Interview with Helen Townsend

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Tell us a bit about Above the Starry Frame. It’s quite a departure for you isn’t it?

It is quite a departure. It’s based on a family story, although it is written as fiction. A lot of it follows the story of my great grandfather who was an emigrant from the great potato famine in Ireland in 1848 to Ballarat where be became a gold digger and did very well. It’s really the story of migration from Ireland to the excitement of the goldfields.

One of the key themes in the book is prejudice and open mindedness and the way in which those things mingle with one another.

It is one of the key themes. William came from that pre-industrial Ireland, very poor, very oppressed. But because he was a protestant, quite conformist, and then he came into this new world where there were Chinese and people from all over Europe. At that time, because his pub was a meeting place for the men who were working the goldmines, it was really buzzing with ideas, so you see a relaxation of that sort of prejudice. It’s sort of interesting that, as Ballarat grows, some of those prejudices and divisions, particularly that Catholic/Protestant one, reasserts itself and that was really interesting to me. Because William had a Catholic brother, and so that’s a constant theme in the book of how open one can be, and how much family matters; how much belief matters. I think we often forget that religion was such a defining thing in the 19th century. It wasn’t a matter of you choose your religion – that is your religion. That is who you are.

And even the whole notion of Irish versus the English and the impact that ultimately had on the whole concept of democracy in Australia that led to the Eureka uprising.

Yes, well the Irish were very involved in Eureka. There were a lot of other nationalities, but yes, the Irish were pivotal, particularly in the miners who were at the Stockade. There were a lot of Irish and many of those killed were Irish, and so I think that sort of feeling of the resistance against the establishment was absolutely pivotal there and a very strong part of Australian history. One of the interesting things when I was researching the book is, I went back to Ireland and I actually found the place where William had come from which was a very poor stone house and you could just see the poverty there – although it was extraordinarily beautiful and I was very moved, but then I walked around the landlord’s house and there were gardens and there were swans on the lake, and there was a big wall. I had been very familiar with Ballarat from the time I was a child because I had family there, and in Ballarat there’s a big lake and there are gardens, but they are there for the common man. I guess that was one of the achievements of the Victorian city that there was a democratisation of that sort of access to beauty, education. Not entirely because class systems remain in place and all sorts of inequalities, but there was a move – we can have this. We don’t have to bow down to the lord and have that difference continually.

I love the way that some of the women, certainly Bridget, seems to cut right through all of those distinctions and sees the parallels between the Celestials and Westerners, or the Catholic and Protestants. She just cuts right through and says we’re all people.

That’s right, she does indeed. And I think that was so characteristic. It was very interesting for me because when I started on the book William did have these three wives and I thought what will I do with them. Bridget particularly I knew very little about except that she had nursed the wounded at Eureka. And the more research I did on women in general, it seemed to me that those times of the goldrushes was a freedom for women, and women could reinvent themselves. In a way, by the time we get to the third wife Julia, respectability and propriety are much more restrictive of women. And I think that’s very interesting. Society had matured, but in a way it had also narrowed. And I think those times when you’ve got a lot of young people. They were coming from a Europe that had been radicalised with the 1848 revolution. There was nothing in the way of that. But then, there’s not quite the same imposition, but later, with that Victorian city, and the need to have everything properly done, with the masons coming around opening things, There is a sort of tightening of that, and there is a sadness around that in the story.

You mention that the letters had always been known of in your family, but what brought you to the point of transcription and gave you the impetus to turn it all into a concrete book?

I think it was the actual transcription that made me realise how beautiful and how powerful the language was. Starting from my teens I’d read bits of the letters, and there had been various attempts in the family — there are over 50 of them altogether, spanning 40 years. As we read them and as we transcribed them, my sister was helping me with this, we realised not only were there just so many wonderful phrases like above the starry frame actually comes from one of the letters where William’s father says “we may not meet in this life again but we may meet above the starry frame.” It was the power of that language, but there was also a story emerging, and Eliza, his younger sister, was the centre of that story. We have the debt of both of Williams’ parents, we have other children migrating from that family and I think, to see Ireland as a country from which people emigrated, the leaching of children and those that were left behind. Her story was a very very sad story and she kept that very strong, very traditional religious faith which got her through that, but I think that in Australia we often have the view that one is lucky to be an emigrant to this country, and that has certainly been true for many people, but I think we often forget the other side of the country that has been left and the families that have been left behind. And the eventual breaking of family, because it is inevitable, even though I eventually went back to Ireland and I saw that – that family that had been there so long, no longer exists.

It’s lovely, and painful in a way too, to watch that gap opening up between William and Eliza, seeing each one on the other side of the gap trying to reach out but not being able to, while the ocean between them gets bigger.

The ocean does get bigger doesn’t it. I think that sense of family is so important and the love is still there, but William left when he was a boy of 18 or a young man of 18 and so she really didn’t know him and she didn’t know the life that he would have here, and of course he only imagined back to that life that she had. Once his parents were gone it became a much dimmer memory. Maybe that’s not as much now, but I’ve spoke to some contemporary migrants and they said that it seems to complicate it, and there are times they haven’t gone back when they should have. There is just a great sadness, and I came away from this story thinking that there is a great bravery in immigration and there’s an endurance in staying. Those were the two of the things that were very important to me.

The relationship between fact and fiction is always a fuzzy one in both biography and fiction. But in your case it’s explicit. Do you feel that you’ve brought the family together through this book.

I think that’s true. I’ve certainly found a lot of second cousins that I didn’t know I had, so in that sense… But there’s a certain irony in it, because as you say, a lot of it is invented, and I make that very clear at the end of the book, because I don’t want to say that I’m writing history, although a lot of it is based on fact, but there is that sort of thing. At one point William goes down to Main Street in Ballarat and he buys some dining room chairs from a brothel that’s closing down. Well my husband and children now refer to our dining room chairs which came from that pub in Ballarat as the chairs from the brothel in Main Street. So in a way I have created that story for the family and I’ve linked it back. I hope that this story does help, not only my family, but other families link back to that sense that they aren’t just people on a family tree. These people lived and breathed and felt and were part of a story.

But even if you were writing history you’d probably still have to invent something – there’s just so much material out there and the rest is a bridge from fact to fact.

Yes. This book rejoices in the new name of faction, which initially I reacted against, but now I actually think it’s quite good. I think, as I have done, I have an obligation to readers to say well this bit was true and this bit was invented. I invented Bridget entirely, and I invented a lot of William because I didn’t have his letters going back. I think it’s inevitable that one will do this. If you’re working on very serious historical scholarship you wouldn’t do this but you wouldn’t choose to tell a story in that way. I think that as long as you do the background research and look at the background…I don’t think that Bridget was an impossible character. I think that there could have been a women sitting in a hotel bedroom upstairs and reading Charles Darwin and getting excited by it. That to me made sense and she could have had these ideas. Those sort of conflicts between Catholic and Protestants – I’ve done a lot of research on–and it was interesting to me to take it a step further and think well how in this particular individual would that work out. What would he feel about his brother becoming a Catholic. How would he react to that.

And it would be been surprising to one writing back then, but it’s still topical.

Yes, it is still topical. I mean a lot of people have talked to me about that. When I was growing up there was certainly that Catholic/Protestant division and it played out politically through the DLP and the ALP in Australia and that split. I think it is much less powerful now, but in a sense we’re looking at Islam as that other religion now in many ways. There are issues being played out. I certainly think it’s much less but there’s something in human nature that we’re very capable of adopting this – you know – this is different. Protestants are different, Catholics are different, Muslems are different, Jews are different. And we’re still seeing the consequences of that sectarianism that’s never edifying to behold. It’s often very savage and has had terrible consequences at times throughout history.

The Eureka Stockade is more than just past history in Ballarat – there’s the Eureka trail, Sovereign Hill, Blood on the Southern Cross, and the buildings seem to have retained their historic character. Did you struggle to maintain your own original story in the face of the strong tourist projection of the events of the stockade.

In a way it was helpful. You know, I had spent a lot of time as a child in Ballarat, and back then there was one Eureka monument and people then didn’t talk a lot about Eureka. There was a sort of slight shame about it – this dodgy rebellion. And my grandfather, who was William’s youngest son, had always said that it was at his pub that the leaders of Eureka met. But it wasn’t really a matter of the sort of pride that it is now and it certainly wasn’t a tourist attraction. In fact, when I was there as a child, people use to rip off pieces of the Eureka flag at the art gallery and give them to visiting dignitaries. Now the Eureka flag is beautifully preserved and it’s in the art gallery and it just makes my heart beat faster every time I go there. One of the wonderful things about Eureka there is that there are many people debasing it, saying it was about this or ‘no no they weren’t radicals, they were just complaining about tax.’ So there’s a very strong, as well as the tourist element, which I think has generally been very well done. It’s very accurate as far as it goes and the events that are replayed there actually happened and the buildings are all right. But I did immerse myself in the local history community and took on these views about Eureka and what it meant, and I certainly don’t think it was just about a tax rebellion, I think it was politically a feeling about how people should be treated. I think that was really very important. It doesn’t go with all history coming out of that Eureka, but the stuff I wrote I feel comfortable about and I think that all that has been written about Eureka serves to informs the tourist experience. You can go there and have a very superficial experience but you can also go there and think oh yes, this happened and that happened.

And you do get a sense there that this was the birthplace of democracy and the beginnings of modernisation and modern ideas, which you pick up in the book.

I think that was a very vital and important period in Australia. I think sometimes Eureka is dismissed as this little rebellion that was defeated but it was defeated in the battle that was lost, but in a sense, they won the war.

This is a big change from your other work, but is it a complete change? Are there threads that link this book to others that you’ve worked on – a common theme you keep coming back to?

I’m like families and relationships and it’s got that theme. I think that probably in some ways though it is a leap forward for me. It’s a slightly more literary book than I’ve done before and probably I’m more interested in that sort of area at the moment. I’d love to do more. I’m working on three projects and I’m going to choose one of them. I’m certainly interested in biography and in this area of historical fiction.

Did you stay true to your own initial feeling of these relatives, or did they change and become something different?

I think that because I spent a lot of time at Ballarat and spent a lot of time as a kid walking around Ballarat with my grandparents, that I had that in mind as Ballarat. But as I came into the letters, and I saw they had come from a very close family and a much more religious family. My grandparents were both Presbyterians but they weren’t devout so they came into a much more secular society. So it was very interesting really getting involved in that world and in the way of thinking, in a sense is a bit pre-modern. Because Ireland wasn’t industrialised, it was very much the family, the landlord, the community, and that is so powerful in those letters. It was interesting to see how it transposed to what was then a sparkling and modern and growing city as Ballarat was then. I mean we think of Ballarat as a historical city but then it was considered this little jewel of the modern city, and William’s pride in that. I think there’s this sense particularly towards the end of the book he feels that he’s made his life there and proud of that and not the depth of community that he’d come from. It was so much bigger and so many more influences coming into it. Until relatively recently so many of those rural areas in Ireland were really isolated whereas Ballarat imported ice from America, from the American lakes – it seems extraordinary now, but they had books coming in, they had entertainment coming in. Some of the entertainment on the Goldfields was very lowbrow but they also had some of best musicians and poets from Europe coming in, and in a sense it was very cosmopolitan and that’s very interesting to Australians who often think of themselves as very insular.

The title of the book comes from the Iliad (Book XVI) – “Say, Muses, thron’d above the starry frame,/How first the navy blaz’d with Trojan flame?” and was also a common church psalm: “O God, exalted high Above the starry frame; And let the world, with one consent, Confess thy glorious name”. What did the title, as taken directly from the letters, mean to you?

I must say that the title came from the letters and I looked and looked for it and I must have looked in the wrong place, and I’m very pleased to have that reference from the Iliad because I only got as far as the presbytarian psalms – there’s a lovely Presbytarian psalm. I just think it’s a wonderful thing – that image – the greater thing above us, despite this physical separation – William saw it quite literally – but there’s that larger context of above us all we have connections. Beyond the limitations of this life we are in a sense connected.

And of course they have met again in your book

Yes, they have met again in my book. Indeed.

You have a soft spot for Eliza because you give her equal time, and she comes through as quite a rich character. I guess you had more information about her than anyone else.

I did have information about her. I had a lot from the letters and I could guess a lot about that character and her brother Joseph who stayed in Ireland, but there’s also a lot for me in going back to Ireland, and walking those roads and looking back at the church and the hedgerows and looking in the graveyards, and that really gave me a sense. Because of course they did walk everywhere. That was how they got around. That sense of being so close to the ground and so close to the earth. That was quite a feature for me with Eliza.

Finally, can you give us a hint of what you’re now working on or what direction you might be going in for the next book.

I’m thinking of a story about childhood at the moment. Not a children’s book but childhood. It sort of harks back to The baby boomers childhood, which was a – it goes back to an early book of mine. A nonfiction book but I’m thinking of doing something fiction partly based on my own experiences and partly fictional as this one is.

The full audio podcast of this interview can be heard at

About the Interviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup