The relationship between fiction and history

Why historical fiction captures our malleable identities

Essay, 2009

17 Pages, Grade: 1.1


The relationship between fiction and history has recently been a much debated topic in Australian culture. The essay discusses the role of history in three Australian novels by David Malouf, David Brooks and James Bradley and investigates how important the historical is to the fictional – and vice versa.

“The flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep”, wrote American novelist and literary critic Henry James in 1879 and argued that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.[1] I have thought about this a lot since arriving in Australia four years ago. Viewed from the Western civilisation paradigm, this is a very young country and according to the above euphemism, any of its cultural effusions, including its literature, are easily dismissible as somewhat inferior to what is produced in a more ‘mature’ cultural context. Such a notion is of course vastly inadequate and at best outdated. Each culture reflects a unique set of attitudes, values and practices, shaped by a particular environment and therefore exists in its own right. True, Australians may still be in the process of forming a comprehensive explanation of their historical experience, and there is much to answer for. But localised literary voices are valid independently of overarching metanarratives through which certain versions of “truth” become legitimised.

For me, as a German, literature, history and memory have always been inextricably linked, if not bound, to each other. In Germany, contemporary fiction has played an instrumental role in the processes of coming to terms with a past of which the first post-war generation would not/could not speak and of which the second generation sought to find some release by castigating their parents. The same past was recast by my generation into the cultural phenomenon of the self-flagellating anti-German German who rejects any notions of national identity as fundamentally flawed.

Our past was, so to speak, force fed to us through our national literature and we habitually sought refuge from our historic demons – and relief – in fiction that did not originate in the fatherland and which carried a different kind of weight. There is no question that Germany has produced some great and important contemporary writers. Nevertheless, with time, I have become wary of the totalising nature of grand narratives which the discourses around German literature attempt to construct – discourses about how the past should or should not be represented.

In Australia too, the relationship between fiction and history has become subject to much debate. In articulating certain readings and interpretations of the past, literature creates influential narratives, which are used as resources for the construction of coherence and meaning and thus relate back to questions of national identity. The reason why Kate Grenville’s Secret River could develop such political momentum, is because there is, as of yet, no real public consensus on whether Australia was settled peacefully or whether the crimes committed against Aboriginal Australians ought to be acknowledged as systematic violence and genocide.

The controversy around “appropriation” and “distortion” of historical truth in fiction is addressed by Brian Matthews in his chapter on “the intersections of history and fiction” as part of the recently published Cambridge History of Australian Literature.[2] Here, Matthews justifies the interpenetration of history and fiction by analysing some of Australia’s classic texts, and shows how argument can work with and through a diverse range of literary texts.[3]

Some commentators have referred to Australia’s preoccupation with identity as a national obsession. According to David Malouf, Australia is “endlessly fussing and fretting over identity” and Les Murray diagnosed a fixation, which “cripples the spiritual energies” of Australian writing.[4] In his work Inventing Australia, historian Richard White argues that the country has long supported “a whole industry of image-makers to tell us what we are.”[5] He points out that historians, too, who derive legitimacy from an assumed objectivity and scientific neutrality, are just as much products of their times and subject to their own biases and preconceptions. In short, any national identity is an intellectual construct and as such not only malleable, but reflective of particular sentiments and needs at the time of their construction.

This essay will examine contemporary Australian writing in relation to history by taking a closer look at the works of three notable Australian authors: Ransom by David Malouf, The Umbrella Club by David Brooks and The Resurrectionist by James Bradley. The article will follow a threefold approach to history as a basis for narrative. It will first establish the concept of history used and point to questions of interpretative relativism. From there it will investigate how each author has made creative use of historical material. Finally it will link back to the current Australian literary debate by discussing in how far these works are relevant to the debate and whether and to what extent they describe a national narrative.

The article’s main premise is based on constructivist epistemology and argues that there is not just one history, but many diverse histories. In disassembling the certitude that once informed history as an academic discipline, and the instructional message on which ideology is based[6], the article poses a number of important questions as to the relationship between truth and power.

While none of the works to be discussed, directly deal with the settlement processes, interpretative relativism in history and literature, is best exemplified by the so called History Wars. In Australia, the absence of what is generally understood to constitute the foundation of national identity – common descent, language, culture and religion – has led to bitter controversy over the story and character of the nation as the basis of an overarching Australian identity. The struggle over who can determine the historical truth about the nature of colonisation still finds a ready outlet across the media, disclosing a popular need for a “coming to terms with the past”.

While some historians apply a “history from below” approach and seek to include those previously excluded from the historical record by taking into account oral tradition for example, the conservative conception of history extols an authoritative account of decision-making by relying on official documents. Opinion formers disposed to the latter, among them former Prime Minister John Howard, readily criticise historians who practice the former, for prescribing to a “black armband” view of history, thus contributing to national denigration and the break-down of unity by questioning the “calibre of the civilisation Britain brought to these shores in 1788”[7]. In return they are accused of denialism and romanticising the past with the ambition of bringing back the concept of terra nullius.[8]


[1] Henry James & James Edwin Miller, Theory of fiction: Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 1972, p.48.

[2] Brian Matthews, ‘Riding on the ‘uncurl’d clouds’: The intersections of history and fiction’ in The

Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Camebridge University Press, 2009.

[3] Shirley Walker, ‘An escape from the timeless land’, Spectrum, 7-8 November 2009, Sydney.

[4] Miriam Dixson, The imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and identity, 1788 to the present, UNSW Press, 1999, p.18.

[5] Richard White, Inventing Australia: images and identity, 1688–1980, p.viii

[6] Marilynn Mawkins, ‘Denis Hlynka’s “Postmodernism and Poststructural Theory”’, retrieved from <>, p. 1.

[7] Keith Windshuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History , Volume One, 2nd ed , p.3.

[8] Henry Reynolds, ‘Terra Nullius Reborn’, Whitewash, p.109.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The relationship between fiction and history
Why historical fiction captures our malleable identities
The University of Sydney
Fiction Writers at Work
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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473 KB
historical fiction, David Malouf, James Bradley, David Brooks, Australian literature, metanarratives in literature, Ransom, interpretative relativism in literature
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Susanne Gierds (Author), 2009, The relationship between fiction and history, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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