Kate Grenville

Presented By Maryliz Quigley to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club

November 2, 2021

Kate Grenville was born in Sydney in 1950. Her father was a barrister, judge and her mother a pharmacist.  In the biography of her mother, One Life, she  talks about the support of her mother in her becoming a writer and amongst other published writers, she credits Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Patrick White, an Australian Nobel Prize winner for Literature as being influential.

 Kate earned a BA in English literature from the University of Sydney.  She then started work as a film editor and script consultant.  She subsequently travelled to Paris and London on a working holiday.   She pursued a Master’s degree from the University of Colorado and then returned to Australia in 1983. Her first book, written in 1984, entitled Bearded Ladies is a collection of short stories that explores gender, power and Australian identity.  She subsequently published Lillian’s Story, which won the Australian/Vogel literary award ( a prestigious and valuable prize for writers under 35) and was made into a movie with Toni Colette.  This was followed by Dreamhouse and Joan Makes History in 1988.  She then turned to publish books about the craft of writing.  She returned to fiction with The Idea of Perfection for which she won Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction, now the Women’s Prize.  Amongst other themes, this novel explores issues facing contemporary rural Australia.  It instantly became a best seller. The book for which she is best known is The Secret River published in 2005 .  She won the Commonwealth’s Writer’s Prize and was short listed for both the Man Booker Prize  and Miles Franklin award for it.  Two other  novels quickly followed which continue the trilogy, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill. 

In 2006 she received a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University  of Sydney and an Honorary  Doctorate  of  letters from the University of Sydney , the University of New South Wales and Macquarie University . In 2017 she was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Australia Council and in 2018 named an Officer of the Order of Australia .  She currently resides in Melbourne.

The four novels discussed,  The Secret River, The Lieutenant,  Sarah Thornhill , and A Room Made of Leaves are all set during the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the early days of the colony of Sydney Cove.

One of the ideas which is always at the forefront of Kate Grenville’s works is the interpretation of historical fiction vs history. Kate lends an emotional component to the mere recording of historical facts and makes the history more accessible to us, the readers.  She states, “fiction’s job is to frame questions in new ways and to invite engagement, not answer or settle them.”

So much has been written about Kate Grenville.  I read several academic journals, book reviews (courtesy of Calgary Public Library’s databases), posts and listened to podcasts.  A few major themes stand out.  Colonization, mistreatment of Aboriginals, class system , loss of many kinds, the significance of owning land , gender, and importance  of writing historical fiction.  I had the unique opportunity to communicate with Kate and she shared many insights surrounding these themes.

The similarities between our two countries is quite fascinating especially at this juncture in time.  Her works are insightful, sensitively written and thought provoking.   In all of her works she sees, “ the shape of the land, the place itself, and the spirit of the people who were here. “