The Secret River and the Masks of White Australian Identity

October 20, 2015

Written by Michael Heald

The recent television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, is, in my view, quite a triumph. The novel itself, you may recall, achieved some notoriety when the historian Inga Clendinnen challenged its historical veracity. Grenville was lucid in the face of such an astonishing lack of understanding of the nature of art and story.

The Secret River follows the lives of Will and Sal Thornhill, from their impoverished struggles in nineteenth century London, through transportation to Australia, and their rise to the status of substantial land holders on the Hawkesbury River.

I will focus only on one short scene here, which I believe creates a dramatic image which can become a powerful moment in this country’s reflection on its colonial past. This occurs after the main character, Will, had been swept up in a punitive raid on a local indigenous camp, an episode of vicious mayhem, men, women, children and babies slaughtered, along with several of the white attackers. The aim of the raid, as far as Will was concerned, was to let the indigenous group know that they had to clear out and not try to visit his farm anymore, which was a part of their traditional country. Events had quickly spiraled out of control, however.

The next morning, Will, back on his own property, is down on his haunches at the edge of the Hawkesbury river, trying to wash the blood from his clothes and hands, a la Macbeth. He becomes aware of someone watching him, and turns his head to see that it is one of his sons, the younger one, who had always been drawn to the indigenous people, had gone off to play with the children, and been taught how to start a fire by one of the elders, despite parental warnings and prohibitions. This is in contrast to the other son who was quick to parrot the ubiquitous racism of the time and adopt a violently adversarial stance. To his more open-hearted son, then, Will raises a still blood-streaked finger to his lips: shush, don’t say anything about this.

Then he is squatting by the fire outside the family’s primitive hut, feeding it scraps in a dark, preoccupied manner. His wife, Sal, is standing with folded arms, observing. She asks where several men have gone, and Will tells her that one of them has run off, and two are dead. He explains: ‘…see we went for a little parlez vous, to er, to let ’em know we weren’t to be scared off our land. Well, Smasher got angry, and things got a little bit ‘eated. All’s right now, but. Both sides know now things ‘ave to change. There’s plenty a land out there left for them, so…But they won’t be bothering us no more.’

Sal looks perturbed . She says “I ‘ope you ain’t done nothing, on account o’ me pushing at yer, Will.’  Will keeps staring down at the flames, looking as consumed by recent memories as he was at the river. He has not been able to make eye contact with his wife during the conversation so far, but now he looks up, holds her eyes for a moment, then breaks into a broad smile, and says in bright, jaunty cockney: “‘course not. What you on about, Sal my girl?”

Ok, a denial, but here’s the clinching moment which allows this scene to reach a more profound level. Sal is not fooled. As her husband utters his jolly, cajoling, unfaltering protestations of innocence, her fear goes up a notch: she lets out a little gasp, her eyes rove about in panic, and she seems to be hyper-ventilating. It is as if she is tumbling silently, flailing, into an abyss of moral despair.

Thus, it is as though we are witnessing the very formation of the defining masks which Australian culture has come to wear, the first adoption and solidification of attitudes which have become characteristic of white Australian occupation of this continent: a protestation of happy-go-lucky, she’ll-be-right pioneer spirit which obscures responsibility for violent dispossession; and unspoken moral panic.

For his part, it is as if Will had been searching his mind and body for a way forward, a way out of the solitary confinement in his guilt. There seemed the possibility of his being honest with his wife: the tone of her questioning was slightly chiding but also caring, inviting a confidence. But instead, he hitches a ride out of the dilemma on a voice, an idiom, an attitude, which allows him to avoid the issue. His performance is like the continuing of his cockney identity, but now it is felt by the audience as impersonation. And of course both the accent and attitude are very close to, and recognizable as, Australian: cockney lad blurs into Aussie larrikin. The casting assists this effect: Oliver Jackson-Cohen has features which closely resemble a kind of typical Australian male – square jaw, broad shoulders.

The following scene, some years later, displays the large, established homestead with which Will and Sal have replaced the crude shack which had hunched behind Will’s blithe denial of wrong-doing, manifestly the reward for his deceit and denial, the fruit of murderous dispossession.  

This is very well done indeed. I did feel, however, that the TV series’ omission of the first section of the novel, in which we suffer through Will’s and Sal’s struggles in London, is a crucial error of judgment. The physical privations and social humiliations which they endure at the hands of the class-based English society of that time, is key to our understanding of Will’s subsequent overwhelming desire to own land. His willingness, in Australia, to brutally force the indigenous people out is in direct proportion to the ruthlessness of his own disenfranchisement in the land of his birth. However familiar such scenarios may be to us, from the writings of Dickens et al, they are still an essential preface to the main drama which The Secret River unfolds to us: they need to be witnessed directly, and I would suggest a prequel be made to correct this error.


Michael Heald is a Literature lecturer. His fourth book of poetry, ‘The Moving World’, appeared in 2011 with Fremantle Press.

One Response to “The Secret River and the Masks of White Australian Identity”

  1. […] mythological focus” in order to gain deeper appreciation of the social impact of art. Next, in The Secret River and the Masks of White Australian Identity, Michael Heald by critically reviewing a scene from the recent television adaptation of Kate […]

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