Is there any such monster as the historical novel, that grand bastard of forms in which two disciplines are yoked by violence together?
The inhabitants of the noval per se enjoy a dense, confused life in the present, as we all do, with no clear notion of the larger events of which they are units. History, on the other hand, is a tin thread raveled out of this material. It leads from past to future, and in concerning itself with another tense, betrays the richness and confusion of what is present. It chooses only what did not get lost. The novel, one wants to affirm, is a celebration of just those areas of our lives that history has no use for, the irrelevant, easily lost things to which we are largely devoted.
The best Australian historical novels, and I am thinking now of Patrick White's "Voss" and "A Fringe of Leaves," and Thomas Keneally's 'Bring Larks and Heroes," which cover some of the same material as "Southern Cross," follow the inner lives of their characters and let events take care of themselves. How else can the writer proceed without betraying either the lovely, irrelevant intensity of life as it is lived or those complex forces [the historian's concern] that go to create 'history'; without, that is, being false to both categories?
Terry Coleman solves these problems by ignoring them. He has, the blurb tells us, traveled to 46 countries. After his second visit to Australia "a history of Australia was proposed to me, but I doubted whether I should dare undertake the history of a continent that has been and is blessed with fine historians It was then that Rosalie Swedlin told me to write it as a noval." Simple as that.
"Southern Cross" is a family saga. It's heronie, the imaginary daughter of Governor King, has an affair with a real French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, in 1802, manages to occupy Government House through several following governorship, has one illegitimate and one legitimate son, who take up opposing sides in Australian History, and lives to see the goldfields rebellion at Ballarat in 1859 that Australians revere as the Eureka Stockade. A secondary plot is provided by the adventures of a bishop's cloak, stolen before the noval begins, passed from hand to hand, and appearing at the stockade as the Eureka flag.
The history of Australia, from the despair of its origins as a dumping ground for convicts through the emergence of democratic ideals, to their slow erosion under personal and corporate interests, is a tragic and unique story. The characters in Coleman's highly colored melodrama illustrate its broad movements, but do not live through them. The narrative is dense with undigested facts and explanations for those for whom Australia is "terra incognita."
Only locals, I suppose, will recognize some of the larger liberties that are being taken. But it is a little hard to have legendary outlaw Ned Kelly's last words at his hanging, the ironic "Such is life," attributed to a supernumerary convict, and harder still to find former prime minister Gough Whitlam's impromptu explosion when his government was dismissed, on Nov. 11, 1975, "God may save the Queen but on one will save the Governor-General" in the mouth of a German on the eve of the Stockade rebellion. It isn't Coleman's tamperings with the truth that matter but how little use he makes of them. That Australia should derive its name from a real explorer's excursions into the southern parts of an imaginary lady has distinct possiblities for satirical fantasy, in the manner, say, of Carlos Fuentes. Coleman7s account remains on the level of magazine "rmance."
"Southern Cross" ends in 1859, but the author's desire to get everything in, including Ned Kelly and Gough Whitlam, allows for a mention of Dame Nellie Melba and a distant prospect, even, of the Sydney Opera House.
But it's that bishop's cloak I find it hardest to accept. Recent events in Australia have made the Eureka flag a rally-point for deep republican feelings. Few Australians, who are happy enough to think of the flag's being made of a petticoat, will rejoice at is being given the spurious glory of an ecclesiastical cover-up. Australians are together too secular and unromatic. It is a deficiency that Coleman's novel [since authors prefer us to be better than we are] seems determined to make good.