Apocryphal stories create discourse and have the potential for endless interpretation. They share common characteristics: irreducible and enduring elements (often embedded in archetypal conflict); resistance to historical verification; popular acceptance resulting in their establishment in collective memory; revivals after periods of dormancy; subjection to political and economic manipulation; implicit speculation; and literary transformations. These characteristics frame analysis of Grenville's two selected texts and explicate the pitfalls of materialising apocryphal narratives in historical fiction in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Australia.
SFSR functions in at least three ways. In a 2006 review Delia Falconer argues that Grenville's text 'falls somewhere between an extended festival paper and an in-depth discussion of the drafting process' and notes that Grenville submitted an earlier version as a doctoral thesis (Falconer 2006). In a 2007 paper, I used French theorist Gerard Genette's functions of preface, as outlined in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997), to discuss the way SFSR acts as a delayed or later preface for SR (Lynch 2007). Nigel Krauth (2002) and Jeri Kroll (2004) had already suggested that exegeses accompanying creative writing theses resemble traditional prefaces. Analysing SR as apocryphal oral family history and in national collective memory further clarifies its cultural and literary context. This paper focuses on the ways SFSR explicates the contradictions and anxieties embodied in Grenville's fictional text, rather than on the text itself, and her shaping of apocryphal narratives in particular times. Recent contretemps over the credibility of Australian historical fiction make an investigation of apocryphal stories timely.
Etymologically, the word apocrypha derives from a Greek word, apokryphos, from apokrupto - 'to hide away'; and ecclesiastical Latin, apocrypha (scripta) - 'hidden (writings)' (Australian Oxford Dictionary 1997). Apocryphal stories cluster around two meanings: those which fall outside accepted canonical stories accepted by the Judeaic-Christian tradition and, by extension, texts offering alternatives to canonical literature and history; and stories of doubtful authenticity. This paper argues that Grenville mobilises apocryphal stories in two of these ways, employing and discarding a family apocryphal story and creating an alternative history of the Hawkesbury River settlement that is potentially apocryphal. Both these modes involve oral family history.
Meaning 1: Apocryphal Stories as Unauthentic
Apocryphal stories should be distinguished from myth - the terms are often used interchangeably because of their common features. Both derive from archetypal dramas (Jung in Campbell 1984). Distinctions between mythical and apocryphal stories crystallise around their relationship with history and fiction, apocryphal stories being more closely aligned with history. The Arthurian romances, for instance, despite some allusion to medieval magic, play out in a generalised English setting during the Middle Ages, and valorise heroic traditions. Myth frequently springs from de-historicised stories closely linked to place and generally incorporating ritual. Apocryphal stories, however, utilise everyday tools and historical events. Their heroes and anti-heroes are believable - capable of great deeds, but grounded in their humanity and their temporality. The historically unverifiable story of Lady Godiva in which a naked woman makes her stand against high taxes, without losing her modesty, is considered to be apocryphal because of its competent plot and feasible denouement. Grenville's SR is apocryphal in this way.
Meaning 2: Apocryphal Stories as Alternative Histories
It is my conjecture that Grenville does this too in SR where, in some sense, she revives a hidden story of Australian settlement as self-consciously brutal, perpetrating massacres of Indigenous people. At the time of writing, she challenged accepted conservative views about the dispossession of traditional landowners. Only time will tell whether her book becomes a watershed for the way Australians view their history. Grenville's great yarn about settlement is confronting. Let us take a closer look at her apocryphal texts.
Apocryphal Story 1: Solomon Wiseman, murderer
Section B: Acceptance in Popular Memory
Section C: Archetypal elements
Section D: Refuses Historical Verification
Section E: Speculation
Section F: Aesthetic/Narrative Manipulation
A dearth of primary resources and the need for 'more elbow room' provide the catalyst for her shift to fiction.
In the way of most historical novelists, Grenville's attitude to history is entangled with her instinct for making art. A fragment from the past drives the research of her novel: 'my ship was anchored to the past by ropes of story' (SFSR 17). She scours Sydney's Mitchell Library records for 'the slightest hint that Jane Wiseman's illness might have lingered because she was pushed downstairs by her husband some tiny thread to start tugging on.' Alas, 'no clues'. 'I found myself leaping to fill in the blanks,' she confides: 'I had to remind myself that, although this was a good story, that's all it was: a story I'd made up out of almost nothing' (SFSR 81-82).
And so, eventually, Grenville acknowledges this tension and relinquishes her family apocryphal tale - it has no traction, it bogs her narrative - and she finds a better one (SFSR 179). Exciting research discoveries might have saved it but, alas, she makes none. She takes the decision of an experienced writer who knows story: 'kill your darlings I saw exactly what I needed to do. It was so simple. Get rid of William and Sophia Warner. Cut them out, kill them off' (SFSR 181). The first apocryphal story is abandoned long before it becomes an issue of truth. Is it because apocryphal texts have been contested that they develop surprising resilience, or despite it? What will become of this one? Faithfully retold by Grenville's mother, with all its enduring elements, it had outlived its usefulness. Perhaps it will lie dormant now for generations.
Apocryphal Story 2: An Alternative History of the Hawkesbury
When publishing Paving the Way (1897) about a hidden massacre, Simpson Newland was acutely conscious of his historical period, writing in his preface:
Was the pre-Federation climate in which Newland told his massacre story more hostile than the stalled Reconciliation climate in which Grenville told hers? Alongside his imagining of a secret massacre Newland creates another apocryphal story about a famous horse ride.
Grenville's fictionalising of settler events along the Hawkesbury River revives them in public imagination after years of silence, and thus transforms them during a period of Australian government when black armband-ism is strongly contested. Positioning her main protagonist, William Thornhill, as a self-conscious white settler modelled on her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, she refuses to focalise her story through Indigenous characters - a postcolonial convention. The reader views the massacre through Thornhill's metatextual inner monologue: 'By and large he had never considered them to be bad men. And yet their lives, like his, had somehow brought them to this: waiting for the tide to turn, so they could go and do what only the worst men would do' (SR 300). Grenville writes back.
Section B: Hidden Story
During the years leading up to the 1988 bicentenary of the first landing [invasion], narratives sprang up in which warriors like Pemulway were transformed into resistance fighters or worthy enemies in a war over land. Hidden apocryphal stories are responsive to the political reasons for their telling, but we will come back to that. Mark McKenna believes in the 'survival and power of stories' in which settlers on the NSW coast claim to have 'shot the lot', seeing the reasons for their retelling as more interesting than their historical validity: 'a grasping of what happened on the frontier' (McKenna 2005). These stories were also apocryphal. Historian Amanda Nettelbeck notes that in 1840s South Australian settler memoirs:
Apocryphal stories proliferate in oral family histories. No doubt, in some cases the discovery of massacre sites with attendant weapons and skeletal wounds removed their stories' apocryphal status.
Adam Gall sees Grenville's writing on this subject as a more subtle form of imperialism, and that she is 'producing, at best, an account of regrettable excess, a humanitarian critique of colonialism' (Gall 2008: 102). He sees her negotiation of the taking / taking up position as the crux of her thesis, and suggests an alternative and equally valid reading: 'the situation from the perspective of the frontier, a position which suggests that the transformation of the "good settler" is underwritten by a sublimated version of the same possessive logic' (Gall 2008: 102). For the most part, Grenville's 'take' on 'taking up' precipitated arguments between white people, many with a vested interest. Indigenous voices were notably silent during the worst days of the Grenville / history controversy. Journalists, academics and fiction writers, all stakeholders in the knowledge industry, weighed in. Perhaps Grenville was a pawn in a larger game. Apocryphal stories frequently attach themselves to conflict and contradiction.
In depicting the final violent scene in SR, Grenville draws on popular stories about a massacre nearby but not on her ancestor's land. Having few witnesses, frontier stories have a curious slipperiness, and frequently depend on oral transmission through the families of perpetrators and victims. Grenville's Wiseman's Landing narrative, if it exists, belongs to the ancestors of people whom she represents as adaptive and organised custodians of their land, and with their gracious and generous descendents, with whom she collaborated. We do not know how Darug elders, Auntie Edna Watson and John Gallard, feel about her interpretation of their shared history, now that they have told her stories handed down to them of 'boys thrown into the river to die' (SFSR 131). Perhaps hidden stories about Wiseman's Landing will remain so. Grenville's original apocryphal tale did not include a massacre. 'The historical account of the Waterloo Creek massacre gave me details and phrases to create an episode in which Aboriginal people are ambushed and killed' (SFSR 162). In true apocryphal fashion, she extrapolates and speculates.
Section C: Speculation
The adroit image of a war as headache offers the inexperienced history reader some penetration of the frontier issue: 'Aboriginal people attacked settlers; settlers and soldiers attacked back. Not every day, not every week. But on and off, like a headache' (SFSR 113). In a disarming way, Grenville aligns herself with ignorant readers: 'No one told me about this kind of violence on the Hawkesbury' (SFSR 116). She justifies her inclusion of a massacre and her attachment of it to her family by documenting the open warfare between settlers and Aboriginal people in the Hawkesbury area where her ancestors lived; similarly the theft of crops: 'These things didn't happen to Wiseman, of course, but they'd happened only ten years earlier and a few kilometres from where they could have happened to him' (SFSR 119).
Grenville's strategic positioning could be read as an act of sacrifice during which she offers her ancestral family's integrity to appease and resolve her conflicted feelings about Indigenous dispossession, reshaping national collective memory; but was she disingenuous? Apart from historians' concerns about veracity, this raises questions about the role of apocryphal stories in constructing family memories and identity formation. Speculation is a strong feature of apocryphal tales, but how do her cousins feel, or her elderly aunts, about their family being implicated in a massacre that may not have happened?
Section D: Enduring Common Elements, Archetypal Drama
Whether her truth gathers enough gravitas to enter the Australian canon will hinge on diverse and complex factors, including the effect of the 2007 apology to the stolen children generation, new historical research, and whether schools and universities take up the text. In the absence of an alternative it is likely that elements of the story will endure. In fifty or a hundred years readers may accept Grenville's speculation that her family massacred Indigenous people to secure the theft of land near Wiseman's Landing.
Section E: Acceptance in Popular Memory
In keeping with this mission, she does not see herself as writing literary fiction. She disdains the genre. She wants to reach the masses. The Secret River won a swag of literary awards; it won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize - both signifiers of excellence in literary fiction - but Kate Grenville claims in the 2008 interview with Susan Errington that she hopes 'people who aren't interested in highly "literary fiction" will read and enjoy' her books; furthermore, the best thing about the book's success is that it 'seems to have escaped the "literary" ghetto' (Grenville, in Errington 2008: 38). Historian Robert Murray is in agreement, seeing SR as 'readable middle-brow historical fiction. There is a lot of good imaginative writing, character development and close observation of detail, though it slips in and out of cliché and melodrama, with a touch of Mills and Boon' (Murray 2007: 68). Examples have been given in my earlier (2007) paper of the way she uses language in SFSR to appeal to a broader rather than a university-educated audience. Grenville's four-page dedicated chapter in which she indirectly spoke to historians positions her as an uninformed member of the public, and is reasonable in tone, conciliatory, even deferential: 'The historians quoted document after document they were a revelation', and, 'The historians drew a complex, nuanced picture of those times' (SFSR 123, 125).
SFSR explicates the metatext of SR and her motivations for writing it. In the same interview she comments that 'historical fiction gives people who will never read history a chance to think about the issue history raises' (Grenville, in Errington 2008: 38). Her clearly stated aim is to shock the wider reading Australian public and, in doing so, inform them about their history.
Section F: Refuses Historical Verification
Robert Murray, co-author of Dharug and Dungareee: The History of Penrith and St Mary's to 1860 (1988), finds her representation of a massacre contrived and improbable, her depiction of rural vigilantes closely resembling difficult-to-prove clichéd and apocryphal stories of the late nineteenth-century (2007: 67). He discusses rain and corn and reprisals. Her depicted clashes with the Dharug occur at the wrong historical time, he suggests. They were already settled, he argues, and furthermore, the arrival of a large lugger intent on a dawn raid would not have taken them by surprise. The idea of taking six heads home in a bag 'seems to draw on and misrepresent three quite different episodes' (Murray 2007: 68). Murray's essay questions how closely novelists should stick to history, finding 'it irritating and disappointing' when a novel departs from a record 'he is familiar with' (2007: 67). He concedes that while the SR massacre incident is implausible for that area, Grenville 'pulls out the dramatic bits of the record over about fifty years and a wider area and concentrates them into one or two years - 1813-1814 - in one section of the Hawkesbury that was remote then and is still so, and that 'guesstimation' is part of what novelists do (Murray 2007: 67).
Grenville does not discuss the 'unreliability' of some historical documents, and the confounding lack of agreement between historians on some issues. Her concerns lie with the frustrating lack of evidence pertinent to her apocryphal family tales. Perhaps for this reason, as Murray suggests, she fictionalises an incident in which Governor Phillip slaps an Indigenous man. And she borrows 'details and phrases' from the Waterloo Creek massacre to create its fictional counterpart (SFSR 162). It is clear she believes that historical fiction writers take liberties with dates and times and details imperative to the framing and mechanics of their plots, and her aim, later stated, was for SFSR to make this process transparent (Grenville 2007: 71). This proves a sticking point for historian readers.
Section G: Political Manipulation
Like many artists, Grenville experiences a moment of epiphany: during the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk for Aboriginal Reconciliation she makes eye contact with an Indigenous woman and shares 'one of those moments of intensity we smiled, held each other's gaze, until it sent a sudden blade of cold into my warm inner glow' (SFSR 13). Immediately, she knows that what she was doing on the bridge on a Saturday is inextricably connected to her ancestor's story as told in her creative work. Her moral imagination and her sharpening commitment to reconciliation drive her towards a new apocryphal story: 'What I had to do was cross the hard way, through the deep water of our history,' she claims (SFSR 13).
Section H: Aesthetic Manipulation
Fiction needs first to be engaging. Historical fiction conventions suggest that scholarship should be lightly worn. Good intentions and research questions change, it seems, as art takes over. Neither SR nor the SFSR contains a bibliography. Sniffing out her story, Grenville researches, like many writers, as if following tracks or scat: 'one book led to another academic books, anthropological, local histories' (SFSR 127). She also uses the free association of images common in dreams or films, believing the most important artefact to be the finished book (Grenville 2006b). SFSR outlines her research by praxis, her way of furnishing SR with everyday experiential historical detail. She makes lamps and studies tools, seeing landscape in an eidetic way as she camps alone on the banks of the Hawkesbury, handling stones and discovering grinding grooves. It seems clear from her commitment to this process that she regards herself as a novelist - a purveyor of well-researched tales - rather than an empirical historian.
Section H: Establishment in Australia's National Collective Memory
Grenville's reference, on radio, to the history wars, suggesting that a 'novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this', inflamed debate about historical fiction writing (Grenville, cited Koval 2005). The act of taking on her ancestor's hypothetical imperialism led her into new territory and into the history wars. Journalist Stella Clarke summarises historian Mark McKenna's 2005 essay, suggesting he believes 'that she's out of line: as a novelist she can't help but join conservative politicians in peddling sloppy "comfort history", and she should lay off claims to ascendancy' (McKenna, cited Clarke 2006: 110). Clarke misrepresents him, McKenna claims (2006: 15); in fact, he says, Grenville 'elevates fiction to a position of interpretive power over and above that of history' (McKenna 2006: 2; emphasis added). McKenna's concern with the history wars in general and Grenville in particular is that 'historians have lost much of their earlier cultural authority' as a result: 'When the public witness historians at war, they no longer trust historians as storytellers' (McKenna 2005: 1). Such arguments cluster around ideas about whose story should be told, and by whom.
Who can deny historians' anger about their conflicted place in Australia's cultural identity production? In her 2006 Quarterly Essay, historian Clendinnen claimed that 'novelists have been doing their best to bump historians off the track' (2006: 16). She is on the lookout for historical fiction writers who show attitude ('exuberant confidence', 'insouciant exploitation of fragments of the past'), lack historical professionalism ('the collapsing of time', 'opportunistic transpositions, and elisions') and show off their subjective petticoats (2006: 16; 2007a: 73, 76, 77). Reviewer James Bradley in 2008 reads her Quarterly Essay as 'a savage critique' of SR; he 'cannot imagine how bruising the experience must have been for Grenville' (Bradley 2008: 24). Grenville responds in the following issue. The opening of Clendinnen's 'Response to Correspondence', 'I'm sorry Kate Grenville feels misrepresented,' is loaded with irony (2007a: 73). And if there were any doubt about the seriousness of Clendinnen's intent, it could be removed by reading the first few sentences of a book review in The Monthly: 'Lately I have been pursuing novelists [Norman Mailer] who seem to think they are writing near-enough history, when in fact they are making it up,' she challenges (Clendinnen 2007b: 48).
Grenville's unwillingness to focalise her story through Indigenous characters incites criticism from Clendinnen, who seems to think that Grenville wants to eat her corn and her yam daisies too. While Grenville refuses an Indigenous point of view, Clendinnen remarks that she nevertheless 'felt no such inhibition' in taking up that of a white settler man (2006: 23). Grenville wishes to present the consciousness of an ordinary man - Sir Walter Scott would approve of this - working with and against the sentiments of her times. But Clendinnen claims that this is what present-day writers cannot do successfully - enter the consciousness of nineteenth-century characters:
Grenville does not deal with the topic of Aboriginal representation in her original acknowledgments to SR. She explicates it at great length in SFSR, but judiciously avoids her specific treatment of an Indigenous massacre. While yet wishing to convey the agency of her Indigenous characters, she recognises the difficulty of mediating the unspeakable cruelties inflicted upon them, employing the observations and interpretations of a male, white settler narrator. At the close of the 2007 Sydney Writers' Festival panel Clendinnen concedes 'fictional truths' but her consistent message might be: stay behind your lines and you won't get hurt (Clendinnen 2007c).
By necessity this paper's focus on Grenville's employment of apocryphal stories condenses the discursive complexities of the history wars. It is difficult accurately to delineate historians' responses in relation to the provocative subtext of SR, the fallout from Grenville's stepladder analogy, and her rationalisation of frontier history in SFSR. Clendinnen and Grenville continue to ply their trades with Text Publishing, both continuing, in their different ways, to augment Australia's collective cultural memory.
Section I: Economic Manipulation
Fiction writing of any kind tends to be commercial. Stories must sell and tell. Although the historian knows how hard it is to be published, how difficult it is to make a living, nonfiction lists outweigh their literary counterparts; perhaps during 'war', history comes to the fore. Although it might be a dodge for fiction writers to say that they need to make a living, leaving historians to their arguments, the traditional privileging of literary fiction at writers' festivals and Kate Grenville's choice of subject matter bring her to the attention of historians.
Furthermore, SR is written simultaneously with SFSR, but it is clear that publication of the latter hinged on the wonderful commercial success of the former. It is fair to assume that a publisher of Michael Heywood's standing saw Grenville's book not only as a potential earner, but as a timely contribution to national conversations about Australian history, and that his editing reflected a wish to invite as many mainstream readers as possible. Apocryphal stories can be discursive attempts at mediation, or can open fire on a hostile public. Popular apocryphal stories thrive on renovation; Grenville's story sold.
Section J: Transformation
The search for esoteric truth is like renewable energy to apocrypha. SR's place as a goad to national conscience allows it to grow in importance; the details of its inauthenticity may yet wither away. Many readers know antebellum history from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and travel to Atlanta and Georgia to search out its artefacts. Robert Murray believes the SR is 'all most people will ever know about a particular situation' (2007: 67).
Whether Grenville's narrative enters popular and local memory, and spawns new retellings may depend on the resistance of historians. If a massacre denotes archetypal conflict - landownership and the patriarchy, why not? - then SFSR tells a familiar and universal story; lack of local antecedents may smooth its entry into popular collective memory; even so, it may never be verified as history because it has been invented by a privileged beneficiary of Indigenous dispossession who may, after all, have nothing to atone for.
Grenville's original family apocryphal tale has now been transformed from oral story to printed page; it has been dismissed and subsumed by a more dramatic tale. The subsequent novel, SR, has the potential to endure as a new apocryphal story, gaining popular acceptance in collective memory. Grenville's book has been memorialised as an important book: an award winner and an artefact of contention; its high sales bringing it popularity and status. We can speculate about its capacity to be renewed within a national consciousness anxious about its history. When history and story collide, apocryphal narratives may wither away or may renew themselves, constructing and validating particular identities. Perhaps when clamouring voices die down this alternative history of the Hawkesbury River settlement will remain, an indictment of Grenville's and our national collective and symbolic guilt. Memory is invariably constructed and thus apocryphal.
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Gay Lynch is an Adelaide writer and teacher researching apocryphal stories and South East, South Australian, Irish settler history for a doctorate in creative writing at Flinders University in South Australia. Cleanskin, an adult novel, was published by Wakefield Press in 2006. Over the last few years she has taught Creative Writing, English, Irish and Scottish Literature, and Fiction for Young Readers.
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Vol 13 No 1 April 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb