Stories from the dustbin

‘A WRITER,' DECLARED the novelist Thomas Mann, ‘is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.' University-based historians working in Australian history are fast learning the truth of Mann's little dictum. In schools and universities and in the community's general knowledge, history has lost a lot of ground. ‘History has contrived somehow to end up in its own dustbin,' writes Don Watson, ‘yet history is nothing less than the whole human drama and it is pretty well anything we want it to be. To make it boring and irrelevant is a phenomenal achievement and one for which the history profession has to take a lot of the credit.'

Watson was aware of the inhospitable climate – a marketplace where a ‘million other stories furiously compete', an education sphere where ‘narrow vocationalism rules the roost', and a ‘postmodern world in which the past seems increasingly irrelevant'. His emphasis on the discipline's own failure seems right to me, but begs the question – how has this happened? Here's one answer – the first sentence of Tom Keneally's Commonwealth of Thieves (Doubleday, 2005), visualising the journey of the First Fleet: ‘If, in the New Year of 1788, the eye of God had strayed from the main games of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, and idled over the huge vacancy of sea to the south-east of Africa, it would have been surprised in this empty zone to see not one, but all of eleven ships being driven east on the screaming band of westerlies.' The narrator on God's own cloud, imperial dramas, a vast emptiness, eleven specks upon the sea, the caprice, thrill and threat of the screaming westerlies, the beginning (we know) of a considerable story with serial invitations to our own imagining – perhaps not the most original trope, but all in one eminently readable sentence. In short, one reason history is in its own dustbin is the lack of narrative skill. But this is not the main problem – that precedes the writing.

The main problem is the choice of topic. Academic historians don't so much look at history as at the debates among their peers – they survey the historiography and buy into arguments (often highly refined points of difference) and mark out territory for investigation and refinement. Scholars of the Renaissance might have called this ‘coterie writing', entertaining or contending with peers, a conversation among fellow specialists; Milton's ‘fit audience, though few'.

The obsession with ‘coterie writing' has pretty much meant the death of the narrative form in that sphere. Narrative is thought to be dumbed down, simple storytelling, the business of amateurs, a trick, sub-history – myth, even. Turning away from narrative has meant, by definition, the abandonment of character and human drama. Without character and drama it is not easy to captivate a wider readership. The preoccupation with historiography has moved academic history, with notable exceptions, too close to the pretension to science, too far from poetry – the poet drowned in what the distinguished biographer Leon Edel called ‘floods of critical explication'. Some professional historians are so deeply concerned with critical ideas (the critical ego run amok) that they are incapable of dealing with the human drama of the past. Watson's choice of words is telling: ‘History is nothing less than the whole human drama and it is pretty well anything we want it to be.' Anything? Are we that free?

One qualification: the great champion of historical narrative, Simon Schama, is scathing about the over-specialised, jargon-ridden work of his colleagues, but Schama would have a lot less of a story to tell without their work. He might have no story – and certainly couldn't tell it the way he does. His original work would be impossible without the vast groundwork of research and writing by others. Most advances in historical knowledge come from the forensic research of university-based historians and the in-house debate this engenders. The big question is – can in-depth scholarship on the Australian past be written in a way that delights the general reader? If so, how?


SOME READERS WILL know Inga Clendinnen's book of essays Agamemnon's Kiss (Text, 2006). It's full of stylish, lucid and explicitly moral writing, much about doing history. It includes one essay on biography I find quite odd. Clendinnen argues that people love literary biographies, but don't much care for political biography. She says fiction writers enthrall us with a capacity to create a fictional universe – they are ‘world makers' whom we long to understand, enter their lives and marvel at their creativity – whereas politicians, mere ‘world shakers', do not have the same appeal.

There are two problems here. Clendinnen's sense of the sales figures is, as one literary agent put it to me, ‘so far off base she's over the horizon'. Political biographies may not sell in Australia but in the United States they crowd bestseller lists: George Washington, FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, the Clintons, Obama – there is a mass market for political biography. Not just lowbrow, superficial biography either, though that kind sells mightily, but deeply scholarly, majestic works such as Robert Caro's life of LBJ, or Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time (Simon and Schuster, 1995). The same goes for military biographies – Patton, Macarthur, ‘Monty' – none of them inhabits a fictional universe.

Any biography fascinates when it's good. I think Clendinnen's terminology has led to confusion: why call great fiction writers ‘world makers' and great politicians ‘world shakers' – that is, mere ‘world shakers'? Surely Mandela or Washington were world makers, creating something more astonishing than any fiction writer.

Readers want to go deep into a life, to know it comprehensively, or at least come away with a vivid sense of it. This entitlement has been set up by great biographers who got behind the public mask, to convey a sense of the deeper self, the core that guides or drives or perhaps explains the public life – that relationship, as Leon Edel puts it in Writing Lives (W.W. Norton, 1987), between the ‘revealed self and the concealed self'. That fascinates us.

Political biography also draws readers who are fascinated by that inner demon called the ‘will to power'. Someone once said that long-serving prime ministers require three qualities: a hide as thick as leather, rat cunning and the endurance of a marathon runner. Just that makes us wonder in astonishment at such people. How do they do it – the eighteen-hour days, the endless lobbying, policy-making on the run, plotting, fighting, pressing the flesh, the marathon pace, year in year out, the undying hunger to hang on, to have more. Stories as different as Mandela and Nixon have this at their core – phenomenal capacity. Political biographies, consequently, are sometimes studies of super-human will applied to making the real world, our world.


I WAS COMPELLED to think hard about political biography and writing for a general readership when, in 2003, I signed a contract to write a history of the transition to responsible government and democracy in the colony of New South Wales. What was eventually called Colonial Ambition (Melbourne University Press, 2006) was to be part of the Carr government's celebration of the 150th anniversary of responsible government three years later. My subject, colonial politics in the 1840s and '50s, was considered deadly dull. I could not find one book in colonial political history that I could use as a model – a light on the hill, you might say, for the history I had dimly in mind. Nor did the subject seem inspiring, although Sylvia Lawson's history of journalism, The Archibald Paradox (Penguin, 1987), was a beacon – elegant, passionateand inspiring.

There were no revolutionary uprisings, no wars of independence, no fields of battle, no mud and blood, no great conspiracy or treason trials, no universe of practices and understandings swept away in a political whirlwind, and none of the attendant heroism called forth by such things. We were told that we were handed self-government on a plate. How could our political beginnings compare with those of modern France, the United States, England, Scotland or Ireland? There political change was a vortex, here a pedestrian trundle.

And yet, as Chekhov or Shakespeare show us, or Manning Clark writing about Governor Phillip, or Tim Bonyhady on colonial landscape, you do not need mud and blood to have an alluring narrative. You need great characters in tandem with a richly informative story. The self-evident sometimes has to be restated: Australian history is loaded with fascinating characters and questions about them and their world. You have to want to find them.

The big question for me was how to combine the critical academic tradition with storytelling as character-driven narrative. My solution was to write Colonial Ambition as a political history centred on William Charles Wentworth.

There were several reasons for choosing Wentworth as my ‘leading man'. He was a colossus in the struggle for civil freedoms and self-government in the colony – for almost half a century he was central to institutional change and public life. He was immensely talented, ferociously driven and deeply flawed – an intriguing Australian. And the documentation of Wentworth's private or family life was rich enough to permit a dialogue between the public and private Wentworth – an extremely valuable means of understanding his political ambition. Wentworth was big enough, complex enough and fascinating enough to fit the bill. That was both an historical judgement and a literary decision.


COLONIAL AMBITION IS not a biography. It is political history written as narrative. The story turns like a double helix winding through the book, political history curving into and around the biographical thread of Wentworth and his family, a thread that gets thicker as we go, knitting in other key players in Sydney and London: Henry Parkes, Sir George Gipps, Earl Grey, Robert Lowe, Charles Cowper, Herman Merivale, Lord John Russell at the Colonial Office, and numerous others including the women whose political influence was a much neglected and elusive part of the story.

A dialogue between the public and the private spheres is an important part of good biographical narrative, and great biographers have set the standard in searching for a deep reading of the ‘humanity of the lived life', and a vivid sense of the life once lived. What drives us? What drove Wentworth? That was the great story within the story, crucial to an understanding of political ambition. It was the reason I thought biographical narrative was the way to explore the vast and irreconcilable ambitions that shaped the political foundations of the Australian colonies.

There has to be a starting point – a single image, a line in a letter, a speech or a mere phrase – rich with symbolic meaning. With Wentworth, it was a wedding in 1844. In January that year, his eldest daughter Timmie married a recently arrived merchant, Thomas Fisher. No sooner had they wed than Fisher commanded his young wife to have no further dealings with her father and mother. Fisher was a most severe ‘exclusive' -– he would marry the daughter, but have no social contact with her parents, William and Sarah, who were tainted by convictism. William's father was an exiled highwayman and William himself had long been a spokesman for emancipists' rights, while Sarah's parents were both convicts.

Further research revealed that this was merely one of many wounds inflicted on Wentworth and his family by the exclusive set in Sydney – the great landowners, the imperial officials and the officer class whose standing and social purity, it seemed, could brook no social contact with convicts, emancipists, or their offspring.

An extraordinary situation came into view. In the private sphere, loving parents were denied access – in perpetuity, it seemed – to their daughter, while in the public sphere an even more astonishing situation was in place: in the political struggle for colonial independence, Wentworth was aligned with many of the great merchants and landowners who shared his son-in-law's values. Wentworth was a leader of men who treated him, socially, as a pariah. From his youth to middle age he suffered their snubs and insults. Now his beloved Timmie was lost. His wounds were many. Publicly, he and Sarah showed nothing of the pain they suffered. Privately, Wentworth scratched at those wounds to keep them raw and hurting. They became part of his life force and leached into his political purpose.

There he was in 1844, the most ferocious, talented and indispensable of politicians, working with men who, as I wrote, ‘would not cross his threshold, not break bread at his table nor have him to theirs, and who would cross the road rather than tip their hat to his wife or his daughters'. More than once, Wentworth vowed he would have revenge over his ‘colonial oppressors', not just the men in London who denied self-government, but also the men in Sydney who denied Wentworth and his family the ‘honour' they deserved. He was reflective about this, and late in life publicly described himself as something of a volcano, in whom ‘the flood of lava' wouldn't stay down. This was a reference to a disposition that marked his entire political career, to language and oratory that was thick with grievance and anger, to a life loaded up with resentments: ‘He was, in a way, like Philoctetes, the warrior whose putrid wound never healed, yet he seemed intent on scratching at his wounds until his dying days, as if he needed the pain to drive him on.'

Revenge is one of the great themes in literature and narrative historians with themes wider than biography should take inspiration from literature. Great novelists intuitively grasp the dramatic and often tragic quality of vindictively driven characters: Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and the list goes on. The significance here resides in Wentworth's potential to be realised as one of the great dramatic characters in Australian history: angry, arrogant, visionary and vindictive, destined to play a dynamic part in hammering out the nation's political foundations. He had to be my ‘leading man'.

I use the phrase ‘leading man' deliberately because if we are writing narrative history we should be thinking how best to tell the story; crossing boundaries and borrowing from fiction, from those writers who think out loud about what they're doing, in terms of rendering character and structuring a story. Surely the historical record is as amenable to select literary considerations as the fictional imagination? I suspect that very often the great plots work in fiction because their movement mimics the historical process, so we know when they are right.

Wentworth's story has dramatic power that resonates as much with Ibsen's Doll's House as anything in Australian political history. There is an affinity with Chekhov too, in the sense of entitlements lost, of power and grandeur slipping from the grasp of an establishment – in this case the landed oligarchs of Sydney and surrounds, mired in their own dramatic internal contradictions. A rewarding sub-theme was Wentworth's growing sense of a lost cause as the years went by – not just the menacing rise of radical politics, but the unremitting snobbery and exclusivism of his own class. It was slow-brewing, a gradual realisation that so much he had hoped for and fought for confidently in the early years – the honour of his family restored, political power in his own hands – might crumble.

I set up a dialogue between the public and private life of William Charles Wentworth, the revealed self and the concealed self, to draw his family into the picture (for his wife and his children are an important part of the political story), and show how the private dimension influenced his political persona, his ambition and ultimately his political direction – to abandon the colony. In our colonial history, Wentworth is one of the great anti-heroes; the great opponent of democracy who fails.


THE NARRATIVE HISTORIAN must make judgements about who should figure prominently in the story. A dozen candidates suggested themselves. Wentworth's symbolic equal and opposite was Henry Parkes, the radical artisan who, with his wife Clarinda, ran a toyshop in Hunter Street near the Semi-Circular Quay. In the mid-1840s, the toyshop became a meeting place for like-minded men – immigrants mostly – whose ambition was radical by virtue of their position in society and their determination to transcend it, to rise and succeed.

There was a great rivalry between Parkes and Wentworth once the former, an unbounded talent, became successful in city politics. Parkes was central to radical organisation in Sydney. He was a narrative way into the radical political culture of the city. He provided some sense of the collective ambitions of bone turners and carvers, of tailors and boot-makers, of good, hard-working, liberal dissenters and diligent, radical Catholics, of editors and typesetters, of shopkeepers and pill vendors, of small-time apothecaries and the ailing folk who visited them.

The toyshop also took on special significance. As my sense of the city deepened, I saw the toyshop as part of a radical precinct, bounded by Hunter, George, King and Pitt Streets, where ambitious, like-minded men and women interacted every day. There were other parts of the city that defined themselves in ways quite hostile to the seething uppity-ness, the ‘presumption' they said in these quarters, of the toyshop district.

A complex political geography came into view as I grasped the socio-economic layout of Sydney, the character of the six wards in terms of the class mix, real estate values, industry, piped water, sewerage and gas lighting. Sydney became a ‘character', a focal point of sharp convergence for the clash of political ambitions, an entity defined by its simultaneous attachment and opposition to London: ‘We might imagine the city as the sum of its players, loaded with the fierce turmoil of its conflicting forces. Of all the personalities to figure in the transition to colonial self-government, Sydney looms largest, incorporating the frames and the faces, the voices and vitriol, of the key players in the colony's internal dialogue and its incessant, carping dialogue with London. In this sense, the colony's political history, as I am about to tell it is, in no small sense, the history of a city.'

The city, with Parkes, Wentworth and other key players, was part of that thickening knit; threads in the weave.

Narrative history as I envisage it must be as powerfully biographical as possible, a continual, interwoven drama of human lives. Within that framework, it is important to sustain a dialogue between private and public and pursue the evocation of place with the same imaginative commitment as evocation of character.

But this is still just one part of a complex narrative fabric: ‘The narrative spins out from a knot of dialogues – between the local and the global, the periphery and the centre (Sydney and London), the city and the bush; it shifts between economy and polity, between the politics of the Legislature and the politics of the street and, finally, that most powerful of interactions – between the public and private lives of the key players.'

The emphasis here is on the movement of the story. How should it – how can it – move? Narrative movement is a bit like tacking on a yacht – the line is constantly shifting while moving forward, zigzagging from one location to another, from one debate to another, from drama here to drama there. This movement comes out of a ‘dialogue' between historian and historical documents. The more panoramic the historian's gaze, the more in-depth the grasp of the documentation, the more one draws from the combined interplay of the records, the more powerfully and surely that dialogue dictates the way forward – where to zig and where to zag.

The narrative movement is essential: these interactions are parts of a big story. There's no escaping it: it is a big story and to do it justice you need all that, and more. Which means, incidentally, we have a tempestuous history full of war and uprisings. Colonial Ambition connects with the 1848 revolutions in Europe, with the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny – our wars and revolutionary uprisings were here, but they were somewhere else.

There is also the matter of literary form. Narrative movement, along with character and human drama, is essential to the historian's duty to ensure the story is not boring. There is no sense in which this is falsification – something fiction writers are permitted but not historians. Falsification is more likely when historians fail to do justice to the drama that resides in the record or when they render complex characters into bloodless, one-dimensional ciphers for abstract argument. Historians fall short when we miss the drama and humanity that awaits.

Narrative deals in historical time – chronology, plot, evolving events – but chronology does not rule the structure of the lived life. As Coleridge's distinguished biographer Richard Holmes pointed out in 1992 there is an ‘interior time' concerned with the inner life of the subject. There is obviously more room for this in biography than political history, but ‘the patterns of impulse and imagery, repetitions and recollections, ... links between childhood and adult experience', patterns that continuously disrupt chronological time, remain important. Including these possibilities depends on the richness of the record and the art of the historian.

Strict chronology is, after all, ‘an intellectual and artistic defeat' as Alan Martin once put it. Narrative doesn't demand strict chronology. It can, in a limited way, move to the dynamics of the life and, where the record permits (art derived from knowledge), use some of the techniques of fiction which Edel refers to as: ‘flashbacks, retrospective chapters, summary chapters, jumps from childhood to maturity, glimpses of the future, forays into the past'.

There is also the movement between the past and the present – the present back then. In Colonial Ambitionit was simply unavoidable – agitators and politicians drew on the past all the time, as did their adversaries in London. Human beings draw on their sense or understanding of the past for many reasons, politics included. In Intimate History of Humanity (HarperCollins, 1995), Theodore Zeldin notes: ‘To have a new version of the future, it is always necessary to have a new version of the past.' Any political history worth the shelf space must recognise how the past is always in the present. That was the case in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales. The contenders were great readers. They imagined a future tailored to their own interests. They drew heavily on history to justify their imaginings. We see this still – the way, for instance, Paul Keating and John Howard drew on their own, very different versions of the past to serve their vision of the future.

History was wielded like an axe in the great oratorical marathons in the Legislative Council and newspaper editorials, letters to the editor and public meetings at Barrack Square and Macquarie Place and elsewhere in the 1840s and 1850s. The coalitions seeking power and recognition were determined ‘to make their interpretation of the world the universal one', confirming Karl Mannheim's view that political conflict is as much about the possession of meaning as about winning formal power. As Heidegger put it, these are ‘battles for the possession of meaning as much as for the formal instruments of power'.


WHERE DOES A preoccupation with character and literary form leave analysis? The history profession in Australia, with some notable exceptions, has been wary of biographical or character-driven narrative – to the extent that it has been given any thought at all – because it might be the first step on to the slippery slope of commercialisation and dumbing down. Some even see it as a fictional device that tricks the user into thinking he or she is writing history. Noted historian John Hirst concedes ‘there are good narratives which combine analysis with story-telling' but worries that ‘narratives are a standing temptation to evasion' of vital questions such as ‘what sort of institution or nation or life is this?'

If biographical narrative has to privilege and obsess with questions of literary form, it cannot do that to the exclusion of scholarly foundations and questions that must be addressed. As Julian Barnes wrote in Flaubert's Parrot (Picador, 1985),‘Form isn't an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought ... it's the flesh of thought itself.' That's how it should be. The narrative historian has to wrestle with the literary dimension as well as the problem of how the past has been defined, interpreted, ignored or mischaracterised by other historians. And that engagement has to be immersed or infiltrated into the story without getting in the way of the story. In narrative it is argument by stealth.

Argument by stealth means that the text privileges the human story, but it is important to recognise that the human story is not just colour to the movement of analysis. The players have intent. Character has agency that must be weighed and tested in the force field of ‘context'. Analysis may be unobtrusive but it is, or should be, present at all levels. Quite possibly not a single historian's name, nor a reference to an in-house debate, will appear in the text. Such intrusions would be ruptures that would negate the point of biographical narrative. But this does not mean that historiographic concerns are neglected. On the contrary, they become part of the story only occasionally removed to a footnote – the manuscript that routinely exiles historiographical concerns to the footnotes is likely to be a vacuous and probably a tortured text.

In Colonial Ambition the analysis encompasses the narrative and precedes it. My starting point was not political history in the old sense of electorates, elections and administrations, but the making and remaking of public culture. The boundaries of public culture were continuously redrawn in a society as fluid as Sydney: who was in and who was out in a constant quest for power – including the symbolic power to assign meaning to various political and cultural phenomena, especially the British constitution.

Political culture in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales was a desperate and passionate conflict for resources, especially as self-government approached, an almighty transition full of promise for everyone. The setting, the transformation of public culture, real power and symbolic power, political history broadly conceived, is a panoramic sweep. The big question: how did it change? More questions follow. How did it all hold together? Why did local power not descend into violence, anarchy, rebellion, retribution, new and desperate strategies from below, oligarchic reassertion and, finally, a solution that looked like Argentina? We know, almost intuitively, that this sequence was most unlikely. Our intuition discourages curiosity, but that makes these questions all the more important. It is not self-evident. A mighty thing was at work, something we have not much probed: Britishness. The idea of Britishness and the conflict over its meaning became a binding agent. It provided a reference point, a variously interpreted framework, for almost all of the players and all the debate about self-government and democracy in the colony.

By Britishness, I mean that sense of entitlement to parliamentary liberty that had become a defining characteristic of politics in most British colonies. I have argued there's no more important concept in our political history than this concept or this sense of entitlement: ‘for entitlement was an insistence on inclusion, not rebellion; an expression of loyalism rather than republicanism. It enhanced every man who claimed his political rights, for this was not some squalid feud in a colonial backwater; it was a part in the epic drama of British liberty and justice.'

The presumption of entitlement – meaning the idea that self-government could be achieved (must be achieved) within the framework of the Empire – was tremendously empowering and a regulating force framing political behaviour. It set the terms for the debate and the limits of tolerance. It moderated rule from London, even though it often seemed that it was more honoured in the breach than the observance.

It is my hope, therefore, that one can read Colonial Ambition for the story and for the exploration of this notion of entitlement and related concepts of liberty, loyalty, constitutionalism, patriotism, tyranny and democracy. It is an exploration of what it meant to be loyal in New South Wales and of the tremendously empowering consequence of that belief in entitlement to liberty. A similar project for the other colonies, or for the colonies as a whole, has yet to be conceived – let alone undertaken – but would advance understanding of our collective past and present. The history of political transformation swung on the understanding of loyalty and its many meanings in the colonial context which suggests that the political battle was as much about symbolic power, an assertion of one meaning over another, as it was about access to the Treasury or the Crown lands. Narrative, far from being an impediment to these arguments, seemed to carry them effortlessly.

Wentworth, for instance, was a marvellous bearer of meaning, as well as a fascinating individual. So too were Parkes, Herman Merivale and the astonishing Robert Lowe whose peers could not see the consistency in his erratic constitutionalism, nor warm to his feral temperament. The challenge then – with a wider audience in view – is to combine critical academic practice with the narrative tradition. It is hard, but not impossible. It means we write history as both argument and literature.

If historiography generally alienates readers, the scholarly historian cannot simply abandon it. The solution to the problem of history as analysis surely cannot be history without analysis. The past written as homage to warriors, a triumph of settlement or sentimental journey are undoubtedly ways of gathering an audience. But these ways fall short.

Scholarly history that enchants a general readership must draw on the ‘inherited capital' of scholarship in the field. It must, to some extent, synthesise it and reshape it with drama and character, a panoramic gaze, deep immersion in the documents and the revelations of their interplay. This will provide new insights and perspectives. That's the challenge if the stories and significance of the past are not to be forgotten.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review