When Joan Makes History was commissioned for the bicentenary year of 1988 it caught the public attention for bringing up two questions about a woman’s perspective in writing, the first being the relative merit (compared with other themes) of writing about the material of people’s private lives: love and other emotions, sex and domesticity; and the second being the issue of history being ‘his’ story, with its marginalisation of female characters.
The main character is 20th century Joan, born at the time of Federation, and every second chapter records Joan’s memoirs of growing up with great hopes of standing out in the world, her marriage, a stint in the bush, a separation and reconciliation, followed by motherhood. Interspersed are short stories about other Joans, living at various points in history from 1770 to Federation. These other Joans range from Mrs Captain Cook on the Endeavour, to an Aboriginal girl meeting Bass and Flinders on the beach at Wattamolla, a convict woman, a governor’s wife, various servants and a part-aboriginal lass with a mind to joining the circus.
The other Joans are each going through a similar stage of life as the main Joan in the preceding chapter and each of these Joans is an onlooker to some aspect of our history, such as the stolen generations of aboriginal children or Ned Kelly.
There are also parallels between the stages of Joan’s life and the stages in the story of our nation. The story begins with Joan’s conception (on an immigrant ship entering the headlands of Sydney Harbour) which is paired with the arrival of Captain Cook. It ends with Joan’s daughter cutting the apron strings as she leaves home, which corresponds with the opening of Federal Parliament (May 1901) ceremony when a colonial-born invitee decides to spit the dummy on the prevailing pattern of deference to rank, etiquette and English gentry in favour of equality, fairness and the common people of Australia.
Has Joan makes History stood the test of time? I think: yes and no. Since then, Grenville’s use of minor characters as focii has been much-copied by other writers – and this has been a feature of the post-modernist style – so reading the book, even for the first time, no longer brings the appeal of coming across something new and innovative that it would have, 30 years ago. There is however, a lot of pleasure to be found in the small details of her writing and the word pictures thus created; on the other hand, the solipsism, the unrelenting focus on the personal inner life of 20th century Joan (with not a word of the Depression, world wars or any other events) would not be to everyone’s taste. .