The Convict’s Daughter: Speculations on biography

Kiera Lindsey shares her reflections on her new monograph The Convict’s Daughter (2016), initially presented at “Intersections in History,” the Australian Women’s History Network Conference, in March 2016.

the-convicts-daughterI have a confession to make. I am an historian who has “made stuff up.” I have good reason for my method and I am aware of the implications of my approach. Nonetheless, when I was writing my first book, The Convict’s Daughter, recently published with Allen & Unwin, I became increasingly aware that I was privileging narrative drama and the interior world of my historical characters in ways likely to raise the ire of those who want history and fiction to keep to either side of the “rocky ravine” Inga Clendenin set between them in her Quarterly Essay, “The History Question: Who Owns the Past.”

Even before publication, The Convict’s Daughter provoked contradictory responses from those the publisher approached for an endorsement. I had either “fearlessly carved a new path between history and fiction,” as Professor Penny Russell generously suggested in her endorsement, or I had gone “beyond the historian’s remit” in a way that “infuriated” another historian who declined the invitation to endorse the book.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed a delicious sense of exhilaration while writing The Convict’s Daughter, as the publication date drew closer I began to fear the worst and prepare for a public trouncing. I had wanted to write what the Commissioning Editor at Allen & Unwin described as a “cross-over book,” something that would engage “the general reader” in my Ph.D. research. Certainly, I had unearthed original research and carefully collated statistics for this work, but I realised I felt driven to share my fascination for 1840s Sydney with those yet to appreciate its social and political significance.

Dr Lang addressing the New South Wales Legislative Council Australia, 1844. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dr Lang addressing the New South Wales Legislative Council, 1844. Photograph by Jacob Janssen. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While there are scholarly works devoted to this period, many of which focus upon frontier violence and the political achievements of men like William Charles Wentworth and Henry Parkes, I wanted readers to experience Sydney through the eyes of a fifteen year old native-born woman embroiled in a colonial cause célèbre in 1848, the very year Parkes declared “the birthplace of Australian democracy.” Accordingly, I set the story of this improbable but true romance against the class tensions and political ambitions of this period, interweaving the meta-histories of the European Springtime of the People and the second elections for Legislative Council in New South Wales, with the true story of a young woman who was determined to realise her marital ambitions, come what may.

My anxiety about how scholarly historians would receive my first book as an academic was somewhat relieved when I attended the Australian Women’s History Network conference in Melbourne months before publication. In response to a paper where I expressed these concerns I received many helpful comments, including one from Professor Donna Lee Brien who suggested I situate my book beyond the history and fiction debate by thinking of it instead as a “speculative biography.” This idea aligned with Allen & Unwin’s decision to market the book as a biography and to design a cover that conveyed its hybridity. Like many history books published in Australia, the cover of The Convict’s Daughter includes an historical image. In contrast to the “Times Roman” font used for most titles, the title of mine is printed in bold, red seraph to signal the use of both imagination and invention.

My reading about speculative biography suggest that this genre offers both a welcome respite from the binary of the history/fiction debate as well as a rich set of interpretive possibilities with which to evoke historical characters. I have also learnt that there are precedents for my decision to fill the evidentiary gaps in this story with what Penny Russell described as “soaring flights of imagination … firmly anchored to a bedrock of archival research.”

Indeed, this decision put me in the company of several writers I most admired.  In 1983, for example, the highly-respected historian Natalie Zemon Davis published The Return of Martin Guerre in which she “conjectured from the evidence’ and daringly ascribed ‘motivations and emotions to her protagonists.” Her book instigated a celebrated debate in which Zemon Davis responded to criticism about her approach by insisting that such practices were in fact “the historian’s common practice.” Fifty years earlier, Virginia Woolf also wrestled with “the biographer’s imagination” and “the faculty of narrative construction” when she published her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which recounts the life of this nineteenth-century writer from the perspective of Flush, her beloved spaniel, after whom the book is named. In different ways both works are based on the understanding that history, fiction and biography involve not only locating and recounting evidence but also “interpreting the evidence.” As Hayden White reminds us, each depend upon narrative construction and as such, are best understood as representations of the past which engage in interpretation and speculation.

And yet, as the respected biographer Michael Holroyd observes, biography has often been condemned as “the unwanted offspring of history and the novel,” because it embarrasses both parents but obeys neither. Such attitudes, Brien argues, has made it easy for this genre to be dismissed as little more than a form of “microhistory” which fails to “ask the big questions,” address “wider culture” or provide the reader with “a panoramic view of the past.” But are such accusations reasonable?

Like many readers, I appreciate biography precisely for the way an individual’s life illuminates the various contexts in which they lived. This is the case, both for historical works such as Evangeline Bruce’s fabulous biography Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage (1995), or more recently, Hannah Kent’s fictional rendering of a nineteenth-century murderess in rural Iceland in Burial Rites  (2013). Certainly, both books leave us with “bigger questions” about the human condition.

Henry Curzon Allport, "George Street, Sydney - looking south" (1842). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Curzon Allport, “George Street, Sydney – looking south” (1842). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Convict’s Daughter, I attempted a delicate balancing act involving not only creating a compelling historical non-fiction narrative but also honouring the historians’ mandate to “do no harm to the sources.” I presented the facts, events, sources and quotes as they occurred but without footnotes so that the reader could experience, like Mary Ann, a sense of being, caught up in this “runaway romance.” To compensate, I then referenced these sources with an index and bibliography and also provided Chapter Notes at the end of the book for those wanting to know which portions of the book were fact and which were not.

In the Afterword, I also explained that I had engaged in acts of speculation – but only when the trail of archives ran dry and I found myself perched upon one set of historical facts, needing to leap to the next solid ground of fact. At such moments, I did fill in the gaps with what Drusilla Modjeska calls “the informed imagination” but, I did so because while attempting to retrieve what Modjeska describes as the “overlooked and under reported lives” of historical women. In my case, this woman was Mary Ann Gill, my great, great, great aunt and a young native-born woman who belonged to a demographic in colonial society of whom little is known. While Mary Ann’s scandal ensured that she was better documented than many of her female contemporaries, the rest of her life was unevenly documented. To bring her story to life in a way that would provide the reader with a fascinating portal into the past, it was necessary to flaunt convention, and to connect the blanks in the narrative with carefully research speculation. Perhaps this was, in a way, in keeping with her own defiant spirit.

So yes, I did make stuff up and in so doing blurred the boundaries between history and fiction in ways that may infuriate those who like their history served “neat.” As a speculative biography, however, The Convict’s Daughter belongs to a tradition of writing about the past in which both historians and fiction writers have wanted to blend research and imagination so they could convey a particular story in a particular way. It is also worth considering that some stories are probably better suited to this than others. Mary Ann’s story, for instance, centered upon a scandalous elopement that lent itself to being written in the spirit of a nineteenth-century romance with touches of the social novel to it.

Despite my initial terror of public humiliation, I am quietly delighted to confess that The Convict’s Daughter has sold well. Many readers – scholarly and general – have written unsolicited emails and reviews expressing a fresh fascination for the 1840s as well as their enjoyment of this alternative approach to writing and reading history. This feedback suggests that, for those of us who are interested in engaging a general reader in our research, speculative biography probably deserve more attention than it currently receives.

I stumbled upon this genre while striving to marry my research with my love of narrative and my passion for this story and its characters. Thanks to a robust discussion at the Melbourne AWHN conference in March 2016 and the generous advice of a senior academic, I now intend to delve deeper into the creative possibilities of speculative biography and to  further experiment with these “infuriating” acts of invention.

 

kiera-lindseyKiera Lindsey published her first book The Convict’s Daughter with Allen & Unwin in 2016 and is under contract to publish another speculative biography with Allen & Unwin in 2019. She is also working with Foxtel’s History Channel as an on-camera historian for a new four part series on Australian History which will air in mid-2017. She completed a Masters of Arts and a Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne and lectures in Australian history at the University of South Australia. Kiera has won awards for her teaching and was the winner of the inaugural Greg Denning History Prize in 2009.

Follow Kiera on Twitter @LindseyKiera.

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