Peter Cochrane and the writing of narrative history

I’d only read about three pages of Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition before I realized that I was reading a very different Australian colonial history than I am accustomed to reading.  Why is this? I wonder.  It’s not that I eschew narrative history: in fact, I seek it out when I’m reading in an area that is not particularly familiar to me, and I enjoy it.  I’ve read quite a few Simon Schama books:  his History of Britain series to support the television documentary, Rough Crossings and Rembrandt’s Eyes.   I loved Orlando Figes’ works on Russia  Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy ,   or Nathanial Philbrick’s Mayflower.  I’m drawn to biographies ,and especially group biographies which have a strong narrative thread, for example Louis Menard’s The Metaphysical Club or Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder.  I enjoy Peter Ackroyd’s border-crossing as, for example, in London: The Biography.   I encountered most of these books through online book clubs that I belong to ( for example Yahoo’s All NonFiction group) and I guess there’s part of my answer:  such groups gravitate towards best-sellers, and best-sellers tend to be narrative histories.

And yet, for Australian history, I tend to steer clear.  I have four Manning Clark volumes on my shelf and am daunted by them.  I have Michael Cathcart’s abridgement but, perversely,  haven’t read it because I feel I would be cheating.  I am wary (perhaps without justification?) of Thomas Keneally’s Commonwealth of Thieves or Australians: Origins to Eureka, even though I’ve enjoyed several of his fictional works set in colonial times.   Alan Atkinson’s The Europeans in Australia is right at the top of the list- particularly because am I grappling with another library patron with holds and recalls over Volume 2 which is nigh on impossible to buy-  but I haven’t started it yet.  I notice that these are all very long works: perhaps narrative history requires length in order to unspool character and chronology?

As Peter Cochrane himself explains in his essay Peter Cochrane “Stories from the dustbinGriffith Review, 19, Autumn 2008 (Full text available here), academic historians tend to distance themselves from narrative history, characterizing it as “dumbed down, simple storytelling, the business of amateurs, a trick, sub-history- myth even.” (p. 71).  He cites John Hirst (who contributed a blurb to the back cover) who, in an essay about his own attempt to write an “official history” of Australia for John Howard’s government, described narrative histories as ” a standing temptation to evasion” that avoids big questions. And yet, as Don Watson has noted “history is nothing less than the whole human drama and it is pretty well anything we want it to be” (cited in Griffith Article on p. 71)

Cochrane picks up on the theme of “human drama” and in his essay explains his choice of Wentworth as “leading man”.   And yet, as he explains:

Colonial Ambition is not a biography. It is political history written as narrative.  The story turns like a double helix winding through the book, political history curving into and around the biographical thread of Wentworth and his family, a thread that gets thicker as we go, knitting in other key players in Sydney and London: Henry Parkes, Sir George Gipps, Earl Grey, Robert Lowe, Charles Cowper, Herman Merivale, Lord John Russell at the Colonial Office, and numerous others including the women whose political influence was a much neglected and elusive part of the story (Griffith article p. 74)

I was interested in the way that, structurally, he used the Wentworth character.  The book starts and ends with him.  In the opening pages we have Wentworth in an uncharacteristically humble speech, apologizing to the Legislative Council for his bad language and the “flood of lava” that bubbles up out of him him,   and intimating that he would soon be leaving Australia.  This speech re-appears much later, on p392, and as a reader I experienced that deeply-satisfying ‘aha’ moment when, like a kaleidescope, a pattern falls into place.  The book closes with Wentworth too, but in juxtaposition to the very public opening speech, we end with an intimate family communication between the father and his physically close but unwillingly estranged daughter.  My favourite part of the book- the section that made me think “Gee, he’s doing this well” – was when he reported on political changes taking part in Australia from the distant perspective of Wentworth over in England.  This view with the telescope, instead of the magnifying glass, allowed Cochrane to maintain the metropolitan and colonial perspectives at the same time and enabled him to stride quickly over events that would have bogged him down had he located the narrative back in New South Wales.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s movement in the narrative that is the problem, and Cochrane has obviously worked hard on achieving this:

The emphasis here is on the movement of the story.  How should it- how can it- move? Narrative movement is a bit like tacking on a yacht- the line is constantly shifting while moving forward, zigzagging from one location to another, from one debate to another, from drama here and drama there.” (p. 77)

I enjoyed the shift from location to location, but at times felt a little uncomfortable with the heightened sense of drama that pervaded the book.  In examining the various sides of a debate, Cochrane took pains to describe the motivations and passions lying behind the individuals’ differing stances, but such an approach intimated that titanic political and personal struggles underpinned all such debates.  This fevered atmosphere can become breathless, particularly when sustained over such a long book.  I found myself yearning for the prosaic and everyday, half-hearted politicking just for the sake of it, without such crucial issues at stake.  And after arousing and keeping the reader at such a pitch of expectation for over 500 pages, the denouement, when it comes, is drawn-out and rather disappointing in comparison.

But movement also occurs, Cochrane writes, through the dialogue between historian and historical documents.

The narrative historian has to wrestle with the literary dimension as well as the problem of how the past has been defined, interpreted, ignored or mischaracterized by other historians.  And that engagement has to be immersed or infiltrated into the story without getting in the way of the story.  In narrative it is argument by stealth… Analysis may be unobtrusive but it is, or should be, present at all levels. ..But this does not mean that historiographic concerns are neglected.  On the contrary, they become part of the story only occasionally removed to a footnote- the manuscript that routinely exiles historiographical concerns to the footnotes is likely to be a vacuous and probably a tortured text.” (p. 79, 80)

Cochrane does engage with other historians- in particular John Hirst and Ged Martin- but much of the detailed by-play takes place in the footnotes.  However, in the text itself, as a reader you are aware when Cochrane is planting his feet in the narrative as a historian and taking a stand.  It’s not a combative or dismissive stance,  but you’re aware that you’re reading a historian with his work-apron on.

Historian, and writer too.  There’s some crystalline phrases here: the “dialogue of echoes” in the months-long communication lag between the Colonial Office and New South Wales (Colonial Ambition p.204); his description of Parker’s impotent ministry shuffling on “like a man who could not get out of his slippers” (Colonial Ambition p. 459).

There’s much here that appeals to me: the emphasis on personality; the concept of life trajectory with its own timelines and chronology; the dual focus of empire-wide events and perceptions and the grounding in physical and social locations.  Ah- but he’s been given the luxury of 500 pages: I have 70,000- 100,00 words.  He has Melbourne University Press: I have a couple of thesis examiners.  Sigh.

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One response to “Peter Cochrane and the writing of narrative history

  1. This is a most enjoyable post to read, Janine. I like the way you’ve teased out the issues for consideration.
    It makes me wish I’d done history at university instead of classics and English. Maybe when I retire, eh?

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