Australian Historical Fiction: Indigenous Origins, Colonialism, and Diaspora

In 1968, Robert Hughes, Australian expatriate critic and author of The Fatal Shore (Vintage, 1988), wrote a review in The Times of Thomas Keneally’s novel Bring Larks and Heroes (Cassell, 1967) after Keneally won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. Hughes stated: “The truth is that Australian literature does not exist. There is only world literature, in which few, if any, Australian writers have had a role at all. On the evidence of this book, Keneally yet may.”1

Hughes’ cautious prediction was prescient. Keneally won the Man Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982). The book garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success in its depiction of a flawed protagonist who, despite being a Nazi Party member, shows heroism and compassion by saving Polish Jews from slaughter during the Holocaust. The novel subsequently was adapted in 1993 into Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List. Box-office takings and book sales numbered in the millions. Furthermore, prior to Schindler’s Ark winning in 1982, three of Keneally’s novels were shortlisted for the Booker in 1972, 1975 and 1979.

Hughes’ assertion regarding the non-existence of “Australian literature” can be challenged as a case of cultural cringe (i.e. a perception that one’s own culture is inferior to that of other countries). The Miles Franklin Award was inaugurated in 1957, more than a decade before the Booker in 1969, through an endowment from author Stella Miles Franklin, to celebrate literature unique to “Australian Life in any of its phases.”2 Franklin, author of the Australian classic, My Brilliant Career (William Blackwood & Sons, 1901), and an historical novelist herself with All That Swagger (Angus & Robertson, 1936), stated: “Without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil. An unsung country does not fully exist or enjoy adequate international exchange of the inner life… a country must be portrayed by those who love it or hate it as their dwelling place…or remain dumb among its contemporaries.”3

Many of the historical novelists mentioned in this article have been winners of the Miles Franklin (and international prizes), making their mark in “world literature” through sharing quintessential Australian stories. Not least of all among these is the inaugural 1957 Miles Franklin winner, Patrick White, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. His body of work includes the historical fiction masterpiece Voss (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), in which the disappearance of a doomed colonial explorer evokes the fear of venturing both mentally and physically into a foreboding interior.

My country’s history is one born from indigenous custodianship and diaspora. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history extends back 65,000 years and has been preserved through the oral tradition of its First Peoples and their mythological “Dreamtime.” In comparison to this prehistoric past, Australia’s European history is brief, commencing in 1788 after the British invasion. Since then, successive waves of individuals from diverse birthplaces have arrived as transported convicts, colonists, refugees or immigrants. They and their descendants see this “wide brown land” as their home.4 As a consequence, modern multicultural Australia contains a plethora of tales for historical novelists to chronicle in a distinctive voice that resonates within and beyond its shores.

The survival of both free and imprisoned occupants of a penal colony thrust into an uncharted landscape is a complex theme often addressed. This intrusive European presence created a “secret river of blood flowing through Australia’s history”5 due to the massacres, dispossession, spread of disease, and erosion of language and culture inflicted on the First Peoples. Eleanor Dark explored this in The Timeless Land (MacMillan, 1941) with her modernist approach to the first encounter between England’s Captain Arthur Phillip and the Aboriginal leader, Bennelong. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (Text, 2005) intensely examines the brutality of the frontier wars and draws attention to how colonialism leaves a bitter legacy when indigenous and white societies possess a shared history. Another novel dealing with the conflict between cultures is David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (Chatto & Windus, 1993). More recently, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (Pan Macmillan, 2010) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Pan Macmillan, 2015) scrutinised this interaction. Scott is the first Aboriginal Australian to be awarded the Miles Franklin.

It is a bitter fact that the eviction of the Indigenous population provided opportunities for settlers, gaolers and emancipists to acquire land, remake their identities, and potentially find redemption. In effect, an egalitarian European society was created in which pioneers and chancers alike could acquire wealth by means such as the gold rush, wool grazing, or cattle ranching. Ethel Richardson (writing as Henry Handel Richardson) created a character grappling with greed and ambition in this newly minted society in her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (Heineman, 1930), as did Roger McDonald in The Ballad of Desmond Kale (Knopf, 2005).

Peter Carey shares the distinction with Hilary Mantel of winning the Booker twice: in 1998 for Oscar & Lucinda (UQP, 1998), and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang (Vintage, 2001). In a manner peculiar to the Australian psyche, outlaws are often regarded as righteous rebels. The latter novel is an imagined “autobiography” written by Ned Kelly, one of Australia’s most infamous bushrangers. Heated debate continues as to whether Kelly should be revered as an anti-authoritarian champion, or reviled as a murderer.

The “ANZAC” spirit forged in the disastrous but valiant WW1 Gallipoli campaign has instilled an admiration for the courage, larrikinism and suffering of Australian soldiers sent to fight on foreign soil. Kelly Gardiner’s 1917 (Scholastic Australia, 2017) describes the fear and bravery of a young aviator flying above the trenches of the Western Front. In 2014, the Booker was awarded to Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage 2013) with its examination of a returning POW coping with hero status while reflecting on his relationship with his Japanese captors.

Throughout most of the twentieth century the “White Australia Policy” limited immigration to Europeans. Unfortunately, during this period, the harrowing plight of Indigenous Australians worsened due to various Acts of Protection and Assimilation that sanctioned the kidnapping of the “Stolen Generations” of First Nations’ children.6 The aim behind this strategy was to absorb them into white society and ultimately breed out their culture. Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss’ Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (Magabala Books, 2014) address this shameful era, while Alex Miller’s The Ancestor Game (Penguin, 1993) reveals the deep vein of prejudice against Asian immigrants who were finally allowed to enter Australia in the 1970s.

Refugees’ accounts also factor into our historical fiction, particularly in relation to those who escaped war-torn Europe to find asylum yet are haunted by the suffering of their past. Anna Funder’s All That I Am (HarperCollins, 2012) portrays the genesis of a betrayal in Nazi Germany, while Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade (Text, 2003) observes the sense of displacement of East European Holocaust survivors.

Family sagas spanning decades of the Australian experience have attracted a global readership. Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (Harper & Rowe, 1977) is one of the best-selling books globally with its depiction of the rigors of living in the Outback. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (McPhee Gribble, 1991) is now deemed an Australian classic for casting a spotlight on both the hardships and joys of post-war Australian working class “battlers” who survive or succumb to poverty.

Not all our historical novelists concentrate on national themes. Many have exercised their imaginations to create stories that extend across continents and date back centuries. Geraldine Brooks is the first Australian to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2006 for March (Viking Press, 2005) by reliving the trauma of the American Civil War through the eyes of the absent father behind Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Other international blockbusters have also evoked worlds beyond our borders. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) revealed an orphaned girl’s enlightenment in Nazi Germany. Bryce Courtenay’s Power of One (Heinemann, 1989) addressed a boy’s coming of age in pre-Apartheid South Africa, while Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (Little, Brown, 2013) questioned the guilt of a condemned woman in nineteenth-century Iceland. As for ancient history, McCullough showed her versatility in the immensely popular Masters of Rome series, as did Brooks in The Secret Chord (Viking, 2015), which recreated the life of the biblical King David.

Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson have drawn upon fairy tales and myth to weave their own magic. Both authors have written dozens of books for both children and adults dealing with various periods from medieval times to World War 2. Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (Thomas Dunne, 2015) captured attention by weaving the legend of Rapunzel around the life of its creator, the seventeenth-century French writer Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In similar fashion, Masson’s Forest of Dreams: Lay Lines Trilogy (Bantam, 2001) conjures fairies and werewolves in a ‘book within a book’ based on the life of the twelfth-century poet Marie de France.

The Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) is delighted that Forsyth, Masson, Munkara, Gardiner and Treloar, together with 60 other authors, will explore the theme of “History Repeats” in Sydney in 2019. HNSA’s 3rd biennial conference will truly be a celebration of imagination and the history of both this “sunburnt country” and lands far beyond. 7


  1. The Canberra Times
    “Praise in UK for Keneally,The Canberra Times, 27 February 1968.
  2. Stella Maria Miles Franklin
    “Will of Stella Maria Miles Franklin,” p.4.
  3. Miles Franklin
    Laughter, not for a cage (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956), p. 3.
  4. Dorothea Mackellar
    “My Country,” London Spectator Magazine, 1908, p. 16.
  5. Australian Institute of Health & Welfare
    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Stolen Generations and descendants, 16 August 2018.
  6. W.E.H. Stanner
    “After the Dreaming”, Boyer Lecture Series, 1968.
  7. Dorothea Mackellar
    Ibid, p.9.

About the contributor: Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. She co-founded Historical Novel Society Australasia and is the program director for its conferences. She has recently joined “The History Girls.”

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 87 (February 2019)

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