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The Secret River

The Secret River Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kate Grenville's The Secret River. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kate Grenville

The Secret River is actually inspired by Kate Grenville's own convict ancestor, Solomon Wiseman. He was brought to Australia from England as punishment for theft and, like William Thornhill, never returned to England. Kate Grenville's father was a judge and a barrister in Sydney, while her mother was a pharmacist. After completing her BA at the University of Sydney, Grenville edited documentaries for Film Australia. In the late 1970s she lived in London and Paris. During this time, she did some film editing to support her writing career. After attending the University of Colorado at Boulder for a MA in Creative Writing, she returned to Sydney. Her first book, the short story collection Bearded Ladies, was published in 1984 and was received well by critics. She published her first novel, Lilian's Story, in 1985. Lilian's Story was adapted into a film ten years later, and the film version achieved similar critical success. Grenville teaches creative writing and was very involved in writing several of the reference texts commonly used in creative writing classes and workshops. She lives in Sydney with her husband.
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Historical Context of The Secret River

Europeans first observed Australia and met with Aboriginal people in 1606. In 1770, the English Lieutenant James Cook charted the eastern coast of Australia and claimed it for King George III. This land became New South Wales and over the next 30 years, ships from England brought free settlers as well as convicts to settle it. Officially, New South Wales was a penal colony from 1778-1823, which meant that it was populated primarily by men like William Thornhill who were convicted of crimes in England and sent to Australia for the duration of their sentences. Initially, relations with the Aboriginal people were relatively positive and based on trade, though interactions soon soured as the new arrivals violently took over land and pushed the native people away from white settlements. Though Thornhill and his fictional companions in Australia suggest the mindset that the Aboriginal people don't actually have any claim to the land, that idea wasn't put into law until 1835. At that point, the governor of New South Wales issued a proclamation stating that prior to British colonization, the land belonged to nobody, which effectively denied Aboriginal people any legal claim to the land. This idea persisted in various laws until 1992 when Australia's High Court decided Mabo v. Queensland, which finally recognized "native title" (the notion that the native people have legal rights to the land). The character of William Thornhill is based loosely on the historical Solomon Wiseman, who settled Wiseman's Ferry on the Hawkesbury River in the early 19th century. Grenville has said that many of the events of the novel are based on actual accounts of events from the era, and the Governor's proclamation allowing settlers to use violence against the Aborigines is transcribed word for word from the original 1816 proclamation by Governor Macquarie.

Other Books Related to The Secret River

The Secret River is the first in a trilogy known as The Colonial Trilogy. The second book, The Lieutenant begins in 1788 and follows an English lieutenant who learns the Gadigal language from a young Aboriginal girl. Grenville has described the novel as a mirror image of The Secret River, as it shows that it is possible to bridge the language gap and form a respectful relationship between white settlers and natives. The third book, Sarah Thornhill, continues the story told in The Secret River: the titular character Sarah Thornhill is William Thornhill's youngest daughter, and the novel follows her as she learns about her family's dark past. Grenville also wrote a companion to The Secret River titled Searching for the Secret River, which details her research for the novel. The Secret River is often compared stylistically and thematically to Thomas Kelly's 1972 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Based on true events of the early twentieth century, it follows an Aboriginal man who commits murder and goes into hiding. The nonfiction book The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes is one of the best accounts of the colonization of Australia.
Key Facts about The Secret River
  • Full Title: The Secret River
  • When Written: 2000-2005
  • Where Written: New South Wales, Australia
  • When Published: 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: London, England and the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia; 1777 to the mid 1820s
  • Climax: When Thornhill participates in the massacre of Aborigines at Thomas Blackwood's homestead
  • Antagonist: Though the antagonist is primarily poverty and the English justice system, Thornhill himself, as well as his fellow settlers on the river, are an arguably larger threat to both the Aboriginal people and to their own sense of humanity.
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Secret River

Drafts. The Secret River took five years and twenty drafts to write. The first handwritten draft of the novel was included in a 2010 exhibition at the Mitchell Library in New South Wales titled 100 Objects, which was part of the Mitchell Library's centenary celebration.

A River of Blood. The title for The Secret River is borrowed from the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner. He wrote about a "secret river of blood flowing through Australia's history," which refers to the violent treatment of Aboriginal people by white colonizers.