Readers and writers of historical fiction will enjoy today’s post by Canberra-based writer and ANU academic, Alison Booth.
Alison talks about the evolution of her novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, about why she chose to tell it from dual viewpoints and why she prefers one of her characters to the other. She also includes a bit of Australian history so you might learn something new—as I did!
Please read on!
Alison was born in Melbourne, brought up in Sydney, lived for many years in the UK, and now calls Canberra home. Her books include the contemporary fiction novel, A Perfect Marriage, and three historical novels, Stillwater Creek, The Indigo Sky, and A Distant Land. Her work has been translated into French and published by Reader’s Digest Select Editions in Asia and Europe. Stillwater Creek was Highly Commended in the 2011 ACT Book of the Year Award and A Perfect Marriage was Highly Commended in the 2019 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards.
A Tale of Two Very Different Sisters
The Northern Territory has held a particular attraction for me for many years. It began with my father’s reminiscences of the time he spent there as a young man, an experience that inspired his novel Up the Dusty Track, published by what was then the NTU Press.
I visited the Northern Territory for the first time in 2002 for the Darwin launch of his novel and not only fell in love with the Territory landscape, but also witnessed a casual racism I found shocking. I wanted to write about it at the time, but it took me years to work out how to do it – and years of research, too.
Right from the outset I knew the story had to be historical and, several years after the first of many visits to Darwin, I had an idea that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I imagined 1890s London and two strong young women, the daughters of a widowed moral philosopher. Someone like John Stuart Mill, a great advocate for the emancipation of women, someone who gave the girls a relatively modern upbringing.
I decided to alter the sisters’ circumstances so they independently choose to journey to remote and wild northern Australia. The course of the younger sister’s life is changed by marriage, while the older sister is devastated by the death of the father to whom she was so attached, and she follows her sister and brother-in-law to the colonies. What might happen to the sisters in Australia? How might they see life at the ‘frontier’ when confronted with the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population? How would their characters develop as they faced danger?
The second half of my new novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, is set in the mid-1890s and mostly takes place in the Northern Territory of South Australia*. Together with the north of Western Australia, this was one of the last areas of the continent to be appropriated by European colonisers. At that time and in that part of Australia, colonial massacres of Indigenous people were still taking place, largely over the establishment of the cattle industry, although they weren’t publicly recognised as colonial massacres back then. Indeed, only relatively recently has the full extent of the massacres been publicly and systematically documented, despite much of it being readily available in journal entries and newspaper reports from the period.
I wrote The Philosopher’s Daughters from the viewpoints of each of the two sisters, Harriet and Sarah. It has long fascinated me how children are shaped by their parents’ attitudes and beliefs, and the closer a child is to a parent, the harder it is for them to become independent and develop in their own right. In The Philosopher’s Daughters, this is the burden carried by Harriet Cameron, the older of the two daughters.
I tell the story from the viewpoints of each of the sisters, as they observe the same events differently. The dual viewpoints thereby give the reader a more nuanced perspective.
The two sisters in the novel are very different characters and, while I felt close to them both when writing their stories, I found Harriet more challenging to write. She’s pulled in two different directions: between heart and head, between her artistic talents and the logic she’s inherited from her father. It took me a while to work out the choices she might make and what her future might bring, and it takes her some time – and the journey to Australia – to learn who she is and to slough off her father’s expectations about what she should do with her life.
Sarah, the younger sister, was far easier to write. In fact, she more or less wrote herself; she appeared in my head fully formed, jumped onto the page and proceeded to tell her own story.
When researching the novel, I was aware of how much we rely upon the words of others for our history, and that significant stories are missing. Typically, it’s the stories of those who held so little power at the time: the women and, of course, the Indigenous custodians of the land.
* The Northern Territory was part of South Australia until after Federation, and it was known as the Northern Territory of South Australia in the 1890s. The Northern Territory was originally part of New South Wales until ceded to South Australia in 1863, and then to the Commonwealth in 1911.
Alison has kindly donated a copy of her book, The Philosopher’s Daughters, to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on any of the blog or social media posts. Your comment can be about anything—why you’d like to win a copy of Alison’s book, researching and writing historical fiction, or anything at all this post has brought to mind.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 9th July, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.