Fiction filling history's holes

15 July 2011

All history is in part fictional, engaging in leaps of interpretation and assumption that border - more or less - on fabrication, says 3MT finalist Jennifer Herbert.

Jennifer Herbert recently took part in the Three Minute Thesis competition for PhD students at Deakin. This is an edited version of her presentation.

All history is in part fictional, engaging in leaps of interpretation and assumption that border- more or less -on fabrication. Historiography is influenced by ideology, and constrained by its inaccessibility into the hearts and minds of protagonists.

By contrast, historical fiction unashamedly mines and manipulates the records and fills the gaps with imagination. Yet such freedom can lend history a richer and deeper meaning.

My thesis is a work of historical fiction based on the life of Alfred Howitt: 19th century Australian, autodidact and polymath who earned international recognition in anthropology, geology and botany. He was also the very capable explorer who discovered the fate of Burke and Wills.

My exegesis examines how the past is edited so that only some stories are told – Howitt is largely forgotten, Burke remains a hero – and how, therefore, national identity is built on flawed and incomplete foundations.

The scope of Howitt’s achievements allows me to interrogate quite broadly Australia in the late nineteenth century, when many of the keystones of national character were being laid. In doing this, I will demonstrate how his life challenges the assumptions of binary oppositions.

The problem with a dualist approach is that it privileges one half of the binary equation: usually the winners, the males, the whites; but also, post-colonially, the nonconformist, the insignificant, the defeated.

Peter Carey’s Lucinda is as constructed and atypical as The Man from Snowy River, whereas Howitt occupies a middle ground that, while no less fascinating, is rarely traversed.

By using him as my historical focus I can explore this neglected territory for perspectives which are more subtle and nuanced, more complex and contradictory, than those celebrated in the grand narrative of nation, or lamented in post-colonial discourse.

I will tell Howitt’s story from three angles:

There is the man we glimpse in his writing and biography. To these I will add imagined events and dialogue.

There is my narrator, who questions both Howitt’s accounts and the public records. She is, in a sense, the voice of my exegesis.

And there is me the writer, hidden from view, weaving together fact and fiction in ways that allow me to interpret the past more inclusively than history permits.

I anticipate that what I uncover will defend my argument that diversity and fluidity have always been at the heart of Australian identity.

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