Treading Carefully

Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ 

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953

Out of my comfort zone

I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.

These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.

Stolen land, stolen history

The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.

It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.

For, of course, there were people here already, and this was their land. They were already here before climatic and geological processes reshaped this part of Australia almost out of recognition. Before Tasmania became an island, they were here. Before Port Phillip became a vast shallow bay, they were here. Before volcanic eruptions created Tower Hill near Warrnambool approximately 40,000 years ago, they were here — and left their artefacts under the cinder cone as if to prove it.

Their descendents are still here. Nearly one million modern-day Australians have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry. No thanks, it must be said, to the colonists, most of whom came from the country of my birth. It’s not that there was a systematic attempt at genocide, exactly.

It’s not that the original inhabitants of this country were always and everywhere ignored, denied a legal existence and rights, dispossessed, tricked into giving up their land, shot, poisoned en masse, driven off cliffs, raped, forcibly assimilated, murdered through neglect, had their languages and knowledge eradicated, their children stolen and given to white families, their culture denigrated, mocked and misrepresented.

Yet all of these things have happened in the last 234 years a great deal more than any modern Aussie has a right to feel complacent about. Still many are appallingly complacent.

I live on stolen land. There: it has been said.

So it is with trepidation that I write about this adopted country of mine, which I love. Yet my fiction is almost always rooted in a sense of place: I can’t write any other way, and I wouldn’t want to try.

Places shape, and are shaped by, the people who live there, and the people who went before. I can’t write about a place, in any meaningful sense, without coming to terms with its history. This applies even in a work of contemporary fiction, which is what I’ve mostly written up to now. There are bigger challenges ahead!

Breaking new ground

For the first time, I find myself embarking on a longer work of historical fiction.

Extract: Victoria or Port Phillip, J. & F. Tallis, New York, 1851 (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

I find myself drawn to write a novel set in the 1860s in the Acheron Valley, in Murrindindi Shire, nestled into the Great Dividing Range. It’s in the district marked with the defunct name ‘Anglesey’ and outlined in yellow on the map above. In my lightly fictionalised landscape, the five main rivers that flow into the Goulburn have the names of the five rivers of Hades, and are encompassed in a great pastoral station, the Five Rivers Run.

The 1860s were a time of great upheaval in that otherwise quiet corner of Victoria. It was a generation after the first white settlers came over the mountains from the East, and up the river valleys from the South, and crashed over the ancient culture of this country like a tsunami.

The Taungurung and their neighbours were probably already reeling from a smallpox epidemic which preceded the settlers’ arrival. Next they had to contend with a small number of well-armed men who claimed the land that the Taungurung belonged to as their own, and whose teeming sheep and cattle ravaged the country, destroying native crops such as the yam daisy or murnong, an important carbohydrate staple, and driving away native game.

A quote about the situation just over the border in New South Wales is equally applicable to the newer colony of Victoria:

There are not many runs, or pastoral leases, less than 10,000 acres; some of them are over 100,000 acres, and many runs are sometimes held by the same lessee.

Information for Emigrants to Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1873

Many of the employees of the original squatters (pastoralists who took de facto possession of the land without a formal lease) were convicts or ex-convicts. When they met with resistance from the natives, as they often did, they didn’t muck about. Isolated killings of employees, or even of livestock, could be met with massive, indiscriminate reprisals. These murders were highly illegal, and some individuals were tried and hanged for them, but law enforcement was almost non-existent in the remote border country, so there was a fair chance of getting away with it if there were no witnesses prepared to speak out. Or left alive.

This genocidal catastrophe took place a generation before my story begins. The Taungurung of the time of my story are a much reduced people, but hardy and adaptable. They are sought-after farm workers because of their bushcraft, their endurance and their skill in handling livestock.

Then gold is discovered in Australia, including on Taungurung land, and hundreds of thousands of men (mostly) from all over the world descend on Victoria, hoping to get rich quickly. Forests are felled, hillsides are stripped to the bare rock, creeks are rerouted. Nothing and nobody may get in the way of ripping the gold out of the ground.

In the midst of this, the Taungurung are trying to exist, to stay on the country that they belong to. They’re negotiating with the colonial government in Melbourne for a modest run that they can farm on. Just a few thousand acres in recompense for the vast area of their traditional lands. Their wish is granted: Acheron Station near Taggerty on the Acheron River.

Acheron Valley | author image

However, the neighbouring white settlers are better at playing this game, and they don’t want Aboriginal neighbours. Twice the Taungurung are moved on to poorer land; twice they try to make a go of it. Each iteration of the Aboriginal station seems more like internment and less like freedom: less autonomy, more oversight, more rules, more punishment, fewer opportunities to succeed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the last few families are expected to die out quietly under a regime of ‘benign neglect’. They’re not even on Taungurung country any more.

There are Taungurung people alive and thriving today, I’m glad to say. The news of their demise was greatly exaggerated.

Now, that is not my story to tell.

I am neither a Taungurung man, nor a trained historian.

Fiction within a historical context

Yet within this historical context, I hope to tell the story of two outsiders: one Taungurung woman, Emily; one Austrian man, Ferdinand.

These people are fictitious, yet Ferdi is not unlike my Fendt ancestor who left his little Tyrolean town as a teenager, journeyed to Revolutionary Paris, then became one of London’s most celebrated violin makers.

Ferdi arrives in Melbourne to help his older cousin Georg set up a luthiery workshop, but finds that Georg has failed in business and drunk away the last of the money in despair. Ferdi travels to the goldfields in hope of recouping the family fortune, finds gold but is cheated out of his claim. He becomes a woefully incompetent bushranger (outlaw).

Emily is a young Taungurung woman for whom the social devastation around her, the loosening of millennia-old ties, presents a brief opportunity to live in a way which would seem equally transgressive, I think, to traditional Taungurung society and to wider Victorian colonial society. She, too, finds herself a fugitive. She saves Ferdi’s life and chooses him as her lover. We’re very clear about who has the initiative here.

In a sense, Emily is ‘impossible’, anachronistic. Even her voice: not the broken Pidgin which the Aboriginal Victorians of that period are generally represented as speaking, but a witty, nuanced, cultured English to match her intelligence. Her inner voice is more important to me here than realism in mimicking period speech. This is how she would have thought in Taungurung, even if it isn’t how she would have vocalised that thought in English.

There have always been strong, independent women whose spirit has rebelled against the conventions of their society, who have fought to live life on their own terms. Yet convention is horribly powerful. Sometimes catastrophe brings opportunity by loosening convention’s iron grip.

A generation earlier, as a Bunjil (Eagle) moiety woman, Emily would have been married to a Waa (Crow) moiety man and packed off to live on his country, far away from her own kin. Now, the moiety system is disrupted, the clans are fragmented and scattered, and she makes it into young adulthood without a husband or a baby.

This is a work with a massive ‘What if?’ at its core. It is a piece of historical speculation.

Can I tread the fine line between improbable and preposterous? For most remarkable things seem improbable until they happen. Can I do it without giving offence to gentle, resilient people who have, in truth, already been offended more than enough? Will I find the expert help I need, when the time is right, to read through the manuscript critically but not unkindly, and help resolve the absurdities which it will inevitably contain?

I don’t know, but I expect to learn a great deal in the attempt.

For an informative — and devastating — introduction to the historical context of my planned novel, I recommend the third programme in the series ‘The First Australians’.

Thank you for reading! I’ve already written two contemporary short stories set on Taungurung land. You can listen to one of them here:

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