Our Many Pasts: Historical Fiction

In a 2006 piece for Historical Novel Society, Loren Teague decreed that historical fiction had come of age in New Zealand: many of our bestsellers and top literary prizes hailed from the genre, including Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife (2005), a classic retelling of the story of Betty Guard’s captivity by Ngāti Ruanui Māori, and Jenny Pattrick’s first novel, The Denniston Rose (2003) and its sequel, Heart of Coal (2004), landmark bestsellers, stirring a new interest in historical fiction among publishers and readers.

The Vintner’s Luck (1999) by Elizabeth Knox, set in early nineteenth-century France, had already achieved bestseller status in New Zealand and attracted considerable attention overseas. Novels like Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew (1986)  – an account of the story of the leader Te Kooti, told from the perspective of one of his pursuers – and Believers to the Bright Coast (1998) by Vincent O’Sullivan had also received critical acclaim; both are still considered classics in the genre. Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch (1986) was a watershed publication of historical fiction in New Zealand.




The most visible internationally is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, set on South Island goldfields in the 1860s, not far from Pattrick’s mining town of Denniston. The Luminaries – Catton’s second novel – won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and the fiction prize at the NZ Post Book Awards in 2014. A BBC television series based on the book, filmed on the West Coast of the South Island and starring Eve Hewson, Himesh Patel and Top of the Lake‘s Ewen Leslie, is due to be released in 2020.

An appetite for historical fiction, both in popular and literary fiction, continues to grow. Sales of The Denniston Rose are over 60,000 domestically. Over the past two decades, New Zealand’s top fiction award has gone to historical novels twelve times – including The Book of Fame (published 2000) by Lloyd Jones, about the 1905 New Zealand rugby tour of Britain and Ireland; Alison Wong’s As The Earth Turns Silver (2009), the first historical novel to chronicle the experience of Chinese migrants to New Zealand; and Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music (2012), set in Scotland and presented as a collection of found papers. The most recent winner is Fiona Kidman, awarded the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction for This Mortal Boy at the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. With sales in the genre still relatively robust, historical fiction may be emerging as the defining genre in our contemporary literary culture.  So dominant is the genre that in his review of The Luminaries in the New Zealand Listener, Guy Somerset questioned whether ‘Catton is [yet] another New Zealand writer escaping into the past’.




Historical  fiction might seem like an unlikely candidate for its recent success. Virginia Woolf believed that while there was a kind of veracity in both fiction as well as historical chronicle, the two breeds of truth could not be joined in the same text. ‘Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible,’ she wrote, unhappy with the invention employed by Lytton Strachey in his ‘history’ Elizabeth and Essex. In this era of alternative facts and ‘fake news’, Woolf’s concern for the incompatibility of history and fiction has a contemporary ring: if we don’t keep our facts and fictions clearly divided, we run the profound risk of allowing almost anything at all to be read as historical reality. To lose sight of what really happened in the past is akin to abandoning our ancestors, and, by implication, to lose our links to who we are now. As the ghost of Nanny reminds Connie, the protagonist of Kelly Ana Morey’s dual contemporary/historical novel Bloom (2003), ‘That’s your job, Connie. To remember. To keep the home fires burning’.

With its emphasis on narrative over veracity, historical fiction – in New Zealand and elsewhere – often takes poetic license. British critic Stephanie Merritt, who writes an historical thriller series under the pen name of S. J. Parris, maintains that historical novelists must get their research right before playing ‘fast and loose with historical fact’. But their first loyalty is to the ‘vigour’ of the story they’re telling. Novelists, she contends, ‘are not history teachers. It’s not our job to educate people, and if we start using words like “duty” and “responsibility” about historical fiction – or any fiction – we’re in danger of leaching all the vigour out of it with a sense of worthiness’.




Does historical fiction allow an escape from reality or promote a confrontation with it? Hugh, the narrator of C. K. Stead’s The Singing Whakapapa (1994), seems to seek the former: ‘But there was for Hugh, always had been, the solace of history, the shapeliness of narrative, the comfort of retrospect, of the long look back’. An unprincipled version of this impulse can manifest itself as cultural reimagining grounded in revision, omission, detachment, or even amnesia. ‘Historical fiction’, critic Mark Williams writes in his article ‘Repetitious Beginnings: New Zealand History in the Late 1980s’, ‘can easily serve as a kind of travel literature in which the past figures as exotic territory to be interpreted in terms of the familiar world left behind; the result is usually the reinforcing of favourite myths rather than their banishment.’

Williams’ warning reminds us of the authority invested in historical accounts. As versions of the past that associate themselves with truth, narratives shape the way we approach both the past and the present. In Aotearoa New Zealand, our engagement with the past remains open, continent, and hotly contested, as was evident in the 2018 incident in which Massey University banned Hobson’s Pledge advocate Don Brash from speaking as part of the university’s move to become Treaty-led. At one level, every historical novel is, in fact, a novel about history itself: what it is, where it is, and to whom it belongs, and where it ends. In a bi-cultural society where one culture’s dominance arose from historical violence against the other, it might be said that any account of this history from a Pākehā point-of-view must always be a story grounded in the prior fact of this violence. In his 2002 essay ‘Being Colonial/Colonial Being’, Stephen Turner argues:

Stories about being colonial/colonial being are always something of a cover-up. Such stories mask, or bridge, an historical discontinuity (that there is a before and after your arrival). Whether these narratives are historical and/or fictional and/or personal, they provide an illusionary continuity, a more or less seamless sense of place and history.


Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey


Pākehā accounts of history arise out of a position of cultural dominance and almost inevitably shape their narratives as ways to shore up this dominance. Even in the transition from the oral culture of pre-European Aotearoa to the written culture introduced by the early missionaries, there is a kind of erasure, a loss that registers as something askew in the fabric of written historical accounts. In the experimental historical novel They Who Do Not Grieve (2001), Samoan writer Sia Figiel reminds us of the inevitable erasure inflicted by the act (and inevitable omissions) of writing. ‘My only advice to you: Don’t Write Anything Down’, Grandma Lalolagi tells the protagonist Malu. ‘It’s the easiest (and surest) way to forget things’.

Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch (1986) spans decades of family and iwi history, combining historical documents with myth, operatic interludes, as well as more conventional modes of fiction. The novel is underpinned, Mark Williams contends in  Leaving the Highway (1990), by Ihimaera’s ‘need to show how the wholeness, connection, and meaning he finds at the heart of traditional Maori life were subsumed under the brokenness, alienation, and loss that have permeated and shaped Maori life since colonisation’. In The Matriarch, Ihimaera’s primary subject is the erasure of or ‘cover up’ cited by Turner, and the narrator is direct in his recognition of the bearing a storyteller’s history and ethnicity have on the construction of a tale, regardless of whether it is had been designated as history or fiction: ‘All truth is fiction really, for the teller tells it as he sees it, and it might be different from some other teller. This is why histories often vary, depending on whether you are the conquerer or not’ (Ihimaera The Matriarch 403).

In addition to addressing the overwhelming impact of colonisation on Māori life and identity, Ihimaera employs a form in The Matriarch that grounds his epic in culturally appropriate aesthetics and cosmology. In his author’s note to the revised edition of The Matriarch (2009), he explains that in ‘both The Matriarch and The Dream Swimmer [the sequel to The Matriarch] I had devised a structural framework for all the material, based on the Maori concept of the koru or spiral’.

The structural or formal aspects of historical fiction by some Māori authors are often linked to an underlying exploration of an aesthetics grounded in cultural traditions and mythology. In an interview with Adam Dudding for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Patricia Grace spoke about the interweaving of narrative strands in her novels. In foregrounding her own relationship to the structure of the narrative, Grace described a process that many critics have claimed is grounded in the aesthetics and cosmology of a Māori worldview:

I have tried to explain before how I position myself in the writing. I don’t have a sense, when I begin a new work, of standing at the beginning of a long road and looking along it to an end. Instead I have a sense of sitting in the middle of something – like sitting in the centre of a set of circles or a spiral – and reaching out to these outer circles, in any direction, and bringing stuff in.


Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey


History and the living presence of Māori mythology may be traced through all of Grace’s fiction. Tu (2004) chronicles the grueling experiences of the Māori Battalion in and around Cassino, Italy during World War II. A critically acclaimed and popular book, Tu is perhaps more conventional in its structure than Grace’s other novels, but it incorporates spiraling timelines and historical research, including material from archives, military reports, publically available diaries, and personal family history.

Some Pākehā authors of historical fiction have managed to negotiate the mythologising of history in Aotearoa without masking the discontinuity of the colonial invasion. Rather than writing historical novels grounded in the fantasy of cultural coherence or reconciliation, such narratives imagine historical disruption and often highlight the act of violence or erasure embedded in the act of telling. In a review of the historical novels R. H. I. (2015) by Tim Corballis and Trifecta (2015) by Ian Wedde, author Hamish Clayton describes this dual nature of historical fiction:

. . . any narratives designed to sketch history are themselves gestures which also erase history. Telling a story might feel like a constructive act, but it always comes at an ironic expense: the story which seems to represent the thing itself is only ever another layer of mediation between perception and reality.

Clayton’s own debut historical novel, Wulf (2011), seems aware of this dual nature of historical. Narrating the historical incident in which the Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Rauparaha hired the brig Elizabeth to launch a sneak attack on Ngai Tahu at Akaroa Harbour, Clayton’s novel embraces both Pākehā and Māori storytelling traditions.




Tina Makereti’s novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (2018) narrates an imagined version of the story of the historical figure of James Pōneke, a young Māori man who agrees to work as a ‘professional spectacle’ in Victorian London, spending his days as part of an exhibition of exotic treasures in the Egyptian Hall. The novel is self-consciously an escape into the pageantry and spectacle of London, and in case we mistake it for a proper historical narrative, Makereti reproduces the two-page account of James, or Hēmi, Pōneke from 1847 edition of The New Zealander and pens an author’s note explicitly marking the novel as fiction: ‘I reproduce [the article from The New Zealander] here so that it is clear that the rest of the story is made up. This novel in no way represents the real historical figure’.

While the character’s liberation from historical constraints clearly locates The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke in the genre of fiction, it also renders the historical and contemporary commentary all the more poignant. Maggie Trapp in her Listener review suggested that the ‘plot speaks to us now as it also wrestles with the constraints of the era it’s set in. This is a story of two worlds, 2018 and 1846, just as James is of two worlds, Aotearoa and England.’


Painting by Charles Heaphy: Bream Head, Whangarei. c1855 Watercolour.


Of course, much historical fiction in New Zealand incorporates certain conventions of the genre, from the long sea voyage (often plucked wholesale from the pages of an unpublished old diary), to the confrontation between Māori attired in dogskin and pounamu and colonials outfitted in oilskin and corsets. Some books, however, navigate a less familiar course. Perhaps one of the most dramatic formal experiments in the genre remains Ian Wedde’s Symmes Hole (1986), which narrates the parallel stories of a contemporary researcher and the nineteenth-century shore whaler James ‘Worser’ Heberely, a virtuoso exercise in deconstructed voice and a lacunae-like narrative structure.

Other escapes from the conventions of historical fiction turn to yet other iterations of the twinned present and past parallel narrative structure – including Tim Corballis’ The Fossils Pits (2005), Rachael King’s Magpie Hall (2009), and Witi Ihimaera’s The Parihaka Woman (2011).




Another notable example of the twinned contemporary/historical novel is Paula Morris’s Queen of Beauty (2002). At the launch of Morris’s novel Rangatira (2011), Steve Braunias lamented the genre’s reputation:

We have to call it that because it’s true, but it seems a shame. Historical novel – the term itself is like mildew, something stale and unfortunate, old news. And it’s even worse when you say ‘New Zealand historical novel’. You instantly think, oh God, here we go, petticoats and pounamu, Penguin and plagiarism. You think, no fun.

While Rangatira does challenge many of the conventions of historical fiction—particularly by turning the gazing eye of the Māori narrator upon the European—Morris’s Queen of Beauty (2002) works toward nothing less than a subversion of the form by interweaving open-ended and largely discursive contemporary and historical stories. The novel begins with a brief historical incident of a water rescue that works as a backdrop for both the narratives that follow. Virginia, the story’s protagonist, is employed in New Orleans as a research assistant to the successful American historical novelist Margaret Dean O’Clare. Virginia’s description of her role as the provider of ‘the facts and dates and events to hang the story on’ serves as metafictional comment on the familiar structure of some historical fiction: ‘Virginia thought of it as one of those elaborate organisational systems for closets. She was to provide the shelves and rails and sliding baskets. Margaret would fill them with expensive clothes’.




Even without shedding the familiar trappings of crinoline and sea voyages, historical fictional can offer an encounter with history in ways that challenge the strict dichotomy between escape and confrontation. In my own historical novel, The Naturalist (2014), for example, I chronicle the 1839 visit of naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach to New Zealand as part of the New Zealand Company’s land-buying expedition in the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington, and Whanganui.

Out of the tropes of the long sea voyage and lost visionary, my intention was to resuscitate the historical figure of Dieffenbach and offer a more nuanced version of the early interactions of colonials and Māori. In the ethnography portion of his own Travels in New Zealand (1843), Dieffenbach advocated for complete equality between peoples, writing, ‘I am of the opinion that man, in his desires, passions, and intellectual faculties, is the same’. A longer version of Dieffenbach’s quotation serves as the epigraph to The Naturalist, and my hope is that it frames ‘the novel as one that asks readers to reassess notions of a New Zealand past that was less progressive and less intellectually sophisticated than the present’.




Also based on the story of a real-life historical figure, Annamarie Jagose’s Slow Water (2004), challenges historical conceptions of sexuality and romance. Set almost entirely during a four-month sea voyage from England to Australia in 1836, Jagose’s novel depicts the love affair between English clergyman William Yates and third mate Edwin Dennison in a style that fuses the lyricism of nineteenth language with the density of more contemporary prose, creating a sea-bound world in which social mores fall away to reveal an unexpected eroticism.

Other recent titles include: Lawrence Patchett’s I Got His Blood on Me (2012), a collection of historical short fiction exploring encounters with the past; Tina Makereti’s Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings (2014), the first historical novel set on the Chatham Islands/ Rēkohu; Fiona Kidman’s All Day at the Movies (2016), spanning 55 years of social and cultural history; and Fiona Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street (2017), an experimental historical novel recounting a century of the history occurring on a single spot of earth in Christchurch.




Notable works of historical fiction by Kiwis set in other countries include C. K. Stead’s My Name was Judas (2006), a re-telling of the story of Jesus’s life from the perspective of Judas; Damien Wilkin’s Max Gate (2013), a chronicle of the last days of Thomas Hardy’s life in Dorset; Patrick Evan’s Salt Picnic (2017), a novel set on the island of Ibiza in the era of Francisco Franco’s Spain; and Mandy Hager’s Heloise (2017), an unauthorised but historically accurate re-telling of the story of the medieval French lovers Heloise and Abelard.

The secret at the heart of historical fiction is the unsolvable and alluring mystery of the past itself, and historical novels offer us confrontation with truth on imaginative terms. In the pages of the best historical fiction we are offered the possibility of truth and the promise of escape in a single gesture. In Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy (2018), Kathleen, the mother of the eponymous boy walks Belfast thinking of her son, Albert, accused of murder on the other side of the world. Kathleen makes her way to St. George’s Church, a petition to spare her son’s life tucked inside an apron pocket, and she is returned to the lost River Farset that flows unseen beneath her:

The walk along High Street always makes her think of the River Farset that flows under the pavement, the water completely shrouded on its journey toward the junction with the River Lagan. She has never seen this river, it was covered over long before she was born, but just the idea of it there in the dark beneath her feet makes her imagine things that lie below the surface.

Here, the memory of the River Farset is an image of history that is lost but still open to the prospect of narrative, like the stream that still runs below Queen Street in Auckland, the novel’s other setting. As Kidman writes, ‘just the idea of it there in the dark’ is enough to unlock imagination. As the memory of the watercourse sparks Kathleen to recollect all that remains unseen, so historical fiction renders anew the living absences of our many pasts.


Photo credit: Kelly Ana Morey


Thom Conroy is the author of The Naturalist (2014) and The Salted Air (2016). He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University, and edited the 2017 anthology Home.

'NZ literature is such a vast and varied thing' - Pip Adam

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