Joan Makes History
Joan Makes History

Joan Makes History

by Kate Grenville

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This wonderfully irreverent novel rewrites Australia's history from the perspective of a woman who has never been mentioned in the school books. She is a wife and mother of no great distinction, but in the life of her imagination she is at all the big moments of Australia's past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702255342
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 01/01/2015
Series: UQP Modern Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Kate Grenville is the author of Dark Places, winner of the Victorian Premiere’s Prize; Dreamhouse; The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction; The Lieutenant; Lilian’s Story, winner of the Vogel/Australian Prize; and Searching the Secret River, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Her long experience as a creative writing teacher led her to publish The Writing Book and Writing from Start to Finish.

Read an Excerpt

Joan Makes History

By Kate Grenville

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 1988 Kate Grenville
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5534-2



My conception: It was not night, no, Europeans have no shame and do not trouble to wait until dark for lust. It was the middle of a hot afternoon in the first year of the century, with the sun blazing down outside on planks steaming and adding their salt dampness to air that was already too thick to breathe. It was afternoon, and the rhythm of a thin woman and a thick balding man was attuned, after so many months, to the restless rocking and shifting of the boat under the mattress – oh, that mattress and its manifold rustlings! – on which they coupled.

This was a ship built for the transport of many in cheapness rather than of a few in luxury. It was a mean and cramped ship, a ship of tiny airless cabins with peeling walls, cracked ceilings, and dripping pipes in the corners that conveyed other people's plumbing with a rush and rattle late at night.

Those seedy cabins had occasionally heard the roiling and difficult syllables, the guttural hawkings and strange sibiliances of some of Europe's lesser-known languages, and had echoed even more to the ingenious obscenities and sly rude wit of many folk from Lambeth, Bow and Cheapside. They had echoed to the sighs of gentlewomen in reduced circumstances, weeping into embroidered lawn and hankering for home: weeping, but knowing that their chance of husband and hearth, livelihood and life worth living would not be found in the genteel squalor of some seedy out-of-season Brighton boarding house, but here, in this savage new land that wanted everyone: carpenters, cooks, governesses, dentists and hopefuls of no defined skill.

In many languages, the voyagers squeezed into their cabins had spoken of hope, of futures, of the blank sheet of new possibilities waiting for them. They had left behind the squalor of cities so old the very cockroaches were descended from those that had been crushed beneath the buckled feet of Goethe and Shakespeare: they had come with a few plates or bits of embroidered garments, leather-bound books with silverfish in the endpapers, or an engraving or two of Tower Bridge or the Danube, with a pair of candlesticks or their grandfather's chased silver double hunter, with their love of dumplings and pale ale, with their heads full of things in dark forests and wolves on cold plains, or of the way the Thames looked on a spring morning at Wapping: with all this useless baggage they had come, bursting with hope, to the Antipodes for a new life in a new land.

And what a land! Here, they had been told, the sun rose on the wrong side of the sky, stones lay upside down and the trees grew so thick together you could walk for miles along their crests. Now, on this glassy afternoon, their tiresome ship was passing between the headlands that were the gates to that new life, and all those weary folk were gesticulating at the foreign gum trees and asking their hearts what the future held.

My coming into existence was the main thing that made that day so special, but I am a person of magnanimous turn of mind, not one to hog the stage of history. Up on deck those muddles of mixed people gaped at their first sight of their future, but down below in their cabin, my thin woman and her brown-eyed man celebrated their new life in the way they loved to celebrate anything at all, or nothing in particular.

That balding man whispered in an oily language to that thin woman under him: Darling, he whispered, and caressed the bit of cheek beside her mouth, that favourite bit of his wife's face. Darling, we have arrived, he said, and for the last time they heard the mattress rustle and creak under them, and the pipes in the corner mocking them. It was an episode appropriate to such a significant moment: while my father groaned and my mother wept with the storms of pleasure he gave her, a vigorous questing tadpole was nosing into the skin of a ripe egg waiting to be courted, and in that moment's electric interchange, I, Joan, had my beginning.

Those two humans who had come together with lewd and effortful noises to conceive me, who were they, making history in a sound of sighs? Well, there was a thin woman, and a man chunky like a block of chopped wood, and balding so the dome of his cranium was egglike. The thin woman was thin by nature, not design, was in fact not in any way a woman of design, her long face, with its tanned-looking skin, having only its own features for adornment. She was a woman of narrow mobile lips with fine creases at their corners from years of finding things funny. When she smiled or laughed, gold glittered in that mouth, for back in the country they had left behind, that tiny country of werewolves and vampires, the father of the thin woman spent his days peering at molars, and loved nothing better than a bit of fine work on a gold inlay.

And the balding man, who was he? Just another stocky man in a lumpy cheap suit, with his father's signet ring on his little finger. He had always had a way of clutching at the handle of his heavy leather briefcase that had made the thin woman love him, there was such determination, and such innocent hope and purpose in that grip. In the briefcase, she had learned, was not much: a clean handkerchief, a notebook for great thoughts as they occurred, and a few bits of paper relating to enterprises that flickered and smouldered but never caught fire.

My love for you is hunger, he had whispered to the thin woman on the dentist's slippery couch, which during the day was the place where anxious folk squirmed and waited with their toothaches. My love for you is hope. What is your thinking about a new life in a new land? The thin woman loved this man in his suit that bulged and buckled, had loved him for a year or more, and had long ago decided that this was the man she wished to spend her life with. She was impatient with dentists and their cautions, their painstaking days fiddling with the endless decaying molars of folk stiff with the apprehension of pain, and was even willing to undergo the rigours of being foreign, and go to a new land on the bottom of the earth, to be with this man. He was a man of wit, a man given in a mild way to the extravagant gesture, and he was a man of intense brown eyes and a mouth that made most things plausible, but it was for none of this that the thin woman loved him. It was for his adoration of her that she loved him, knowing she would never again meet with a love like his.

My pink-scalped father panted, then, and groaned with the pain of adoring his wife, that no amount of penetrating her flesh could assuage, and while he panted and history was being made in the interior of a thin woman, other kinds of history were also being made.

In the new land they were approaching, men with frock-coats and small knowing eyes spoke of the birth of a nation, and thought with satisfaction of their fertile acres and the cash in their strongboxes. These were starchier folk, not eaters of garlic or wearers of rustic embroidery, they were folk who had never had to confront jellied eel, or the bailiff on an empty stomach. They were folk made uneasy by gesticulation and suspicious of too much hope: they were men in frock-coats and side-whiskers that hid the shape of their faces, they were women with heavy cheeks made bland by privilege.

The birth of a nation, the men brayed, from their mouths concealed under heavy moustaches that smelled of mutton. Our debt to the mother country, they intoned, and turned up their small eyes piously. They thought, or said they thought, that this was the moment at which this barbarous land was entering into its glory after a long and squalid beginning. In their folly they thought that was history. But the real history of that moment was known only to myself, where something as real as a human was being made.

No book has yet recorded that event, though whole forests have been sacrificed to all those men with their frock-coats and to princes burdened with frogging. The books are strangely silent on all that matters, so here I am to put them right: watch, and you will see history being made in front of your eyes.


Joan Makes History

Scene One

In the year 1770, the continent that would become known as Australia was claimed for Britain by James Cook in the Endeavour. This is history, and well known. Less well known is that I, Joan, was there in one of my many manifestations, alongside Cook. Here, told now for the first time, is the true and complete account of that famous event.

My husband the Captain, that famous man, has not had justice done to him in those portraits, and particularly not in those statues. He would never have stood in those grotesque postures, clutching a roll of bronze chart in front of his breeches in a somewhat suggestive way, as he is known to generations of sniggering children. He was a man of achievement, enough achievement to warrant moving his humble cottage stone by stone from the Old Country to the Antipodes. There are those who slyly hint that the cottage moved thus across the world was not the Captain's at all, but belonged to a pullet-breeding drunkard neighbour well known to him, and much disliked by him, and that the whole thing was a small joke at the expense of the colonials, but be that as it may. The Captain was a humble and agreeable man, his eyes mild and devoid of guile, and sharp enough to spot a man in a bush at fifty yards, although I knew, as most did not, that those fine eyes showed him only a world of variations on the colour grey.

There were those who thought that I, as his wife, should be languishing patiently in the Old Country for him. But I was there with him on his voyage, for we were inseparable in spite of every risk, a couple so attached we would rather sink together than swim alone.

I had long loved my Captain, and had proved several times previously that my love was willing to undergo the rigours of ship life and harsh latitudes, and even to go to frightening far-off places to be near him. My father, a man of excessive deliberation, who measured out his words with the same care he took with the powders and poisons he kept in the forbidden jars in the dispensary: he had not hidden how much he doubted that lad of mine ever making good, no matter how many of his father's candles he squandered, hunching over books late into the night. But I had had faith, or perhaps I did not much care. Whether or not that lad of mine would ever make anything of himself, that lad was the one I wanted.

For me, the Captain was the only man on board, but there were others: numberless grimy sailors, naturally, and the slightly less grimy officers, Stubbs and Devereux and the rest, with their sextants and charts and small anxieties over matters of discipline and dignity. And then there were the scientific gentlemen, come to observe the goings-on at the bottom of the world, and put things in bottles, and press things between paper. There was the pasty pudgy Swede, who seemed always a little out of breath even when sitting down, there were the artists, whose job it was to draw things and make a record of the oddities we hoped to encounter, and then there was the man of leisure, the dandy, the philanderer: the botanical gentleman.

On the day the ship sailed for parts unknown, he had come aboard lightly springing up the ladder. He had landed in front of me, pink in the cheeks, and stood before me with a pleased smile already in place. He was a small smooth man with a tight smile of some charm and tiny white teeth, and I could see that he thought himself irresistible to any creature in a skirt, and never missed the chance to charm whatever kind of female was at hand, in case she proved susceptible to later seduction.

I could see that the Captain felt no great love for this hummingbird of a man, with his quick eyes and brilliant waistcoat of silver brocade that shimmered in the sun, when good honest broadcloth, and a smile that was as rare as gold, were good enough for my plain Captain.

When the botanist was presented to me he held my hand in both of his – and what small soft hands his were, so that my own felt ragged and gigantic – and bent over it murmuring for much longer than was necessary to pay his respects. I caught enough of his low tones to know that he thought it worth his while to flatter me, and when his hyperbole came to an end he gazed at me in a way that a more foolish woman might have allowed to make her heart flutter. But I, as well as being a woman of considerable Yorkshire shrewdness, was a woman of great plainness of feature. I knew that no dandy in brocade would ever languish after me, and certainly not at first sight, as the sighing botanist was pretending to, so I turned away from his posturing and watched as England slid away behind us.

The mystery of our voyage, the end we all wondered about, was the Great South Land, one last bit of the globe on which, if it existed, no flag had yet been raised to claim ownership. They tried to conceive of their Great South Land, all those men in the great cabin of the ship, serious in their jackets and braid. They showed me their spidery maps, tracing with their forefingers the ghostly fringe of something that the Dutch and others had stumbled on and not wanted. They reported it the barrenest land they had ever seen, Stubbs of the long face reminded us. They did not want it, why should His Majesty? Stubbs of the lugubrious dewlaps, a good man with an astrolabe but no smiler, imagined this land as a long thin piece of sand and rock, providing nothing more rewarding than cliffs for foolhardy Dutchmen to smash themselves upon.

The Captain was more sanguine, and stood spinning his globe for me, demonstrating how the world was unbalanced for lack of a continent in the Southern Ocean. He dealt with the world gently: it was not only that the globe swinging so silkily under his palm was not his own property, but was that of His Majesty's Government: it was that the Captain handled the world with reverence, and his palm shaped itself around its comfortable curves as if warming it, coaxing it to bring forth its secrets and deliver to him the long-awaited Great South Land.

It may be nothing much, I warned him, not wanting him to suffer too great a disappointment. It may be a scattering of islands, nothing more, or a land of desert and stones. The Captain was a mild man, and not prone to saying no: rather he nodded in a vague sort of way, and said That is possible in a considering manner, so no one's feelings could be injured: but I knew that he was not discouraged, and that he hoped for great things from his Great South Land.

That land lay somewhere ahead of us, if it lay at all, steaming and swelling, growing humid and huge in our imaginings with its jungles and waterfalls, its waiting nuggets and tigers. Towards that patient land our tiny vessel bounced and leaped, rocked and surged through the ocean swells, straining at every bit of rope and every creaking block and tackle, bristling with beings.

I clung to a shroud, peering westward, for I was sick of sea breezes and strange ports now, and impatient to see that Great South Land. It was proving more elusive than anything so great should have been, so that we folk on the upper deck were coming to know each other rather better than we wished.

Oh, that botanical gentleman! He became tiresome, finding me alone in sheltered corners of the deck, standing there blocking my sun while he flattered and invented and gave me many fine glances from under his immaculate eyebrows. Ah, he would sigh, Ah my dear, if you only knew how I lie awake during these long nights! The look he gave me was intended to cause my pulse to race and my head to fill with inflamed imaginings. But the simpering botanist buttered no parsnips with me. I knew my sturdy Yorkshire face gave him no encouragement, and did not bother to conceal that he was nothing more to me than an insect buzzing at my ear or a pup whining around my ankles.

I had not always been a woman so impervious to blandishment. It was all the easier to resist the botanist because on another occasion I had failed to resist a man of the same lying and wheedling nature. I had betrayed the Captain once, and been forgiven, and I had seen with fear how close I had been to losing him.

So the botanist got short shrift from me: such a fop was repugnant, but even if he had not been, I would have continued to spurn his advances. I gave him nothing: not a look, not a smile, not a single touch of flesh, only the back of my hard hand, when on some pretext he would seize it and press his lips on it. He got nothing from me, and I saw how the sluggish Swede watched, and provoked the botanist to further excesses with disparaging remarks on his entire lack of success.


Excerpted from Joan Makes History by Kate Grenville. Copyright © 1988 Kate Grenville. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author biography,
Other titles by Kate Grenville,
Title page,
1. Joan,
2. Joan Makes History,
3. Joan,
4. Joan Makes History,
5. Joan,
6. Joan Makes History,
7. Joan,
8. Joan Makes History,
9. Joan,
10. Joan Makes History,
11. Joan,
12. Joan Makes History,
13. Joan,
14. Joan Makes History,
15. Joan,
16. Joan Makes History,
17. Joan,
18. Joan Makes History,
19. Joan,
20. Joan Makes History,
21. Joan,
22. Joan Makes History,
23. Joan,
Imprint page,

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Joan Makes History 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
rainpebble on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"So many lives! Being explorers or prisoners of the Crown, hairdressers or tree-choppers, washerwomen or judges, ladies of leisure or bareback riders, photographers or mothers or mayoresses.I, Joan, have been all these things. I am known to my unimaginative friends simply as Joan, born when this century was new, and now a wife, a mother, and a grandmother: Joan who has cooked dinners, washed socks, and swept floors while history happened elsewhere. What my friends do not know is that I am also every woman who has ever drawn breath: there has been a Joan cooking, washing, and sweeping through every event of history, although she has not been mentioned in the books until now."Joan Makes History is a book full of snippits of cross sections of life. Many, many different times, places & lifestyles are described wherein 'Joan' lives, works, loves, ........... makeing a difference or not. It is rather a confusing book at the beginning until you figure out just what is going on and then it becomes a living, breathing thing in your hands. The book is not wonderful but it is very good and I had to get into Kate Grenville's rhythm of writing as I do with so many Australian writers. There were times in the stories where Joan wanted to simply cry out: 'You fools, do you not see I am Joan, making history?' She ends her book with this: 'Long after I am dirt, there will still be such people screeching, singing and sneezing away, and I will always be part of them. Stars blazed, protozoa coupled, apes levered themselves upright, generations of women and men lived and died, and like them all I, Joan, have made history.'I gave this book 3 1/2 stars.
usyd23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Feminist rewritings of history are usually the kind of thing that brings me out in hives, but I gave this a go on the strength of the excellent The Secret River. Joan proves to be an exuberant, senual and engaging narrator, both when she lives the life of a ¿normal¿ wife and mother, and when she materialises in various roles at important moments in Australian history.It was only when she adopts the role of a man for a while that I realised I was reading a take on Woolf¿s Orlando.Good stuff.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slytherins go here.