Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writing multi-layered history

In history as in other subjects, the form of writing depends upon purpose. In my case, I have been thinking about what I call multi-layered history, histories covering broad topics or geographic areas where the challenge is to tell a multi-faceted story in circumstances of choice in selection of topic, examples and evidence.

While this topic is not new here, it's fresh in my mind because over the weekend I read Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2010). The book is subtitled on the front cover but not elsewhere "A journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry". In a way that's right, although the core of the book is really a memoir on the relationships between Judith's poetry, landscape and life.

Fiona met Judith first through her poetry and then personally late in Judith's life. This is a view looking back, seeking to discover and understand a much lover author.

I don't think that I ever met Judith, but I have known of her all my life because of connections between the Wrights and my own family. After I first read Generations of Men, I actually went and found the remains of the house that Judith referred to in that book.

There are very special issues involved in writing a history that involves people you know or know of, especially where those people are subject to multiple interpretations. The people acquire can a life of their own independent of your perceptions of them and their life; they become multiple people, separated by perception. They are there as you knew them, but then they also exist as creations in other peoples' minds. They are the same, but then they are not.

There is an odd dissonance here that I will write about in a little more detail on my personal blog. For the moment, I want to focus on Judith Wright as a figure in New England history and, more importantly, in the writing of New England history.

As a family, the Wrights form one thread in the general history of New England. Judith's father PA and brother Peter had a very direct impact on aspects of New England life, including the establishment and growth of the University of New England and the new state cause. Judith herself left New England to go to Brisbane , but her writing is a resource on aspects of New England life and fed back into New England history. The Wrights as a whole in some ways mirror the rise and fall of New England.

Because Judith Wright is such a well known literary figure, because she retained connections with New England in a way that, say, Patrick White did not, because so many people have written about her, it would be very easy to use her as major unifying figure in the history of New England in the second half of the twentieth century. Her own changes in views, her changing views on land and family, her distress at the loss of the family properties, all lend themselves to dramatic presentation.

The temptation is almost irresistible. Her own turn of phrase, the views of others including Fiona, provide a huge resource. Yet to focus on Judith would, to my mind, be an error. There is a balance question, for others had different views.

Let me link this back to the opening idea of multi-layered history.

Judith Wright's views were formed by the combination of personality and experience. They were unique to her. They provide a special perspective on New England history, and can be used to layer the New England experience. From my perspective this is very important, because one of the issues I am conscious of is the need to show that what I am writing about is important.

At one level, this shouldn't matter. History is history. To argue that New England history is in some way important beyond the simple history of an area is to risk falling into the equivalent of a regional variant of the big man in history concept. Yet we live in a world where changing fashions have effectively relegated the history of the area that I am interested in to the dust-heap of Australian history, a simple footnote in a broader story. The local sound and fury is relegated to what, nothing?, in that broader story. I can't accept that view.

In these circumstances, I am sure that you can see my temptation to, in a sense, misuse Judith. Fortunately, I have so much material that I can balance Judith with the views and experiences of others.

Now I want to make an apparently self-evident point.

We live in an internet world. The internet is a wonderful tool. I couldn't write what I do sitting in a quiet Sydney suburban street without it. The internet provides a free-lance writer like me with access to information that I could not otherwise see. Yet the internet is very much a creature of fashion. Much of the information I need is not on the internet.

Behind me as I write is a bookcase on New England history. I have been buying these books for more than thirty years. You won't find any of them on the internet.

The books vary in quality. Some are the stories of properties, others personal memoirs, some local histories, some novels or books of poetry. Between them, they are critical to me in presenting my overlays.

I do not know that I can achieve my dream of writing a properly textured history of New England. I am always behind. Still, the fascination of people, culture and landscape holds me. I strive to tell a story, to re-create a past world, to hope that I can show something of the fascination of this particular slice of Australia's past.        

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