Embroiled as I've been in trying to do justice to the life story of the botanical artist Margaret Flockton, I took time out recently to read another radically-different approach to telling a family saga. This was Brenda Niall’s excellent book True North, the story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack and a far cry from Jill Ker Conway’s autobiographical book of the same title. The Niall book is an inspirational read, invoking the spirit of place and personal connectedness in a masterful fashion.
A Niall strength as a biographical writer is in carrying the narrative cohesively and at the right pace. However the book lacks one essential feature, a map, which would have made the narrative far more understandable.
The subjects of this book – a writer and an artist from a pioneering family - interested me but when I started reading I knew little about the Durack sisters, other than their name. By the end of the book I had fully engaged with their struggles in all aspects of their life as women and as participants in this Kimberley chapter of the tragic overall story of the aborigines.
‘The Kimberley’ looms large in my imagination for my own family history reasons – my great grandfather was among a group of Victorians who tried to settle the Camden Harbour region in the mid 1860s, but after his wife and child died there, along with other members of the group, and most of their animals, the government closed down the settlement and moved the survivors to Roebourne. My great grandfather returned to Victoria with his other four young children. I dream of seeing that part of Australia for myself, one day.
Nearly every book I pick up contains something of interest to a family history writer such as myself. Niall’s book did not disappoint: she reviewed the issues faced by Mary Durack in writing her classic Kings in Grass Castles. Mary grappled with some of the fundamental questions every family history writer has to address:
- Where to start
- When to stop
- How to use ‘family documents with empathy and imagination’. Faced with so much effort by her forebears for so little reward, Mary began her task ‘with a strong sense of loss’, and worked back ‘to see what combination of personalities, desires and opportunities had brought about such an ambivalent result.’
- How to assemble the characters. The resulting array in Mary’s book showed ‘the novelistic skills that separate Kings in Grass Castles from most pioneering chronicles’.
- Clarity. ‘The clarity of Mary’s writing was tested by the need to sort out members of several intermarrying families who shared the same baptismal names.’
- Voice. Mary had letters and diaries to give her the sense of individual voices. Using the insight these provided, she allowed herself to invent dialogue … If she had taken herself more seriously as a historian Mary might have hesitated to claim this freedom.
Mary’s efforts were rewarded in a way most writers, in any genre, can only dream about:
Kings in Grass Castles was published in 1959 and was an immediate and brilliant success. Instead of attracting only the local and limited interest of most family histories, its first edition sold out within a few weeks. By 1985 it had been reprinted eight times and has never been out of print since. Reviewers recognised it as something remarkable: a scholarly work that could be read like a novel.
Noting Brenda Niall’s ability to skim over the tedious ‘facts’ of a family history so effortlessly, I revisited A Fragrant Memory, culled even more material and looked for opportunities for further enlivenment. But, oh, how I envy the reams of documentary evidence, in the form of personal letters and diaries, available to Niall. My forthcoming book about Margaret Flockton is said to be an engaging portrait of her, despite the gaps in the written record of her life.