As someone who is a strong advocate and avid reader of Australian literature, I was anticipating great things from our event with Kate Grenville and the night did not disappoint. Promoting her new book, Sarah Thornhill, Grenville captivated a packed Shearer’s bookstore, proving that her mastery of storytelling extends beyond the page.
In 2005, Kate Grenville released The Secret River - arguably one of the most important Australian novels and certainly one of the most talked about. The story follows the life of William Thornhill, an Englishman sent to the NSW penal colony for steeling timber and who, once receiving his pardon, settles along the Hawkesbury River. The story is inspired by Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman, for whom Wiseman’s Ferry is named after. At first glance, it is a simple story, even a familiar one, yet Grenville realised that there are no simple stories of settlement; there are always darker and more complicated implications hidden underneath. Wiseman’s story was handed down through Grenville’s family using well-worn phrases. One of those was that Wiseman ‘took up’ land in NSW. When Grenville realised that those words were a euphemism for the fact that Wiseman appropriated land from the Darug people of the Hawkesbury, she began a long journey of reconciliation, not only with Australia’s larger history but her personal history as well. The result of that journey is the recently completed trilogy that includes The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornhill. Collectively, these stories explore what the phrase ‘took up’ land actually meant; they explore the colonial project.
Grenville is passionate about the past and stresses the importance of knowing our personal histories. She reminded us that if one generation doesn’t write down their family stories they are lost forever. So, at the urging of Grenville, start writing now!
Sarah Thornhill picks up the story of the Thornhill family that were introduced in The Secret River. As before, this novel is inspired by a mixture of the ‘enormous scattered tapestry of Wiseman descendants’, and historical events and archives. In her research, Grenville discovered that Solomon Wiseman had a son, William, who was a sealer who lived in New Zealand for his work. There, he married a Maori woman and they had a daughter together even though he already had a family waiting for him along the Hawkesbury. When William and his wife drowned, Solomon Wiseman sent for their child - his granddaughter - and brought her up in NSW. The girl’s name became Sophia Betty Wiseman.
For Grenville, Sophia's story parallelled the story of Australia’s Stolen Generation. This young girl was taken away from family, taken away from language and even taken away from her own name. The story also fitted with Grenville’s two previous books - notions of black and white and having a foot in both these worlds. It was reflective of Australia's sad misguided history.
Grenville has always been open about her creative process. Her book, Searching For The Secret River is a fascinating look-behind-the-scenes of The Secret River that reveals the people and events that the story was inspired by, and also gives insight into her research and writing processes. For Sarah Thornhill, Grenville claims to owe the Cosmos for bringing the story to life. The universe conspired for Grenville to attend a literary event in Auckland. As she was hiking up the side of a volcano, Grenville says the Cosmos spoke to her, urging her to write a book about the Wiseman's granddaughter. All Grenville had to write on was a brown paper bag that was holding her lunch, but it was enough. She sat down and ‘dictated’ the plot of Sarah Thornhill on the crumpled wrapper. The Cosmos even gave her a first sentence, that has since been moved to another part of the book: ‘It was a Sunday when she arrived. None of us could say her name, so we called her Betty.’ It took Grenville two and a half years to produce the rest of the novel.
Grenville explained that even though she had the themes, there needed to be an emotional pull. That pull ended up being the most compelling plot line of them all - a love story. The inspiration for the Betty’s lover once again came from real life. Thomas Chastler, a friend of William Wiseman, was born to a convict father and an Aboriginal woman (a 'New Holland half-caste' according to the records). Grenville shared how he leaped out from the archives as a strong, charismatic and handsome man. In imagining how the story of her great-great grandmother, renamed Sarah Thornhill, and Thomas Chastler, renamed Jack Langman, could have met and fallen in love, Grenville was able to write her latest novel, Sarah Thornhill.
Grenville is an important author on the issue of reconciliation in this country. She uses fiction to confront Australia’s past and the personal distress of knowing that white Australians, like herself, have the lives that they do because their ancestors had committed crimes against the Aboriginal people. Grenville believes that we do not have to necessarily feel guilty about that history but we need to know about it and tell the story. In answering how Aboriginal tribes have responded to her novels, Grenville said that the response has been hugely positive - to have their story told – or the ugly part of that story told - by a whitefella means something.
The release of Sarah Thornhill is a major Australian literary event. If you haven’t already started reading Grenville’s Hawkesbury River trilogy, I would encourage you to put it at the top of your reading list. Not only is it a well written and entertaining read, but it is an important step towards understanding Australia and each of our places in it.
Written by Natalie