Background to Writing THE PHILOSOPHER’S DAUGHTERS
THE PHILOSOPHER’S DAUGHTERS is a tale of two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into remote outback Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and savage dispossession.
The idea for this new novel just wouldn’t let me alone. I kept imagining 1890s London and two strong young women, the daughters of a moral philosopher. Someone like John Stuart Mill, a great advocate for the emancipation of women. Someone who gives the girls a relatively modern upbringing. Then I thought of altering the sisters’ circumstances so that they separately choose to journey into remote and wild Australia. What might happen to them? How might they see life at the ‘frontier’ once they are confronted with the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous population? How would their characters develop as they faced danger?
The late nineteenth century has always held for me a particular fascination. My ancestors came to Australia from England and Scotland before Federation in 1901, arriving in the colonies of Sydney and Melbourne. I grew up intrigued by the thought that Australia once comprised small colonies teetering on the edge of the vast continent, and I think that’s one reason why wanted to travel back to the 1890s in order to view it.
The second half of the novel, set in 1893, mostly takes place in the Northern Territory of South Australia. Together with the top of Western Australia, this was one of the last areas of the continent to be appropriated by white colonisers. At that time and in that part of Australia, the frontier wars were still being fought, largely over the establishment of the cattle industry, although they weren’t recognised as frontier wars back then. Indeed, only relatively recently has the full extent of settlement massacres been documented. See this article: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng- interactive/2019/mar/04/massacre-map-australia-the-killing-times-frontier-wars
In doing the research for this novel, I was aware that, for our history, we rely upon the words of others. And when we read those words we should ask ourselves whose story is missing. Typically, it will be the story of those who held no power at the time. The women and of course the Indigenous inhabitants.
The Northern Territory (NT) has long held a particular fascination for me. This began with my father’s reminiscences of the years he spent there as a very young man after the 1942 bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. I visited the Northern Territory for the first time in 2003, where in a Darwin hotel I witnessed casual racism that I found quite shocking. Since then, I’ve travelled widely in the NT, being fortunate to visit some remote Indigenous communities with my two daughters, both of whom are residents of the NT, one living extremely remotely on an Indigenous community and the other in Darwin.
Writing an historical novel gives one a marvellous excuse to delve into the past, to read around that period, as well as to take little excursions in other directions. For example, in some of my background reading for The Philosopher's Daughters, I came across a description of a cricket match in Darwin in 1908, written by Fred Blakeley. This encapsulated for me the era and the racism, amongst other things.
Reading Blakeley’s account gave me the idea of including a cricket match in The Philosopher's Daughters. My cricket match, written from both sisters’ perspectives, is a very different cricket match to Fred Blakeley’s. And it forms a useful framing device for the start of the sisters’ journeys into the NT outback.
The Philosopher's Daughters. is written only from the sisters’ viewpoints. Since they are very different in spite of their common upbringing, their twin viewpoints allowed the narrative to be more nuanced than if I’d been writing from the perspective of just one. As a woman of European extraction, I would never choose to write from the viewpoint of an Aboriginal Australian person. While I can try to imagine what their experiences might be like and feel empathy for their history and treatment at the hands of colonisers and beyond, I feel we have already stolen enough from them without stealing their stories.
Pre-publication endorsements for The Philosopher's Daughters
A lyrical tale of wild, frontier Australia. Evocative, insightful, thought-provoking.
Karen Viggers, author
Booth is superb at the small detail that creates a life, and the large one that gives it meaning. Marion Halligan, author
Delicately handled historical drama with a theme of finding self, both in relationships and art, backed by issues on race relations in Australia and women’s rights.
Tom Flood, author and editor