HNSA2019: Jackie French

This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2019 Historical Novel Society of Australia conference. They should not be taken as a precise record, and any mistakes are mine. There are gaps in some of the discussions because of my hand-writing speed, or because I took a note but couldn’t remember the context around it. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.


In discussion with Jackie French, chaired by Jackie Ballantyne

French: “I’ve lost count of how many novels. I never set out to write a whole book. It’s too terrifying. I write scenes.”

French talked about her love of her piece of bush. “As you learn about country, you see the history of it and to an extent you predict the future of it.” Her family history taught her that the official history of Australia wasn’t the whole truth.

There was a discussion about French’s book, Let the Land Speak: A history of Australia – how the land created our nation, including the clematis highway going from the coast to her piece of bush. It’s over 20,000 years old, and the plants show the best way to walk between the two locations.

French: “Always tell the truth. Maybe not the whole truth but take care not to hurt people.”

The discussion shifted to clothing. Working women often wore their husbands trousers, while rich women wore fancy dresses that they couldn’t button up themselves.

Question on research and authenticity:

Read primary sources
– newsletters
– letters
– novels written at the time
– science

Avoid secondary sources as you don’t know what they got wrong or deliberately erased.

“If I’m bored while writing, then everyone reading it will be.”

Change can be frightening. Reading history shows that change is normal. When times are at their hardest, you’ll still find good people.

Everyone in this room is a survivor. Your ancestors survived.
– war
– plague
– ice ages
Humans are good at challenges. Humans are terrible at being bored, and it’s an epidemic now. If they, the youth, have the courage to face what is happening now (climate change), and to work out ways to survive and to mitigate the problems, they will never be bored.

There was a discussion on women’s work in WWI and WW2. “We were there doing the work and it wasn’t acknowledged by many.” Discussion on informal hospitals run by women, in their homes, and outside the military hospitals. Discussion on MI5 and the leaks from inside due to German sympathisers. Women had their own spy networks outside the formal system. Secretaries had enormous power in WW2 – their bosses were often alcoholics or very old – and the secretaries did the organising work.

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