The other day I discovered my ten-year-old googling “can I trust the internet”. He’s already frustrated by the difficulty of working out what sources he can believe in. He wants truth, verifiable facts, but he also wants the reassuring structure of stories: goodies and baddies, cause and effect.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the history I’ve learned has been from lies and nonsense. Well-meaning lies, to be clear, and nonsense of the highest quality – but I’ve pieced together large slabs of my understanding of the past from resources more interested in telling a story than in accuracy or fact. I had amazing history teachers but, I’m ashamed to confess, I’ve probably retained more from Blackadder. Nazi occupation of Paris? Casablanca. Need to know about the Roman Empire? Time to study the Book of Asterix. I can speak in a very informed fashion about the Spanish Inquisition but I’m referencing either Edgar Allen Poe or Monty Python.
If, as the old Napoleon quote has it, history is “a lie agreed upon”, it’s little wonder that fiction – entertainment even – might be the most agreeable form of lies. A generation of readers may now be better informed about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, but it’s Hilary Mantel’s version of Tudor England that will shape their understanding. Historical novels are not history, but they might just be its most indelible, most persuasive chronicler.
But what does all of this mean for us in an Australian context? Powerful, significant works of history have gone some way to reframing our cultural understanding of the past but truth telling, as a nation, has proved gradual and elusive. National identity has been built on a series of lies and history needs to be reclaimed from self-serving, self-justifying narratives. And that’s before we get to the other issues of the day, in this age of anxiety about authenticity amid the disconcerting rise of fake news. Is fake history a dangerous indulgence, making us slaves to the irresistible forces of narrative?
For Guardian Australia’s next book club this month, in partnership with Melbourne Writers festival, we’re delving into these questions with the celebrated and beloved author who has arguably made telling stories about the past her literary niche: Kate Grenville.
In 1988’s Joan Makes History, Grenville inserted her “everywoman” heroine into key moments in Australian European history in ways that were playful and audacious. A similar act of kaleidoscopic empathy underpinned her extraordinary 1994 novel Dark Places, which reimagined the personal history of her early classic Lillian’s Story from the perspective of Albion, her heroine’s monstrous, abusive father. By allowing a different character to take the pen, Grenville turned the facts in the world she had created on their head.
And, of course, with her 2006 masterpiece The Secret River, Grenville brought together all these concerns – about history and perspective, about the role of fiction in illuminating truths – to clear-eyed, brutal effect. By writing in the mode of classic realist historical novels, Grenville Trojan-horsed a bigger story about culpability and cost into the literary mainstream, crafting a story of first contact that took every expectation and assumption about her readers’ sympathies and used them to condemn white complicity. The reader is left in no doubt of the price of following a protagonist who dreams of “taking up land”. Conventional history might describe, but historical fiction of this calibre uses artistic licence and imaginative empathy to place its readers’ hands firmly in the blood.
These are themes overtly taken up in her new novel, A Room Made of Leaves, reviewed in these pages. The book – a re-imagining of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of Australian colonist John Macarthur – centres around a cache of “historical documents” that we are told from the outset have been uncovered by Grenville; she is transcribing and editing the past. Historian Clare Wright calls it literary alchemy: “turning the leaden shadow of the historical Elizabeth Macarthur into a luminescent, golden woman for our times”. Grenville’s own publisher identifies its relationship with “one of the most toxic issues of our own age: the seductive appeal of false stories”. Narrative trickery and imaginative licence abound. We are being taken for a very deliberate ride, and this is fiction. Not history.
So on Thursday 13 August at 1pm on Zoom, join our club and bring your questions for Kate and your readings of A Room Made of Leaves. And while you’re at it, bring your most dubious historical sources to the discussion. What works of fiction have left an indelible trace on your understanding of history, for better or worse? What do we make of true histories, fake facts and literary jiggery-pokery in this age of dishonesty?
Guardian Australia’s next book club will be held on Thursday 13 August at 1pm, over Zoom, hosted by Australia At Home in partnership with Melbourne Writers festival. To register click here, or stay tuned for the video highlights.
• What works of fiction informed your understanding of history? Let us know in the comments – or join Michael Williams and Kate Grenville on Zoom