History in Fiction, History as Fiction: Two Contemporary Novels and the Problems of the Australian Past
In 2008 two high profile mid-career Australian novelists published works of historical fiction. Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant and Richard Flanagan’s Wanting both fictionalise events and characters from Australia’s actual colonial past. In addition to their shared genre and subject matter the novels have other similarities. Both novels are concerned with ideas about writing and reading, sharing an interest in the creation of written texts. In fictionalising the creation of actual historical texts they destabilise the authority of written texts. This destabilisation creates a tension with the novels own use of the historical record as source material. Both novels engage with the history of white representations of indigenous peoples while also creating new representations themselves. The Lieutenant and Wanting have received significant critical attention from the popular media. This critical attention places the novels within current debates about Australia’s past and present. The novels arise from a specific context in post-colonising Australia and reflect current white liberal anxieties about the facts of the Australian past. Fiction is positioned as providing a new angle for tackling the “problem” of Australian history. Their fictional engagement with the actual past appears to provide a new method for examining Australia’s traumatic past, by offering an alternative for those readers fatigued by the heated political debates of the so-called History Wars. However, the novels do not ultimately suggest a hopeful new direction or resolution to these debates, instead they reflect back the stalled nature of the Australia’s public discourse around the facts and meanings of its contested past.