Books & Literature

Book Review: Foundational Fictions in South Australian History, edited by Carolyn Collins and Paul Sendziuk

A collection of essays looking at alternative views of South Australia’s founding myths.

An anthology based on a series of lectures on Foundational Fictions presented at the University of Adelaide in 2017.

This anthology is based on a series of lectures on Foundational Fictions presented at the University of Adelaide in 2017. Both editors have essays in the book with Carolyn Collins writing about SOS (Save Our Sons), an anti-conscription group, and Paul Sendziak on South Australia’s longest serving premier, from 1938-1965, Thomas Playford. The collection challenges versions of South Australian history with which we are so familiar that they have achieved mythical status.

Take the chance meeting of Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin in Encounter Bay in April 1802. Jean Fornasiero and John West-Scooby argue that while the meeting has been idealised as an example of international scientific goodwill at a time when Britain and France were at war, the underlying truth is more disconcerting.

As Baudin had sailed before Flinders he was not aware, at first, they were engaged on much the same task – mapping the southern coast of Australia. But the need to make sure Britain had the ‘honor of discovery’ had been impressed on Flinders by the Admiralty and he viewed Baudin as a rival (page 15). With both captains disappointed in not being the first to map southern shores and remaining ‘locked in their prescribed diplomatic neutrality’, this was hardly the friendly scientific encounter of legend (page 19).

A further fiction following on from this is that there was a rivalry between the two nations to be the first to develop a settlement in South Australia. On the contrary, both expeditions thought the areas surveyed, albeit briefly, to be ‘dead uninteresting flat country’ (Flinders), and ‘dreary-looking’ (Baudin) (pages 24-25). So it is no surprise that neither country made further explorations of the area for decades.

I especially enjoyed the chapter Walking the Line in Historical Fiction by Lucy Treloar, author of Salt Creek, as it points out the clear distinctions between history and historical fiction challenging the view that historical fiction is only a poor cousin of real history. Using the criticism over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River by historian Inga Clendinnen as an example, Treloar argues for a more positive attitude to historical fiction which can ‘challenge… provoke…enlighten’ readers not only ‘“delight”’ as Clendinnen dismissively claims (page 101). Even when some aspects are dramatised for the sake of the plot, we can still learn much about other times and places from historical fiction.

Taken together these two examples serve to demonstrate how the foundational fictions of the title may arise and be maintained.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: January 2019
RRP: $34.95

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