Kate Grenville on the 19th century massacre between European immigrants and Aboriginal people that inspired her latest novel Sarah Thornhill
Readers of Kate Grenville’s novels The Secret River and The Lieutenant will find themselves in familiar territory with her new book, Sarah Thornhill, which revisits 19th century Australia and tells of the dark encounter between European immigrants and the Aboriginal people.
The protagonist Sarah is the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, who was convicted of theft and shipped out to Australia in the early 1800s in The Secret River. The new book is set some 20 years after the events of the earlier novel, including the massacre in which Thornhill played a part after making his new settlement home on Aboriginal land.
Thornhill is now a prosperous and successful man, and Sarah, as we first meet her, is a bright and hopeful – though illiterate – young woman, growing up in ignorance of the slaughter her father was involved in all those years ago. That, to all appearances, never happened.
She falls into passionate first love with Jack Langland, a handsome young family friend, whose half-Aboriginal parentage their social circle has tacitly agreed to gloss over. He returns her feelings and everything looks bright for Sarah; but the events of the past cannot be so easily forgotten, and her journey into adulthood, and marriage, will prove – like so many such journeys - much less straightforward than she hopes.
Once again Grenville has drawn from her own family’s past; the character of Sarah is based on what she knows about the life of her great-great-grandmother, passed down to her from stories told by her mother. She says she is “always interested in the stories that slip between the cracks of history”.
“Women’s stories disappear anyway because no one thought that what women did was worth recording, all they did was keep house and bring up the next generation,” she says. “So very few of those lives are written down by anybody – certainly not that of a woman like my great-great-grandmother who was illiterate, although I think probably clever and with a lot of initiative. The only things I know about her come through the oral history which my mother told, which she had learned from her mother. These oral histories run like underground streams through families and I was very lucky to have received just a little sense of who that woman might have been – just enough to invent and extrapolate.”
She knew that her ancestor’s ex-convict father had made a lot of money, so was typically nouveau riche – with plenty of money but little social standing or education. And she knew her great-great-grandmother could have met the real person on whom the character of her lover Jack Langland is based, a well-known figure named Thomas Chaseland.
“Chaseland had an Aboriginal mother and a white father and was a sealer who worked with my great-great-grandmother’s brother and who grew up a mile or so along the river,” says Grenville. “I realised they were very close in age, and must have known each other quite well, and everything I read about Thomas Chaseland suggested he was a very charismatic and handsome man. From the stories about him, he was a very appealing character. So I’ve invented that love affair but it may not be so far-fetched. The tragedy is that we’ll never know.”
Grenville’s immersion in that period of Australia’s history is clear. Sarah Thornhill, she points out, would be the first generation of Australian-born immigrants, and born into an environment that was quite a melting-pot. “Her parents would have spoken some version of early 19th century cockney, she would have grown up hearing all sorts of accents and having a different accent of her own. It must have been an extraordinary tumult of people from all parts of the British isles, all speaking very distinctive regional accents, a lot of people speaking Gaelic. This was a multilingual nation.”
But while Sarah’s parents could always nurture the fantasy that they were temporary immigrants and had a home to go back to in England, Sarah would be the first generation for which there was no going back, muses Grenville. “I found that a very interesting starting point,” she says.
Even in the two decades since the massacre William Thornhill was involved in in The Secret River, the new community had begun to sanitise its past, she believes. “The history of Australia is the history of willed forgetting, of brushing stuff under the carpet,” says Grenville. “I suppose part of the reason I’m fascinated with this now is that mine is the first generation that has allowed it to come out from under the carpet where it was so thoroughly brushed 150 years ago. Those stories are really overdue for being told.
“The greatest secret that was brushed under the carpet, as in the book, was the massacres. There was silence about that until very recently, less than 20 years ago, when there was a huge controversy between historians, one branch claiming there were no massacres, others digging up facts and figures that simply proved there was a guerilla war that lasted from 1788 until really the 1920s and 30s, on and off sporadically in different bits of Australia, an underground and unacknowledged war. That's the biggest secret in Australian history.”
Grenville may not have finished with the period yet. “Well, you know when I wrote The Secret River, I had no idea that it would spawn two more books that would hang together as a loose trilogy,” she says. “I can only say that yes, the trilogy may well become a quartet. I’ve started another book which is again based on the later generations. I’m very blessed to have had these family stories from my mother, so I feel a kind of responsibility to do something with them, to make sure they're not lost again.”
Sarah Thornhill is out now, published by Kate Grenville.