Who owns history?

Yes, I know I promised to post about this weeks ago, but I had to think about it, and thinking takes more time than has been available lately. But that’s another story.
First up, I’ve read the two books du jour: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip; both centred on interaction between races at the fringes of Empire, in very different ways and set in completely different eras/worlds, and both climax in episodes of brutal horror.
Neither was the brilliant read I was expecting after all the build up, but that might be more about the antipathy of anticipation than any flaw in the novels. Mind you, I must have missed something in Mister Pip, since everyone in NZ raves about it. Indeed I did nearly miss the climax because I blinked at the critical sentence and had to retrace my steps – the earth-shattering event is only a tiny blip of a phrase. I hate that.
The Secret River, though, held a particular disappointment specifically because of the huge debate it, and Grenville, have generated about the ways in which fiction can be used to explore and reflect historical events.
Grenville, you may recall, regrettably held it up as being somehow more insightful and “real” than works of history, and precipitated a rather heated discussion on the Left about the role of fiction in history, rather than the expected furore from the Right about whether any of the colonists ever committed atrocities.
But setting the debate aside for a moment, I was expecting to read something I had never before encountered: new ways of addressing the history of invasion and conquest, and the impact of early Australian colonisation on both indigenous and imported communities.
But I didn’t. I certainly didn’t learn or understand anything new about the time or the violence or the people that I hadn’t read years ago, in history by Manning Clark or Robert Hughes, let alone the historians of the last two decades; in novels of a generation before Grenville – say, Herbert or Stow; or even in the poetry and essays of Judith Wright.
So I’m not sure why the fuss. That’s not a criticism of the book, but about the framing of it as a whole new way of looking at the past. Sadly, it’s now almost impossible to separate the debate from the work, which is, almost incidentally, very atmospheric and memorable fiction.
To return to the debate: it’s been taken up in a fascinating article by Inga Clendinnen in a Quarterly Essay, Who Owns The Past? Clendinnen’s main thrust is actually nothing to do with Grenville or the debate about whether novelists or historians are better equipped to write about history.
In fact her central theme is about the cultural or political appropriation of history (teaching, writing, or as received knowledge) to shore up ideology, such as Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s insistence that everyone share and be taught his own gung-ho progress-driven neo-Victorian vision of the world. Who Owns the Past? might just as easily be How Does History Make a Nation?
Clendinnen delves into the varying roles of history, story-telling and memory, the part emotion plays in writing and remembering, and the ways in which history – and historians – react and interact with the present. She is, as usual, insightful and apposite:

Our memories are essential: our memories are unreliable. Most of us live with that discomforting paradox. The serious social and political problems begin when stories cease to be personal possessions and come to be owned by a collectivity … There is comfort in that, but there is a cost, too. Henceforth stories which impugn the now-official account will have to be suppressed.

It is as part of this broader discussion that she takes on Grenville’s position of story-telling as a somehow more accurate view of the past (I feel sure Grenville regrets ever having said that her book was the closest we’d ever get to being there).
Clendinnen comes out of her corner fighting, and although I find myself largely in agreement with her, it does seem like a bee in the bonnet which sidetracks us from the main thread of the essay.
She weaves it back in, though, by reinforcing the role of historians as defenders of those who cannot speak for themselves, and whose voices tend to undermine the official chorus.

We have to know the world as it is if we are to change any part in it, and to map the span for human agency so we do not acquiesce in what we could change. Good history might also help us count the cost of inflicting present pain in the expectation of uncertain future benefits.

Funnily enough, I’d suggest that’s just the sort of thing Grenville was trying to achieve.

2 thoughts on “Who owns history?

  1. I loved Mister Pip, which I’d been dreading due to the hype, and was disappointed by The Secret River, which I was looking forward to because of the hype. Odd. Re. The Secret River, I agree that it is a fine work of fiction. I, too, was expecting something amazing in terms of looking at the history of indigenous/settler contact, a whole new insight and perspective. I didn’t get that. Grenville said in an early interview that she expected the book to be very controversial, which was part of what created my expectation I suppose. There was no real controversy over the content (as separate from her claims about history and fiction), because she was working from a perspective that had already been mapped by the historians you mention. Perhaps, because it was a new way of thinking for her about her ancestors’ impact on the land (which she has also said in interviews), she projected some of that onto how readers would react?Interesting post – sorry to hog your comments space.

  2. I don’t know anyone yet who has read Grenville’s novel and thought it lived up to the hype. Trouble is, in a small publishing environment like Australia, it’s practically impossible to avoid reading something about a book before you get a chance to tackle it yourself. Like everyone else I was impressed with the work but didn’t think it achieved as much as it set out to do.

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