Clare Wright’s history of the Ballarat Goldfields, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, is one of the six books which have been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. Described in the citation as “compulsively readable”, due to its “lively, warm, engaging narrative voice”, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is a history which reveals the influence of women in the events leading to the Eureka Stockade.
In an interview for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, Wright talks about how she wrote The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, the response of readers to her book and the place of women in Australian history.
After she wrote her first draft Wright turned to work as a consultant historian as well as working on her history documentary for ABC television, Utopia Girls. “This experience definitely contributed to the final shape of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka”, said Wright. “I had learnt a lot about the power of narrative, as well as the audience’s need to be emotionally engaged in the experience, to be invested in the question of ‘what happens next’. A lot of material in my first draft was inherently interesting, and hadn’t been substantially written about before, but didn’t actually drive the story or principle ideas and characters in any way. That stuff all had to go.”
“Television writing taught me to kill my darlings – brutally, mercilessly.”
The writing style that Wright employs in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is distinctive. One of the Challenge reviewers, Janine Rizzetti, has commented, “…it is a particularly visual work, staged and narrated much as a lengthy documentary might be. The chapters are divided into scenes, marked with asterisks, as the action swings from one character to another, and many conclude with ‘cliff-hanger’ comments that lead onto the next scene.” Wright explains that she chose the writing style she would use in the book carefully.
“I wrote The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka in a very visual and orchestral way right from the start. To me, it was always about the multiplicity of voices and the accumulation of tiny details that would bring the reader closer to experiencing what I experienced every single day that I sat in the archives and immersed myself in Ballarat circa 1854.”
“The book is loud and busy precisely because the diggings were a cacophony of noise and a riot of colour and movement. Every visitor to the goldfields commented on that fact in their letters, diaries and published accounts. The language I’ve employed as the conductor of that orchestra of archival voices is also quite bold and saucy. This felt totally appropriate to the spirit of the age. There was a lot of sex, a lot of death, a lot of risk-taking. It emboldened me to take risks with my own writing.”
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka challenges the traditional account of the history of the Ballarat goldfields. We have been given the impression that the goldfields were overwhelmingly a male preserve. In her book Wright demonstrates that there were many women on the goldfields and they played an important part in this society as owners of businesses, gold miners and participants in the events leading to the massacre at the Eureka Stockade.
Wright has received a wide range of feedback from her readers. Some, she says, are “almost surprised that history can be so fun”. “There are lots of people who thank me for putting their own family histories into a greater context” she notes. “Now they understand the sort of hard-scrabble lives their great (great) grandmothers lived on the gold fields and appreciate their courage and determination all the more.”
“I get other women… who come up to me at Writers Festivals to express their gratitude for getting the women’s side of the story out there into the general public consciousness; it’s almost like they feel personally heard.” Wright notes that these readers are often older women.
“But probably the most common response I get is people saying that reading The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka is a paradoxical experience: hugely satisfying, but at the same time weirdly unsettling because it makes them wonder how many other traditional national narratives we haven’t been told the full story about.”
Wright’s work indicates that are probably many fascinating stories from Australian history that remain to be told. Yet we have known for many years that traditional history tends to exclude or diminish the stories of women, indigenous people, the poor, people of diverse heritage etc. Surely after all this time the histories of iconic events such as the Eureka Stockade should have included the women who were an important part of it?
“I think academic historians have been marvellous at researching and writing about Australian women’s history”, responds Wright, “but popular history has definitely been less successful”.
As senior lecturer in modern history, Paula Michaels, explained in The Conversation this week, academic history is an important source for those writing popular histories. Clare Wright’s comment suggests that writers of popular histories could find plenty of good material if they explored the vibrant womens’ history that academic historians have uncovered.
“Our mainstream national heroes, stories and preoccupations tend to be heavily and overtly masculine in authorship, orientation and presumed audience appeal. The content of trade publishing and other cultural productions like television histories favour supposedly ‘safe’ commercial topics like sport, biography, larrikins and war.”
Addressing these issues is one of the goals of Wright’s work. “My interest has not been so much to subvert the topics but to offer different interpretations of who the protagonists in those stories have really been, using evidence-based research to write more socially inclusive histories.”
The projects Wright is now working on demonstrate her interest in bringing this type of history to Australians in accessible formats. She is writing a young adult version of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka which will be published by Text Publishing in 2015. Wright has also been working on a documentary series titled The War That Changed Us which will be aired on ABC 1 in late July. This series will tell the story of Australia during World War I both on the battle front and at home. Another project which Wright is starting to research is about the history of Australian mining. Wright explains that this will consider race, gender, ethnicity and environmentalism, “and it’ll be a good read” she hastens to add.
Women write books of all genres. The shortlisting of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka in this year’s Stella Prize helps to demonstrate that that women produce well-written and well researched histories that deserve their popularity. Since it was published at the end of October last year The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka has gone into reprint.
Clare Wright, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text Publishing, 2013).
The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge has received two reviews of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, from Janine Rizzetti and Yvonne Perkins. You can read more about Clare Wright and her work on her website. Read the judges citations for the other shortlisted books on The Stella Prize website. The winner will be announced in Sydney on 29th April.
I’m Yvonne Perkins. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and sharing history on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.