January 18th, 2001
Matthew Kneale lives in Lazio, Italy, about an hour south of Rome by car. This telephone interview took place several days before he returned to his native England to receive the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award for his novel The English Passengers, which went on to win Whitbread Book of the Year as well.
Ernest Hilbert: Did you have any idea when you first began researching the novel that The English Passengers would take on the proportions and scope that it did?
Matthew Kneale: No not really. I didn’t. When I started doing the research, the things I was finding out didn’t fit with what little I knew about it. So I spent quite a while—about a year and a half of research and then about another year or two—just trying to work out what on earth to do with it all and how to make it into a story, how to make the history into fiction, if you like, digest it. Once I’d started writing, I knew that it would take a long time and that it would be a big book, because there was no smaller way of doing it.
EH: How many years did it take altogether, from the earliest ideas to the point at which you could give the manuscript to your editor?
MK: About seven years.
EH: Although you don’t dwell on specific maritime terminology, you display a strong grasp of open sea sailing. Do you have much experience sailing?
MK: Absolutely none.
EH: How did you learn about it?
MK: I just read everything I could find about it. There are a couple of very useful books written about that time by a Boston writer called R.H. Dana. He was a student and his eyes began to fail him, so he joined a merchant ship that took him around Cape Horn up to California in the 1830s and back again. He wrote an account of it called Two Years Before the Mast.
EH: Yes, a very well-known book here in America. Everyone has read it.
MK: That was a good starting point; and then he wrote something called the Seaman’s Manual, which is one of the first useful, encyclopedic how-to-do books for anybody going to sea in the nineteenth century. And that was a huge hit at the time. I refer to them a lot. I read various other things, bits and pieces, talked to people who had been on boats.
EH: You have mentioned that you began your research in the Boldeian library in Oxford. Were there any books that emerged as principal influences during these early forays?
MK: I would say there’s one source on Tasmania and the Aboriginals, which is sort of the Bible of it all, if you like. It’s the notes of a man called George Augustus Robertson. He was the man who went all the way around the island for years supposedly trying to save the Aboriginal population from the white settlers. But in the end he ended up really killing them off more than anyone else by rounding them up and taking them on to Flinders Island.
EH: So he wound up as a character in the novel.
MK You can’t get away from him. He’s such an important figure. I tried to keep him down as much as possible. He’s the sort of figure where you suddenly find you’ve written a novel about him. But I had to put him in to some extent. There’s a huge quantity of notes he took while walking around. He’s quite a dull character in some ways. He’s always going on about how he’s got a struggle with what he calls “vermin.” [Both laugh.] He’s always dousing himself with gunpowder, and he goes on about this sort of thing rather than telling you the things you want to know; but he’s a major source. I also very much enjoyed the Robert Hughes book The Fatal Shore [The Epic of Australia’s Founding, Vintage Books], which is an account of early Australian history. It’s a very powerfully written book.
EH: You also spent some time in Tasmania. What was that like?
MK: It’s a fantastic place. It’s very beautiful. It’s quite big. It’s about the size of Ireland. I went walking in the mountains just to get a feel of what the place is really like in addition to researching and reading. It’s mountainous. It’s sort of like a rainy Arizona, maybe New Mexico. It has the same sort of landscape with mesas, but it’s got the climate of Scotland. It rains a lot. It’s real wilderness. It’s got some of the most unspoiled wilderness in the world. In fact nobody goes anywhere near about two fifths of the island.
EH: The English characters, particularly the three English passengers, are often made out to be foolish or myopic, callous. In other words, you seem particularly harsh on your English characters.
MK: I suppose the more I looked into it the more I felt that there was a lot to work through for me and for the country as a whole. It was a bad episode. Really there’s no way around it. That’s why I was interested in it. I felt in a funny sort of way that the country is still stuck on its Victorian past, and I feel the only way to move on is to look at some of the worst aspects full in the face. So I wanted to look at some of the nasty things that happened and the characters reflect that.
EH: There is a strong anti-colonial strain to The English Passengers. I guess it would be pretty hard to write a pro-colonial or pro-imperialist book these days and get it published. [Both laugh.] This is a difficult question: Based on your historical knowledge of events, do you feel that the destruction of Aboriginal culture by European colonists was inevitable?
MK: I would say that in Tasmania it probably was, simply because it’s an island. There’s no place for them to go. There was a chance that some might have been left alone in the wilderness areas. As I said, two fifths of the island is still untouched, so it was really quite hard for someone like [George Augustus] Robertson to find them. I think it was a very vulnerable society, because it was a hunter-gatherer society. There is a big discussion about how large of a population there originally was, but it wasn’t a huge population, because hunter-gatherer societies tend not to be very concentrated; and unlike the mainland Aboriginal population, where the land mass is so large that pockets could survive, on Tasmania I think it was always going to be hard. It was a mixture of violence on the part of the white settlers and disease, a whole series of factors, and the whole convict system as well. I think that even if one regards it as not inevitable it’s very close to it. I wasn’t so much interested in cause and effect as what it said about the people on the ground, particularly the white settlers.
EH: Similar scenarios were repeated around the world, as what we’ll call western cultures, which is to say European cultures, encountered what were then considered more primitive, less technologically developed ones on other continents. Do you believe that there is anything that distinguishes the events in Tasmania from those in, say, North America.
MK: I would say, certainly, the convict element does. Maybe the whole thing was given a different turn by the self-righteousness of the English; not that it may have changed the larger picture, but it certainly gives it a different flavor.
EH: Do you think that the convict system added to the violence toward the Aboriginal population?
MK: Certainly. Fairly early on the settlements were a disaster; they couldn’t feed themselves, so they released the convicts to go and get food, and a lot of them just didn’t come back. Because they were quite bitter about their own situation, they were looking for someone to despise, if you will.
EH: Someone lower on the ladder.
MK: As they saw it, yes. Somebody they could beat up.
EH: Can I ask you what you’re reading right now?
MK: I’ve been reading a whole lot of stuff about Marxist regimes, because that’s what I’m hoping to write on next: an imaginary Marxist state. It’s very dreadful stuff.
EH: Can you talk a bit about it?
MK: I always feel superstitious about talking too much. It’s an invented Marxist state, a Soviet satellite state. I’ve been reading the biography of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen [Karl Marx: A Life, W.W. Norton], which is a fantastic book, surprisingly funny, and A People’s Tragedy [The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, Penguin], by Orlando Figes, the history of the Russian revolution, a marvelous book.
EH: What contemporary English writers do you admire?
MK: I very much admire Ian McEwan. I like Kazuo Ishiguro. There are quite a few, but I always go blank at that sort of question. One of my favorite writers, who I was thinking of a bit when I was doing this past novel—he isn’t alive any more, but he’s fairly contemporary—is J.G. Farrell. He was writing in the nineteen seventies about the decline of the British Empire. He wrote a book called Troubles [Orion] and another called The Siege of Krishnapur [Orion]. I think he made history funny; he could make terrible things funny.
EH: You seem to have done that as well. You’ve added humor to otherwise dire historical moments.
MK: I think they need it really.
EH: Yes, I agree.
MK: He [J.G. Farrell] really opened up a new way of writing fiction about the past.
EH: How about more traditional English authors? Who stands out for you?
MK: I like some of the [Joseph] Conrad. I like the humor in Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, the satirical side of Dickens. Some sides of Dickens I can’t stand, but I think he really is a brilliant satirist.
EH: Thank you for your time. I hope to meet up with you when you’re in New York this spring.
MK: You’re most welcome. I look forward to it.
Hilbert reviews the book:
Matthew Kneale, The English Passengers. Anchor Books. $14. 446 pages. ISBN: 0-385-49744-X
When he first entered the Boldeian Library at Oxford University, thinking on possible subjects for a novel, Matthew Kneale had little idea that such modest early excursions would lead him on a journey of seven years, inspiring him to encircle the globe and finally leading him to reconstruct in detail one of the most difficult periods in English and Antipodean history. The first of many historical sources he encountered were the notes of one George Augustus Robertson, an Englishman who roamed the island of Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in the middle of the nineteenth century attempting to preserve Aboriginal culture while inadvertently aiding its eradication. The conclusion of Kneale’s indefatigable efforts is the magnificent novel The English Passengers, an encyclopedic fictional account of the British imperial involvement in the Antipodes, literally on the far side of the globe from Britain itself, and the decline of many ways of life, not only in Tasmania but in England itself. The story is expressed in over twenty distinct voices, from that of a baffled Aboriginal tribesman to that of a self-righteous colonial bureaucrat. Navigating the often disputed waters of historical record with an acute concern for the changing light of human nature, Kneale assembled a constellation of personalities and rhetorical styles that provides a remarkably balanced account of the colonization of Tasmania and subsequent near-extermination of the native populations.
The health and prospects of the English novel have been hotly-contested topics for nearly a century. It would seem that little remains to be said, but the debate runs on in the English literary papers and occasionally spills over to bother the English public and even the world at large. The unfortunate truth, however, is that English letters has suffered a reversal this century from which it might never recover. In the English-speaking world, poetry from the Caribbean, Australia, Ireland and the United States has eclipsed that of England, and novels from India, Ireland, and Canada, among many other former dominions, have done much the same for the English novel. It is in times such as these that one listens for a delivering voice from the center of the former empire. This voice as often as not takes as its subject the former empire itself, England’s past greatness, its victories and misdeeds. Though controversially edged out of last year’s Booker Prize by Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (when is Booker Prize not “controversial?”), Matthew Kneale’s maritime epic, which went on to secure the Whitbread Novel of the Year award, is one such inquiry. It is a book that examines the roots of the late modern world, a time when scientific thought gradually eroded the influence of the Church of England and the planet’s most remote recesses were probed. It may well be the case that the door to the future of the English novel lies at the end of a deliberate and complex retracing of England’s past. Kneale himself has remarked: “the country is still stuck on its Victorian past, and I feel the only way to move on is to look at some of the worst aspects full in the face.”
Primarily set in the late 1850s, at the time of the Indian Mutiny, The English Passengers is a multiform assessment of the age, its absurdities and achievements. As many critics have stated, it is in part a tale of high-seas smuggling, storms, and mutiny, reminiscent of C.S. Forster’s Hornblower novels (which Kneale enjoyed as a boy), but it is much more. It is also a lament for the swiftly-extinguished Aborigine cultures of Australia and Tasmania. Beyond this, it captures the sense that England itself was faced with revolutionary changes from within, when inherited views, particularly those of the Church, were thrown into shadow by the twin forces of science and commerce, joined in the Janus-faced agency of Empire; these developments compelled churchmen, such as the novel’s Reverend Geoffrey Wilson, to make ever more outrageous allegations about the world’s end (there is an apocalyptic tenor to much of the novel) and such issues as the age of the world (faced with a growing fossil record and new methods of geological dating, Church authorities, which traditionally dated the world according to scriptural evidence, were being backed into a corner). Lionel Trilling wrote of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, which he believed to be Forster’s masterpiece, that it addresses the question: “Who shall inherit England?” A similar question could be posed with Kneale’s novel, considering the future of the empire, even the world, rather than England itself: At the center of a superbly-realized group of characters are three Englishman, the English passengers of the title—Wilson, a fatuous but increasingly zealous Anglican vicar who, according to scriptural evidence, believes that Tasmania is the Garden of Eden described in Genesis; Dr. Potter, an unimaginative, craven, and fiercely-racist ship’s surgeon, who seeks the key to historical destiny in a ethically-derelict fusion of phrenology and genetic typology; and Renshaw, a middle-class, lay-a-bed ex-botany student, more interested in women and song than finding paradise. Kneale’s beautiful if brutal handling of his English characters answers the question simply and bleakly: none shall inherit the Empire, because there won’t be an empire after long with these sorts at the helm.
Kneale handles the many voices with incredible facility, and they each serve to propel the narrative while contributing to a panoptical view of circumstances traditionally seen from the English perspective. For instance, a principal voice is that of Peevay, the half-cast son of an escaped white convict and the unrestrainable Aboriginal woman he briefly abducted and raped. Born of two colliding cultures, his perspective is pivotal to the dispensation of the crisis; rejected by both cultures, his passionately recounted story traces an Aboriginal tribe from its initial contact with the English colonists and escaped convicts, believing them at first to be ghosts, to the terrible conclusion, only a generation later, that his race is doomed.
The English Passengers is, nevertheless, in part, a sea odyssey, an account of maritime life in the last great age of sail, when steam ships began to supplant sail. The central figure of this aspect of the novel is Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, the Manx (that is, from the Isle of Man) captain of the ship Sincerity, originally intended as a smuggling ship but forced into service for Wilson’s expedition to find Eden in the Antipodes. He and his crew perpetually run afoul of imperial customs agents on the high seas and in harbor, and they are forced to submit to the will of their paying English passengers, who constantly issue orders equally unenlightened and overconfident. Kneale employs much in the way of now-extinct Anglo-Manx dialect. As with many things then passing from the world, Manx—a Celtic language closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic once spoken on the Isle of Man—was in decline in the nineteenth century, though the last native speaker died only in the 1970s. Kneale resuscitates the Anglo-Manx language, a form of English mingled with Celtic words and grammatical forms for the dialogue of his Manx crew. He employs its naturally spry phrasing and nimble overtones to convey the Manxmen’s heartiness and disdain for their English overlords (“to snurl” is to turn one’s nose up in disgust; a “scriss” is a scolding woman; and a “fritlag” is a worthless individual).
Much humor proceeds from Kneale’s use of sometimes whimsically fallible narrators. The reader knows a great deal more than any given speaker, having been afforded a more or less panoramic view by the range of perspectives; while one character might believe himself fully in control of a situation, the reader know from others that he is naïve and in some cases terribly misguided. This is one of the novel’s many strengths. It will likely be remembered as a great achievement by a novelist of considerable strengths and a profound understanding of both the human situation and the too often ignominious history it discards in its wake.