The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Part 6: Mr. Thornhill's Villa Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the following ten years, the river itself doesn't change. New men move to Smasher and Spider's places, and Thornhill buys Sagitty's place and 100 acres that includes Darkey Creek. It's called Thornhill's Creek now. The natives no longer bother the settlers, so the settlers flourish on the river. Thornhill has paid off the Hope and had a larger boat built. Thornhill's Point is now 300 acres with hogs, cattle, and grain. The Thornhill estate feeds the chain gangs, and Thornhill is treated like a king. He watches the river with his telescope, and Sal is famous for her Christmas parties.
Ten years in the future, the power dynamic has shifted enough that the natives don't pose a threat any longer. Even though the massacre was grossly unfair and cruel, it served its purpose of making sure the white settlers were able to lay claim to the land. Now, Thornhill is truly like a king: others see him now as he always wished to be seen. He doesn't have to perform his status the same way anymore, because people accept it as fact.
Themes
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Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
An Irishman named Devine built a stone villa for Mr. Thornhill. Thornhill and Sal call it Cobham Hall after the place where Sal's mother worked before she married. It's built on top of the fish carving in the rock cliff. The stone walls are 18 inches thick, and there's a staircase that can be drawn up like a drawbridge in case of attack.
Cobham Hall provides Sal and Thornhill an outlet to create their own version of London, just as they ended up doing in their stories they told each other about returning to London. The fact that it is built like a fortress, however, places it firmly in the "unsafe" wild of New South Wales.
Themes
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Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
The villa isn't exactly what Mr. Thornhill had in mind, and parts of it aren't quite right. The stone steps leading to the veranda are awkward and not imposing, and the stone lions that he ordered to go on the gateposts look domestic instead of grotesque. Thornhill called them perfect, but Sal caught his eye and knew he was disappointed. Thornhill had the lions put higher than originally planned so people can't see them well, but they send the same message that this is Thornhill's home.
Cobham Hall's imperfections mirror the imperfect nature of Thornhill's success: his success came about as a result of the massacre, a tragic and violent event. Further, the imperfections also reflect Thornhill's feeling that he is an imposter. It looks like a gentleman's residence but isn't quite right, just as Thornhill now looks like a gentleman (and goes by Mr. Thornhill) but doesn't truly feel like one.
Themes
Social Order, Hierarchy, and Class Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
Cobham Hall is a grand residence. Sometimes Mr. Thornhill wonders if he's a gentleman now, and thinks that it feels like a dream. Sometimes, he thinks of the fish carving swimming in the rock under the house. He knows that it won't fade, since it's covered. Other drawings in the forest are fading with no natives around to redraw the lines.
Again, building Cobham Hall on top of the fish drawing is a way of erasing the fact that the Aborigines were ever here. It's also an active and intentional form of erasure, unlike the other drawings fading in the forest because of the weather. However, it also reminds Thornhill of the natives who were here before him.
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Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Sal's tally marks are eventually covered by new tree bark. She keeps the roof tile from London and sometimes talks about going home, but London as home is just an idea. Both Sal and Mr. Thornhill understand that they'll never go home to London, not least because their children all believe that New South Wales is home. Sal will never leave her children, so Mr. Thornhill got her everything she needed to make a home on the Hawkesbury. They have plush furniture and Sal has a paisley shawl from India. The shawl would've cost a year's worth of earnings in London. Thornhill also gives Sal a pair of green silk slippers.
Sal has finally accepted that she has the power to make this place home now that Thornhill has the money to do so. This suggests that with enough money, home can be created anywhere—as long as the right people are there to fill it. The silk slippers signify to Thornhill that he's made something of himself, as they refer back to the gentlewoman he ferried as an apprentice.
Themes
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Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Thornhill agrees to build Sal a stone wall around the garden, with only one gate. The wall pleases Sal, and she plants an English garden inside. Mr. Thornhill imports turf from Ireland, and Sal plants daffodils and roses. She longs for trees, so Mr. Thornhill buys poplars to line the road up to the villa. Sal tends to the trees and the garden carefully, but nothing thrives except for a geranium from Mrs. Herring. Most of the trees die, and Sal walks down to the living ones in the evenings. Now, ten years later, Sal has had one more baby, Dolly, and has grown stout in her older age. Mr. Thornhill notices that the calluses he once had on his hands are now no more than thick skin.
The death of Sal's plants and trees shows that as much as Sal tries to create the sense that she's in England, she isn't: this is Australia, and her husband's money can't make plants grow. They also symbolize her own sense of rootlessness. Though she does think of New South Wales as her home now, she doesn't have the deep sense of attachment to this place that she did to London. London is still home in her heart, even if Cobham Hall is home in practice.
Themes
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Mr. Thornhill had two portraits of himself painted. One hangs in the parlor, one is hidden under the stairs. The one under the stairs was a bad experience. The artist asked Mr. Thornhill his story as he painted, and Mr. Thornhill's story was that he was born in Kent and accused of stealing French brandy. The story came from Loveday, who had moved on to a story involving a young girl and a false accusation. The man in the painting looked more like the artist than Mr. Thornhill. The artist had mocked Mr. Thornhill's desire to hold a book and had painted it upside down.
The way that the narrator talks about the men's stories shows that the Hawkesbury truly allows these men to escape their pasts and their real stories: it's a different system where this borrowed story is entirely plausible. Thornhill's desire to hold a book is indicative of his desire to look like educated gentry. The artist's jab reminds Thornhill of the times when he didn't understand language—either in written form in London, or spoken on the Hawkesbury.
Themes
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The portrait that hangs in the parlor was done by an "old colonialist," and shows Mr. Thornhill holding a telescope. The expression on Mr. Thornhill's face looks as though he's surprised at where his life has taken him.
The telescope in this painting recalls the watching woods Thornhill felt at the massacre. It reminds him that, although he's successful now, his situation is precarious.
Themes
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Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
After the massacre, the Sydney Gazette had run a story that wasn't false, but wasn't exactly true either. It didn't mention the dying natives that Mr. Thornhill remembers. When he'd returned home to Sal, she'd been waiting. He told her that they'd spoken to the natives and shown them the guns, and the natives left. He assured her that they were gone for good, and she looked away for a while before saying that she hoped Thornhill hadn't done something. Thornhill brushed her off and washed his hands at her prodding.
Sal certainly knows that Thornhill is lying to her that he merely showed the natives the guns, but Thornhill's unwillingness to tell the truth shows that he knows he has to bear the weight of his memory alone. The guilt is his burden to carry, even though Sal's hope that Thornhill didn't do anything suggests that she has a burden of guilt to carry as well.
Themes
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Thornhill wished that Sal would say something, but she never did. She unpacked their things and continued with her life. She stopped making marks on the tree after Dolly got sick. Thornhill noticed this but said nothing. He thinks that his silence is part of the silence between them that began when he returned from Blackwood's. Thornhill thinks sometimes that he didn't realize that unsaid words could create so much distance between two people.
The consequence of not sharing his life, his dreams, and his thoughts with Sal is a sense that the relationship is closed and somewhat businesslike, rather than open and affectionate. This in turn robs both Thornhill and Sal of the intimacy that helped make home feel like home and cements Thornhill's place as a perpetual immigrant.
Themes
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Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Now, Blackwood still lives in his hut. Mr. Thornhill occasionally takes Blackwood food and tobacco, and glances at the spot where he'd burned all the bodies. Nothing grows there. Blackwood refuses to speak to Mr. Thornhill, and although Mr. Thornhill listens for Blackwood's woman and child, he never hears them.
Now, Blackwood's silence speaks volumes. Mr. Thornhill's continued offerings serve as an apology for the massacre, while Blackwood's silence says that Thornhill will never be forgiven.
Themes
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Dick moves into Blackwood's hut with him. Some on the river suggest that Mr. Thornhill sent Dick to take care of Blackwood, and Mr. Thornhill doesn't correct them. Dick had run away not long after the massacre, and when Thornhill had found him at Blackwood's, Dick had refused to look his father in the eye. Now eighteen, Dick takes Blackwood's rum up and down the river and sometimes stops at Thornhill's Point to see Sal, but he avoids his father. Thornhill thinks that Dick became an okay waterman after all. Newcomers to the river sometimes think that Dick is Blackwood's son, and it cuts Mr. Thornhill and makes him ache.
When Thornhill doesn't insist on correcting others on the river, he accepts that Dick's story of what happened at the massacre is different and much less flattering than Thornhill would like to admit. Allowing the false stories to act as truth allows Thornhill to avoid admitting the nature of his participation to anyone, and he continues to pay the price when he hears that people think Dick is Blackwood’s son.
Themes
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Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
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The general sentiment among the gentlemen settlers is that the natives will die out and will be gone in a few generations. The narrator says that if any of the gentlemen had gone to the reservation set aside for the natives, they'd see how wrong they were. Long Jack is the only black man still living near the Thornhills on the river. He'd been shot at Blackwood's but didn't die. One of his legs drags and he shows no emotion or pain. He lives where he once did when Thornhill first came to the river, and Sal takes him clothes and insists on building him a hut.
The assertion that these gentlemen settlers are wrong suggests that colonialism isn't over just because they've taken over the Hawkesbury River and moved the Aborigines to a reservation. The fact that these men are wrong means that they and others are going to have to continue to grapple with the aftermath of colonial violence for years to come—indeed, into the 21st century and beyond.
Themes
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Long Jack refuses Sal's offerings. He never wears the clothes and doesn't eat her bread. He occasionally begs food from the Thornhills, but sometimes disappears for periods. One cold morning, Mr. Thornhill takes Jack a blanket and some sacks to sleep on. Jack looks dull and skinny. He offers Jack the blankets and tells him to come to the house to get some food. He almost yells, but Jack won't look at him. Thornhill is frustrated and reaches to touch Jack.
Long Jack becomes a project of sorts—an opportunity for Thornhill and Sal to try to atone for their misdeeds. By being kind to him, they can tell themselves that they're not bad people and are actually doing some good for the Aborigines. Jack's listlessness suggests that this is a wholly unsuccessful way of going about things. The Thornhills cannot give him the help he needs.
Themes
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Jack says "no." He slaps the ground and says "this me, my place," and strokes the ground. Mr. Thornhill thinks that he has money, food, and boots—everything he ever wanted—but feels empty watching Jack touch the ground. He thinks that he'll never have a place that's truly a part of him. Mr. Thornhill snaps and yells at Jack before storming back to the house. He never goes down to Jack's hut again.
Jack makes it clear to Thornhill that the true meaning of home is the spiritual connection that he feels to the land, something that Thornhill never will experience. This shows Thornhill that the things he can buy with his money aren't the things that make his home, and suggests that his conception of home is based on an ugly reality: the violence of colonialism.
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Related Quotes
Mr. Thornhill spends his evenings sitting on the veranda with his spyglass. He has his servant bring him a drink and a cigar and watches his family and his land. He can smell the horses and thinks that his children are learning to ride like gentry. The estate looks like it could be in England, and Mr. Thornhill feels successful until he looks beyond his estate to the cliffs and the woods. It looks untouched. Sal comes to join Thornhill and asks if he's still watching. She tells him that she thought he was wonderful when they were young because he could spit so far. They laugh, and Thornhill says that in Australia, a man needs his spit. Sal goes inside after a while.
Thornhill's pride that the estate looks like England shows that even if he regrets his violent acts, he doesn't regret at all the colonial system that brought those acts about in the first place. The wildness of the land beyond Cobham Hall drives home again that this is an oasis in an inhospitable, faraway land that Thornhill can only hope to ever tame. It's not truly home, despite Thornhill's best efforts to make it so.
Themes
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Mr. Thornhill thinks watching the cliffs is like watching the sea: they're always changing, and it's hard to tell how big they are without a person for scale. He studies the fallen rocks and the scrub trees and wonders what it looks like when the rocks break away from the cliffs. Mr. Thornhill watches the shadow of the hill move across the villa until it reaches the river. It seems to pause there before engulfing it. At that point of the evening, the top of the cliffs looks like a stage. Thornhill scans it looking for people. He knows they could be there and that if they wanted to be seen, he would see them. He thinks of how patient they are and how they're a part of the forest.
Thornhill is reminded once again of his own insignificance in this land. It's still unconquerable, and he'll never be able to truly assert himself over it. When Thornhill watches the cliffs for the Aborigines, it shows that he regrets his violence and hopes to see that it didn't actually do any lasting damage, though of course it did. By telling himself that the Aborigines could be there and not be seen, he's telling himself a story to feel better. It doesn't matter if they're there or not—the possibility is enough to keep him going.
Themes
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Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Theme Icon
The bench that Mr. Thornhill sits on while he watches isn't particularly comfortable and he thinks of it as part of his punishment. It reminds him of the bench he sat on while he waited to be made an apprentice, and he knows that this bench should be his reward for his hard work. When the sun begins to finally set, Mr. Thornhill puts his telescope down. He doesn't know why he keeps watching, but he knows that watching brings him peace. He watches the cliffs even after true darkness falls.
Even though Thornhill is so powerful, he still thinks of New South Wales as a prison. It's still the place where he's living out his life sentence, though now it's for a crime the government knows nothing about: the massacre. This shows that guilt and remorse are some of the most powerful consequences of Thornhill's participation in colonial violence, and ones that he'll have to deal with until the end of his life.
Themes
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Home and the Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon