So some of you might know that Kate Grenville has a new book coming out this year. A novel. About Elizabeth Macarthur…
Kate Grenville is, like me, one of Text Publishing’s stable of authors and I’ve known for quite a while that this book was coming, and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.
The novel will be called A Room Made of Leaves and according to Books+Publishing,”This extraordinary novel takes as its starting point the story of Elizabeth Macarthur in the infant colony of Sydney, but breaks it open into a playful dance of possibilities.”
Magnanimous me thinks ‘I don’t own Elizabeth’s story – no-one does – so surely anyone who wants to write about her should go right ahead.’
Defensive me thinks ‘What can possibly be said that I haven’t already said?’
Churlish me thinks ‘Now that my little book has had it’s 15 minutes of fame it will be pushed even further to the back of the shelf.’
Optimistic me thinks ‘Maybe I’ll sell a few extra copies to people who read the novel and want to know more.’
And actual me just thinks there’s nothing I can do about it, so I may as well just watch with interest and see what happens.
Then I got a phone call from my publisher, and that NEVER happens. I’ve had one meeting with Michael Heyward, the publisher at Text, and he seems like a very nice chap but he and I are only on nodding terms. These days the only people I speak to at Text are the operational people (who help me to buy boxes of my book, which I sometimes hand sell when I give talks) and the publicists. These lovely people are always incredibly helpful, but our conversations are not of the variety that need to see Michael involved.
So when Michael Heyward rang me to say Kate Grenville had asked him to ask me if I’d like to have a coffee with her, I was surprised, to say the least. And of course I said yes, I’d love to.
And so it came to pass that a few weeks later I found myself in my favourite cafe (The Moat, which is tucked underneath Melbourne’s State Library) having a pot of tea with Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s foremost authors.
Readers, she was lovely. Also articulate (obviously) and kind and endearingly worried about what I might think about her new novel.
We spent a wonderful hour or so talking about Elizabeth Macarthur, cultural appropriation, gendered responses to books, research methodologies and I can’t even remember what else. I own quite a large stack of Grenville books, but I was too shy to take all of them along to be signed so I just took my favourite – a small paperback edition of The Idea of Perfection. Her inscription was typically generous.
Since then we’ve corresponded by email and I think it’s fair to say we’ve begun to be friends. What a joy.
I’ve yet to read Kate’s new novel, although I will over the next few days (she’s sent me a draft). From our conversations I believe Kate’s interpretation of the historical material differs from mine, and her Elizabeth behaves quite differently to my Elizabeth. I think that’s OK. If I learnt nothing else from all those years of research, I did learn that there is no single ‘truth’ and that none of us can ever really know what another person thought or felt. In Elizabeth’s case, there are so many gaps in the historical record that most of the time we can never really know what she actually did on a day to basis.
I’m also perfectly fine with fiction writers taking a story in a direction for which there is no concrete evidence. I’m much less fine with non-fiction writers doing that, but that’s a blog post for another day. In fact I strongly feel that fiction writers can do whatever they like. I don’t subscribe to the theory that fiction writers ‘ought’ to write this or that, or that for various reasons they’re ‘not allowed’ to write something. If they write badly, or disrespectfully, or inaccurately by all means call them out and hold them to account, but do let them write. Again, this is something I might explore further in another post, on another day. When it comes down to it, Elizabeth Macarthur doesn’t belong to me and frankly, put her on spaceship to Mars if that’s the story you want to tell. For the record, though, I’m pretty sure Kate’s story does NOT involve spaceships…
So what do YOU think? Have you had enough of Elizabeth Macarthur, or are you interested in reading more? All comments gratefully received.
I don’t think writers “ought to write this or that”, I don’t subscribe to censorship, not even to PC censorship, but I do think readers should be aware, and critics should say, if an author of historical fiction is trying to make the past is better or worse or different than it “really” was. It’s a very difficult thing to judge, and for that reason I’d much rather read the books of the time. Grenville is so well respected that a significant percentage of the general public will only know her version of our history, and I think that is a danger. (I wonder how many people believe Ned Kelly had a wife, after Carey’s True History. Lucky it’s unreadable). Anyway, lucky you to get to meet her. Loved your expression of your doubts, of course you will feel all those things!
It’s tricky, isn’t it. All I know about Thomas Cromwell comes from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and I suppose there are historians who find that scary. But I don’t feel I need or want to know more. So when it comes to Australia’s colonial history, I suppose those who *want* to know will try and read widely, and those who want educational entertainment may not. At least they’re reading! I realise I’m fence-sitting here but I dare say we can’t force the issue one way or another.
Well, this *is* difficult.
My initial response is that, if anyone else wrote a fictionalised life of EM, I wouldn’t bother. I already know about EM. For me, your book has given the woman her rightful place in History. I feel I know about her life, her actions, and her spirit and her failings. I loved reading about her, and your lively style of writing means that lots of other readers feel the same way. What can any novelist add to that experience, to make it worthwhile reading when there are so many other books to read?
OTOH I’ve read everything Grenville’s written except that silly perfume book and actually I think her ‘modern’ novels are more interesting, more thoughtful and more honest than her historical fiction. I did like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, but Sarah Thornhill was absurd and I said so in my review. But she is Grenville, and ordinarily I would read anything of hers, just because.
I’d much, much rather KG were writing a perceptive, thoughtful novel about life in our own time.
I’ve been at a talk Grenville gave some years ago when she was adamant that fiction authors should be writing about the important issues of our time. (I think she mentioned climate change, but don’t hold me to that, it’s a while ago now.) Obviously she’s changed her mind about that, and fair enough, like any other author she can write about whatever she likes. But as Anne Summers said at the launch of the Stella Prize, (I’m paraphrasing) if you want to be taken seriously as women writers, write about serious things…
It’s common now for authors to write novels and creative non-fiction about forgotten women whose story should be told. These stories arise from a desire to restore these women to their rightful place in our history and to acknowledge their contributions in the field they worked in. They use fiction to fill the gaps in the historical record because they have to, because the women they are writing about are largely absent from that historical record.
But is it important to have a fictional life of EM when we already have an authoritative, well-researched and contextualised yet accessible story of her life? Your story of EM is not a dry, academic tome that needs to be brought to life. So how is ascribing creative elements to EM’s life going to contribute anything to our understanding of people or the world or our fraught history? I can’t see how it will. I reckon it will fail the both the KG and the Anne Summers ‘important’ and ‘serious’ tests. I might be wrong, I often am, but I’ll be waiting to see what my favourite reviewers think of it (the ones who tell it like it is and no sugar-coating) before I invest my time in it.
#JustQuietly, I suspect it rankles with KG that she’s never won the MF or the Stella and this book has been carefully wrought to be eligible for both and achieve sales at the same time.
Sorry this is so long, I should have written a blog post about it!
PS Happy New Year:) And stay safe…
Oooh. So interesting! And I hope you will write a blog post about it because I’d love to see the reaction – your online readership being exponentially wider than mine.
Your comments about my book are very kind, and very much appreciated, but again my readership is so small compared to Kate’s that there’ll be very little overlap. It’s dawning on me even as I write this that her version of EM will become the version in most readers’ minds.
As for prizes – I can’t speak to KG’s motives as I don’t know, but as Julian Barnes says, literary prizes are just posh bingo. He’s not wrong (until you win a prize, I guess, when of course the judges have shown remarkable acumen). Choosing the ‘best’ book is a fraught exercise. It would be better if the shortlists were the final word but obviously that’s not how the world works. The Stella Prize judges do not have a track record of favouring historical fiction, so I don’t like KG’s chances there.
Alas, I can’t really write a blog post about it because I haven’t read her book, and don’t really have any intention of doing so.
But to harness my readership on this issue, I can reblog yours onto mine, which will come up as the first 300 words or so and then they have to click through to yours to read the rest of it.
Would you like me to do that?
Lovely Lisa, what a generous offer. Please go right ahead (but only if you really want to – I won’t be the least bit offended if you’d rather not!)
Wow Michelle, what a turn of events. I identified with all of your reactions. I’ve not published like you, but I think it does take magnanimity to accept others’ work about subjects we spend so long on, and become attached to, one way or the other. I’ll read KG’s book but my reading will be informed/influenced by your biography. I agree with you that as a fiction writer, KG can take flights of fancy… I take issue with non-fiction writers doing that though. How exciting to have had the opportunity to meet with KG!
I’m afraid my magnanimity ebbs and flows! But it *was* exciting to meet KG and she *was* just lovely.
Do you have a reblog button on your blog that you can enable? (If this is a wordpress blog you’ll find it in WP admin somewhere.)
If not, I can just copy the text, but will need to know the copyright status of the photo of KG.
After much effort I’ve discovered you can’t really reblog from this site, because I’m self-hosting via WordPress.org, not WordPress.com (and other techy reasons). Sorry! But really appreciate the thought. And you probably shouldn’t use that photo of KG (and neither should I, but I’m prepared to live dangerously).
I’ll do it manually. In the morning, I’m too tired to concentrate now…
Hi Michelle, looks like you have a new bestie! I still think your book rocks. Would I read another book about Elizabeth? Maybe. Probably. Why not? She’s a famous person, and a large part of that is due to you.
I’m pretty sure her fame is not due to me, lol, but pleased you might think so!
Great post, Michelle. I love all your initial reactions to the news about Grenville’s book. They all made sense to me.
And, for the record, I completely agree with you regarding fiction writers, ie “I strongly feel that fiction writers can do whatever they like. I don’t subscribe to the theory that fiction writers ‘ought’ to write this or that, or that for various reasons they’re ‘not allowed’ to write something.”
We can call them out if we don’t like what they do (such as send EM into space, haha) but we shouldn’t tell them what to write or how they must write it.
So, fiction about EM. As Lisa says, your biography is not a dry, dull tome, but rather a readable story which clearly marks out what is known, and what you have guessed or assumed from the knowledge you do have. I think it would be a shame if a novel became “the” perspective on her, which as you say could happen given Grenville’s standing and the likely size of her readership. However, I don’t think we should ever say there’s only one version of a person’s life. I know for a fact that my husband’s version of my life is quite different from my mother’s!! Haha. So, yes, I’d be happy to read another perspective on EM’s life – and perhaps, in a way, I’m more likely to read a fictional version than a new biography, because you’ve done the recent biography and done it well. I’d be interested to see the “take” of a novelist, particularly one of Grenville’s standing.
All this said, my favourite Grenville, like yours, is her contemporary novel, The idea of perfection.
Thanks Sue. Australian historian Babette Smith said (on Twitter, about this post) that “This is what we need – multiple investigations of significant people and issues rather than just single version creating sometimes misleading stereotypes which unduly influence interpretation.” And maybe she’s right.
She probably is, given, as you and I agree I think, that there really is no one interpretation of anyone? The point is to interpret with respect and integrity?
Respect and integrity – yes!
Thanks to Lisa Hill’s blog for pointing me towards this fascinating discussion. Does one biography, non-fictional or fictional, cruel the pitch for others? I doubt it – so long as new and old books tell different stories, or tell similar stories in different ways, and don’t pretend to be what they are not.
Indeed, Michelle should relish the prospect of Kate Grenville drawing attention to her own fine biography by encouraging, intentionally or otherwise, readers to ask the question: how much of this is ‘true’?
Both history and fiction are necessary and valuable ways of understanding the past. So too is the perplexing and often vexed relationship between them. Better, I reckon, to explore that relationship than to draw a bold line between the two genres. I attempt this in my experimental book Zoffany’s Daughter, the essence of which is at https://www.zoffanysdaughter.com.
Elizabeth Macarthur’s life is so extraordinary that it will no doubt generate many future studies – Alan Atkinson, in work in progress, draws on his vast knowledge of the Macarthur family to explore, in his inimitable way, the creation of conscience in colonial Australia.
Welcome Stephen, and thanks for your insights. I agree, and like you think the relationship between genres, and between fiction and non-fiction is endlessly fascinating. And I’m a big Atkinson fan so will look forward to his next work with great interest. Thanks for the heads up!
Thank you for your very honest post – I think I would experience similar feelings, & I think they are also part of being human (especially a writerly human)! As a researcher, I think that as long as someone is adding something new to a field of knowledge, then their approach (if executed well) is fine. I’m currently writing an ecobiography of Georgiana Molloy, WA’s first female scientist (a colleague, when I asked her, suggested that Elizabeth Macarthur could be considered Oz’s first female scientist). There have been 3 biographies written on Molloy, as well as a book of YA fiction and a play, but there is still a gap in the knowledge about her in terms of contributions to science, her response to her environment, her embedding in networks of trade & capital and her literary skill (the craft she uses in her letters has been completely overlooked). So perhaps Grenville’s book will bring a different sensibility to readers (although I confess to preferring non-fiction when it comes to biographies).
I’ve just downloaded your book (it’s been on my TBR list for yonks) and am looking forward to reading it.
Hello Jessica, and welcome to you too. How interesting that your research subject is Georgiana Molloy. I was introduced to her via Bernice Barry’s excellent and very readable biography, and Bernice did such a good job of making me interested in Molloy that I find myself super keen to read your work too. So perhaps it *is* the case that one good book leads to another!
Michelle, I enjoyed your refreshing honesty about writerly emotions in this post. Since I immersed myself in biography I found myself less interested in historical fiction.
Thanks Nathan – yes, I do usually find Australian colonial fiction hard to read. Other eras I can still stomach!
I read and enjoyed your book. I will probably read Kate Grenville’s book at some stage ( I read a lot of books by Australian women). I’ll be interested in why Ms Grenville has chosen to write about Elizabeth Macarthur. I wish you continued success with your book.
Welcome Jennifer, and thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed EM’s story. I love reading books by Australian women too.
Just catching up with emails … as you know I really enjoyed your Elizabeth Macarthur book, giving her overdue recognition for her role in the Macarthur family success. It made me realise how much of our history is male focused. On Kate Grenville, I found some of her books inaccessible and the TV adaptation of The Secret River underwhelming. I really liked The Lieutenant, but most of all, I enjoyed the small book “Searching for the Secret River”. So there’s an idea, Michelle – “Searching for Elizabeth Macarthur” …….
‘Searching for Elizabeth Macarthur’ is a great idea but I fear it would be a very short book, and not very interesting! Read secondary sources, wrote stuff down, searched internet, wrote stuff down, read primary sources online, wrote stuff down, took ferry to Parramatta and back, wrote stuff down, enjoyed junket to Bridgerule in the UK, wrote stuff down, found a publisher, rewrote stuff. Not exactly a gripping narrative!! But that said, later this year I’m running a workshop at Writers Victoria, called ‘Writing Other People’s Stories’, so maybe I’ll have to lift my narrative game…
It was pretty gripping following your progress on your blog, even if you did make it all sound so easy.
I’ve just finished reading Kate’s book and enjoyed as I’m completely fascinated by by EM. That said, I felt the some of the fictional liberties to the story didn’t feel right to me. Was it really as loveless as this from the start, did John show this cantankerous nature so early on? Did Elizabeth feign love for the whole relationship, or rather did it wilt in later years as product of John’s increasingly erratic behaviour and long absences in England. It wasn’t how I’d filled in the blanks in my mind, but I do think she might have dabbled with an affair at some point, but not so early in their arrival … and not with Dawes. It’s all certainly a different perspective to ponder when I re-read your fabulous book again.
Hi Karen, and thank you for your kind and interesting comments. Pondering the blank spaces in the historical record is endlessly fascinating, I think. I’m glad you think so too. I’d love to believe Elizabeth found happiness in an affair but there is zero evidence to point to one (and why would there be – it’s exactly the sort of thing to be kept quiet!)