The reading public seems to have a kind of penchant for what really happened. Just look at the controversy surrounding faked ‘true’ stories such as JT Leroy’s Sarah or James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Does it really matter whether a story actually took place or does it matter more that it touches something true in ourselves?
All writing is taken from something real in ourselves, whether it be a made up Madam Bovery or a real grandfather. Letters, diaries, photos, memories, memorials, and dreams are only made meaningful when they’re bounded and structured through fictional narrative. Perhaps it is the very process of researching, structuring, and pulling together the narrative that actually creates, rather than uncovers, real meaning.
Helen Townsend’s Above the Starry Frame presents itself as both biography and fiction. Townsend herself is very clear about the distinction, provides detailed bookends, markers, and an introduction that states exactly what she found through research and what she imagined.
The letters she did find and the outline of her story are evocative enough, providing the reader with the story of an 18-year-old boy who left Ireland for Australia at the end of the potato famine in 1849. Young William Irwin ends up in Ballarat where he becomes a digger on the gold mines during the Eureka Stockade. Later, he becomes a publication, marries three times, and suffers both joy and great pain.
The real letters written to Irwin, primarily by his family back in Ireland, become the markers for both the progression of time in the book and for Irwin’s development, but the real story, and what makes this a rich exploration, is in Townsend’s imagining.
As Irwin’s great granddaughter, this is certainly Townsend’s story — one that takes what is known and creates what isn’t through the considerable skills that Townsend has honed through her large body of fiction. There is great historical importance in this story of the Eureka stockade and in the slow progress of democracy in Australia that followed.
The real importance of this story isn’t about the historical events surrounding William; it’s about the small details in the life of this migrant — the imagined, fictional events that tell the deeper story of humanity. It is ourselves we will recognise as we watch William struggling to stay in touch with the family he left behind:
Impulsively, he got out his paper, his bottle of ink and his quill and thought he would try to write to his father and explain his thoughts, and maybe suggest that they might all join him in this new place. But after he had written “To my dear Father and Mother and family all, I sends kind love and blessings…’ he was back so far into the old way of thnking that he saw that there would only be pain in this for his father. It was impossible for William to describe to his father the independence gold digging gave him without casting a slur on his father’s lack of it. (77)
He struggles to come to terms with notions of security, responsibility, democracy, and responsibility, all of which are new, exciting, and worrying for him. William is a well-developed character, and Townsend primarily takes his point of view in the book, but there is also his younger sister Eliza.
It is Eliza whose letters frame the book, and Eliza who gives herself a clear voice through what she wrote, but again, Townsend goes well beyond the words on the page to create a fully fleshed out character. A woman with high hopes who finds herself left alone, and who has to turn that loneliness into a rich life, she reaches for the starry frame and finds it in her own way.
The settings too, though hardly imagined, take on an immediacy that makes them feel real to the reader. From the small farm at Knockaleery Ireland, with its certainties and order, to the excitement and frustration of the Ballarat diggings, Townsend captures all of those minute details that make a scene come alive:
On the flat at the Little Bendigo field where they staked their claim, it was open country, and the wattle was out in glorious yellow and full of parrots. The flat was dotted with tents. There were storekeepers and sly groggers and the general cheerfulness and companionability that was characteristic of the goldfields. (51)
Above the Starry Frame is a book that tracks a time in Australia’s history where many themes come together. This story doesn’t shy away from any of them. Townsend gives the women in this story their voices, from William’s sister Eliza back in Knockaleery to William’s wives.
These women struggle with the same things William does, but in a domestic sense: notions of equality and of maintaining a balance between decorum, society, self-actualisation, and child rearing. Dealing with loss and death are all addressed sensitively and in a way that beautifully balances the historical with the personal.
This story transcends the limitations of “what actually happened,” giving us a deeper sense of truth. What it succeeds at is not so much uncovering the events that led to and followed the Eureka Stockade, but rather creating a real, true sense of the people that lived then and what it means in terms of who we all are now.