Australia and How To Find It updated

So much has changed since I first published this book in 2016, both in Australia and the UK. Australia has experienced horrendous bushfires followed by disastrous floods. They’ve also had a change of government, from Liberal under the right-wing, rambunctious Scott Morrison (ScoMo) to Labor under the quieter, more thoughtful Anthony Albanese (Albo). Here in the UK meanwhile we’ve gone through Conservative Prime Ministers like hot cakes, ending up with Rishi Sunak, who at the time of writing has at least outlasted a lettuce but is still having to cope with Brexit, the cost of living crisis and not least a fractured government.

So I’ve brought out a slightly amended version of the original book and for good measure I’ve added a few sketches, drawn by my talented friend Anna de Polnay, whose wonderful silhouettes adorn the covers of my novels. Here’s a selection from the chapter called Sydney’s Beach Wars:

By the way the e-version of this book is still FREE on all platforms.

What is the purpose of historical fiction?

When I asked this question on a social media forum recently the most common response from readers was, ‘Knowing about what happened in the past can help to make sense of what’s happening today.’ Writers responded with comments such as, ‘I have always had a fascination with . . . [the Roman period, Medieval Britain, the history of the woman’s movement, the colonising of the USA, etc etc].’

My own response comes from my experiences of researching for my non-fiction books about the history of colonial Australia as experienced by my Australian ancestors. Among the books I read were a smattering of novels, because while non-fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on people’s emotions or reactions to events, a well-written and –researched historical novel can bring to life the people behind those events.


As the late writer Hilary Mantel said, history can tell us what characters did, but not what they thought and felt – “the interior of my characters’ lives,” as she put it. And in response to the criticism that historical novels often falsify the past she asserted that readers of historical fiction are “actively requesting a subjective interpretation” of the evidence, and that the writer’s job is “to recreate the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.” (I’ve written about the hazards of playing around with history here.)
Click here for the full text of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture.

In my case if there is a particular event or period in the past that interests me that’s a good enough reason to want to write a book set in that period. A case in point was the Bloomsbury Set between the World Wars, which features in my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. The battle in the theatre world between the Old Order of the actor-manager and the New Idea of plays that challenged the status quo through the likes of Ibsen and & Shaw, plus a fascination with the suffrage movement, were the inspirations behind my Edwardian novels The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.

When writing about her own family history at much the same place and time as mine, the writer Kate Grenville decided to turn her book The Secret River into a novel. As she says on her website: “Solomon Wiseman [her real-life ancestor] emerged from the documents as a vivid, strongly-present individual man, but he was also a representative of his class, time and place. I realised that I could use what I knew of his life, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the silent part of his story as well. The story of one man could stand for a much bigger story, about the often-violent reality of white settlement in Australia.”

The image is the programme of the play of The Secret River staged in a quarry outside Adelaide as part of the 2017 Festival. I wrote about this amazing experience here.

If anyone is reading this I would love to hear of any particular historical novels you’ve read and enjoyed, and why!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Five best books (part 2)

Following last week’s post on my Five Best Books about Edwardian theatre, and once again in response to – check out their site, it’s extremely innovative – I also created a list of my Best Books on Australian colonial history, which you can find here:

This was a tricky and fascinating task as anyone who knows anything about Australia is aware perceptions of its colonial history have changed down the decades, and the History Wars are still alive and kicking. Basically it comes down to whether or not you consider the Europeans who took possession of the continent back in 1788 were colonists or invaders.

This makes the family historian’s task all the more tricky and fascinating, as my pioneer ancestors did take land from the indigenous people, without compensation, although there are also signs they were on good relations with the Aboriginal people. Since I came at Australian history from a standing start and my complete bibliographies are almost as long as the books themselves, it was a tough ask to whittle it down to just five books. But I ended up with a mixture of comprehensive history written by a Pom (Australia: The Great South Land), a novel written in the 1940s (The Timeless Land), a memoir published in the 1930s (Mary Gilmore), an account of life on the land (Station Life) and a merry yet insightful collection of anecdotes (Larrikins & Bush Tales).

Mary Gilmore

There are several lists on different aspects of Australia and her history on the Shepherd site. Here’s one on Indigenous Australia for instance. (An interesting list, although I might take issue with Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines – about which I wrote in my book Australia and How To Find It.)

Happy reading everyone!


It is 16 June 2022, the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on a single day in 1904.


It is, not quite coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of my first book, The Worst Country in the World, the story of the beginnings of colonial Australia as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, which I published on 16 June 2012. Far be it from me to bracket myself with James Joyce, but there it is. The date was, in my case, quite deliberate.

So in celebration of the anniversary of my first dip into the world of book publishing I am reducing the price of Worst Country to AU$3.99 ($2.99/£2.99) for just one day. Click here:

Enjoy the day, the sunshine, the blooms and the books!

Patsy Trench
London 2022

Australia’s bushfires

In my book Australia and How To Find It, published in October of 2019, I blithely claimed that Australia rarely featured in our news here in the UK, except for the cricket. That was before the bushfires. I have now added a postscript to my book chronicling the fires as witnessed in particular by residents of northern NSW, and the political fallout. Here it is:

For several months in late 2019/early 2020 Australia really did become the worst country in the world[i]. Between October 2019 and up until February 2020, as I write this, raging bushfires have destroyed over 11 million hectares of land[ii] (27 million acres, almost the size of England), over 2,500 homes, around 33 people including a number of firefighters, and an estimated one billion animals. It was believed some wildlife species were wiped out altogether. Even people not living near the fire regions were affected by smoke, which at one point reached New Zealand and even travelled as far as South America.

It began early, in some cases in September, which is technically spring in the southern hemisphere. I asked a friend, Michael Burge, who lives in northern New South Wales and in the region of a local fire, to tell me his story.

‘In very early September [2019] bushfires raged through Tenterfield and Drake, destroying homes and other property. Landowners, politicians and the media started throwing around the word ‘unprecedented’, mainly due to the speed and intensity of these unseasonal fires. . . .

. . . In November 2019 – still spring – fire ravaged two towns in our region (Wytaliba and Torrington) driven by the most intense air movement I have ever experienced. At one point during the terrible day when people were killed at Wytaliba, it felt like we were in the grip of two cyclones fighting for supremacy. The wind was so strong it was shooting into the ground and whipping up slices of soil that shot into the air. Dust, debris and burning foliage were being carried from where the fires were burning at Torrington, 28 kilometres away.

Across the region, we heard of fires travelling ahead of themselves in the form of embers, anywhere between 12 and 40 kilometres ahead of fire fronts during the high winds. 

According to climatologists, the hot air ahead of a fire can create a weather system known as a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm. I witnessed three of these. One showed on the horizon the day Tenterfield burned, its terrible lava-orange core showing deep within a great cauliflower head. Another was blowing towards our home the afternoon the RFS [Rural Fire Service] messaged me and advised that I leave home or shelter in place, so all I could see of it was the eerie yellow glow that wrapped everything in its pathway. 

As I enacted our fire plan and evacuated to Glen Innes, I saw the worst pyrocumulonimbus over Wytaliba. It looked like a mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb, although it was collapsing into itself, whipped up by the terrible wind. Collapsing over communities, livestock and wildlife; rivers, creeks and forests. Collapsing over everything I have ever known about living in rural Australia at a thousand metres above sea level in a cool-climate region.’

Wytaliba is a tiny community of around 100 people, living off the grid and away from the public eye, with a school attended by 10 children. In thirty minutes on a Friday in November 2019 the whole place went up in flames, obliterating twenty-five (mostly uninsured) homes, the school, a bridge on the route in, cars, agricultural machinery, wildlife and two local residents.[iii] Journalists descended en masse, to the dismay of the surviving residents, who’d gone to live there specifically to avoid the maddening crowds. One of them described Wytaliba as ‘one big, dysfunctional family’, where there were no property boundaries, no mobile coverage, and everyone shared everything.[iv]

Within weeks Wytaliba had set up a Facebook page, which I followed, where people were offering to donate everything from toys to clothes to caravans, cars and quad bikes and free holidays for children. They also offered differing views on the causes of the fires, the attitudes of governments – federal and state – the relative uselessness of most insurance companies and questions about compensation and whatever was happening to all those millions of dollars people around the world had donated. One lady piled the burnt and meagre remains of her house onto a truck and deposited them outside Government House in Canberra in protest at their policy – or lack of – on climate change. Fundraising events and morale-boosting community get-togethers sprang up all over the place.

Most residents of rural Australia have a fire plan, or should have. Here is Michael’s:

‘Our fire plan is simple. On the evening news every day the fire authorities issue a fire level warning for the following day (this has been in place since the Black Saturday fires in Victoria 2009). If the forecast is Catastrophic (the highest level) then the authorities cannot guarantee the survival of any building or structure, and we have agreed between us that we’ll leave early the following morning and get out of the area altogether. If it’s Severe or Extreme, we agree we’ll stay and keep a close watch on things. 

We are not equipped to defend this property as we don’t have enough water pressure or a transportable water tank with a generator to hose water onto spot fires or walls of flame. It would be foolhardy to stay without being much better prepared. So, when we leave our property we prepare it by ensuring all doors and windows are closed, the power is off and any fuel or gas tanks (such as the barbecue) are stored away from the house. We have one bag pre-packed with documents, photographs and other irreplaceable mementos, and one bag pre-packed with water, dog food, spare clothing and protective blankets in case we encounter fire when we’re on the road. So when we leave it’s a matter of dogs and bags in the car, and we just go. We could leave in minutes if required. We have a second way out of our property by car if we get cut off by fallen trees along our main drive.’

Some regional towns are better prepared than others, and open up community centres or sports grounds to act as temporary evacuations centres.

‘Despite the support of service clubs and charities on the ground, there was a sense that communities were running out of steam pretty quickly due to the scale of the fires and the length of time critical support was required. Richard [Michael’s husband] cooked for the fire services on a few days and described the conditions as very under-staffed and disorganised. In many communities, volunteer fire fighters got no support and were left to find their own meals and drinking water, which has been a big eye opener during this fire season. The state of unpreparedness under the Morrison Government (federal) and the Berejiklian government (NSW state) has been shameful. It’s been a combination of “resourcing issues” (according to NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons) and, in Morrison’s case, just not listening to the experts who predicted this crisis months, years and decades ago.’

When the fires were almost at their worst, in December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison quietly went on holiday to Hawaii, and it took him a while to decide to return to his burning country and pay the odd visit to affected areas, where he received what might be called a cool reception. Bushfire sufferers and firefighters refused to shake his hand, locals told him in direct Australian terms where he could go.

It wasn’t long since Morrison had imported a lump of coal into Parliament and waved it in the faces of fellow parliamentarians and told them not to be afraid of it. Coal rules Australia. 40% of their energy is coal-fired and 7% comes from renewables.[v]  In the UK 9% of our energy comes from coal and 24.5% from renewables[vi]. (Not that we have anything to boast about, with a Prime Minister who has confessed he doesn’t ‘get’ climate change.[vii]) By contrast Iceland is almost 100% renewable and Costa Rica, Norway and Sweden are not far behind.[viii] I even in the course of my climate change meanderings came upon an Australian website whose sole purpose seems to be to put a stop to wind power and other renewables because they’re bumping up domestic utility bills.

The right-wing Liberal government are climate change deniers for commercial, economic reasons. Of course. Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison’s predecessor, was years ago beaten to the leadership of the Liberal party (by one vote) precisely because of his views on global warming. In 2018 he was ousted from his position as PM for the same reason and replaced by a hard right government of climate change deniers. Denial appears to be deeply endemic in the ruling Liberal party, and remains so despite everything. To quote Michael again:

‘Just like it’s hard for the government to convince all Australians that it planned well ahead of this fire crisis, it’s difficult to for all of us to see an effective plan to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. The Morrison Government has announced a Royal Commission into the fires, at the same time as it’s relying on accounting tricks to meet this country’s agreements in the Kyoto Protocol. It appears there is no plan to tackle either issue, just strategies to minimise our efforts to change on both fronts.’

Yet like so many other issues – and this goes not just for Australia but other countries like the US as well – the people and their leaders don’t always see eye to eye. Australia’s statistics don’t include the possible thousands of inhabitants living off-grid. And a lot of effort on the part of individuals is going into finding weird and wondrous ways of harvesting water from the air, or the sun, or who knows what.

For the time being temperatures in Australia have dropped, rain has fallen in New South Wales and in Melbourne – which had its wettest January on record I believe – and hailstorms the size of tennis balls have battered Canberra, smashing cars, roofs, trees and a series of greenhouses belonging to the CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), ruining several years of research work.[ix] Much of the rain has collected dust particles in the air and falls as mud. Dust storms have enveloped country towns, falling ash has poisoned rivers and killed thousands of fish. At the same time torrential rain has put out most of the fires, and now firefighters are hard at work coping with floods. Tourists – local and international – could not cancel their holidays fast enough.

But now the whole world knows a good deal more about Australia than it ever did in my living memory. Maybe with the world’s eyes on them the powers that be may start to look at things differently. Or just maybe, once the fuss has died down, along with the fires – though since February is still full summer in Australia it doesn’t pay to be complacent – the world will forget all about Australia and life will just go on as before.

That’s if Australians will allow it.

© Patsy Trench
February 2020


[i] The title of my first book about my family history in Oz
[ii] Elsewhere (on Wikipedia) it claims over 18 million hectares have been destroyed, SBS and The Telegraph estimate it at 5 million.
[iii] One of whom was described as a ‘grandmother’. Why this was deemed a relevant description of a 60-something-year old, with the possible implication that she was too old and frail – and maybe even stupid – not to be able to save herself is a moot point. (She was none of these things by all accounts.)
[iv] [accessed 10 February 2020]
[v] The rest is made up of oil and gas. 75% of energy generated in Australia comes from coal. I don’t understand what happens to the 35% that isn’t consumed.
[vi] Then rest comes from natural gas 41% and 21% nuclear.
[vii] According to Claire O’Neill, who was sacked – for unspecified reasons – from her position organising a UN climate change conference in Glasgow later in 2020.
[viii]  There’s some variation in percentages between online sources but the country rankings are much the same.

Bondi Beach protest

Sydney Mail, 23 October 1907

On Sunday 20 October 1907 a large group of male swimmers gathered on Bondi Beach to protest against an order from the local mayors that they should wear skirts for swimming. This was the highlight of the continuing soap opera of Sydney beach by-laws, which up until then had prohibited sea bathing in daylight hours. The full and hilarious story is in my new book Australia and How to Find It.

The Secret River (again)

This was my second visit to the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River. The first was two years ago in a quarry outside Adelaide, with a sheer sandstone cliff as backdrop. (See my review of it here.) That majestical setting is impossible to beat, but the wide open spaces of the Olivier amphitheatre at the National Theatre in London come a relatively close second.

NT programme

I would like to (but probably can’t) claim responsibility for the production’s rather brief transfer to the NT, via Edinburgh. I’ve been campaigning for it pretty ceaselessly on social media ever since that astonishing evening in 2017. It has always baffled me how little interest we Brits take in our colonisation of the country we named Australia, but judging from the standing ovation the play received from last night’s largely British (by the sound of them) audience, the production – and its rave reviews – has set some kind of ball rolling.

Unlike Kate Grenville’s book Andrew Bovell’s adaptation begins in New South Wales at the point where William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for stealing, receives his Absolute Pardon and transports himself and his family to what appears to be an ‘unoccupied’ 100-acre patch of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. The Aboriginal people, who are only shadows in Kate Grenville’s book, play major roles in the play, speaking their native – and untranslated – Dharug.

The show packs every bit as powerful a punch on second viewing. Memorable moments stand out, then as before, such as the use of flour to indicate gunsmoke, and the mingling of Dharug chanting with a London drinking song, the first eventually overpowering the second. In place of a sandstone cliff backdrop there is a curtain, on which the frightened and frantic William Thornhill draws a fence at the end of the play to protect himself, marking off the days as he does so.

What I took away from both productions was the even-handed way in which a family of well-meaning whites, displaced from their own country against their will, are shown desperately trying to survive in a strange country among people whose language and way of life they don’t understand. And how successfully the difficult Olivier space was transformed, through lighting, birdsong and musical effects, into the landscape of that hot, dry country so few people in England know anything about.

The cast, with some exceptions, is the same as before, with the notable exception of Ningali Lawford Wolf, who died suddenly and tragically during the play’s run in Edinburgh. Her place was taken by Aboriginal actress Pauline Whyman, flown in from Melbourne and reading from a script. How heartbreaking for an Aboriginal woman to die so far away from her home and family, and how devastating for the rest of the cast. It is the face of Ms Lawford Wolf, who played the narrator, that appears on the programme and on posters all around London. A fitting legacy.

Despite this, the performances are solid throughout. So from this humble audience member, a grateful thanks to all of the actors, and especially to the supremely talented Neil Armfield – who in a pre-performance talk spoke endearingly of how he always expects things to work out badly – and the likewise Andrew Bovell, who apparently tried his best not to become involved in this adaptation but was eventually ‘seduced’ by Cate Blanchett. So thanks to her too.


By way of a PS, my version of The Secret River, about my settler ancestors who ‘took up’ land on the Hawkesbury not far from the fictional William Thornhill, and at much the same time, is being discounted on Amazon as an ebook in Australia and elsewhere during the month of September.


© Patsy Trench

August 2019

Research research research . . .

I just spent two days in the British Library – separated by the Easter break – researching for a chapter in my forthcoming book Australia and how to find it about famous writers who visited Australia in the 19th century and what they said about it. (Early draft cover below.)

I had allotted myself one day to cover both Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain, but in the event it took two intensive five-hour days to cover them both, even sketchily. And as I was laboriously copying out yet another Twainesque witticism about, for instance, the absence of colonial governors – ‘The continent has four or five governors . . . but you will not see them. When they are appointed they come out from England and get inaugurated, and give a ball, and help pray for rain, and get aboard ship and go back home. . . ’ – or the multiple gauges in the Australian railway system which meant passengers had to constantly change trains. . . ‘At the frontier between NSW and Vic our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern-light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth . . .’[1] I was aware that while I filled several pages for each of them, probably less than 5% of it would actually appear in the book, which got me thinking:

There must be a more efficient way to do this.

‘This’ meaning research in general. Over the years that I’ve been studying Australian colonial history and filled notebook after notebook and hard drive after hard drive I’ve come to realise how relatively little of it actually reaches the pages of my books. How a week’s work in a library can end up distilled into a paragraph, or a sentence, or maybe into thin air.  At a generous guess I would estimate around 10-20% of my research ends up in my books; and the more I do this and the more ruthless I become with myself the less of it I wind up using.

On reflection research is a bit like travelling, and you can approach it in one of two ways:
1) you make a list of sites you want to see, you go there, take pictures, don’t get distracted, tick it off the list, move on to the next one, repeat procedure, go home. Or
2) you can wander around the streets without any particular purpose, maybe taking in a famous site or two, but if you spot something interesting down a side street then you can investigate that and who knows what delights you may come across?

I find myself choosing the second method, not deliberately perhaps, more by default, or ignorance, or because I am never quite sure what it is I am researching in the first place. It is an expensive way to do things timewise but it’s a lot more fun because of the unexpected treasures you come across on the way. Hence my book (second draft cover below).

The book is intended as a kind of taster or introduction to my two heavily-researches tomes on my Australian family history – The Worst Country in the World and A Country to be Reckoned With. It contains observations and anecdotes about Australia and Australians I felt I could not include in my other books – the sort of stuff you find down the side streets, you could say.

If I can ever get to the end of it it will be published some time later this year.

And meanwhile I have to acknowledge my total failure to refine my research methods. But I am acquiring massive amounts of information. If I could retain half of it I could go on Mastermind.  

© Patsy Trench

Anthony Trollope (wikipedia)

[1] The Wayward Tourist, Mark Twain, Melbourne University Press, 2006. Edited extracts from Following the Equator, 1897

Admiral Nelson’s left hand

(from ‘The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe’, by Mary Eyre Matcham, p151)

In the course of writing about my four times great grandmother Mary Matcham Pitt I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching her cousin-in-law Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Mary’s cousin George Matcham was married to Nelson’s youngest sister Catherine, and it was George who – with the aid of the Nelson name – arranged for Mary and her family’s migration to the fledgling colony of New South Wales in 1801. George and Horatio were great friends as well as brothers in law, and I was more than delighted to come upon a book called The Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe, written by a descendant of George’s, which revealed many behind-the-scenes stories of the Nelsons and the Matchams, such as the following. It shows a side of Nelson we don’t often hear about.

When Nelson lost his eye in battle he was refused a pension until he could produce a formal certificate.  After a moment of ‘vexation’ he began to see the funny side and insisted on the surgeon providing him with another certificate to prove the loss of his arm, ‘which he declared might just as well be doubted as the other’.

Admiral Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott (wikipedia)

So he drew up a petition on behalf of his remaining left arm, written by his brother William and the rest in his sister Catherine’s hand, with the final words and signature in Nelson’s own ‘well-known left-handed scrawl’. The edited version goes like this:


Whereas your humble Petitioner has had the mis-fortune to lose his Brother in His Majesty’s Service, & is now obliged to do all his Master’s work himself, to which he is by no means competent. This is to certify in behalf of himself & the whole race, that they have been from time immemorial, greatly abridged of their Just rights & Privileges.

They therefore respectfully submit to your consideration the following observations & humbly hope that you will condescend to take Notice of their lamentable case.

And first, no person has ever endeavoured to insinuate that right hands were made before left ; so that no peculiar privilege can be claimed by either party, on the score of seniority.

Secondly, the left hand is as long & strong by Nature as the right, has as many joints, fingers & nails ; wherefore no Just title to pre-eminence can be asserted by either, founded upon superior capability.

For these reasons, we would have an equitable, true & perfect equality to be established between us according to the laws of Reason & Nature : & neither of us to be superior or inferior to the other.

Instead of which, you must acknowledge that at present, We the left hands have been kept in a state of comparative ignorance, & barbarism.

This arises solely from our want of education, for while the favoured right hand is attended by the very best masters in writing, drawing, & fencing &c. the poor left hand is neglected, forgotten & hangs aukwardly dangling by the side ; except now and then when called in to assist in some drudgery which the right hand does not choose to do by himself. Barbarous custom too has excluded us from a participation of the most pleasant offices that our nature is capable of ; if we meet our friends & acquaintances, we are not suffered to move, but the right hands instantly leap to embrace each other & enjoy the delight of friendship. How often has your petitioner itched to take a Lady by the hand, but yet never was permitted, tho’ the right was engaged in all the offices of Gallantry, and in battle, when my noble Master, God bless him, was hewing down the Dons with the right hand, your petitioner remained unemployed, liable to all the injuries of war without the means of defence or retaliation.

In this age of innovation it is considered dangerous to propose reforms of any kind & they seem somewhat suspicious when they come from the party alone to be benefitted, but as the reform which your petitioner stands up for, does not to the best of his knowledge bear in its remotest consequences upon the constitution in Church or state, he trusts that the objects of it will not be accused of temerity, folly, malevolence & so forth. Qualities too often he fears justly chargeable upon political Reformers.

Should his arguments have any weight with You & the prayer of his humble petition be taken into consideration & produce a change of system, Your petitioner will together with all his fellow sufferers be bound in Your service by the strong ties of gratitude & your petitioners shall ever pray

Admiral Nelson’s left hand.”

© Patsy Trench

Fact v fiction

How would you like it if in years to come you were depicted in a film as a debauched, serial womaniser/seductress, who drank neat rum straight from the bottle and squashed pet rabbits for a hobby?

I’m exaggerating a tad, but not that much. I’m thinking of two films currently on in London where our historical Queens Anne, Mary and Elizabeth are portrayed not quite as they or their cohorts may have been.

Film makers are renowned for playing fast and loose with historical fact. In ‘The Favourite’ Queen Anne is shown falling under the spell and influence of two different women at different times – her friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and then her cousin Abigail Hill. So much is fact. But did she really enjoy lesbian relations with both of them? And what about her husband, Prince George of Denmark? Did he not warrant a mention, even if he was dead at the time?

The Favourite (
Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (

It’s known fact that Mary Queen of Scots did challenge Elizabeth to the throne of England; though whether her husband Henry Darnley was a closet gay who early on in their marriage was found in flagrante delecto with Mary’s court musician David Rizzio (actually her private secretary), again is far from proven fact. (Historically, there was a rumour Rizzio was the father of Mary’s son James.)

Mary Queen of Scots (
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as Queens Elizabeth and Mary (

Personally, as regards Queen Anne, I far preferred the stage play, written by Helen Edmundson and performed by the RSC a few years ago. (See my review here.) It was entertaining, thought-provoking, moving and informative, and brilliantly performed by its three leading actresses. It also contained its own fair share of debauchery, but it felt a lot closer to the truth.

Which begs the question: why mess with history when the facts are strange enough in themselves?

When it comes to family history facts of course are paramount. I know I’ve added the odd fictionalised scene into my my books, but I’ve also made it perfectly clear (I hope) where I’ve added embellishments to recorded fact. And while I’ve gone over several generations of my Australian family history with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, there are still gaps that I am eager – and hope – to fill. Every so often an exciting snippet of news emerges from an unexpected source that promises to partly fill these gaps. But when I ask where the information came from the answer tends to be along the lines of ‘I read it somewhere’.

Australian Aboriginal history is even more complicated. It tends to be passed down orally from generation to generation of the Aboriginal community. And it’s often at odds with what you might call ‘official’ recorded history; that’s to say history as recorded by white Europeans, and as often as not in newspapers. Some of it is no doubt undisputed fact, though without background knowledge it could be misleading. And you only have to look at certain of our newspapers today to see how adept they are at distorting the news.

Curragundi Joe (Tom Pitt) from Clayton
Curragundi Joe,  a Kamilaroi man, aka (possibly) Tom Pitt. Did he have a connection with my Pitt family? Photo provided by Clayton Pitt

So: written history or oral memory? It would be wrong for the family historian to dismiss either of these sources of information completely. The best we can do is try to be as truthful and factual as we can. We owe it to ourselves, and more to the point we owe it to our ancestors. You never know who might make a film of your life one day.