as she finds her own mentors and develops her own confident intellectual stance as a historian.

In the 1960s it was common for first class honours students in history to undertake their doctorates overseas, and so she trod a well-worn path. She was not terribly impressed with St Anthony’s College at Oxford and the supervision she received there.  In 1966 she applied for a British Council exchange scholarship to enable her to live in Moscow and to use the archives there for her research. Her application was refused initially but eventually received after she embarked on a rather utilitarian marriage to a fellow British student.  As part of the preparation for her stay in Moscow, she and her cohort of fellow researchers were warned against spies- indeed, against friendships with Russian people, full stop.  Like her fellow students  she ignored this advice, and this book describes her friendship with Igor, a middle-age friend of the now-dead Lunarcharsky, and Irini, Lunarcharsky’s daughter,  that developed as she delved deeper into her research.

This book emerged from a long article that she wrote in the London Review of Books, and you can get the flavour and much of the content from reading this article alone (which is often the case with LRB articles).  In fact, it’s such a detailed article that you barely need to read the book!  I must admit that, with little knowledge of post-revolutionary and Cold War Russia (or at least, I’ve forgotten what I ever did know), I found the content aspects of this article easier to follow than the book.  But it’s well worth going to the book itself because her research is only one facet of her story: it’s also about friendships, authenticity, insecurity in a clandestine world, and history-writing.

She writes of the joy that all historians feel when working in archives, but to her, working in the Soviet archives was particularly pleasurable- in fact, she pitied those British historians who would roll up to the PRO, ask for a file, and have it handed over instantly.  In Moscow, not only was there the challenge of even getting access to the archive,  but once admitted, there were strict limits on what was made available because the thesis topic is treated like a straitjacket.  There’s no chasing off down rabbit holes and false leads and serendipitous rainbows here: if a file was not directly related to the topic as you first conceptualized it, then you couldn’t see it.  Foreign researchers were not given access to catalogues,  so there was no way of knowing what to ask for.  Contact between foreign researchers and  their Russian counterparts was strictly forbidden, and the archivists held enormous power over what you could see and what you could not.  It all became a bit of cat-and-mouse, albeit playing with a cat with sharp eyes and sharp claws that you could not always assume would remain sheathed.

However, one aspect in the book that does not come through in her article is the process of the historian writing a memoir.  She mentions at one stage that one of her husbands had returned the letters she had written to him, in order for her to write this memoir.  She uses the correspondence between her mother and herself as well, triangulating it against the diary that she wrote at the time.  She often says that she cannot remember certain events that are documented, and is often nonplussed to explain things that she had written at the time.  As a result, it is a careful memoir that has a sense of distance between the writer and what she remembers  (or does not remember)  about the events she experienced.

And was she a spy?  In the end the Soviets thought so and clumsily ‘outed’ her, and she herself is not completely sure. She certainly was not an MI6-type spy but, as she admits, it would have been plausible for her to have turned out to be one after all:

Was I, in some sense, a spy? If the Soviets couldn’t make up their minds, it’s not surprising that I had trouble.  I can certainly recognize some spy-like characteristics in myself, starting with my intention to find out everything about Soviet history, including the things that the Soviets wanted to keep hidden.  If a spy is a chameleon who can speak two languages and doesn’t know what his ultimate allegiance is, that partly fits. (p. 342)

I enjoyed this book, and the undercurrent of Cold War tension that runs underneath it. I liked the reflexivity of her writing and the caution with which she treats the memoir genre.  I wish that I knew more about Russia, because I did find the details of her research rather overwhelming at times but not so much that I was ever tempted to give up.  I resisted the temptation to Google, trusting her to take me on the journey, and she did not let me down.

awwbadge_2013I’m posting this to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Memoir/Biography section- and, for this book at least, it fits all three categories!

‘Wellington’s Men in Australia’ by Christine Wright


Wellington’s Men in Australia: Peninsular War Veterans and the Making of Empire c1820-1840 by Christine Wright

2011,  178 p and appendices

I often found myself closing the book while I was reading it to look closely at the striking image on the front.   It’s a miniature of James Thomas Morisset (1780-1852), painted when he was about eighteen years old.  Those who loved him must have later regarded it with wistful sorrow, because he was shockingly disfigured at the battle of Albuera in 1811 as part of Wellington’s Peninsular campaign at the age of 21.  He is such a beautifully formed boy, and not at all like the description that the second in command, Foster Fyans, gave of his commandant on Norfolk Island some thirty-odd years later:

The Commandant, a gruff old gentleman with a strange face, on one side considerably longer than the other, with a stationary eye as if sealed on his forehead; his mouth was large, running diagonal to his eye, filled with a mass of useless bones; I liked the old gentleman, he was friendly and affable, and thought time might wear off his face affliction, which was most revolting: the one side I could only compare to a large yellow over-ripe melon  ( Fyans, ‘Memoirs Recorded at Geelong’ cited on p. 169)

Morisset is one of the men that Christine Wright deals with in her prosopographical study of men who served during Wellington’s Peninsular campaigns on the Iberian peninsular from 1808 to 1814.  Prosopography  was defined by the historian Lawrence Stone in a foundational article as “the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives”.  As such, it falls half-way between rather sketchy biography and a more statistical analysis.  I’ve read several legal prosopographies, and one or two about bureaucrats: it seems to be used mainly in the context of writing about careers (although it could just as easily be applied to any group of people).  It is well suited to Christine Wright’s endeavour. When reading local histories sited in the British colonies during the 1820s, 30s and 40’s you come across ex-military figures again and again, and in this book Wright takes this cohort of soldiers, bonded by their experience in the Peninsular campaigns, and traces the rest of their careers throughout the empire.

During the Napoleonic Wars the need for manpower rendered the old system of purchasing of commissions inadequate.  Young soldiers of limited means, who would not normally have had the capital to purchase their  positions not only had a career pathway open up for them during the war, but also were eligible for half-pay and land grants after the war.   As veterans, they were able to draw on the networks of influence to gain positions across an empire which was calling out for their skills in logistics, engineering and surveying.  The half-pay entitlement was insufficient to live on in Britain which drove veterans to look for employment overseas, and from the British Government’s point of view it was a way of cutting the cost of numbers on the half-pay list while filling appointments with skilled men and their families.

In the colonies, veterans in garrison regiments and ex-soldiers who had sold their commissions fitted particularly well into the military structures of early NSW and Van Diemen’s land.  As the colonies evolved away from penal settlements to free colonies, these ex-military men were well placed to take up civil positions of power and authority in the community.  They obtained large grants of land complete with convict labour and accrued the status that accompanied being a landowner- something that they probably never would have been able to achieve in Britain.

But the army had given them more than just military skills.  The drawing and surveying skills developed during the war were put to use in colonies that were still exploring their spaces.  Beyond their practical uses, these skills flowed into art as well, where ex-veteran painters, alert to the stark light and harshness of the Spanish terrain, were able to capture the light of  Australian landscape  in a way not seen amongst painters who had spent all their lives in the soft lights of England or wooded European settings.  Accustomed to making written reports, many of the veterans wrote their memoirs of the Peninsular campaign but extended their memoirs into their new settings as well.

Veterans were often deployed on the frontier in various roles: explorers, magistrates, Mounted Police, Border Police and as military commandants of penal stations.  The term ‘frontier’ means different things to different groups: there were different frontiers depending on whether you are talking about ‘big man’ sheep farms, ‘small man’ cattle farms and agricultural mixed farming. Some historians prefer the term ‘contact zone’ rather than ‘frontier’. Missionaries saw it as the advancement of civilization.  In military terms, though, the frontier was

a strategic boundary, a defensive line, and the front  line of colonial order.  The military saw it as the shifting boundary of British civilisation that had to be defended. (p. 152)

On this basis, Wright gives an insightful re-reading of the Waterloo Creek massacre from a strictly military viewpoint. The British Army ceased fighting on the frontier in the latter half of 1838 and it was left to the settlers or to Border or Mounted Police which, although joined by many ex-soldiers, were not counted as part of the British Army regiment numbers.  She suggests that this changed the nature of frontier ‘clashes’ and not necessarily for the better.

The real grunt-work of this book comes in the appendices which lists influential British Army Officers in the Australian colonies who were veterans of the Peninsular War.  They are listed by name, regiment, date and place of arrival, place of death, with a brief summary of the military and civil positions they occupied in Australia.  There’s many familiar names there: several governors (George Gawler in South Australia; Governors Darling, Brisbane, Gipps, Bourke, in NSW), explorers (Sturt, Major Mitchell, Lockyer), commissariats (Logan up in Moreton Bay, G.T.W.B Boyes in NSW and VDL) and commandants (Thomas Bunbury, Joseph Childs, poor damaged James Morissett in Norfolk Island), surveyors (Light in South Australia,  and many magistrates and crown land commissioners (Fyans).

The chapters are arranged thematically, each headed by a quote:

  1. ’emigration is a matter of necessity’: The aftermath of the Peninsular War
  2. ‘they make Ancestry’: Veterans as Officers and Gentlemen
  3. ‘we are in sight of each other’: The Social Networks of Veterans
  4. ‘attached to the Protestant succession’: The Religious Influence of Veterans
  5. ‘an art which owes its perfection to War’: Skills of Veterans
  6. ‘with all the authority of Eastern despots’: Veterans as Men of Authority
  7. ‘in the midst of the Goths’: The Artistic, Literary and Cultural Legacy of Veterans
  8. ‘to pave the way for the free settler’: British Soldiers on the Frontier.

The book emerges out of the author’s PhD and I think that it is still detectable there.  At times the language was a little stilted and the author’s interventions rather forced. I was mystified by the capitalization (or lack thereof) of certain names, especially the Duke/duke of Wellington.

The reader meets many of these veterans in several chapters in different guises.  The backgrounding for individual characters comes in various places.  For example, Archibald Innes’ background story comes at p. 44;  G.T.W. Boyes’ comes at p. 132 even though they have been mentioned briefly in many other places.  While spreading her net wide, there is no one place where she introduces key figures as, for example, Inga Clendinnen did in Dancing with Strangers. I found myself wondering if perhaps this might not have been a better strategy:  I found myself more interested in characters once I’d been formally introduced to them.  Certainly the ‘networked’ aspect comes through clearly as people are appointed to one position after another, often through the sticky web of the Darling/Dumaresque connections in Sydney, or through the good graces of Secretary of State for the Colonies Sir George Murray in London, himself a Peninsular veteran.

It is telling that the book takes such a short timespan  (twenty years) as its period of analysis.  By 1840 the militarized nature of Australian society had been overlaid by move towards civil appointments, bureaucratic rather than martial procedures and even representative government.

As often happens, once you’ve been alerted to a phenomenon, you tend to see it everywhere, and this is the case with this book.  If you flip through the entries for early settlers in the Australian Dictionary of Biography you’ll see the military connections with new eyes and wonder why it wasn’t more apparent before.

awwbadge_2013I am posting this for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Biography/Memoir section.  It is an academic text, and needs to be read that way.

‘Roving Mariners’ by Lynette Russell


Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Ocean 1790-1870

2012,  140 p & notes

There are two decenterings that this book demands of its readers.  The first is encapsulated by a map that looks something like this:


It’s a map showing the great circle route of the southern ocean.  Dotted around and radiating out from the centre of the circle are the islands of the southern ocean: the larger land masses of  Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand,  and although you can’t see it here, Macquarie Island, Pitcairn Island,, Kerguelen, Chatham Island, Tahiti, Society Islands,  Solomon Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia.  It’s a view that challenges our land-mass bias by emphasizing the ocean and the space, and the relative proximity of small islands flung into the centre of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The second decentering reflects the focus on whaling and sealing in this book right up to 1870.  We’re often told that whaling and sealing were primitive, increasingly marginal endeavours which were eclipsed by the pastoral industry and then the gold rushes that super-charged the Australian economy in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.  It’s odd: I’ve been reading through 1840s newspapers for years now seeing mainly sheep, sheep, sheep but after reading this book suddenly I saw references to whaling all over the place- not long articles mind you, but the steady ongoing enumeration of whaling ships in the shipping news and, I must admit, the frequent presence of whalers and sealers in the criminal news.

Lynette Russell is the director of the Monash Indigneous centre at Monash University, and is herself of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent. Her own personal engagement with the history of whaling and sealing was prompted by a discussion she had with an elderly distant cousin who, like her, acknowledged descent from both Aboriginal and European ancestors.  He explained that his great-great-grandparents had been sealers, she a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman and he a British seaman.  When she sympathized with the virtual slavery in which Tasmanian Aboriginal women were kept, he pulled her up.  They were both sealers, he said, rather than a sealer and his ‘woman’ (p. 22).  This set her off to explore in a more nuanced way the complexity of the Southern Australian sealing industry.

In regard to her own Aboriginal identity, Russell embraces notions of undecidability and uncertainty:

As such, I emphatically state that I am neither one thing nor another.  Though I recognize that for many (perhaps most) people the desire to acknowledge one identity over all others is paramount.  For me, the binaries of Indigenous- non-Indigenous or native-newcomer- binaries that, despite their obvious artificiality, continue to be widely used- are meaningless; such simplifications hamper our understanding of the past. (p. 21)

This personal stance is reflected in the history that she writes in this book.

One of my key desires is to create a more complex and less linear narrative than has been previously produced for southern Australia.  One of the complexities I wish to develop concerns the question of the boundaries surrounding who was categorized as native, who was not, and who was described as newcomer…. I believe that these categories were not stable, and during the sealing and whaling period they were perhaps in a greater state of flux than they were either before or afterward. (p. 13)

The whaling and sealing industries of the Southern Oceans were always ethnically diverse with a strong representation of ‘coloured seamen’: African and Native Americans, Native Canadians, Pacific Islanders, Maori and Aborigines. Her sources are the archival records of the maritime industry including  logs, ships’ records, diaries, journals, visual materials including photographs and European artifacts.  After trawling through the sources, she concluded that there was ultimately a paucity of information about the ‘coloured seamen’ that she wished to write about.  This, she says, enabled space for her to imagine their lives and labours and to be “intentionally creative” (p. 16).  She plunged herself into the experience of whaling and sealing:  standing on the deck of a ship in the midst of a pod of sperm wales; standing on Kangaroo Island amongst a colony of noisy, smelly fur seals.

I must admit that there is much in her upfront description of her political stance and methodology that discomfits me (and I should imagine that within Indigenous politics, some would be even more uncomfortable), but I found little  in the text itself that unsettled me.   Instead, I sensed that she had read widely and imaginatively and that there was a strong tethering in verifiable, if diverse, sources (with one major exception where I felt that her creative imagination was straining the evidence too much).  She is very much present in the text. Her argument is strenuous and well argued, and it has the effect of challenging easy assumptions.

She focusses in particular on two men: Tommy Chaseland, and William Lanne.  Thomas Chaseland was born illegitimately to an Aboriginal woman and a white emancipist father.    He was sent to work in the shipping yards of the Hawkesbury River and signed on to the Jupiter. After a succession of stints on various whaling ships, he settled in New Zealand where he became the husband of a high-ranking Maori woman and made his home on the isolated Codfish and Stewart Islands before moving to the Fiordlands west of Stewart Island where he and his wife worked on a whaling station.

William Lanne, often incorrectly described as ‘the last Tasmanian Aboriginal male’  is more widely known, largely in terms of the outrageously disrespectful treatment of his body after his death.  Russell examines Lanne as one of three  Tasmanian Aboriginal men who pursued their luck at sea alongside Captain Henry Whalley and Walter George Arthur.  The details of what happened after his death almost obscure the life that he lived, but Russell attempts to reconstruct it.

Reconstruction of a life becomes even more difficult when she turns her attention to Tasmanian Aboriginal women.  Here she follows two other historians, Rebe Taylor who examined Kangaroo Island and Lyndall Ryan who focussed on Bass Strait and Tasmania.  She acknowledges her debt to this work, and tries to take it further by endeavouring to bring the wives and women from the shadows of the narrative.  It is a difficult task that involves reading against the sources, many of which were written by the missionaries who tried unsuccessfully to get the women to leave the islands.  She is extremely careful in her discussion of freedom, action and choices and her caution in the text behooves us to read closely and to attend to her hesitations and qualifications.

This is a beautifully written and nuanced  reflective history. It is at the same time easy to read and yet requires much of the reader as well in terms of weighing the argument and her use of sources.

A review of the book is available on H-Net.

awwbadge_2013I am posting this review to the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge under the History/Biography/Memoir section.

‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’ Yvonne M. Ward


2013,  173 p.

We’re told that it’s all about controlling the narrative.  Politicians all do it, it seems; and we risk losing control of our narrative by putting too much of our lives onto the internet, we’re told.  All this might seem far removed from good old Queen Victoria, but on reading Unsuitable for Publication, I’ve realized that it isn’t.  Then and now, it’s all about image creation and the interplay between the image we think we have constructed and the image that others might massage or manipulate from our words.

Queen Victoria was a huge correspondent.  She wrote 122 volumes of her diaries over her long life and she maintained a large correspondence with her family  members so widely dispersed amongst the royal families of Europe, as well as a vast network of communication amongst politicians, and other notables. It has been estimated that she wrote an average of 2500 words each day of her adult life, and perhaps sixty million words in the course of her reign (p.9).  What to do with all this writing?  Her daughter Princess Beatrice thought that she knew.  Queen Victoria had appointed her as her literary executor, and after her mother’s death and over 30 years she copied the entries of the 122 diary volumes into 111 thick exercise-books, altering and censoring anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’, then burnt the originals.  Interestingly, Victoria herself had published extracts from her own journals while she was on the throne, so she wasn’t beyond a bit of image-creation herself. Continue reading

‘Kitty’s War’ by Janet Butler


2013,  231 p & notes

KITTY’S WAR by Janet Butler

I had forgotten the power of a beautifully written introduction to a history.

Imagine, for a moment, that we are granted an eagle’s eye-view of the fields and villages, the roads and towns of northern France.  It is dusk on a mid-autumn evening.  This is the Western Front, one hundred and eighteen days after the beginning of Operations on the Somme…. (p. 1)

Sister Kit McNaughton was a nurse from Little River, near Geelong who heeded the call for nurses during the First World War.  As did many others, she wrote a diary and this book, by Janet Butler presents extracts from that diary.  But Butler here is not an editor, stepping to the side to allow the diary and the diarist’s voice to take centre stage (as, for example, Bev Roberts has done in Miss D. And Miss N.)  Instead, Janet Butler  interrogates the diaries: she triangulates them against other writing; she supplements them with secondary sources; she looks for patterns and changes over time and she listens to the silences.  Kitty’s own (rather prosaic) entries take up a small proportion of the book – perhaps ¼ of the text, if that.  The majority of the text is the historian at work, always respectful of Kit McNaughton and privileging her perspective, but grappling with the diary as text and the emotional and physical enormity of the unfolding experience that it documents as well.

A diary fills multiple and often changing purposes. The writer often has an audience in mind: sometimes explicit (as in Anne Frank’s ‘Kitty’) or sometimes unnamed but tacitly understood.  As Butler writes about Kit McNaughton’s diary:

There is clearly a ‘you’ addressed in its pages. ‘We often think of the people at home & wonder what you are all doing,’ she writes after describing a concert given by the troops, the first day out of Australian waters, ‘& if you could only see us all doing the grand you would know how we are enjoying our selves’. It is to this audience that Kit’s presentation of herself has to be acceptable. (p. 13)

Kit conceives her writing as a travel diary, but she also is conscious that she is chronicling history as well.

…Kit’s diary intersects briefly, under the umbrella of the travel diary, with another kind of diary: the public chronicle of an historic event, which is more often than not a male prerogative (p. 27)

Kit McNaughton is aware that she is writing for an Australian audience ‘at home’ who will read her diary with a particular consciousness: they will want to see her as the ‘good nurse’ imbued with the discipline, rigour, efficiency and obedience of her professional calling; they will be sensitive over descriptions of Australian suffering and death;  and they will share her sense of Australianness. She  draws from the rhetoric of the Anzac legend, already being honed in the despatches of the war correspondents and seized for recruiting purposes at home, as a way of presenting herself. In doing so, she contributes to our own understanding of the legend 100 years later.

Her use of the ANZAC legend to actively craft her persona shows agency.  The nurses are not simply passive recipients of the identities thrust upon them.  It reveals a desire for a level of freedom denied them at home.  For nurses travelling to war, the Anzac legend opens out the boundaries of acceptable behaviour…. They continued the work they did as civilians, but their journey into war challenged and enabled them to expand their sense of self.  (p. 18)

The book follows Kit chronologically as she starts off in Egypt, as so many WWI soldiers did; is sent to Lemnos,  falls ill and is sent to a convalescent hospital. On going back to Europe, she nurses wounded German soldiers on the Somme, returns to No 2 Australian General Hospital at Trois Abres just six kilometres from the front, goes across to No. 3 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford, Kent and finally is sent to Sidcup maxilla-facial hospital nearby.  Each separate placement has its own chapter in the book, but multiple themes run across them all: her sense of being Australian; the resentment with which the nurses are sometimes greeted either because they are women or Australian or both; her companionship with the ‘boys’ she met up with in Cairo and her friendship with other sisters (in both senses of the word).  There is much that she cannot say, however.  To complain about the dismissiveness of the doctors would be insubordination (and a ‘good’ nurse is never insubordinate); to speak too much of the death and injury of Australian soldiers is too sensitive.  Nursing German soldiers however- the enemy- is different, and here she can write of the injuries and the smell and the loss in a way that she could not when nursing Australian soldiers:

I have eleven with their legs off and a cuple ditto arms & hips & heads galore & the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this Gas Gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. I extracted a bullet from a German’s back today, and I enjoyed cutting into him…the bullet is my small treasure, as I hope it saved a life as it was a revolver one (p. 130)

In many ways Kitty understates her own role.  As we can see, she was entrusted with the scalpel, and she later worked in the operating theatre and administered anaesthetics- all skills that were denied nurses ‘at home’. She was mentioned in despatches; she won a Royal Red Cross.

But soon the silences are not just evasions and glossing-overs but the actual lack of words.  Particularly once she reaches Dartford, her entries become summaries,  widely spaced and sparser, reflecting her own “disengagement  from the war of which she no longer feels so much a part” (p. 197).  Kit is no longer on her journey, and she is no longer writing a travel diary.  There is no adventure, no sightseeing (which she had earlier managed to do), and Butler suggests that she is probably suffering what we would call post-traumatic stress.  Certainly, her photographs show that the war has taken its toll on her. Her hair has gone grey; she has lost two stone; she is in poor health.

As Butler says:

Statistics alone cannot provide a guide to the impact of war on personal lives.  Our journey with Kit has shown biography to be a way of reaching to the level of the personal and private.  Stepping beside Kit, an individual, into the aftermath of her war- reading her life, as we once read her diary- offers the possibility of insight into the effects on women, on the relationships between women and men, and therefore on Australian society, that more objective measures cannot. (p. 216).

The book is written in the present tense throughout.  I must admit that I’m rather ambivalent about the use of the present tense in fiction because it makes me feel edgy and anxious.  (Says she who has written this whole review in the present tense!)   It’s an interesting and striking choice in non-fiction, and one that I haven’t seen used often in history. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. It makes me feel edgy here too, just as it does when it is used in fiction, but it certainly has its strengths as well.   It brings the intellectual and emotional interrogation of the diary right onto centre stage, and Butler’s frequent use of “we” draws you, as reader,  into engagement with the diary as well.

“Kitty’s War’  is a reverent and sensitive tribute to Kit McNaughton.  It’s much more than a platform for making her diary available to a wider audience.  It shows the historian at work, shuttling between the small detail and wider overarching questions of gender, war, personal identity, Australian identity and the ANZAC legend.

You can read Lisa Hill’s review of this book at ANZLitLovers and Yvonne Perkins has reviewed it at Stumbling Through the Past.  You can also read Janet’s own guest post about writing the book on a nursing blog.

I have posted this review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


‘Miss D and Miss N’ by Bev Roberts

If I were a well-travelled person, at this point I would wave airily and announce that I always try to read a book set in a place that I am visiting.  Alas, I am not;  I can claim that I read Henry James’ The Bostonians while in Boston, and Dickens while in London…but that’s about it, I’m afraid.

So, a couple of weeks ago when we went down to Geelong (a whole 100 kms away!), I decided that of course I must read a Geelong book!!  But where to find a Geelong book? you ask.  The answer is: Miss D. and Miss N.  In fact, there’s a chance that if you’re on the Bellarine Peninsula that you’ll drive right through the areas named for them: Drysdale and Newcomb.


2009, 326 p.

The two women share an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.   Drysdale was twenty years older than her friend Caroline Newcomb.  Anne arrived in Port Phillip in 1840, aged forty-seven, with the experience of farming in Scotland under her belt, capital at hand, and determined to take up sheep farming in the booming pastoral industry of early Port Phillip.    Caroline Newcomb had arrived in Hobart in August 1833 and found a position as a governess with the family of John Batman, one of the members of the Van Diemen’s Land- based  Port Phillip Association that looked across Bass Strait to establish pastoral runs in what they perceived (incorrectly) as land for the taking.   When she arrived in Port Phillip on April 19 1836, she was one of only thirty-five women in the settlement, out of a white population of 177.  In March 1837 she shifted to Geelong, presumably as governess to  Dr. Alexander Thomson.  The two women met at Dr Thomson’s house where they formed a strong friendship, despite the twenty year age difference between them.   This friendship became a partnership that lasted twelve years when Anne asked Caroline to join her as a pastoralist on Boronggoop, a squatting run on the Barwon River at Geelong.  In August 1849 they achieved their wish “to have a piece of land &c a stone cottage” when they moved to Coriyule, a beautiful stone house that they had built (and which, it seems, still exists).

This, then,  is Anne’s diary, commenced from on board ship in Scotland in September  1839 going through to 1852 and 1853 when she fell ill and the writing of the diary was taken over by Caroline. Continue reading

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska


2012, 426 p.

There are spoilers in this review.

Why would an acclaimed non-fiction author ‘go over’ to fiction?  Perhaps there’s something about the personal meaning of the material for the author that makes it easier to deal with fictionally. Perhaps there are ethical challenges in grappling with it, where the story is based on real-life, still-living people? Perhaps there’s squeamishness about ownership of the story: whether the story is the author’s to tell.

The Mountain  is Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction, although none of her work fits neatly into defined categories. Her non-fiction has always straddled the genres of non-fiction, memoir and imagination.  In this book, too, I sense that it is not ‘straight’ fiction and I felt almost deceived when reading her acknowledgements at the back of the book that elide the fact that she, herself, was the young wife of an anthropologist in New Guinea in the 1970s. She has made no secret of the fact in her interviews after the writing of the book, and even before, and yet there is this strange distancing of herself from the narrative in her acknowledgements in the book itself.

The book opens with a prologue set in 2005.  Although called a prologue, it is actually at the chronological fulcrum between Part I, set in 1968-73 and Part II set in 2006.  As such, it was largely incomprehensible at first, although I found myself flipping back to it several times while reading the book as the characters became (somewhat) more settled in my own mind.  The book closes with an epilogue in 2006 that largely mirrors the opening prologue.

Part I, told in the past tense, focuses on Rika, a young Dutch woman who accompanies her older husband, Leonard, an Australian ethnographic film-maker to New Guinea.  Set in 1968, she is absorbed easily into a mixed-race, expatriate social milieu gathered around the university.  Her husband Leonard goes ‘up the mountain’ to film villages and their inhabitants, and in his absence she falls in love with Aaron, who has come ‘down the mountain’ and is acclaimed as a future leader when Papua New Guinea achieves  the independence which is on the horizon.  Rika, racked with guilt but also determined in her love for Aaron, travels ‘up the mountain’ to tell Leonard personally of her decision and returns to take up her life with Aaron leaving Leonard heart-broken.  However, as time passes and Aaron becomes increasingly caught up in the politics of independence, Rika does not fall pregnant and  is thus unable to be fully accepted as Aaron’s wife by the villagers.  When five-year-old  Jericho is sent down the mountain, Rika realizes that Jericho is actually Leonard’s son by a village woman up the mountain.  She adopts him and he too becomes part of this large, mixed-race expatriate community, viewing Rika and her friend Martha as his two mothers.  I was engaged by the love story between Rika and Aaron, but found myself bewildered by what seemed like an endless succession of men with biblical names coming ‘up’ and ‘down’ the mountain and their wives.

My bewilderment and confusion carried over into Part II when Jericho, now a grown man, returns to PNG in 2006. There had obviously been a rupture: he had been brought up in Oxford where Leonard still lived; he was still in contact with Rika who was now a famous photographer but alienated completely from all contact with PNG and those who still lived there, and Aaron was dead.  The hopes and optimism of independence had soured, and the threats of palm oil plantations, mining leases and ecological exploitation were ever-present.  I actually managed to read about 50 pages into Part II before realizing that I had confused Aaron and Jacob (there’s those biblical names there) and had to go back to re-read once I realized my error.  Inattentive reading on my part, to be sure, but obviously the characters weren’t etched sufficiently into my own reading to survive the time-gap of thirty years between the two sections.  Part II is told in the present-tense and it largely revolves around solving the mystery of the rupture between Rika and the expatriate and village communities she had been trying  so hard to join.  At this level, the book is essentially a story of relationships against a wider political and ethical backdrop.

Although the book is fiction and centred on fictional characters, it is very much a book of ideas and it’s the ideas that I take away from the book.  There are poetic word-pictures of the beauty of the jungle and the garishness and incongruity of modern development.   Betrayal and alienation and being ‘hafkas’ (half-caste), and the multi-layered issues of colonialism and independence, exploitation, superstition and development are all explored with intelligence and nuance.  The focus on art and representation evokes Modjeska’s work in Stravinsky’s Lunch, and there are layers upon layers of thought  in the book that speak to the influences that Modjeska makes reference to in her Acknowledgements.   The book has been short-listed for many awards, including the Miles Franklin, and despite the Miles Franklin’s (sometimes disregarded) restriction to Australian works ‘in all their….’, this is very much a book about Australian colonialism as well.

I’m not sure, though, that I was completely satisfied by the book.  I recognize its depth and the importance of the ideas it carries but I don’t know if fictionalizing was a solution to the problem of how to represent them.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it has been shortlisted for several awards, and as a review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge