Background to the book
Where the story came from:
Like The Secret River, Sarah Thornhill had its beginnings in family stories that my mother told me – stories handed down for five generations, from mother to daughter.
The earliest stories were about our convict forebear, Solomon Wiseman. He was a boatman on the Thames until he was caught stealing timber and, in 1806, arrived in Australia “for the term of his natural life”. He soon obtained his freedom and, as the family story put it, “took up land” on the Hawkesbury River just outside of Sydney.
To his eyes that land was free to be “taken up”, but the Dharug people had lived on it for millennia. There’s no record of what happened when Wiseman claimed that land, but in other places, with other people, what resulted was conflict.
To illustrate what a tough – even brutal – man Wiseman was, Mum told us that “one of his daughters got pregnant to the riding master and was thrown out of the house. Both she and the baby died.”
This was a poignant story, but when I investigated in the archive I found it wasn’t true. Wiseman had two daughters, but they both married well, had big families, and died at grand old ages.
But as a result of The Secret River being published in the UK, a distant relative from London got in touch with me. One of the family anecdotes she had about Wiseman was that “his daughter fell pregnant to the gardener and died.”
This felt like a nudge in the ribs from the cosmos, so I went back to the archives.
I discovered that Solomon Wiseman’s oldest son, William, was a sealer in New Zealand and, like many sealers, he had a Maori wife, referred to in the records as “Rugig”. In 1828 both William and Rugig were drowned. They left behind two little girls, and Solomon Wiseman sent for them to come and live with him in Australia. Soon after their arrival they were baptised and christened Sophia and Maryanne.
A few years later Sophia’s death was recorded in the Sydney Gazette of 1840: “Died, at Mr Mitchell’s, Darlinghurst. Sophia Wiseman, aged 13.” Research about “Mr Mitchell’s” suggested that it might have been some kind of maternity hospital (it was on Major Mitchell’s Darlinghurst estate, not the famous Dr Mitchell’s clinic in The Rocks).
It seemed that the family story had only got it wrong by one word: not Wiseman’s daughter, but his grand-daughter.
It was all too easy to imagine it: a little girl of five or six taken away from her Maori community and sent to live among strangers, speaking a language she hardly understood. Finding comfort with someone in the stables or the garden (perhaps Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal), getting pregnant, being turned out by an angry grandfather, and sent away to whatever lay in store for her at Mr Mitchell’s.
My great-great-grandmother, Sarah Wiseman, would have been about fourteen when her half-Maori niece arrived from New Zealand. She’d have watched the whole thing.
(The second little girl from New Zealand, Maryanne, seemed to have disappeared without trace until another distant relative contacted me and we were able to piece together her story. Maryanne’s grandfather Solomon Wiseman died in 1838, her sister Sophia died in 1840, and in 1842 she was taken to London by her step-grandmother, Solomon’s second wife. She married a man 40 years older than she was, had a child, and was dead at 28.)
The story of Sophia Wiseman, “thrown out of the house to die” was a little morsel of the past that raised more questions than it answered. For me, questions are always a more fruitful starting-point for a novel than answers, and I decided to try to imagine my way into the world of Sarah and Sophia Wiseman.
Making the Leap: Family History to Fiction
In the harbour at Auckland there’s an island that’s a freshly-sprouted volcano. I was there for a writers’ festival, and like many other tourists, I decided to visit the volcano. It’s an eerie place – all jumbled black rocks like burned toffee. As I walked up to the top, something about that strange landscape seemed to release a story. All the way up I had to keep sitting on those razor-sharp rocks and jotting down another idea on the only paper I had with me, the brown-paper bag my lunch had come in.
That story-outline, given to me as if by dictation, was about Sarah Thornhill, the daughter of William Thornhill of The Secret River. Like my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Thornhill was born in 1816 (she’s the baby at the end of the earlier novel). When she’s about fourteen, her half-Maori niece comes to live on the Hawkesbury, and Sarah watches the whole sad story unfold.
Several years and twenty-three drafts later, the novel Sarah Thornhill still follows the basic shape of the story on the brown paper bag. Other secrets, other buried stories, and many more characters gradually knitted themselves into what turned out to be a densely-plotted book about knowing and not-knowing and what happens when secrets are uncovered.
Some of what’s in the book is based on events and characters in the historical record. Jack Langland, for example, Sarah’s sweetheart, is a character inspired by Thomas Chaseland, a New Zealand sealer who was born on the Hawkesbury River, his father an ex-convict and his mother an Aboriginal woman. He sailed with William Wiseman, and was on the ship that went down taking William and Rugig with it. Soon after the shipwreck he made a permanent home in New Zealand as part of the Maori community there.
Thomas Chaseland almost certainly knew Sarah Wiseman, but whether the relationship between them is anything like that between Jack Langland and Sarah Thornhill is something we’ll never know.
The secret at the heart of this book – the evil act committed by Sarah’s father before she’s born - is fiction, although there are many similar events to be found in the historical record. Like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, this novel takes the recorded past as its starting-point, but it isn’t history. My interest isn’t in reconstructing the past, but to tell a story set in the past that helps us understand the present.
Doing the Research
I’d already done a great deal of research for The Secret River which gave me background information about life in New South Wales in the early nineteenth century. Much of that was relevant for this book.
There were two big new challenges for research for this book: one was information about the lives of women, rather than men – specifically, women who were illiterate (as my great-great-grandmother was, and as Sarah Thornhill is); and women who were not immigrants, but “currency” – born in the colony.
I’m a very amateur researcher, and I may have missed the goldmines that are out there. But by definition such women are going to be hard to find in the written record, not having left any writings themselves.
Historians have combed the archives for whatever can be found about those women, and about other aspects of the past. Their work was insightful and contexualising and this book would not be possible without their expert work. (For a list of the work of some of these scholars, see "Books Consulted" at the end of this section.)
Guided by the work they’d done, I read a great deal of writing by women of the gentry class, nearly all immigrants or visitors. They left letters, journals and published writings, but on the face of it those writings weren’t all that useful to me. The backgrounds of those women, their attitudes, and their way of life ( even when they were roughing it) and above all their use of language were poles apart from the woman I was trying to imagine. As the daughter of an illiterate ex-convict who’d made good, Sarah Thornhill wasn’t poor, but was very far from being gentry.
But women from lower social classes could occasionally be glimpsed through the writings of these educated women - for example one describes “those dirty women sitting on their doorsteps with their pipes in their mouths”. The writer meant to mock, but for me it was a rare vivid glimpse of another kind of woman. Some of the improvisations of bush life that the educated immigrants described were useful in filling in some of the blanks in the picture of life for country women in the 1840's.
Occasionally, men and women of a lower social level left something in the written record, and I scoured these for any detail or turns of phrase I could use from the few letters or reminiscences they left behind.
I combed local history museums in the country and walked past case after case full of fancy christening-robes and fine china. It’s everyone’s best that survives, not the ordinary things they used every day. Out the back, among the farm machinery, there’d occasionally be a milking-stool made of a log with three sticks for legs, or an ancient wash-board, giving a hint of the lives of working women. In Tamworth I spent a long time looking at the details of a slab hut they’ve reconstructed as an early nineteenth-century dwelling, complete with sapling bed and leather-hinged door.
I consulted collections of oral history in libraries, but found the interviewees often inhibited by the formal interviewing process. I did some interviews myself in nursing homes, talking with elderly men and women who’d had country childhoods, and was struck by how many wonderful details of language and life are disappearing, day by day, without being recorded.
The best part of research for me is to walk on the places where the story happened, so I went (again) to the Hawkesbury river. I retraced the road my great-great-grandmother would have taken with her new husband, north to the Hunter Valley. As near as I could, I found where they’d lived – nothing remains of it but a graveyard called “Glenmire”.
The other big new challenge was to learn something about early New Zealand history, and in particular the sealers who worked in Southland and Rakiura (Stewart Island), and who, in many cases, established families within the Maori communities.
The Maori novelist Patricia Grace, met by chance, told me that the Maori community from which Wiseman’s grand-daughter had been taken might still have oral histories about that event. Through kindly and helpful contacts I was put in touch with some of the community in that area. Unfortunately their searches turned up no information about “Rugig” or her daughters. They did, though, tell me what I’d guessed, that “Rugig” is an Anglicised approximation of her real name, which makes finding information about her even more difficult than it might otherwise be.
Historians and archaeologists in New Zealand are doing painstaking, exact work on the sealing communities of the early nineteenth century, and Australian historians are working on the Bass Strait part of the same trade. I’m grateful without measure for their work.
It was through one of the archaeologists, Nigel Prickett, that I first came across Thomas Chaseland, the character I’ve fictionalised as “Jack Langland”. Nigel seemed to know before I did how important that character would be to the book and how much he'd provide the emotional centre of the story. Nigel's work, and the work of Australian scholar Lynette Russell, gave me new perspectives on those times and people, and showed me the larger significance of stories of men like Chaseland, with one foot in the white world and one in the black.
In Southland and Rakiura I visited as many as I could of the places Chaseland had been. I was especially interested in seeing the place on Rakiura called “The Neck”, now abandoned, but in the nineteenth century a mixed community of Maori/pakeha where Chaseland spent his last days with his Maori family. This was the place where, in my imagination, Sarah Thornhill came to acknowledge the wrong her family had done.
“The Neck” is Maori land, accessible only by boat, and a permit was needed to land there. I am indebted to the people at Te Manu Adventures who were able to give me permission to go there and let me go with them when they visited. “The Neck” is one of the world’s magically beautiful places. I’ll never forget the serenity of the few hours I was there, and certainly I couldn’t have written the last scenes in the book unless I’d stood on that spot and listened to the sea and the gulls.
Challenges in the writing:
Every book is hard to write, and every book is hard to write in its own way. There were two particular difficulties with this book: voice and plot. (Nothing big, you understand.)
The voice was difficult because the voice of an illiterate woman of the mid-nineteenth century has mostly vanished from the record. Court transcripts are useful, but have often been cleaned up by the court recorder. Letters and other documents by people only-just-literate point in the right direction. The voices of still-living people can give a clue. I remembered turns of phrase that my grandfather (a poorly-educated shearer born in 1870) had used, and my mother, the first of her family to get a proper education, had often used colourful terms from her country childhood. Some of those elderly people I interviewed, and occasionally a phrase overheard on a bus or even at the gym, gave me a basis to build on.
Once I could hear the voice, the next problem was how to transcribe it. I didn’t want the book to be a sort of ventriloquism (as Peter Carey had done in The True History of the Kelly Gang) – I didn’t think I could pull that off. So I didn’t want a literal transcription of every bit of faulty grammar and every quirk of an illiterate voice. But the book was always going to be written in the first-person, by Sarah Thornhill, so it couldn’t sound like Jane Austen.
My compromise was to give what I hoped would be a flavour of illiterate speech – for example the use of “of” where “have” would be correct (“I would of liked to of told him”), and some ungrammatical constructions.
The other difficulty with using this voice was that my own vocabulary and stylistic technique as a writer had to be radically reduced. No more lyrical descriptions ( which I love to do!) of water and bush. No more long complicated sentences with multiple clauses. No elaborate vocabulary. Just plain simple words in plain simple sentences. Within those limitations, making sure the voice stayed strong and interesting was a challenge.
Plot was the other challenge for me. The plot of this novel, as it evolved from the sketch on the brown paper bag, was positively operatic, containing as it did secrets that had to come to light, people getting the wrong end of the stick about various important things, and many interlocking but separate stories. What did x know, and when did he or she know it? If she or he didn’t know it, why not? These were the kinds of questions I wrestled with over twenty-three drafts.
The work of historian Henry Reynolds had been a revelation in doing the research for The Secret River. Through his work I began to see some of the complexities of the first fifty years of white settlement in Australia, especially in relation to the ways white and black dealt with each other.
I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but Australia’s early history had a bigger scope than any one story could convey. It’s like the shape of a mountain, that appears to change as you travel towards it. The mountain doesn't change, only the stories told about it. Each story – whether from history, archaeology, family stories or oral reminiscences - has something to offer, and each one adds a new perspective.
These three books are a journey around the mountain of our past, from three different perspectives.
White settlement in Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. For the first roughly twenty years the colony was primarily a penal settlement run by the military, and the story of one of those soldiers is the subject of The Lieutenant.
During those earliest years, white settlement was limited in scope: the newcomers took land around Sydney Cove, but not far beyond. They displaced Aboriginal people by doing so, but only those groups around the harbour. Those earliest settlers didn’t think of New South Wales as their new home, but rather as a place they’d soon be leaving. For that reason, and because there was only limited competition for land and resources between black and white, relations were relatively good. There was violence on both sides, but there were also several recorded instances of mutual friendship and respect between black and white. The Lieutenant is the story of one such friendship, between a soldier and a young Aboriginal girl.
Thirty years later, when the The Secret River opens, things were very different. New South Wales was still a penal colony, but there was a growing population of free settlers – either people who’d arrived free, or ex-convicts who’d served their time. All these people wanted land, and pushed out from the original settlements, with or without permission. Everywhere they went, they displaced Aboriginal people. Violence between black and white on the ever-shifting frontier was frequent – although seldom recorded in documents.
The Secret River is a fiction about what took place when a man called William Thornhill, an ex-convict from London, “took up” land on the Hawkesbury River in 1815. The events in the novel show a microcosm of every colonial experience: conflict between people defending their home and other people looking for a new one.
Sarah Thornhill is about William Thornhill’s youngest child – the next generation. Sarah grows up knowing nothing of what her father did, and nothing of the history of black and white on the land she calls home. Only when she’s an adult does she discover the dark legacy that her father’s generation has given her, and has to try to work out what she might do about it.
The writing of these books has been a sometimes confronting, but deeply satisfying journey over the last ten years. I’m blessed to have had the chance to tell these stories. I hope you enjoy reading them.
Books & Documents Consulted
For readers interested in the history that lies behind this novel, here’s a list of some of the books I consulted during the research. My debt to the historians, archaeologists, diarists, poets and memoirists who wrote these texts, and to the archivists and librarians who make their work accessible, is profound.
Race Against Time: the Early Maori/Pakeha families: Atholl Anderson
The Welcome of Strangers: Atholl Anderson
Yellow Billy, the Millfield Terror: Brian Andrews
Frontier Conflict: Bain Attwood and S.G. Foster
Mau Moko: the World of Maori Tattoo: Ngahuia Te Awakotuku and others
Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang: Sidney J.Baker
Port Preservation: A.Charles Begg
World of John Boultbee: A.Charles Begg
Making Peoples: J.Belich
Pakeha Maori: Europeans who lived as Maori in early NZ: Trevor Bentley
Lure of the Land: Historic Merriwa: Helen Bettington
Mary Anne Bugg: Kali Bieren (MA thesis)
People and the land, an illustrated history of NZ: Judith Binney
Legacy of Guilt: a life of Thomas Kendall: Judith Binney
Orehu, the survivors: Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin
Kerikeri 1770-1850, the Meeting Pool: ed. Judith Binney
Untold Lives: When the Elders tell their Stories: Judith Binney
Baal Belbora: the End of the Dancing: Geoffrey Blomfield
Wannin Thanbarran: Aboriginal and European contact in Muswellbrook: Greg Blyton
In Those Days: Talking about the past around Murray’s Run: Bill Bottomley
Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne and Ross: H. Brady and W. Maziere
Aborigines of the Hunter Valley: a study of colonial records: Helen Brayshaw
Excursions in NSW: W.H. Breton
Biographical dictionary of Cork: T.Cadogan & J. Falvey
Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880: Judy Campbell
Notes on Early Life in NZ: George Clark
Chaseling Family Papers
Working Dress in Colonial and Revolutionary America: Peter Copeland
County and City of Cork Post Office General Directory, 1842
Cork Street Map, Ordnance Survey, Ireland
Wit and wine: Literary and Artistic Cork in the 19th century: Davis and Mary Coakle
My Reminiscences of the early days: Mrs J.F.Conigrave
Crossing Dry Creeks: 1879 to 1919, Rose Scott Cowan
Young & free: letters of Robert & Thomas Crawford, 1821-1830: ed. Richard Crawford
Story of Wallabadah: Ronal Croker
Two years in NSW: Peter Cunningham
Protestant Society and Politics in Cork, 1812-1844: I. d’Alton
Women in Australia: an Annotated Guide to Australian records: Kay Daniels
Uphill All the Way: Kay Daniels
Australia’s Women, a Documentary History: Kay Daniels
One for the Road, a history of Tamworth’s Hotels: Annette Davidson and Warren Newman
“In the Eye of the Beholder”: Representations of Australian Aborigines in the Published Works of Colonial Woman Writers”: PhD thesis by Barbara Dawson
Two Early Colonials: Margaret de Salis
Mary Thomas: founding mother: Beth Duncan
Aboriginal Mother and other poems: Eliza Dunlop
A Woman on the Goldfields: Edward Duyker
In True Colonial Fashion: What New Zealanders wore: Eve Ebbett
Wollombi, a History: A.P.Elkin
Explorers, whalers and Tattooed sailors: Gordon & Sarah Ell
Merriwa Region Archaeological Survey: Anthony English
Otago Peninsula: Peter Entwisle
Ngai Tahu Deeds: a window on NZ history: Harry Evison
Old Bush Songs: W.Fahey and G.Seal
Squatter’s Castle: G.Farwell
The Fauchery-Daintree collection of photographs, 1858
Oceans of Consolation: David Fitzpatrick
Costume in Australia, 1788-1901, Marion Fletcher
Inns and Hotels 1825-1900: Catherine Foggo
Fatal Collisions: Foster, Hosking & Nettlebeck
The Aborigines of Australia, stories about the Kamilaroi: John Fraser
Push from the Bush, L. Friedman
No Place for a Nervous Lady: Lucy Frost
Old Days, Old Ways: Mary Gilmore
Certain observations of Aboriginal rock-carvings in the Wollombi District: R.H.Goddard
Thomas Chaseland and the next generation: Pamela Goesch
Invasion to Embassy: Heather Goodall
Goonoo Goonoo, Renowned Pastoral Property
Sealers and Whalers in NZ Waters: Don Grady
Economic history of the Wollombi to 1857: J. Grady
Thomas Cook of Turanville: Nancy Gray
Wilfred Green of Gundy: Nancy Gray
Promised Land: Early Settlement in the Shire of Scone: Nancy Gray
Tours of Scone District: Nancy Gray
Creating a Nation: Patricia Grimshaw
The Sydney Traders: D.R.Hainsworth
Book of British Ballads: S.C.Hall
Invercargill Pioneers: F.G. Hall-Jones
Recollections of Sixteen Years’ Labour in the Australian Backwoods: Alexander Harris
Old Stations on the Gwydir: Anne Harris
Wendy Harris, A Coober Pedy Pioneer: Wendy Harris-Yankunytjatjara
Dear Fanny: Helen Heney
Rakiura: a History of Stewart Island: Basil Howard
Journal of John Hunter: John Howe
Memories of Satur Hill: Anne Ibbertson
Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback: Jennifer Isaacs
Jorgen Jorgenson’s observations on Pacific Trade and Sealing and Whaling: Jorgenson, Jorgen
The Colony: Grace Karskens
Kemmis letters, 1827-44
Life in the Bush: Katharine Kirkland
Drawing the Global Colour Line: Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds
County Cork records for Researching Irish ancestors: David Larkin
The Three Happiest Years of My Life: John Mackie
Old NZ: a Tale of Good Times by a Pakeha Maori: Maning, Frederick
The Oral Traditions of Ngai Tahu: Tau, te Maire
Sex and Suffering: Janet McCalman
Lone Graves, Precious Memories: Tom McClelland
Memories of Days Long Gone by: Mary McConnel
The Old Whaling Days, Robert McNab
Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand: Robert McNab
Notes and Sketches of NSW: Louisa Ann Meredith
Te Puna – a NZ mission station: Angela Middleton
Tamworth: City on the Peel: Roger Milliss
Waterloo Creek: Roger Milliss
Three Expeditions in the interior of Eastern Australia: Thomas Mitchell
The Native-Born: John Molony
Austral English: Edward Morris
Stories about the Kamilaroi: C.Naseby
Clarke of the Kindur: C.Naseby
Study of the Aboriginal sites in the Cessnock-Wollombi region of the Hunter Valley, NSW: Needham, W.J.
NZ Journal of History
Shipping Arrivals and Departures, 1826-1840:Ian Hawkins Nicholson
The Irish in Australia: Patrick O’Farrell
Raw Possum and Salted Pork, Major Mitchell and the Kamilaroi: M.J.O’Rourke
Village on the Wollombi, Millfield: W.S Parkes
Colonial Women: Their Stories, Costumes, Artefacts and Weapons: Edgar Penzig
My Australian Girlhood: Mrs Campbell Praed
Trans-Tasman Stories: Australian Aborigines in NZ sealing and shore Whaling: Nigel Prickett
Maoris of the South Island: T.A.Pybus
The Other Side of the Frontier: Henry Reynolds
Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land: Henry Reynolds
Murihiku Re-viewed: Rhys Richards
Whaling and Sealing at the Chatham Islands: Rhys Richards
The Squatting Age in Australia: Roberts, S.H.
A Million Wild Acres: Eric Rolls
An Organised Banditti: Colin Roope
Dingo Makes us Human: Deborah Bird Rose
William Stewart, Sealing Captain: John Ross
Royal Australian Historical Society Journal
The Genesis of Queensland: H.S.Russell
“A New Holland Half-Caste”: Tommy Chaseland, Diaspora, Autonomy and Hybridity: Lynette Russell
Little Bird Told Me: Family Secrets, Necessary Lies: Lynette Russell
Two Worlds: Anne Salmond
John Savage, An Account of NZ in 1805, ed, A.D.Mackinlay
Women and the Bush: Kay Shaffer
Making Colonial Costumes: Kerry Schaper
The Southern Districts of NZ: E.Shortland
NZ Sealing Industry: Ian W.G. Smith
John Grono, Our Old Colonial Neptune: Robert Taylor
The Wallabadah Manuscript, William Telfer, ed. Roger Milliss
The Story of NZ, 1859: Arthur S.Thomson
For Friends at Home: a Scottish Emigrant’s Letters: Thomson, James
Bring Plenty of Pickles: comp. Gerry Tomlinson
Visit to Wollombi and Cumnaroy performed in August 1827: facsimile edition
Australian Autobiographical Narratives: Kay Walsh and Joy Hooton
In/visible Sight: the Mixed-descent Families of Southern NZ: Angela Wanhalla
Carrabobbila: Sid J. Ware
Caledonia Australia: Scottish Highlanders on the Frontier of Australia: Don Watson
Titi Heritage: Eva Wilson
Down in the Valley: Settlement in the Hunter River Valley to 1833: W.A.Wood
Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms: G.A.Wilkes
George Rhodes of the Levels, Early Settlers of NZ:
Reminiscences of Bundarra: S.B. Young