From my personal site: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

14 Aug

Substantial additions have been made to this post, thanks to Adrian Phoon. Go to the original post for his comment. See also Just something to think about…, a follow-up post.

 The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2005).  Grenville has also written one of the best books on writing that I know. (Australian historical fiction)

As I said last week:

I mentioned in my comment on Jim Belshaw’s post that I am at last reading The Secret River by Kate Grenville, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. I think this reading is partly responsible for my looking into Macquarie connections to Cleveland House here in Surry Hills, a building I see every day! The site linked to the novel there is Kate Grenville’s own site, thoroughly worth exploring, especially the section on fiction and history. The Secret River (that is, the Hawkesbury) attracted some little controversy on that score, much of it misplaced. But I will take that up when I review the novel. You will see I have already given The Secret River a best read of 2007 tag though.

That still stands, now that I have finished.

The “Secret River” is today a major tourist attraction, and more, just north of Sydney, parts of it indeed inside Greater Sydney.

The climax of the novel is a massacre, and that has been the issue, it seems, that has led to its being caught up in controversy. Given, as the author has clearly stated, that this is a work of fiction, I don’t think it matters whether or not the events described actually took place in the real-world Hawkesbury Valley in the time of Lachlan Macquarie. Such events, however, did happen, and the novel makes a clear case for the way in which even close to such events their reporting could have been spun and muffled, to be forgotten before many years passed. I think the novel quite properly should caution us against the naive belief that written records tell the whole story.

a020561.jpgThe novel began, Kate Grenville tells us, as a work of non-fiction; she is fortunate enough to have a very interesting convict ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, about whom rather more is known and told than is the case with my ancestor Jacob. Some stirring tales appear in The Hawkesbury Historical Society’s pages. Grenville does her subject novelistic justice in that flesh-and-blood characters really emerge in her writing. It is true, nonetheless, that, while true to what we know of Aboriginal life and culture in that time and place, she does fail to render her Indigenous characters quite so fully. Perhaps given the perspective of her narrative this is not possible, but her convicts and emancipists are rendered brilliantly and individually.

The portrait of Wiseman on the right is alluded to in the last chapter of the novel.

I can really believe that (as Aluminium said in a comment here) readers will be drawn by the novel into an enthusiasm for Australian history, and that can’t be a bad thing after all.

Don’t think I am damning with faint praise; I’m not. This is one very fine novel.

See also Kate Grenville: Secret river, secret pastSunday Channel 9 August 7, 2005 and The Convict Trail.


North of the Hawkesbury region is the Hunter River and Newcastle. The University of Newcastle has a very fine Virtual Sourcebook for Aboriginal Studies in the Hunter Region, well worth examining. To the east of most of the territory covered by Kate Grenville’s novel and reaching down to northern Sydney lay the lands of the Guringai, whose history my nephew, himself a descendant of the Guringai, has explored: see A Guringai Family’s Story: guest entry by Warren Whitfield.


I deliberately minimised controversy in this post. Adrian in his comment noted that and I responded with some reasons. In writing that comment I found Warts and all: on writing “The Secret River” in the University of Sydney News. It is a good article. My reservations about the Aboriginal characters compared to the Europeans are explained there, I think. I could see Grenville had a problem.

Two chapters [in Searching for the Secret River 2006] unravel her struggle to represent Aboriginal people authentically.

“The whole point of writing The Secret River was to put the Aboriginal people back into the picture,” Grenville said, “but how to do that without appropriating their story.” And how to do that without caricaturing?

Her attempts at Aboriginal dialogue in limited English were “dire”, she said, so she took it all out and showed Aboriginal people doing things and relating to each other instead.

“There’s a lot about getting it wrong in Searching for the Secret River“, Grenville said. “It’s pretty much warts and all. But the teacher in me, the person who wants to encourage others to write, is overcoming my fear of exposing my dopiness. There’s no short-cut to creativity.”

The convoluted, partly unconscious problem-solving process of writing, she finds absolutely fascinating.

“I think that’s why people go on doing it,” she said.

The Secret River has won several awards since publication last year, including the overall Commonwealth Writers Prize for Literature. But the thanks Grenville has received from members of the Aboriginal community is worth more to her, she said, than any of the prizes.

“They recognise that the book is my act of acknowledgement, my way of saying: this is how I’m sorry.”

And a positive and healthy example of that, I would have thought. Nonetheless, even though I think it is excellent historical fiction because the history is possible (often probable) in the main and while it is a magnificent empathic exercise, that issue of showing the Aboriginal people to a degree externally still is there.

When she writes how to do that without appropriating their story I know what she means, and anyone who follows this blog knows that I am all in favour of cultural sensitivity. In fact I think we still have a lot to learn in that regard. At the same time there is a danger of being crippled, isn’t there. It’s a paradox, and I am not sure Grenville has entirely solved it. One view is that such stories are in fact our stories, that is the stories are deeply Australian. We all need, perhaps, to enter them. Nicholas Jose was on to something when he wrote: “I got into trouble once for writing that Aboriginal issues were therapy issues for non-indigenous Australians. I was thought to be trivialising matters when, on the contrary, I meant to imply that the issues live inside all of us, inseparable from us. That is why we bristle when we are told to shut up and listen for a change.” (See my Indigenous Australians.)

Historians are right to be cautious when acting as historians; I quite admire Inga Clendinnen in that respect. Novelists however would find life very difficult if they were quite so bound. There is, though, a world of difference, in my view, between Grenville’s approach to history and that of Dan Brown, not to mention Dumas and The Three Musketeers, or Sir Walter Scott! I think she gets Macquarie’s ambivalence right, and it is interesting that the May 1816 Proclamation is quoted verbatim, as Grenville says, in the novel. That same Proclamation appears in the Defence case in R. v. Johnston, Clarke, Nicholson, Castles, and Crear (1824).

Mr. Rowe respectfully suggested to the Court, on behalf of his clients, that he did not see there was any necessity for the prisoners to enter into a defence, as the charge laid in the information did not appear to be borne out by the evidence that had been adduced. The learned Gentleman also contended, that the prisoners were entitled to the benefit of two points of law which suggested themselves in the case; viz. 1. — That the indictment charged the prisoners with having committed an offence within the County of Cumberland, whereas the spot, on which these poor native women met with death, was in the County of Westmoreland; and, 2. — That the prisoners were warranted in the adoption of the steps that had been taken, having acted under the direction of a Proclamation, bearing date the 4th of May, 1816; one clause of which enacted “That from and after the 4th day of June next ensuing, that being the Birth-day of His Most Gracious Majesty King George the Third, no black native, or body of black natives, shall ever appear at or within one mile of any town, village, or farm, occupied by or belonging to any British subject, armed with any warlike or offensive weapon or weapons of any description, such as spears, clubs, or waddies, on pain of being deemed and considered in a state of aggression and hostility, and treated accordingly.” In reply to the learned Solicitor, His Honor the CHIEF JUSTICE observed that these were matters of evidence, and it was necessary that the prisoners should go into their defence.

Mr. Robert Howe called. — His father, the late Mr. George Howe, was the Editor and Government Printer in 1816; and he (the witness) succeeded to the situation in 1821. That it was usual for all Proclamations, and other Orders of the Government, to be published through the medium of the Gazette; and that such had been invariably the practice. That it was a standing Order, “that all Public Communications which may appear in the Sydney Gazette, signed with any Official Signature, are to be considered as Official Communications made to those Persons to whom they may relate.” The Proclamation, bearing upon the present question, was published by the late Governor (General MACQUARIE). That it had been called forth in consequence of certain outrages and murders that had been committed by the natives, on this side the mountains, which was the habit of being repeated every maize season; that it was found expedient to send out military aid to the settlers, owing to which numbers of the natives had been killed; and that since the date of the Proclamation, the natives had been in a tranquil state, with the exception of those in the new-discovered Country (Bathurst). In his cross-examination by the learned Attorney General, Mr. Howe stated, that he had not heard of disturbances in the vicinity of Bathurst, till within the last 8 months; and the preamble of Governor Macquarie’s Proclamation was read to the witness, reciting that the black natives of the Colony had, for three years before its promulgation, manifested a strong and sanguinary spirit of animosity and hostility towards the British inhabitants, &c.

The Rev. Thomas Hassall was next called. — This gentleman also stated that the Proclamation had been issued by the late Government, owing to the destructive and cruel ravages of the natives; and it was true that several natives had been killed in the new country. The country over the mountains is designated “Westmoreland.” For general humanity and kindness, Mr. Hassall gave the prisoners a most excellent character, and was quite lavish in his encomiums on John Johnston, whom, together with the prisoner Clark, he had known from a state of childhood.

On being cross-examined, Mr. Hassall stated that he knew nothing of the consequences of the Proclamation of 1816 of his own knowledge; and the concluding paragraph of the Proclamation of 1816 was read to Mr. Hassall by the Attorney General; viz. “And finally, His Excellency the Governor hereby orders and directs, that on occasions of any natives coming armed, or in a hostile manner without arms, or in unarmed parties exceeding six in number, to any farm belonging to, or occupied by, British subjects in the interior, such natives are first to be desired in a civil manner to depart from the said farm; and if they persist in remaining thereon, or attempt to plunder, rob, or commit any kind of depredation, they are then to be driven away by force of arms by the settlers themselves; and in case they are not able to do so, they are to apply to a Magistrate for aid from the nearest military station; and the troops stationed there, are hereby commanded to render their assistance when so required. The troops are also to afford aid at the towns of Sydney, Parramatta, and Windsor respectively, when called on by the Magistrates or Police Officers at those stations.”

Mr. Hassall, on being asked, stated as to the clause — “they are then to be driven away by force of arms,” — that his impression was, that the settlers might kill the natives, although they themselves were not attacked.

The Secret River shows quite convincingly how this might have worked in practice. It also shows a range of views among the settlers.

Less dramatic than the depiction of the massacres, but just as telling, is Grenville’s understanding of just how settlement disrupted the Indigenous economy and way of life. The “Wiseman” character plants his corn right over the top of the yams — which he discards — on which the local Aboriginal people have depended, and which grow in few other places in that area.

There have been Aboriginal writers who have travelled through similar territory, by the way; Pemulwuy the Rainbow Warrior (1987) by Eric Willmot is not a bad bit of historical fiction itself, though from a literary point of view The Secret River is better.

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Posted by on August 14, 2007 in Australian, works/authors, writing


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