Category Archives: Historians

‘Connecting’ at the masterclass

Well, now I can tell you what happens at a masterclass!  There were about eighteen or so participants, drawn from universities across Australia, but the majority were from the University of Tasmania. The masterclass was hosted by Penny Edmonds from the University of Tasmania,  and several Uni of Tasmania academics attended including Anna Johnston (who wrote The Paper Wars which I reviewed here), Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Kristyn Harman, whose book Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles recently won the Kay Daniels award.

But the major drawcard, for me at least, was the presence of  Dr. Zoe Laidlaw, Reader in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Continue reading

Warrior of the Mind- Inga Clendinnen

When I read this interview by journalist Jana Wendt with Inga Clendinnen – my most revered historian- I didn’t know whether to smile or weep.

To be honest, I did both.






My response on learning of her recent death is here.


The Kelly Letter and the jousting historians behaving nobly

There was an interesting article in this morning’s Age written by historian Alex McDermott.  Titled ‘In the Kelly legend are our own lives writ large’ Alex describes the international interest that was attracted to the news that the State Library had acquired a letter that gave an eyewitness account of  Ned Kelly being taken into custody at Glenrowan.

The Sutherland letter, which can be seen at the State Library of Victoria website here was written in 1880 by young Donald Sutherland, a bank teller in Oxley in regional Victoria, to his parents back home in Caithness, Scotland.   On hearing of the news of the siege at Glenrowan he had travelled there, along with nearly everyone else in the vicinity, to rubberneck at this leader of the Kelly Gang who had terrorized the countryside for so long.  And there he saw him laid out wounded on a stretcher, his head cradled by Kate Kelly,  surrounded by his keening sisters.

Ned does not at all look like a murderer and bushranger- he is a very powerful man, aged about 27, black hair and beard with a soft mild looking face and eyes- his mouth being the only wicked portion of the face.

The bodies of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were lying covered by a sheet.  The bystanders were frightened to look at them, but not so young Donald:

Thousands of people thronged to Glenrowan on receipt of the news and not one of the crowd there had the courage to lift the white sheet off the charred remains until I came up and struck a match- it being dark- pulling down the sheet and exposed all that remained of the two daring & murderous Bushrangers.

They “presented a horrible appearance being roasted to a skeleton” being “[b]lack and grim reminding me of old Knick himself”.

I must admit that the letter, to my completely inexpert eye and limited knowledge, seems almost too good to be true.  In his reaction to the letter in October 2013, as reported on the ABC website, McDermott himself expresses similar sentiments, while still marvelling at the letter and the unique perspective it gives:

“To take the siege of Glenrowan, one of the most scrutinised events in Australian history, one of the most researched events in Australian history and then have someone sort of tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Oh by the way, there is another account no-one knew about it, it just came up,’ it’s a gem,” he said.

“What we have here is an everyday bank teller from Oxley, a little town near Glenrowan, and he’s not on the side of the Kellys, and he’s not on the side of the police.

“[Sutherland is] able to give an account of how Kelly’s demeanour was, the sort of man he seemed to be.

Is it too good to be true? Admittedly, Sutherland enclosed newspaper reports in the letter to his parents which gave much of the factual background to the Kelly events, so he was left free to give his own eyewitness account as an adjunct to these reports.  Further, it is true that he is making the point that Kelly’s actual appearance did not reconcile with the images and rumours that were sweeping Victoria.  But to have a physical description like this, with such a novelistic eye, still surprises me.  Perhaps it’s jealousy that I’ve found no physical description at all of my own Judge, but from reading many letters of the time, I have found that people rarely commented on what people looked like.  In memoirs, years after events, yes- but not in letters.  I hope that the letter is authentic: surely research would have been undertaken into its provenance.  But, as the recent challenge to the authorship of the diary-formerly-known-as-the-Lazarus-Diary shows, things are not always what they seem.

You’ve probably seen Alex McDermott on recent television documentaries (e.g. SBS’ Immigration Nation)  He’s young (well, anyone under 50 is young as far as I’m concerned), extremely photogenic, articulate and interesting.  He’s been working on Ned Kelly for some years (for example, he wrote the introduction to the recent release of the Jerilderie Letter)  and questions the Irish Hero status that has been awarded him.  He sees Victorian society during the 1880s as still fluid and not marked by  entrenched divisions between rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, Irish English or Scots.  As he says in the Age article:

To my mind, Kelly’s rebellion was fuelled by his extensive involvement in organised crime- namely, wholesale and retail horse stealing, which flourished in the region, especially in the circle of country that surrounded the Kelly homestead.  This crime wasn’t, as Kelly himself maintained, the result of a land war between poor men and rich squatters, it actually preyed on the smaller selector farmers as much as the big pastoralists.

In taking this stance, McDermott has been pitted against the doyen of Kelly Studies, Ian Jones, who takes the opposite view.  The final part of McDermott’s Age article reflects  on the relationship between historians who circle each other on contested ground.  They were thrown together during the filming of Tony Robinson’s 2008 Time Team- inspired documentary on the Glenrowan siege site.

He was the established lion of the field and I was the revisionist young Turk (in Tony’s excited narrative), who argued against some of the basic premises of Jones’ interpretation, which are also the popularly held ones- Kelly was victimised for being a poor Irish Catholic and suffered persecution from unreasoning tyrannical police bullies and an entrenched ethnic, economic and establishment elite.

On the first day of the shoot, Robinson told me how remarkable he considered the decency with which Jones was treating me.  Television is a dog-eat-pipsqueak world, as much as history wars.  He’d seen plenty of other established authorities dealing with revisionist young contenders on other programs he’d done, and assured me it wasn’t pretty. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are to be treated so kindly?” the amateur historian and actor asked me bluntly.

He then goes on to describe their interaction on the set of the documentary; staying the night in Beechworth with him; driving around Kelly sites  introducing him to amazed and rather derisive acquaintances.  It’s a  heartwarming story in a world of snarky Amazon reviews and vituperative partisan websites.

‘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!

‘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

“In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography” by Inga Clendinnen


2004, 33p.

Sometimes you read the transcript of a paper given to a conference or seminar some time ago and wish with all your heart that you could be there to witness it, not so much for the paper itself (which, after all, you have a copy of) but to sense the response to it at the time.  That’s the way I felt reading Inga Clendinnen’s inaugural Allan Martin Lecture, delivered at ANU on 4 May 2004.  The title of her paper was “In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography”.

Inga Clendinnen knew Alan Martin from his decade at La Trobe University as Foundation Chair of the School of History, when he appointed her to a tenured lectureship at La Trobe  to join the 33 other historians he hired within three years to establish the department.  In this paper she speaks of him as administrator and mentor as head of school, but also as an academic and writer – and this is where I wonder if the audience started to lean in and listen a little more closely.

Allan Martin conducted an honours course in biography, and staff members were welcome to attend.  Clendinnen did, and she characterized it in 2004 as “probably the most sustained intellectual adventure of my rather long life”.  She attended every class over two years where they discussed the psychological theorizing then being pioneered by Gregory Bateson and Gordon Allport, and they worked on real documents, sequences of letters and confessional writings.  Martin was working at the time on his biography of Henry Parkes, the colonial politician, and when the class was ready, he gave the class some of his toughest Parkes material.  

Then some years later Martin’s work, Henry Parkes came out.

In the preface to ‘Parkes’ Allan made a remarkable apology.  He apologized to his biography class for something not there: the matter discussed in those enthralling sessions.  He acknowledged that he had initially planned ‘to explore Parkes’s life history under other categories’, to expose ‘those intersecting patterns of experience, personality and circumstance which mould a man’s response to the contingent and hence lie under the existential surface.’  Instead he had chosen to adopt ‘a rigid chronological framework’ (which was, he granted, ‘in some ways an intellectual and artistic defeat’) because it was the political Parkes he was determined to pursue- although, he said, he would also ‘try to tell the story of the man’s personal life as far as the documents would permit it to be glimpsed’- as if the story were there, as if ‘the documents’ spoke in a simple tongue- as well as ‘Parkes’ successes and failures in mastering his political environment.’ (Parkes, xi) Clendinnen, p. 13-14)

She was disappointed and she told him so.

On that first reading, I thought that any unusually good and judicious historian could have written A. W. Martin’s ‘Henry Parkes’.  Where was the brilliant essay into the art of biography I had been expecting? To me it was seeing a bright sword sheathed.  True, you could look up every light-footed political manoeuvre, every tricky little factional dance, and it would be there.  But where was the grappling with Parkes’s beguiling personal complexities?… A. W. Martin says in this foreword, ‘because one person cannot attempt everything’, and that’s true.  But only Allan Martin could have unraveled this strange, secret, public man.  He also claims to have been ‘defeated by structuring problems’, and that I simply don’t believe.  Allan had preternatural literary skills.  He could make his prose do anything he wanted, while his mind was as sensitive, as penetrating, as intrepid as any I have encountered.  So why did he choose to step back- and for him, truly, it was a step back (why else the apology?)- to pursue a conventional public-political biographical model?  Why didn’t he write the international state-of-the-art biography of which he was capable?  ( Clendinnen p. 15)

She suggests three reasons.  The first was Martin’s criterion of ‘good’ history:  that you could look something up, it would be there; and it would be right.  I was reminded of the writer’s ethical statement that Tony Birch talked about at the Past Matters festival at Montsalvat, and I wonder, as I suspect Clendinnen did, whether Martin’s own ethical statement served him, and his writing, well.  Historians hold facts in different degrees of reverence: military historians in particular have a grasp on detail and dates that I could never master (and to be honest, I don’t really know if I would want to) and my own certainty on dates in my own work is often slippery and vague.  Yet I veer between annoyance and exultation when I find a mistake in work that I’m familiar with- the academic ‘gotya’ moment. But it’s a hollow and rather demeaning victory: often the error relates to such minutiae that it is  ultimately irrelevant to a bigger picture.

A second reason, she suspects, was Martin’s own Calvinistic mistrust of his own talents, that he would have classified as self-indulgent; and finally, she concedes there was the inadequacy of biographical models that were available at the time- most particularly Jerome Bruner’s idea of self-narration, encapsulated in his book Making Stories: Law, Literature and Life (I reviewed it here) , – which emerged in the years after Henry Parkes was published.

Yet Martin did not immure himself completely in his strictures for ‘good’, fact-based, accurate history.  In an article published in Historical Studies in 1974, Martin tiptoed towards an exploration of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’- a phrase used by Henry Parkes himself, and apostrophized in Martin’s article title (‘Henry Parkes: in Search of the “Actual Man Underneath”, Historical Studies, vol 16, No 63, 216-234.)  After drawing on a myriad of sources to describe in some detail a period of years where Parkes’ political career seemed finished, Martin inched towards the approach that Clendinnen looked for, but did not find, in the book.  It’s there, right in the last paragraph, dangling tantalizingly at the end:

…one needs also to observe in the documents we have discussed the manifold hints that a life might fruitfully be conceived in more dynamic terms- from the inside a range of self-identifications held in fragile tension, personality a process rather than the unfolding of a given core of self-hood, and action the fruit of a traffic between circumstance and these unseen worlds.  It may be that such a perspective could melt the discrepancies between actor and man underneath, to merge the two and reveal in the individual’s struggle for their reconciliation the sources and character of motivation- and hence, for the outside observer, important keys to explanation. (Martin, 1974, p. 234)

Clendinnen rues that Martin came so close to the ideas that Jerome Bruner later articulated, but that he chose instead to work within the existing frames for political biography.  She admits, too, her doubts that even if Martin had had  Bruner’s ideas available to him, his choice of biographical model was deliberate:

So… at the end, despite contingencies of the availability of particular theories, the time of writing and so on, I have come to think Allan’s biographical model was fully deliberate: that it mirrored his moral temperament- as it had to.  Writing being the solitary business it is- sitting alone, making the dozens and hundreds of tiny choices of emphasis and selection we must make- I doubt if we could effect an enduring divorce from ourselves even if we tried.  That mass of barely-conscious choices figures forth the most intimate processes of our thinking. (Clendinnen, p. 23)

I very much enjoyed reading this small booklet and its exploration of the book not written.  It’s made me think a great deal about my own writing and the relationship between an academic’s personality and the type of history they write, and the ethical tenets she holds.  And gee, I wish I could have been there for the response that followed when Inga Clendinnen stopped talking and sat down.

Vale A.G.L. Shaw

I see in today’s newspaper that A.G.L. Shaw has died, aged 96.  His full name was Alan George Lewers Shaw, but I only ever heard him referred to as ‘Agl’ (pronounced ‘aggle’).  He was Professor of History at Monash University between 1964 and 1981, and took a leadership role in the Friends of the La Trobe Library, the Royal Historical Society and the C.J. L Trobe Society.

I first encountered him as the author of one of the textbooks we used in HSC Australian History in 1972- I can’t remember if it was The Story of Australia or The Economic Development of Australia– and with the callowness of youth, I always assumed that anyone who was old enough to write a textbook would surely be dead and buried by then.

However, I encountered him again once I commenced my work on Judge Willis some 27 years later only to find that he was not only not dead and buried, but still working hard.  I often find myself reaching for Shaw’s A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, a book published in 1996 and remarkably, the first general history of the Port Phillip District written since Henry Giles Turner’s History of the Colony of Victoria in 1904.  Although there were books on particular subjects, and although such books usually had an introductory chapter on the period before 1851, he could find no general survey history.  So he decided to write one.  His introduction gives a hint of the flavour of the history that was to follow:

It is old-fashioned narrative history, and though I fully realise its statements can not be proved philosophically ‘true’ and that my judgements are my own, and therefore influenced by subjective bias and prejudice, in writing it I have been searching for the truth and trying to produce a narrative of unique events.  These are clearly not subject to general laws, which is not to say they are ‘uncaused’, but rather that they are the result of human agency, largely dependent on human motivation.

In one sense this seems a success story and therefore can be denigrated as ‘Whig’ history, but this depends on the meaning ascribed to success.  Everyone achieves something, whether it be good or bad, great or small, and I have tried to write about the bad as well as the good.  Such a mixture is, to my mind, inevitable given the mixture of qualities belonging to the members of any community- weak and strong, heroes and villains, intelligent and stupid, far-seeing and short-sighted, strong-minded and weak-willed, pushing and subservient, arrogant and humble.  From the interplay of these comes the community development, beneficial or harmful, and it is the story of that development in the Port Phillip District before the discovery of gold that I have tried to tell- though my prejudices will inevitably have influenced my telling of it.  (p. xv)

It is the interplay of personalities that is most clearly on show in my favourite of his works, and one that migrates frequently between my bookshelf and my desk: the Gipps-LaTrobe Correspondence,  written in 1989.

This is an edited collection of the ‘back-channel’ personal correspondence between Governor Gipps in Sydney, and Charles La Trobe, the first superintendent appointed to the nascent settlement of Port Phillip.  La Trobe was, perhaps, an unusual candidate for appointment.  Unlike many of the colonial appointees, he did not have a military or judicial background- indeed, he had spent quite a bit of time ‘rambling’ in Switzerland, then camping with Washington Irving in North America.  He had, however, worked on three reports on the emancipation of West Indian slaves in the mid-late 1830s, and it was this work that brought him to the attention of the evangelically-inclined Secretary of State, Lord Glenelg at a time when the Colonial Office was particularly attuned to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements). La Trobe brought with him his Moravian background, but he had had no experience at all in administration, and he was appointed as subordinate to Governor Gipps, an older and much more experienced officer of military background in Sydney.  La Trobe stayed briefly with Gipps en route to Melbourne, and the warmth of the relationship they established there is reflected in these personal letters.  It is a largely one-sided collection of correspondence, with relatively few letters remaining from La Trobe to Gipps, but as with such archives, it is possible to detect the tenor of the missing correspondence.  A.G.L. Shaw’s contribution to this collection is his extensive and minutely-detailed footnotes to the letters, providing not only context, but also small details of who, where, when. He is so sensitive to the reader’s needs that almost as soon as the question about something you have read forms in your mind,  the footnote number pops up to show you that Agl has thought about it before you.  And so, from a rather over-awed distance, thank you Agl Shaw.