The great history versus fiction debate

I’ve just finally read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River – I say ‘finally’ because it’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for months now, and been on my list for much longer.  I can’t believe I left it so long!  It was such a great book, I devoured it in a week (which, for me, is a short amount of time to read even a small book).

It’s just the kind of writing I like and want to explore further, just fantastic.

Since finishing, I thought I’d look Kate up and see what background reading might be online about the book and her other work.  I came across her official site which has some great info on it about all her work.  It also contains some retorts from Kate on a couple of critical essays from historians.  I can’t believe they accused her of writing history when clearly the book is not intended as a work of history but more historical fiction.  One doesn’t have to glean this, it’s pretty clearly spelled out.

Anyway, rather than blab on about how unfair I think these historians have been to a clearly wonderful writer, I wanted to say that what I’d love to read about is the elements of the book that these historians consider fiction, rather than historical fact.  So of course we know the characters are fiction based on some historical characters, what we can’t be clear about is whether the sorts of environments, tools, weather, and general hardships experienced by the characters are true to history.  For example, did convicts’ wives really make the voyage with them?  And if so, were said convicts ‘assigned’ to their wives, as Thornhill was to Sal in The Secret River?  What about the places back in London that Grenville names – are they real?  Did convicts really get given their own bark hut as the Thornhill’s did?  And did it actually take a day to sail from Sydney to the Hawkesbury back in 1815?  These are the kinds of questions I’d love to hear historians answer.  I fully accept Kate has written a fiction based on historical events, so that’s all the more reason why I’d like to read essays from those ‘in the know’ (ie. colonial historians) discussing the truths and fictions of this book and more like it.

I read this book because I’m a) interested in good writing, b) interested in Australia, c) interested in historical fiction and d) interested in history; so I want to hear both the fictional and non-fictional account.  I think Kate has gone about things the right way, stating up from just what she wanted to achieve with the book and giving us a wonderful story with some historical elements woven in.  Where’s the criticism of books that try to pull the wool over our eyes – Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram is a good example.  Is it because he didn’t write about long-ago history and more his own ‘story’ that no one bothered to criticise in the same way?  His was more of a work of fiction, only very loosely based on fact, yet he didn’t even bother to clarify his intent, instead just letting us naive readers be drawn into the story, only to find out (after some research) that it was all just a silly story…

Nice work Kate – can’t wait to read more!

Author: curiosikat

Writer, editor, linguist, social historian...

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