History and fiction

Here’s the text of a speech I gave at a History Council of Victoria seminar on History and Fiction, 28 August 2018.

Other speakers were Linda Weste and Ali Alizadeh, and the panel was chaired by Kathleen Neal.

Here’s (roughly) what I said.

What is historical fiction? You may have an idea in your head – a shelf of maritime novels by Patrick O’Brien, or blockbusters glimpsed in airport bookshops – all armour and abs and authors names in gold lettering. In truth, it’s a broad church. The definition of the Historical Novel Society is simply that it is fiction set more than 50 years ago, or beyond the personal experience of the author. It includes incredibly popular genres such as historical crime and romance, sub-genres such as military or adventure tales, cosy mysteries and thrillers, literary or experimental fiction set in the past, entire industries of Regency and Tudor novels, or biographical novels, especially about neglected figures. It includes War and Peace and Wolf Hall and The Book Thief. And as you see this evening, we three alone span thousands of years in terms of era and setting.

We can make a few generalisations across genres and forms, across diverse readerships, and across international boundaries. Every novelist I know is obsessed with research and takes the accuracy of historical detail extremely seriously, just as every historian I know sees their writing as a creative process, and takes the task of story-telling extremely seriously. We have much to learn from each other, and much in common – more than you might think, given some of the fraught debates of the past.

How do we balance documented historical data with informed speculation? And how do we understand and convey the world view of people from the past?

These questions become even more critical when writing about people who really lived, as they do for a historian writing a biography of an individual.

Here are a few questions and approaches involved in two of my projects based on the lives of real historical figures but imagined in fiction. The first, Goddess, published a few years ago now, was an interpretation of the life of Julie d’Aubigny, or Mademoiselle de Maupin, a seventeenth-century French swordswoman and opera singer.

Her story has been told before, on the page and on screen, usually as a series of extraordinary events. But her life is largely undocumented. I undertook years of original research into her life and career, for example, compiling the first comprehensive list of her opera performances, as any biographer would do. I wanted to create a credible narrative of her life, but I also had to decide how to treat those incredible episodes for which she is most famous. My decision as a novelist, which is probably not a decision a historian could make, was to include the wild stories if they served the narrative, unless I could prove them demonstrably wrong. I also knew that leaving them out would’ve meant the novel would disappoint many people.

Because famous or infamous people already loom larger than life in the mind of the reader. One of the most dramatic episodes in La Maupin’s early life was when she fell in love with another young woman whose family then threw her into a convent to get her away from Julie’s influence. Julie followed, and together they burned down the convent and eloped. It’s this kind of adventure that has seen her dubbed bad ass of the month online and made her into a Thelma and Louise-style feminist icon.

But I wanted to dig into that.

I crawled through the early accounts, trying to pin down details and find proof of the whole affair. But it’s the sort of thing that no convent is going to crow about, and the early biographers are coy. I found the most likely candidate for the convent in Avignon, but its current owner has no record of the incident.

Perhaps it was another convent, in another town.

Image of front cover of GoddessPerhaps it never happened. But it’s not worth writing the story of the legend of La Maupin without that episode. She was fifteen and on the run, having committed what even she would have acknowledged as a sin, sentenced to burn at the stake. The two girls had no money, no friends, nowhere to go. The girl was found and sent to another convent, where she died. Julie became a star. Imagine how that was for her.

It must surely, if true, have made her into the adult woman she became, strutting through Paris in men’s clothes, fighting three duels on one night, at once brave enough to be openly bisexual and challenge noblemen to duels, and fragile enough to attempt suicide. So in my imagined life of La Maupin, it became one of the emotional events that defined her as a character.

A novelist looks for the stories that help explain the people, and keep the plot humming along, but has to decide whether the action is likely – truth may be stranger than fiction, but is it credible?

More recently, writing Grace, a novel about the lives of Queen Elizabeth I and the Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, I’ve faced similar questions, but from different angles. Again, two enigmatic people – why do I do it to myself? And although their stories are better documented, their inner lives remain elusive.

The tale I’m telling – and I’ve just finished redrafting it – is of the meeting of Grace and Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in 1593. They were older when they met, both shrewd politicians and warriors in different ways. They were, in theory, lifelong enemies. Grace had led the rebellion against Elizabeth’s troops in the west of Ireland, for decades.

They were also, possibly, more alike than anyone either of them had ever met. They surely both experienced the shock of meeting a woman as assured, as cunning, as dangerous, as themselves.

Nobody knows what they said to each other. And in that absence, lies my fiction.

The Irish writer Emma Donoghue has said that ‘stories are a different kind of true.’[i] So how do we get to some truth of these two women’s stories? Can we? Whose truth is it? Theirs? Mine? Yours? The many historians who’ve written their own versions?

For me, and my readers, fiction has to be as historically accurate as possible. I’m not one of those authors who easily shifts the past around to make it fit the story I want to tell.

That means I try to get everything right – all the biographical and historical data – as well as all those moments that I can and must imagine.

I have the liberty to ask: how might Grace have felt, out on the open sea, or in a prison cell facing execution, or going to the palace to meet her enemy? There’s nothing in the archives to tell me that.

In many ways, Elizabeth is just as difficult to capture on the page. Her life was more regimented and more documented, and as she once said, ‘A thousand eyes see all I do.’ [ii]

But Elizabeth is just a little too iconic.

actresses as Elizabeth

 

We think we know her, but we don’t. I chose to focus on aspects of Elizabeth perhaps not as well known to readers of fiction. She was, for example, one of the foremost translators of her time, and was a prolific poet, writing every day. She often wrote hymns or sermons and then ordered that they be printed and distributed to every church in the kingdom. As you do.

So I started thinking about all the things these women had in common. In both their lives, and often around the same age, there were parallel stories to tell, and as they grew older those stories tangled together.

After years of war between them, somehow they reached agreement, perhaps even a degree of mutual respect. How? That’s the question the novel, Grace, explores. It is told in two voices, alternating between the points of view of these two remarkable leaders.

Which brings me to the critical creative decision novelists make – voice. How do we render characters’ speech, point of view, and narrative voice? And in this, lies one of the central questions about the nature of historical fiction.

You’ll often hear readers and writers talking about whether or not historical fiction, and the voices that convey it, are authentic. As if ‘authenticity’ is the holy grail of historical fiction, and distinguishes it from other forms of fiction and from nonfiction history writing. As if ‘authenticity’ can be used interchangeably with ‘accuracy’. As if authenticity is required to somehow compensate for the fact that what we’re reading is fiction, not history, or even that it offers a more truthful truth.

Sorry. There is no such thing as authenticity in historical fiction. There is historical accuracy, or not. But particularly when it comes to voice, the very idea is, as Henry James put it, ‘humbug.’[iii]

Authenticity, by definition, can’t be created.

‘Authenticity’ of voice, in particular, simply doesn’t and cannot exist in fiction set in the distant past. If I really wrote Grace O’Malley’s words as she’d have spoken them, you’d never understand it. What we aim for is something different altogether.

In 1820, introducing Ivanhoe, Walter Scott wrote: ‘It is necessary, for exciting interest of any kind, that the subject should be, … translated into the manners as well as the language of the age we live in.’

I suggest that what some writers now mean by authenticity, and what readers have been led to expect, is exactly what Scott outlined nearly two hundred years ago. It is not authenticity, but an accepted form of the historical novel. This is where history and fiction truly diverge.

The expectation of historical fiction is not really that it will be authentic, but instead that it will feel familiar to us from our reading of the genre – and often that familiarity actually comes from reading Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson and their descendants.

How many readers (or movie-goers) now believe that an ‘authentic’ Caribbean pirate voice is the one dreamed up centuries later and half a world away by the young Scotsman who wrote Treasure Island?

Image result for treasure island book cover

Authenticity in historical fiction is, in itself, a fiction, and at worst its own dialect set in the aspic jelly of the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century Georgette Heyer redefined the Regency, while Rosemary Sutcliff created speech patterns that appeared to suit early Britons but were essentially modern, and Geoffrey Trease refined the model of a voice almost invisible to young readers like me, but with no glaring anachronisms. You will not hear any of his medieval knights say, ‘OK.’

Trease warned against the ‘costume novel’, in which all the tiny details of food, footwear and forsoothery are right but the psychology and vocabulary are all wrong. It’s the world view that matters, not ye olde worlde language – and here is one of our great challenges: creating characters whose emotional and intellectual frameworks seem to come from the past as a ‘foreign country’, but which at the same time can be understood by a modern reader – for example, in characters’ attitudes to religion or colonialism.

Historical fiction that is unaware of this process runs the risk of being mistaken about both past and present, and so less valuable as both history and fiction – perhaps even dangerous.

So – how do we work with that knowledge? What I did in Goddess was to knowingly perform a version of La Maupin, on the page, in a constructed voice that is overtly modern and consciously anti-authentic – while at the same time avoiding anachronism in the worldview, recognising that a seventeenth century woman could have no sense of what we might now call identity.

Or we can attempt the ventriloquism of A S Byatt in Possession (1990), Sarah Waters in The Night Watch (2006), or Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1983), references ancient and medieval texts and philosophies related by transparently modern voices – all in the guise of a crime thriller.

These authors’ metafictional approaches rest on a formidable body of historical research and technical story-telling ability.

They play with the irony that underpins historical fiction: that writers try to construct a world that will be accepted as ‘real’ by the reader, even if they know better than anyone else that it can’t possibly be so.

We know we’re reading, and we bring to that experience everything we’ve read before – but then we forget we’re reading. We know we’re reading about an imagined past, and we hold that in our minds at the same time as an awareness of our own modernity.

‘The paradox at the heart of fiction, the engine that drives it,’ writes Richard Lea, ‘is the tension between the knowledge that what you’re reading is all made up and the overwhelming feeling that it’s all true.’ [iv]

We acknowledge that historical fiction also has a role in telling history; as one of the ways in which people experience and understand history, and we often say that we write about the past to understand both past and present.

But perhaps what we really do when we write historical fiction is to imagine the past in the context of the present, and the voices with which we speak are our own.

 

 

 

[i] Donoghue, Emma, 2010, Room, HarperCollins, Toronto.

[ii] Borman, Tracey,  2017, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Hodder Staughton, London.

[iii] In 1901, James wrote: ‘You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like ― the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought […] You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, ― or rather fifty ― whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force ― & even then it’s all humbug.’ James, Henry 1974, Henry James: Letters vol. 4, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[iv] Lea, Richard, 2012, ‘The truth about memory and the novel’, Guardian book blog, 14 June 2012.

Young People’s History Prize

Exciting news this week. My book 1917: Australia’s Great War was shortlisted for the Young People’s History Prize in the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

The Awards were held on Friday night in two stunning rooms in the State Library of NSW – one had hundreds of early editions of Don Quixote in glass-fronted bookcases. It was lovely to hear the Premier say that she’s a voracious reader, to hear the Minister for the Arts talk about his own writing, to welcome the new State Librarian of NSW, and to be part of the launch of History Week. My thanks to the State Library (where I also spent all day yesterday deep in research), Create NSW, the History Council and the judges for this recognition of 1917 and for inviting me to be part of the evening’s celebrations. I’ve been on literary awards shortlists but it’s a very different kind of feeling to have my book acknowledged  as a work of history-making.

The History Awards are judged by an extraordinary panel of senior historians, and I’m honoured to be shortlisted – and to be in the company of the authors and creators on the Young People’s History Prize list and all the shortlists. Congratulations to every single one. And of course now I want to read all the books.

Our shortlist was pretty short. The two other books were:

Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda—Lake Eyre (Pamela Freeman & Liz Anelli, Walker Books)

Book cover Desert Lake

Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story (Christobel Mattingley, A&U)

Book cover Maralinga's Long Shadow

And the prize was won by Christobel Mattingley for Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story. In accepting the award, Christobel talked about the artist Yvonne Edwards, her family,  and the Anangu people, so many of whom were exposed to radiation by the nuclear bomb tests on Maralinga Tjarutja lands, and so many of whom have died of cancer since the bombs – including, sadly, Yvonne. Profits from the book go to her family. Congratulations to Christobel, who also worked with Yvonne and the communities to tell their stories  in Maralinga, the Anangu Story, so that their children and other children can know the truth of their experiences.

It’s wonderful that there is a Young People’s History Prize alongside awards for Australian, general (as in, everywhere else) and community or local history, as well as multimedia. That says a lot about the important work we do encouraging young people’s engagement with history.

1917 is partly about the divisive conscription campaign on the Home Front, and I remember choosing not to use the word ‘plebiscite’  when I wrote it, because young readers might not know what that old-fashioned word meant. I had no idea then that the country would undergo another plebiscite debate in 2017, and that young people would take to the streets to protest about it. But perhaps we always write and read about the past to reflect on the present.

Some of the fictional characters in the book are based on members of my family, especially my great-aunts who were children – and peace activists – during the war. I wish they were still with us so they could see how they – like young readers today – really do make history.

Eight year-old Madge (my great-aunt) led the United Women’s No Conscription Procession in 1916.

 

 

Header image: Inside the Mitchell Library by Littleyiye

Creative Commons by Attribution

Writing as resistance

International Women’s Day, 2017.

Words matter.

Language matters.

Stories matter.

History matters.

I’ve often said that all my books are acts of subversion disguised as historical fiction: pirate tales for kids that are really about slavery and rebellion, or adventures for young adults about freedom of the press, refugees, and religious intolerance. Always political. Always diverse. Always driven but never preachy. Or so I hope. Stories about women and girls.

But now, now, the writing and the purpose feels so much more urgent, the need more extreme.

It so happens that in the middle of months of protests and outrage, my little book about a similar time in local history has come out into the world – a book about a previous generation that found itself taking to the streets in huge numbers, compelled to take action by a world, by an idea, that could not be denied.

UK suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Or many ideas. Here in Australia, a hundred years ago, it was the principle that nobody should be compelled to go to war against their will.  That nations should seek options other than military action. The 1916 and 1917 plebiscites on conscription were incredibly divisive and the scars of that debate lasted for generations. In 1917 there was also the Great Strike, food shortage protests, arrests and demonstrations and censorship of the press.

In Russia, of course, the situation was even worse. On International Women’s Day 1917, women protested in the streets of Petrograd about food rationing and the endless war. Factory workers went on strike, and eventually the armed forces mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters. The February Revolution* had begun  but in the meantime it changed the war, changed the country, and changed the world.**

Maybe 2017 doesn’t feel so tumultuous. But I can’t remember too many times like this. Every day more outrages from leaders in various countries. Every day more outrage.

More protests.

There are divisions among us, of course and as always. There is anger about unrecognised privilege, dissent about how best to make our arguments, or even which arguments to make – which battles to fight.

But still, there are millions of feet marching, in cities and sites around the world, in defence of fragile freedoms of all kinds.

Some of us have always had to fight. Some have returned to the fray. Some people find themselves out marching in the streets or arguing online or writing in despair for the first time.

This moment – these dying days, I hope, these death rattles of a panicked privileged few – seems to be one of those moments in time where great change could happen.

And that’s exactly what they’re afraid of.

BOO!

 

*February in the Julian calendar.

** For better or worse or both.

 

The history in historical fiction

I recently chaired a debate between historical novelists and historians at the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia‘What can historical novelists and historians learn from each other?

Our thoughtful and entertaining panellists were Jesse Blackadder, Gillian Polack, Rachel Le Rossignol, and Deborah Challinor.

It was great fun, but of course being in the chair meant I couldn’t answer any of my own questions.

But it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

So here begins a series of posts on thoughts about the intersections of history writing and historical fiction: arising in part from the conference debate, tracing the questions I posed (and also many that I didn’t get to ask), but also bubbling up from my own reading.  And some tips for writers of historical fiction on how to act on some of the issues raised.

Image of Balmain town hall

The HNSA conference in action: Balmain Town Hall. (Photo via HNSA facebook group)

So… this is where we began the other night:

Without history writing, without libraries and other collections, archaeologists, without the ancient recorders of events and daily life, what we novelists write would be fantasy. On the other hand, we know that fiction works as a gateway drug to history writing and research for both readers and writers. But how alike are these two forms – these two disciplines?

And what techniques, skills, tools and models might they share?

Of course the work of history is diverse, and practice and approaches change dramatically over time. But if historical imagination operates in both history writing and historical fiction, does it work differently – does it feel different to the writer as well as the reader? Does narration work differently? Does interpretation?

Does the history we present look different?

Those are some of the questions I’ll cover in the next few posts.

A proposition

If history writing and historical fiction are about  “understanding what it means to be human” (Carl Degler, 1980), are they part of the same project? Practitioners of both forms seek out  stories from the past, engage with them creatively, sort and interrogate them, pull them into some kind of narrative shape and interpret them for readers.

That seems so obvious, but the ongoing conversation between historians and historical novelists has been rather testy at times.  There is misunderstanding on both sides (if indeed they are ‘sides’) about the commonalities, purposes and practice of both disciplines.

You will often see, for example, historians portrayed in fiction as rigid, data-obsessed researchers (the same might be said of many fictional portrayals of librarians – and academics). They are gatekeepers guarding facts, keeping novelists and readers in the dark about what really happened.

And yet writers of historical fiction depend on writers of history texts – creators of secondary sources – for the information they use to build their imagined worlds; worlds that are, according to Jerome de Groot, “manifestly false but historically detailed.”

What’s going on here? Let’s try to clear the air.

It ought to be clear to us all that the writing of history is a creative process, just like the writing of fiction. It has been since the days of Herodotus. Equally, we can all recognise the depth of research that goes into many works of fiction. So we have a great deal in common. But our approaches may be different – of which more in a later post.

There is, as Gillian Polack pointed out during the debate and in her own writing, an idea of history and historians based on nineteenth century concepts of not just the historian figure but also what the field of history is, does and means. The discipline – the work of interrogating and engaging with the meaning of history, even our understanding of what that word means – changed radically during the twentieth century, and continues to change. But many people haven’t noticed.

I agree with Gillian that historical novelists tend to see ‘history’ in its nineteenth century guise – that thing we all fell in love with in school or in early historical novels – and our responses to the corpus of history writing are seen through this lens. That means we also run the risk of seeing even primary sources and the research process itself from this limited viewpoint. Without an understanding of historiography, of approaches to the work of history, we run the risk of relying on outdated concepts and disproved theories.

Here’s a simple but striking example, discussed by Gillian in one of her articles: Historicising the Historical Novel: How Fiction Writers Talk About The Middle Ages. As a medievalist as well as a writer of fiction, she can see how many novelists view the Middle Ages through the lens of nineteenth century British and French medievalism – that gorgeous romanticised William Morris tapestry version that projected Victorian values onto a certain version of ‘the past’, and influenced many generations of historical novelists. It is, as Deborah Challinor memorably pointed out in the debate, the past without the pus – without a realistic view of life for real people.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often sound off about the myth of authenticity: this idea that fiction can somehow capture the actual experience and voice of people in the past. It’s nonsense. Or rather, it’s not authenticity, but an expected form of the genre, perfected by Walter Scott and others.

What writers create and readers have come to expect is the medievalist view of the world (even of eras that are not medieval) – it has nothing to do with authenticity, and may indeed have little to do with actual history.

If that’s what you’re writing, all well and good. Recognise it for what it is – medievalist fiction. That’s a thing. But it doesn’t need to run the risk of being incorrect or based on out-of-date data.

What next?

So what can we learn and do?

Keep up to date with new thinking and writing about the theory of history. I find it fascinating: you might not.

At the very least, read current research about the era on which you write, explore new data and interpretations. (I’ll post later about research methods and historical thinking.)

Write with clear(er) eyes about our subjects. We can enrich our world-building and characterisation with recent findings, and our own work with primary sources will be enlivened and informed by the latest analysis by experts in the field – and in other fields. I follow archaeologists and anthropologists as well as historians, for example, and read updates and debates everywhere I can, from Twitter to  specialist history societies, from academic or professional journals (available free and online through your nearest state or national library) to popular media such as the BBC’s History magazine or Inside History.

History and fiction are a tag team, sometimes taking turns, sometimes working in tandem, to deepen our understanding and imagination – Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’,  History Australia, 6: 3, 2009.

Some reading suggestions

If you really want to get your teeth into some of these issues, try these:

Is History Fiction? Ann Curthoys and John Docker, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006.

Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins, Routledge Classics, London, 2003 (first published 1991)

The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot, Routledge, London, 2009

The Fiction of Narrative (Essays), Hayden White, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2010.

You might be able to access the journal Rethinking History through your library.

And here’s a list of Gillian Polack’s publications.

To be continued…

Classy entertainment

I’ve been thinking lately about the tradition of the working class as entertainment, those fictional and cinematic ventures into the foreign world of the East End or Fountain Gate, where life is hard but people have hearts of gold and everyone has a good belly laugh at everyone else’s expense.

There’s nothing new about this, of course, and the idea of a different class as a foreign country filled with entertaining specimens of The Other is not confined to the downtrodden. You could argue that The Great Gatsby does exactly the same thing, casting an essentially middle-class gaze on the upper echelon, while Captains Courageous teaches a pampered boy rude lessons of life and death through friendship with a poor fisherman. On the long march through the snow Pierre finds the answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything in the form of an old Russian soldier and a little white dog. The Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam switch roles in life (at least economically) with comic and tragic consequences, and the face of conspicuous consumption, Mrs Merdle, learns to live with less (or perhaps not).

Image of Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit at the gate of the Marshalsea

In all of those examples class conflict or difference is intrinsic to the story and its characters. You’d think we might be over that whole storyline by now, but no.

In Call the Midwife, a British TV series set in the East End in the 1950s,  we see the world through the eyes of the middle-class Jenny Lee. There is great poverty, cockroaches and preventable illness in the tenements (unchanged from Dickens’ day), prostitution and violence, huge families living on nothing but love, washing lines everywhere, screaming babies, lessons for young Jenny at every turn. The show (and presumably the memoir by Jennifer Worth on which it is based, which I haven’t read) has an equal amount of fun at the expense of Chummy, the plummy hyphenated do-gooder who grew up in India and can ride a horse to hounds but not a bicycle. Jenny Lee learns about friendship, love, hardship, courage and loss from people she would normally never meet. She comes to see the women as “heroines” not “slatterns”. But she is essentially on a visit to another world.

Image of Call the Midwife

Jenny Lee confronted with family life in the East End

Then there’s Downton Abbey, which I love, but which on one hand paints a world where immense privilege is only sustained by the hard work and moral fibre of those who pour the claret and polish the silver; and on the other hand tries to blur those class lines through dialogue and plot points which any real earl’s family would never have considered. Involve the housemaid in your affairs? Only as an accessory. Vice versa? Don’t be absurd.

In the revisionist world of Downton, we want to believe that the upstairs family members are so fundamentally good that they care deeply about the lives of those downstairs, that the household is enmeshed in one narrative, not two. Not even Tolstoy would have argued such a thing. Sure, no earl wants his daughter becoming a suffragette and running off with the chauffeur. But no earl would involve himself in the affairs of those below stairs, and nor would his family. They’d hardly have noticed the servants at all. Still, we can’t have that in Downton, can we?

Image of Downton Abbey

Her Ladyship dancing with Carson the butler

Closer to home, in every way, is Kath and Kim, the comedy series now become a movie. This focuses on the lives of the second- and third-generation post-war working class: as if the babies born in Call the Midwife and their kids all migrated to suburban Melbourne and got a perm. Which is not unlikely.

I never laugh at Kath and Kim. I tried to watch it in the early days, because I enjoy the work of the three comediennes behind it. But many of the jokes at the expense of the characters simply aren’t funny to me: when I was growing up everyone pronounced film as fillum, after all, so what’s hilarious about that? I just don’t get the jokes because they are about my generation, the people who migrated from Port Melbourne (our local equivalent of the East End) to Springvale or Mitcham or Sunshine, and from there to Berwick or Deer Park or – yes, Fountain Gate.

This has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks, and this morning I read this from Nigel Bowen in The Age:

Over the last decade and a half, the educated have had to make the painful adjustment to living in a society where aspirationals often out-earn them and largely determine the political agenda. Like galled aristocrats confronted by a rising merchant class, their typical response has been to snigger at the tastelessness of the newly affluent. Kath & Kim does this more gently than much of the “cashed-up bogan” comedy but it still does it. The malapropisms, mispronunciations and mixed metaphors of the characters allow the university-educated to chuckle at those who don’t understand the hilarious implications of wanting to be effluent rather than affluent. Many of them would see Kim – bloated by junk food, addicted to tabloid media, bedazzled by hyper-consumerism, utterly self-absorbed – as a portrayal rather than a grotesque caricature.

Bowen divides us between educated and aspirational, and it makes sense now our class sensibilities are less finely-tuned than they were a generation ago. But the cultural division runs deeper than that, and many of the university-educated people of my age are only able to be so due to that one brief shining moment of free tertiary education that jump-started a generation of kids (like me and our Prime Minister) into the professional class. Those who went before us never had the chance to finish school. Those who came after are still paying off their HECS debts. (God knows what will happen to those wanting a TAFE or university education in the next few years.)

There is inherent goodwill in Little Dorrit and in Call the Midwife. The reader or viewer in a comfortable armchair can engage at a safe distance with the lives of such exotic creatures as East End warfies or the inmates of the Marshalsea Prison, just as you might watch Michael Palin visiting the Bedouin or a David Attenborough doco. There is warmth, understanding, respect and as much likelihood of tragedy as comedy. Even in the long-running British series Keeping Up Appearances, one character’s snobbery was comic but everyone else was relatively normal.

Is one of the issues with Kath and Kim that aspiration isn’t a joke unless you are looking down on it from above?

Remember that Pulp song?

Sing along with the common people,
sing along and it might just get you thru’
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you
and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

Image of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim and conspicuous consumption

I see it through a slightly different lens. It’s a grand thing that my generation can watch Kath and Kim on their enormous plasma TVs in their McMansions in Cranbourne or Templestowe. Our grandparents would be so proud that all those hours in factories and on the wharf or on dusty Greek farms have meant that later generations can buy a house, have a car or two or three, a lawn to mow.

The conspicuous consumption lampooned in Kath and Kim is, in part, a way of staving off future fear, of saying “Look how far we’ve come – we made it into the lower-middle class!”, of celebrating the fruits of the labours of many generations. But clearly being lower-middle class isn’t good enough. It’s almost white trash, but with al fresco dining.

In a very silly book called How to be Inimitable, George Mikes wrote (in 1960):

The one class you do not belong to and are not proud of at all is the lower-middle class. No one ever describes himself as belonging to the lower-middle class. Working class, yes; upper-middle class: most certainly; lower-middle class: never! Lower-middle class is, indeed, per definitionem, the class to which the majority of the population belongs with the exception of the few thousand people you know.

(As an aside, lower-middle class is probably what the ALP means when it bangs on about working families. But the global financial crisis has meant that plenty of people who thought they had “risen” to be middle-class have found that their footing there is tenuous. That’s why Obama is readjusting the American Dream so that people aspire not to be Donald Trump but to be, more realistically, middle-class, as it was after the Depression and as it is now in countries such as India and China. That’s partly why the Republicans can’t quite figure out how to respond – they’re still stuck on the Trump narrative. And it’s unsettling for those of us whose youth was spent resisting becoming bourgeois.)

The characters in Kath and Kim aren’t on the bread line: they go to the mall and buy dreadful clothes and drink middling wine. Kath doesn’t have to take her father’s good pair of trousers down to the pawnbroker every second Friday to get a couple of shillings to see the family through to pay day. The telly can be bought from a store, rather than the local fence. Nobody need be in jail for running a bookie outfit on the side, or run from the coppers down the back lanes, or do a midnight flit because the rent’s due. That wasn’t true for their parents and grandparents.

The real Kaths of this world know what it was like, even if their kids don’t: they’ve been told the stories, perhaps lived the reality and they never want to be in that situation again. They don’t need to watch Call the Midwife to know how poverty looks. Many people in Australian suburbs know exactly how it feels – if only poverty had vanished along with the perm.

Sure, I’m as ridiculously susceptible to unrealistic nostalgia about the East End or Station Pier as the next person. One day I might even write about it. I loved the vaudeville singalongs of my childhood, and all the stories about uncles fighting bare knuckle bouts in someone’s front parlour, about the brawls at the cinema on Saturday nights, the black market deals, the SP bookies and two-up games in the alley behind our house. I love how my grandmother made everyone’s wedding dresses by hand and the women always tried to look like fillum stars when they were going out on the town.

But I also know that Uncle Phil lived on rabbits and little else up country in the Depression, that our family’s name was written in the pawn shop register every fortnight (‘one good tablecloth – linen’), that my grandfather had no proper boots until he went to work at 13.

I bet that was just hilarious.