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  • Alice Petty

Kate Grenville

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  • Barbara Mobbs


Kate Grenville was born in Sydney, Australia, and holds degrees from the University of Sydney, the University of Colarado (US), and the University of Technology, Sydney.

She began her working life as an editor of documentary films, but in her late 20s moved to the UK, where she lived and worked for several years as an editor, typist and freelance journalist. After then studying writing in the US for two years, she returned to Australia where she currently lives with her family.

Her first book was a collection of short stories (Bearded Ladies, 1984), about women who do not fit the conventional feminine stereotype. This was followed by Lilian's Story in 1986, the story of a bag-lady on the streets of Sydney in the middle of the twentieth century: a woman of education and prospects who chooses a different destiny for herself, partly in response to sexual abuse by her father. A companion volume (Dark Places, 1994, published in the US as Albion's Story) tells the story of that abusing father from his point of view.

Dreamhouse (1987), a black comedy set in Tuscany, tells the story of a marriage disintegrating because of the husband's refusal to accept that he is attracted to men rather than women. Joan Makes History (1989), is a satirical re-telling of Australian history, foregrounding the women rather than the men, Joan being a timeless everywoman with a wry take on her world.  The Idea of Perfection (1999), a comic love story that takes place in a small Outback town, tells the story of two people who have given up on themselves, but discover that the idea of perfection is a tyrant, and that 'two weaknesses together make a strength'.  The Secret River (2005), based on the author's own ancestor, follows the life of a London lighterman, transported as a convict to New South Wales, where he is forced to make hard decisions about his relationship with the Aboriginal people.

The Idea of Perfection won the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction and is in pre-production as a feature film. Two other novels, Lilian's Story, and Dreamhouse, have been recreated as feature films, the latter as Traps.

Her latest novels are The Lieutenant (2009) and Sarah Thornhill (2012), which together with The Secret River, form a loose trilogy about the first three generations of colonial Australia.

In 2015 her book One Life: My Mother's Story, based on fragments of a memoir written by her mother, was published.

Kate Grenville has been a teacher of Creative Writing for some 20 years, and is the author of four books about the writing process: Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written (1993, with Sue Woolfe); The Writing Book, a Manual for Fiction Writers (1998);  Writing from Start to Finish, a Six-Step Guide (2002); and Searching for The Secret River (2006), a memoir about the process of writing her most recent novel.

In 2010, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of New South Wales.

Critical perspective

Australian author Kate Grenville is a novelist and writer of non-fiction and short stories.

Her first book-length publication was a collection of short stories and is entitled Bearded Ladies (1984). Her work has been well received in Australia since then, but she achieved long overdue international recognition with The Idea of Perfection (1999) when it was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001. Further to her career as a novelist, Grenville has also taught creative writing for 20 years and has written on this subject.

In The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970-88 (1989), written by Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman, Salzman argues in Chapter Four that Grenville's work up to this point demonstrates a controlled understanding of the effects of gender inequalities: ‘Grenville’s writing is particularly conscious of the roles that have been allotted to women, both in society and in fictional genres. In the stories collected in Bearded Ladies (1984), Grenville indicates that gender assumptions split women’s sense of self, as evidenced by the collection’s title.’ This understanding of the manner in which patriarchy has historically marginalized women is also a common theme in her novels.

Her first novel, Lilian’s Story (1986), charts the life of Lilian Singer, from her affluent but neglected and abused childhood to her old age when she is regarded as insane. Grenville partly draws upon Bea Miles, an eccentric woman who lived on the streets in Sydney, as an inspiration for Lilian’s characterisation. This is only a partial influence, though, as this is an imaginative account of the outsider who is always ignored or feared. This is a poignant work that also manages to relish Lilian’s status as the overweight female who does not fit in. After a childhood and adolescence spent straining for acceptance, she decides to stop wanting to conform and refuses to be prettified into a ‘mediocre’ woman. Lilian’s rape by her brutish father, Albion, emphasises her liminal position in society and his story is given in the associated novel, Dark Places (1994), which was published as Albion’s Story in the United States. Lilian’s Story was acclaimed in Australia and was awarded the prestigious Australian Vogel National Literary Award in 1984. It was also adapted for film in 1995.

Her next novel, Dreamhouse (1987), is set in Italy and is described by Grenville as a ‘black comedy of manners’ that is concerned with the end of an unsuccessful marriage. It was adapted for film, as Traps, in 1994. This work was followed by Joan Makes History (1989), which offers a re-writing of aspects of Australian history from a feminist-inspired perspective. Joan appears briefly in Lilian’s Story as a university friend who goes on to marry Duncan. She is used here imaginatively to look at the past and present from a female-orientated position (for example, she also becomes a female convict and Captain Cook’s wife).

Joan Makes History was followed by The Idea of Perfection (1999), the epigraph for which epitomises the conclusive philosophy of this gentle love story: ‘An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.’ This is a quotation by Leonardo Da Vinci and as well as signifying the growing affection between Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, it is also a reference to the Bent Bridge, which draws these main characters together. This bridge represents history and symbolises how the past may be viewed from conflicting positions. Harley is working to promote the preservation of heritage, whereas Douglas is an engineer employed to take it down.

Reaching the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2006, The Secret River (2005) builds on the critical success of The Idea of Perfection. The Secret River follows the life of the central protagonist, William Thornhill, from a life of poverty in London in the late 18th and early 19th century, to the convict ship after being caught thieving, to making his fortune in New South Wales, Australia. This historical fiction uses Thornhill as a means to express the moral ambivalence of the coloniser who wishes to have what he regards as his reward.

This novel is also tied to an understanding of class distinctions and their impact on those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Thornhill only ever comes close to recognising that the indigenous Australians are being usurped, and that their way of life is not necessarily inferior to the one he aspires to. When he momentarily regards them as a version of the gentry in England, he almost understands that these men, women and children are not the sub-humans that some of his fellow former convicts choose to see them as. However, Thornhill’s decision to help these white neighbours obliterate the local indigenous Australians is, for him, a beneficial turning point in his business prospects. This is a work that examines the historical ramifications of the intolerance of difference in English and Australian society. It also explores how individualism is connected to self-concern and may lead to the corruption of morals.

As well as invoking a partial history of Australian colonisation and English imperialism, The Secret River is also imbued with a sense of place: of base poverty in London and the comparatively exotic allure of New South Wales. Grenville writes of Thornhill’s new home in Australia from the view of both the coloniser and the colonised.

In conclusion, an overview of Grenville’s fiction enables us to see her adroitness in considering the impact of intolerance on human relationships. Sometimes this is described with poignancy, and other times with humour. Australia’s colonized past and the general influence of history on the present is also drawn upon in several of her novels. This is perhaps most evident in The Secret River, but it is also a valid reading of others such as Lilian’s Story and Joan Makes History.

Dr Julie Ellam, 2007


One Life: My Mother's Story
Sarah Thornhill
The Lieutenant
Searching for the Secret River
The Secret River
Writing from Start to Finish, a Six-Step Guide
The Idea of Perfection
The Writing Book, a Manual for Fiction Writers
Dark Places
Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written
Joan Makes History
Lilian's Story
Bearded Ladies


Commonwealth Writers Prize ( Overall Winner, Best Book)
Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Miles Franklin Award (Australia)
Orange Prize for Fiction
Miles Franklin Award (Australia)
Victorian Premier's Literary Award (Australia)
Australian Vogel National Literary Award

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