Joan Makes History: Readers' Notes

 Introduction to 1992 Edition by Don Anderson

In my "Behind the Lines" column in the Books pages of the Sydney Morning Herald in March 1990 I fantasised that I had been summoned to recommend ten titles for the prime ministerial library at the Lodge [the Australian Prime Minister's official residence]. My list included the Annual Report of the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, the Judgments of Lionel Murphy, Henry Reynolds' The Law of the Land, and Kate Grenville's Joan Makes History. Why these titles? Because they are rewritings of dominant Australian narratives - our myths of economic good luck, of justice, of Aborigines and Europeans, and of women, respectively.

Of my Ten Little Australians, only Joan Makes History is a novel, yet it is in fiction that we often meet memorable subversions of dominant myths. Many of us had met Kate Grenville's Joan before, in her 1986 novel, Lilian's Story, itself a rewriting of legend. In that novel, Joan was Lilian's university friend, a tomboy, hoyden, larrikin. She did not impress Lilian's father: "A skinny sort of girl, he said, with not much in the way of womanly graces." Or a bust. In Joan Makes History, the patriarchal control implied by such a necessary standard of womanly graces is questioned again and again. We've also met Joan in another sense. Joan is an Australian Everywoman. To underscore this, Kate Grenville alternates chapters dealing with the twentieth-century Joan, born in the year of Federation, later to become Lilian's friend, later still a mother and a grandmother, with eleven "scenes" presenting as many Joans throughout Australia's brief European history, from Cook's voyages up to Federation, from 1770 to 1901.

This book, first published in 1988, was funded by the Australian Bicentennial Authority to celebrate 200 years of history. So, Joan "makes" - the verb is ambiguous - "history" her story. After all, "history" derives from the Greek "histor", wise man, or judge. So, Joan makes history by living and (re)inscribing it, and Kate Grenville rewrites it. With a novelist's fine disrespect for "facts", Kate Grenville has her Joan be, by turns: wife to Captain Cook; a female convict whose feet are the first white ones to land at Botany Bay in 1788; an Aborigine who encounters Bass and Flinders in 1795; a free settler in I839; a washerwoman during the gold rushes of 1851; a witness to the poisoning of Aborigines by emancipist farmers; an indolent and unfulfilled lady in 1855; an intrepid traveller on Cobb & Co.; a woman helping to photograph the Kelly family in 1878; a sufferer in the terrible Depression of the 1890s, but one who looks set to be painted into Frederick McCubbin's "On the Wallaby Track" (1986); a mayor's wife present at the opening of the Australian Parliament in 1901. And she is, of course, in alternate chapters, our twentieth-century Joan.
 
In an interview with Candida Baker, printed in Yacker 3: Australian Writers Talk About Their Work (Picador, 1989), Kate Grenville throws light on choices she made in creating Joan. "At another level, although Elizabeth Cook wasn't there [on board the Endeavour], women were actually on board those old ships much more often than you'd think. It seems they only get mentioned in the log books when they die . . . Which is exactly what Joan the book is about - to acknowledge the fact that they were there . . . I wrote the book for a reader ignorant of Australian history, but on the other hand I've tried to plant images that people might remember from their primary school Social Studies, so they can have that pleasure of recognising and remembering . . . A fictional story [has] its own compulsions . . . I know Joan in real history couldn't have stepped on a bicycle in 1870, but I needed Joan in fiction to do so."
 
Despite taking such fictional liberties with the brute facts of historical reality, Joan Makes History operates in a manner comparable to the French Annales school of historians (Femand Braudel, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby's A History of Private Life, for example). Like these scholars, Joan insists upon the importance of the so-called "trivia" of everyday life in the making and writing of history. So the 1851 Joan tells us that "women who wash other people's soiled garments learn a thing or two". The Joan of 1901, the mayor's wife, reflects or, can I say, rhapsodises: "I had made sheets of the cheapest unbleached calico, and made them last by turning sides to the middle, and had spent my evenings darning George's socks and turning his collars, and patching the children's clothes and running string along the inside of hems for when they needed letting down: I had grated up carrot to make cakes stick together when eggs had been scarce, and knew how to make scrag end into a good meal." Our twentieth-century Joan recognises the "ingenuity" of the women's work displayed at the Royal Agricultural Society Show, even if it is not for her: "serrated carrots, diamonds of sliced pale beans, onions and purple cabbage all packed like jewels in gleaming jars". These passages are the New Australian Poetry, the "poetry of pure fact", as the American Ronald Sukenick calls it in his story, "The Birds".
 
Such facts of existence are not to be demeaned. As Kate Grenville wrote in an unpublished letter: "Women are Joan's main interest because she is one: she (and her maker) believe that women ought to be truly free (which they still aren't) to choose any life-stories they wish for themselves. And if they choose the life-story so many women do, of domesticity, motherhood, etc., then that work should be valued and honoured, not belittled and trivialised." I believe that Kate Grenville would sympathise with Helen Garner, who said of The Children's Bach (1985): "I think most important things happen in societies that aren't actually in a state of war, but even in those that are, the most important things happen in kitchens and bedrooms."
And at the writer's desk, surely. For we need to attend to the intimacies of Kate Grenville's sentences in order to attune ourselves to her radical revisions. Many women believe that language itself is a masculinist construct, a tool of patriarchal oppression. Thus such clichéd locutions, used (unconsciously?) by Joan, as "birth of a nation", "mother country", are ideologically loaded, but not as loaded as the commonplace that explorers (male to a man) "penetrated the country". Is Joan unconscious of her linguistic ironies? (Grenville, of course, is not.) When Joan speaks of her conception, she does so in these terms: "It was an episode appropriate to such a significant moment: . . . my father groaned and my mother wept with the storms of pleasure he gave her." (Emphasis added.) Does Joan know that she is not merely echoing, but inverting, the opening lines of William Blake's "Infant Sorrow", one of his Songs Of Experience?
 
My mother groan'd, my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud:
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
 
Blake's poem was published within a decade of 1789, the momentous year of the French Revolution. Joan's inversion of Blake is no less revolutionary an act, as she is appropriating history, and literature. Thus the washerwoman Joan, in 1851, washes the linen of the onanistic Mr Knightley, who shares his name with the hero of Jane Austen's Emma (1814-16). But Joan's antipodean Mr Knightley is nothing like Austen's. It is significant that not only is the convict Joan the first European to set foot on Australian soil, but that she can boast: "mine was also the first foreign laugh to sound out, sharp and rude, across the waters of Botany Bay". And what is more subversive than laughter, which signifies "the world turned upside down", the antipodes, the ironies, of radical rewritings? Which is why Joan Makes History is written in the spirit of comedy.
 
I admire the intellectual toughness of Kate Grenville's ironies, of her making of (fictional) history, her refusal to gloss over the facts. And the facts are that women have, in our history as in our histories, been marginalised, bit-players on the stage of men's dramas, domestics, vapid ladies, waitresses, and mothers. Kate Grenville and her twentieth-century Joan recognise the inevitability of what Ernest Hemingway called "the biological trap". "I was, " Joan muses, "a prisoner of the tadpole inside me." Yet Grenville told Candida Baker that "having a child made me feel part of history, the kind of history that is an interlocking series of births and deaths". Unlike Hemingway, Joan and Kate Grenville do not accept that biology is a trap.
 
One of the challenges of Joan Makes History is that one must resist the temptation to say its various Joans do not make history, and claim rather they exemplify "biology is destiny", and are the victims of a material determinism. Both the Joan of 1901 (the mayor's wife) and the Joan born in 1901 (the Joan of the alternate, twentieth-century chapters) happily embrace marriage, domesticity, motherhood, and being a grandmother. But this does not contradict the novel's title; rather, it is true to history, to many women's history. I conjecture that Joan, born in 1901, "weary and old now, pushing a squeaking pram and considering my life . . . hav[ing] made history", is doing so, in the novel's final paragraphs, in January 1950. That fits the novel's chronologies. In October 1950, Kate Grenville was born. In 1956, the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published; in 1970, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch appeared; in 1975 Anne Summers' Damned Whores and God's Police was published. Kate Grenville, author of Joan Makes History, has lived through a revolution of consciousness unavailable to all her Joans. May I humbly suggest that the tertiary-educated, liberated, feminist Kate Grenville is the contemporary Joan, heir to all those earlier Joans, and that she, in writing this book, makes history.
 

Don Anderson
The University of Sydney
October 1992

Back to top