Origins of the Historical Novel

tropic of cancerI find it fascinating that the two top-ranked white men who, in 1824, established the first settlement at Red Cliff Point in what would become Queensland, bear the names of literary giants. Commandant Henry Miller evokes the American novelist who shocked the world with Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn in the 1930s. The sexually explicit novels were banned for thirty years in the United States. Miller’s work was dubbed “fictionalised autobiography” as much of the content reflects the author’s life. Surgeon/storekeeper Walter Scott, second-in-command at Red Cliff, lived at the same time as his namesake who became famous for his poetry then his novels such as Waverley and Ivanhoe. This reminded me of the following article about the origins of the historical novel, which I wrote for my PhD thesis but did not use; I talk about Scott here towards the end.

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (eighth century BC) were the first written narratives in Western culture and marked the transition from the oral epic to literary forms from which would ultimately stem the novel. In these works, fact and fiction blend in a marriage of history and myth passed on down through the ages. From these common beginnings factual and fictional writing emerged into separate forms before eventually coming together again in the novel.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

Factual and fictional writing began going their separate ways in the fifth century BC with Herodotus’s account of the Greco-Persian wars in The Histories. The separation is complete with the empirical writings of Thucydides whose rationalism was not to be equalled until the seventeenth century. The fourth century BC was critical in the development of the historical novel. In his Cyropedia, historian Xenophon mixes fact and fiction in his depiction of Cyrus the Great, a historical figure.

Some scholars argue that Roman literary theory put a deliberate end to the development of the historical narrative as a form of literature. Empiricists insisted on facts and objectivity to the detriment of a narrative based in reality; as a result historical writing became a dry affair with little attraction for the lay person. However, fiction continued to develop in the form of the Greek romance. Marked by a highly stylised plot and little attention to history, the romance became popular throughout the Mediterranean region, and later had a significant influence on the development of the novel.

The dominant literary texts throughout the Middle Ages were religious while secular writers concentrated on poetry, drama and especially allegory. It suffices here to mention such important works as the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the French classic La Chanson de Roland and the Icelandic family sagas among many others. The thirteenth century Icelandic sagas are important because they are a marriage of history and romance and therefore a precursor to the novel.

A work that did have a significant impact on the later development of the historical novel in Europe was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605). The story is about a deluded landowner who sets out as a knight on a quest to rescue a maiden in distress. In his insanity, Don Quixote sees windmills as attacking knights and a donkey as a warhorse. Perhaps most importantly, Don Quixote popularised prose writing from which the novel subsequently evolved.

 The first Encrusoeglish novels, for example Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), differed from the allegory or romance by accentuating realism and the development of character in a social context. The latter half of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of the Gothic novel which is often set in the Middle Ages and deals with horror, mystery and terror in a dark form of historical fiction. One example is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, often considered to be the first of the genre; the novel is presented as a translation of ancient texts, a real archival document in its own right. The aim of the Gothic novel is to use our preconceptions of what was supposedly a terrifying era as the stage on which indescribable horrors can manifest to terrorise our modern sensitivities.

The historical novel had its origins in ancient times and continued to develop through the ages, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it became established as a popular genre. Most critics regard Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (published anonymousWaverley - Walter Scottly in 1814) as the earliest example of the historical novel, to a large part due to its widespread popularity and ensuing influence on the novel form. This work of fiction was based on in-depth research that Scott included as notes covering ballads, poetry, culture, politics, historical events and more.

Andrew Hook, in the introduction to the 1972 edition of Waverley, claims the book and later works by Scott played a crucial role in establishing the novel as the predominant form of Western narrative literature for the last 200 years. Scott’s novels had an unprecedented influence on Western readers that has not been seen since. Driven by a renewed interest in the customs, characters and cultures of the past and new technology in printing, the public consumed Scott’s historical fiction with a fervour hard to imagine in today’s society. Hook argues that Scott’s work saw the birth of the historical novel as a new literary genre which rapidly claimed a place as one of the most popular forms of the novel.

Waverley’s perceived authenticity and writing style revolutionised the novel’s image, gaining it much authority and reputation. Waverley also had a significant influence on the way the world saw Scotland. Scott’s depiction of Scotland’s history, its culture and people, inflamed the imagination of his readers to the point that it became increasingly recognised as a land of romance and adventure.




The Naming of Brisbane



In mid-September 1824 the government brig Amity sailed into Moreton Bay and deposited Lieutenant Henry Miller at Red Cliff Point on the peninsula opposite Moreton Island. He was accompanied by his pregnant wife and children, surgeon/storekeeper Walter Scott as well as twenty soldiers, their families and twenty-nine convicts.

Tents were erected, supplies off-loaded from the Amity, and the convicts were put to work felling timber, cutting slabs, gathering grass for thatch, making bricks and building the Commandant’s prefabricated house. All of this under the watchful eyes of the Ningi Ningi people who inhabited the peninsula and wondered what was going on. Were these white invaders magui, the returned spirits of ancestors, good and bad, who had come back from some far off place?

The settlers were plagued with illness, lack of medical supplies, a failed attempt at growing vegetables; the eight or ten sheep they had brought with them had disappeared never to be seen again. The relationship with the Ningi Ningi soured when a soldier shot and killed one of the tribe at Yebri Creek, which flows into the North Pine River near Petrie. A number of convicts were speared in revenge. Progress was slow under the scorching sun of summer.

Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane decided to move the settlement to a site on the Brisbane River chosen by surveyor-general John Oxley and named Breakfast Creek. When a passage into the bay was found between Moreton and Stradbroke Islands, Red Cliff became redundant as it would no longer be on the direct route to the Brisbane River.

Commandant Miller made the move in May/June 1825, not to Breakfast Creek, but to a site further up the river to where the CBD stands today. The Turrbal people, who lived on the north bank, called the neck of land jutting into the river meanjin, meaning in the shape of a spike. Governor Brisbane asked his friend Chief Justice Forbes to suggest a name for the place and he chose Edinglassie after his ancestral estates near Aberdeen in Scotland. Popular belief has the name originating from a combination of Edinburgh and Glasgow but this has been challenged by researchers who state that it comes from old Scottish “Eudan-glasaich” (phonetically spelt) which means “hill face of the pasture” or “leyland” (fallow land). In any case, no one liked the name and it was soon changed to Brisbane Town in honour of the Governor.

Book Cover

I came to writing late and it took a five-day intensive workshop in a beautiful remote setting in the south of France to unlock the shackles and to let the words find their way onto the page. I started out with poetry, then moved to non-fiction and most recently my first novel Turrwan, set in and around Brisbane in the nineteenth century.

Brisbane 1855 river martens

While researching a cover for my novel I discovered some of Australia’s early artists including Conrad Martens and his ‘Brisbane 1855’ above. If you happen to be in Brisbane you could check his work out at ‘Transparent: Watercolour in Queensland 1850s – 1980s’ which is on at the Qld Art Gallery until 20 July 2014. Martens was an English-born landscape artist who sailed with Charles Darwin on the second voyage of HMS Beagle along the South American coast towards the end of 1833. He sailed to Sydney via Tahiti in 1835. After initial success his fortunes were hampered by economical downturn in the colony due to drought. He came to Brisbane in 1851 then eventually travelled back to Sydney via the Darling Downs, staying with squatters and pastoralists along the way.

In the end I decided I needed a picture that reflected more of the central theme of the book, that is, the conflict between black and white on the colonial frontier. The image I finally chose is a detail from ‘Attack on a Settler’s Hut’ which appeared as a plate in James Bonwick’s The Last of the Tasmanians (1870); however, it is not known whether Bonwick was the artist or not.

Attack on a Settler's Hut

Attack on a Settler’s Hut

Although the action in the image is set in Tasmania and not Queensland I thought it was an appropriate reflection of the conflict of the time. It also has some similarities to a scene in Turrwan.