Revisiting The Secret River

secret riverThere are essentially two kinds of novel set in the past. In the first, we follow the fortunes of a real person, such as Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Hilary Mantel’s celebrated trilogy. This is a flexible genre, in which the portrait does not have to be accurate to be convincing: witness Peter Carey’s brilliant impersonation of Ned Kelly in The True History of the Kelly Gang. These works stand or fall according to the psychological interest they create.

The second kind of novel set in the past uses imagined characters, but places them in credible historical settings. Think of the Hornblower books, or those by Patrick O’Brian, both set in the Napoleonic Wars, or even (although they were written for a younger audience) Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels, such as her still-popular tale of Roman Britain, The Eagle of the Ninth. The events don’t have to be accurate, but these books stand or fall on the strength of the realism they invoke, the sense of being there.

Of course, historical fiction brings as much of the present to the past as vice versa. The characters must be remote enough to be intriguing, but not so remote that they are inscrutable. There is a market to reach, and this kind of literature must be readable as well as credible.

Kate Grenville’s well-known novel of early Sydney and its frontier, The Secret River (2005), belongs to the second category—while the characters are imagined, the events around them, and what happens to them, must seem credible for the book to be effective. But while The Secret River is definitely a good read, it is a much more ambitious work than that. A little like Patrick White’s Voss, it seeks to make a deeper point, about the relationship of Australians to the past—in this case to the Aboriginal people who were here so long before us. The climactic event of The Secret River, a massacre of Aborigines on the Hawkesbury River that, in the book’s chronology, is placed at some point around 1814, is intended to place readers in the reality of a situation that we know happened in many places in Australia’s early history.

While acknowledging that The Secret River was fiction, its author claimed (in a post-publication interview) that it actually represented a more satisfying way of looking at the past than was available to historians, whose arguments about the true nature of the early frontier (she implied) had bogged down in contentions about facts and counter-facts. It was a claim that got its author into trouble not, as she may have imagined, from those critical of the so-called “black armband” view of Australian history, but from historians Inga Clendinnen and Mark McKenna, each of whom had written richly interpretive accounts of encounters between whites and blacks in the early years of white settlement.

Both historians pointed out that at least some of the detail in The Secret River was anachronistic. The incidents that the author had used had been altered in ways that changed their meaning. For example, detail of the massacre that is such a pivotal part of the story was taken from one known to have occurred over twenty years later at Waterloo Creek. It is not an easily resolvable debate—what, after all, is truth?

Because the issues go to the heart of what it means to write fiction, and what the past means to us now, they are worth revisiting. The Secret River was the first in a trilogy: it was followed by The Lieutenant (in 2008), and Sarah Thornhill (in 2011). The theme of all three novels is guilt—the guilt of white Australia at its treatment of Aboriginal people. Guilt poisons William Thornhill’s life, and that of his daughter, Sarah Thornhill. In The Lieutenant, Daniel Rooke, based on the historical William Dawes, avoids guilt only by disavowing (to his face) the governor’s orders to capture and kill six of the local Cadigal people.

By general consent, The Secret River is considered the best book of the three. It has a liveliness the other two lack, largely because the characters are allowed, at least at the outset, to have lives of their own outside the relentless thematic trajectory of the later two books. The Secret River starts with an account of William Thornhill and his wife, Sal’s, battling existence in late-eighteenth-century London. Their vicissitudes are gripping—after his involvement in stealing some timber, William is saved from the gallows only by Sal’s shrewdness. Through a chain of contacts, she petitions the Home Secretary, begging for William’s life to be spared. The appeal succeeds, and both are transported to New South Wales, William as an assigned servant to his wife.

Thornhill ultimately becomes rich, but is haunted by the memory of the massacre which, although he was only reluctantly and somewhat peripherally involved in the actual killings, he had facilitated by helping to transport the vengeful settlers to the blacks’ campsite. He is also, or at least he becomes, a pathetic figure. By the time Sarah, his youngest child, is born, he does very little apart from being a kind of poor man’s lord of the manor, isolated by his big house, his riches and his memories. He dies, unreconciled to his son Dick, who from the outset has been sympathetic to the local Dharug people, and having fled the family home, stays away, revolted by his father’s brutality.

The story of Thornhill and his wife and family is affecting, and many readers have been moved by it. Grenville is an excellent story-teller, and a master of the telling detail. In the end, whatever critics may think or say, books must always live or die by the vision of the artist who made them.

But in a strange sort of way, just as the places and events of The Secret River are echoed by those of early Sydney, so the fictional William Thornhill is shadowed by the real person whose life gave rise to him. We know the story behind the story because, soon after The Secret River came out, Text published The Search for the Secret River, Kate Grenville’s frank account of her thoughts, motives and methods as she put the book together.

The real person was Solomon Wiseman, Grenville’s ancestor, and a character any novelist would kill for. In subordinating William Thornhill to the leitmotif of guilt, Kate sacrificed the chance to write about him, even though it was Wiseman who inspired her to start her quest. Like Thornhill, Wiseman started out as a Thames waterman, was convicted of theft and transported (with his family) to New South Wales. Unlike Thornhill, who for years carries other people’s goods up and down Sydney Harbour and back and forth to the Hawkesbury via Broken Bay, laboriously assembling the capital to expand his business, Wiseman seems to have been a natural entrepreneur. He quickly made himself at home in the freewheeling deal-making of early Sydney, and before settling on the Hawkesbury in 1817 had made (and lost) a fortune as a merchant and trader (he commissioned and owned several vessels).

It was Wiseman who settled the (real) place where the McDonald and the Hawkesbury Rivers intersect, known as Thornhill’s Point in The Secret River. He moved there in 1817 to take up a land grant from Governor Macquarie, which he had obtained (presumably by adroit representations) soon after he lost his first business. Wiseman farmed the site, but within a few years he made another fortune by supplying the chain gangs building the Great North Road through to Newcastle, and (again through a government contract) by ferrying passengers across the river. His family’s motto, “Resurgam”, suggests the general spirit. The eventual site of the ferry came to be known (as it still is) as Wiseman’s Ferry.

Like William Thornhill, Wiseman owned a telescope (his portrait shows him looking out somewhat furtively from the canvas, cradling the telescope across his forearm). But unlike Thornhill, Wiseman did not use his telescope to scan the horizon in an anxious, perturbed way. Grenville is convinced Wiseman was involved in killing Aborigines, but even if he was, he was not the kind of man who would be consumed by remorse. Contemporaries recorded that he used the telescope to see who was coming down the road to the ferry, a heads-up on the possibility of forthcoming profit.

Wiseman was known as a hard man. He did all he could to hang on to the convicts assigned to him, rather than smoothing their path to emancipation. After his first wife died, he built Cobham Hall, a very grand house indeed, for his second. He must have been literate to engage in his business affairs (his portrait shows him holding what might be an accounts book), and while he was not enamoured of education, it seems most unlikely that his sons, at any rate, would have been unable to read and write.

A book with a Wiseman-like figure as its central character would not, of course, have been The Secret River but rather, a chronicle of the emerging society and economy of the period. Early Sydney was a fascinating place, unique in world history—intended as a jail, but one whose inmates rapidly responded to the opportunities of place, space and time to begin the creation of a new society. People whose lives had been hopeless responded readily to opportunity. It was a tough place, but certainly not lawless. Indeed in comparison to the American Wild West, early Sydney was a well-regulated place.

We know, for example, that as early as 1804, the then governor had placed one Andrew Thompson in charge of registering the many boats that plied the river near Green Hills (later to be known as Windsor). Thompson had arrived as a convict, excelled in business (in the best traditions of early Sydney, he bought and sold spirits) and became a respected citizen. The shenanigans of the Rum Corps notwithstanding, roads were built and schools were opened. With Macquarie’s arrival in 1810, at the head of his own regiment, there were fewer opportunities for lawless behaviour. Macquarie’s diaries and journals recall the care with which he organised the establishment of the five Macquarie towns, Windsor, Richmond, Ebenezer, Castlereagh and Pitt Town.

The Secret River ignores this activity, which was happening only a short distance from Thornhill’s Point, for these are melancholy books, whose pivotal point is dispossession. The problem of representing the perspective of the Aboriginal people who were dispossessed is resolved imaginatively, by bringing together a range of perceptions (some from the author’s encounters with Aboriginal people in other parts of Australia), others from more-or-less contemporary accounts. But there is more than a little of the noble savage in Kate Grenville’s portrayal of the Dharug: they are victims, but they are attuned to the land in a way that the settlers cannot be. They are skilful, and move lightly on the land—all true, but as with any human society, they had their share of internal and internecine aggression and warfare.

Our putative ancestors in The Secret River, on the other hand, the William Thornhills and their progeny, have few inspiring qualities. Overall, they are a poor lot. The Thornhills’ neighbours along the Hawkesbury, occupying land illegally downstream from Windsor, are mostly semi-feral. The Thornhills themselves work hard, but gain little pleasure from their exertions, and do not bother much with schools or education. Sarah Thornhill cannot read or write, and despite her obvious intelligence, she does not want to learn. Her husband, Irish-born John Daunt, must read the paper to her. When at the end of the eponymous novel, she travels to New Zealand to explain the sad fate of her part-Maori niece, she has no song that she knows, apart from “Oranges and Lemons”, to sing at the Maori greeting ceremony. The Australian-born, even though free, lack even the legitimacy of their own songs. The implication for the contemporary reader is clear: we are meant to wonder, is this still the case today?

Jewish scriptural writers have a tradition called midrash, which means writing about the present through the lens of the past. Writers of history run the risk of a sort of midrash in reverse—writing about the past through the lens of the present. Historians try as far as possible to avoid doing this—for novelists, the situation is not so clear-cut. Characters in novels are always hybrids, partly based on real people, but often stitched-together attributes of a number of different originals. People who claim to see themselves in novels written by friends and acquaintances are probably flattering (or at least deceiving) themselves.

The preoccupations and the success of the Grenville novels suggest that we are still worrying whether or not we are legitimately in this country. Ironically, I am not sure that those alive in the 1800s gave the matter a second thought. They may have done the nineteenth-century equivalent of travelling to the moon, but they were practical people.

As contemporary journals such as that of Marine Captain Watkin Tench show, the need to find out more about the capacities and character of the new land in which they found themselves, sharpened by the exigencies of survival, was uppermost in their minds. Macquarie’s journals of his exploratory tours, covering the period from 1810 until 1821, record almost non-stop effort, establishing new towns, inspecting troops, searching for fertile land, having regular breakfasts and naming everything in sight.

The presence of Aboriginal people was, in a sense, unremarkable. Up to a point, they were treated with forbearance and Macquarie, a typical Scot, wanted to provide for their education. But his duty was towards the settlement. As he showed in 1816, if Aboriginal people killed settlers, they could expect to be the subject of punitive action in return. We might wish that these matter-of-fact people had thought and felt differently. But they did not doubt that they had a right to be where they were.

For their part, the Australian-born sons and daughters of the first settlers, the currency lads and lasses, revelled in their freedom. As far as we know, unlike Sarah Thornhill, they were not bereft of songs—they borrowed, stole or created their own. Their descendants have been doing the same ever since.

Movements for a more independent Australia have come, and gone, in the two hundred years since Solomon Wiseman. It is a sign of maturity that we can now look back on our earliest years, and see the grey and (literally) the black. Whether we can, simultaneously, create and sustain an original culture into the future, remains to be seen. Will our time, never having fully come, simply disappear?

We cannot know. Nor can we know whether The Secret River trilogy will stand for itself, or simply be regarded as emblematic of the feelings of the current time for the past. Maybe future readers will find these books as strange in their way as Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land seems to us now. Whether The Secret River is convincing or not, is, however, beside the point. Many readers, if the highlightings in my Kindle copy are any guide, have received the message loud and clear. They are only too willing to take on the burden of guilt, secure I guess from the need to do anything about it. They are comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The guilt may be a stage we need to go through. But guilt is the least productive of the emotions—it makes us sad, without making us more consistent or effective. It is an emotion that is difficult to sustain, nor, I suspect, is it even very widely shared. Almost a quarter of Australia’s current population was born overseas. Multicultural Australia knows little about indigenous Australians.

For their part, indigenous Australians are fighting their own battles, day in and day out. We probably help them best by taking them seriously, doing a few things sensibly, and sticking with what works.

Dr Jenny Stewart is Honorary Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy

One thought on “Revisiting The Secret River

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Hi Jenny

    I loved your article. I agree with your view of The Grenvilles’ views of our past.

    When you say today a quarter of our population was born overseas and not really aware of the history or current circumstance of indigenous Australians, I wonder how many Australians, whether native born or not, in the eras of which Grenville writes, were aware of the Indigenous Australians and their circumstances.

    I think most non indigenous Australians of those times were far too focused on their own circumstances and with building their own histories and culture to have had the energy or time to focus outside of themselves.

    While Grenville is well meaning but I think she overlooks that point and also that today we have those luxuries and are endeavouring to address those issues as best we can.

    We’d be much better off understanding the past if we included such sentiments when writing of our pasts

    Cheers Keith Kennelly.

Leave a Reply