Thomas Keaneally’s Error
In my last post I referred to the writerly error of “changing the date of the Battle of Waterloo”, i.e., getting the facts wrong in relation to a topic that’s easy to check. I was disappointed when I read Thomas Keneally’s Daughters of Mars, a novel of military nursing in the Great War. The Great War is my specialist subject, specifically the stories of the hospitals, nurses and doctors who did their best to patch up horribly wounded men. On the one hand Daughters of Mars is undeniably a page-turner, just as you would expect of a writer of Keneally’s stature, enjoyed by millions of readers.
But the novel contains a fundamental error. Keneally’s novel uses the name of an actual hospital – The Australian Voluntary Hospital – and draws inspiration from some aspects of its story. On the one hand this might be perfectly acceptable. But the real hospital opened in 1914 not 1916, thus the novel undermines its significance as the first Australian unit in France in the Great War. It would have been so easy just to give the hospital a different name. On a more positive note, I revel in the novels of Winston Graham (and not because the actor who plays Ross Poldark in the TV series is so gorgeous!). He doesn’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo, an event that features in one of the novels in the Poldark series, and does paint a credible picture of English society in the period of the Napoleonic Wars.
But back to historical non-fiction. If you are venturing into writing the history of your street, suburb or family it is important to first write a plan, not a book – the book comes later.
You need to create a reading list. Here are some terms used by historians: History is based on sources and sources come in two flavours (pun intended) – primary and secondary. The primary sources are original documents from the period you are researching – a birth certificate is a primary source. Official documents, personal letters, diaries, headstones, books written at the time, newspaper articles (caution – do you believe everything you read in the papers?) – are examples of primary sources. You find them in libraries, museums and archives or on their websites. Start by talking to your Local Studies librarian. The task is made easier – and cheaper! – these days because of the amount of original material on-line. Military service records on the National Archives of Australia website is one example – a trip to Canberra can be an expensive exercise. That said, there is nothing quite like reverently holding in your hands an ancient dog-eared, musty-smelling piece of paper.
Secondary sources are written after the event, based on primary sources – history books and articles that will help you build a picture of the local, national and global background. As a rule of thumb, start with the more recent publications as you would expect these to reflect the most recent research on a topic. Here again, your librarian can point you in the right direction.
I alluded in an earlier blog to “supposition” as opposed to fact. Sometimes when researching primary sources you come across something that hints intriguingly at an amusing story or a mystery. Just because you don’t know exactly what happened doesn’t mean you can’t use this, but you need to make it clear in your writing that you don’t know. I’ll finish with an example of this from my book Sisters of the Valley – First World War Nurses from Newcastle and the Hunter (2011):
On Christmas Day 1918 an accident occurred at a military hospital in Salonika. The accident was, luckily, slight in its consequences but could have been much more serious and would surely have resulted in a telegram to Walter Godfrey in East Maitland to notify him that his daughter, Staff Nurse Leila Godfrey, had been injured. The injury was nothing to do with enemy action. In filling out the Report of Accidental or Self-Inflicted Injuries Leila stated that “at Christmas dinner while off duty I was burnt on the face, slightly, by blazing spirit which fell from the plum pudding.” Christmas dinner in 1918 held a special significance for everyone involved in the conflict. An Armistice was now in force and there was reason to hope the fighting was over and that next Christmas they would all be back home. Perhaps the celebrations got a little boisterous. We can imagine Leila making a grand entrance to the brightly decorated Sisters’ Mess. She is carrying the pudding aloft, ablaze with the burning brandy, perhaps a little careless in her excitement, perhaps even affected by a tipple from the brandy bottle! In the commanding officer’s opinion no one was to blame and a commission of enquiry was not necessary. Leila was lucky that the burns were not more serious.
Christine has been a teacher of History, a museum education officer and a cultural planner. She assists Lake Macquarie libraries with the planning of the History Illuminated Festival each year during History Week – September.