Originally from the beautiful, craggy Atlantic coast of Cornwall in the UK, Bernice emigrated to Australia’s far south-west coast near Margaret River in 2001, after two landlocked decades living in England’s midlands. She has spent the last fourteen years creating a native garden in a forest near the Indian Ocean. In 2011, she closed the door on a career in international curriculum innovation, as an adviser on the teaching of literacy, to focus on her lifelong interest in writing, literature and history.
- To buy her book Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines, go here.
- To read more about Bernice Barry and her work visit her website: www.bernicebarry.com
- Or connect with her on Twitter: @MrsBlunderstone
A big Welcome to Bernice Barry!
I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed this book for it’s writing, the journey it takes the reader on and for setting the record straight about Georgiana Molloy and her husband John, who were among the first European settlers on Western Australia’s southern coast.
On With the Conversation…
1880s Girl: In the chapter, An Unbroken Spirit, you say:
“It was a moment of realisation and a reminder why I decided to tell her story always through the historical context of her own time and place.”
In recent years it has become popular to write novelizations of real people and events, for example, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Gould, Charlotte Bronte and even Madame Mao.
Q1: Did you at any time consider writing a fictional account of Georgiana’s life? What influenced your decision?
Bernice: From the beginning, my aim was to make public the rather different picture of Georgiana that had emerged through my research. It was important to me that new and correct information was made available about both Georgiana and her husband John Molloy.
I had a rule not to include anything, however small, that I couldn’t backup with secure evidence, even down to what the weather was like on the day John Molloy was baptised in London in 1786, so a fictional account didn’t enter my mind.
1880s Girl: I really love that you take the reader on the journey of discovery with you to uncover the lives of Georgiana and John Molloy, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person inspired to take up their own journey of historical discovery.
Now, Bernice, you have degrees in English, French, Spanish, teaching, reading and education so research is not new to you but…
Q2: Take us back to the very beginning how did you start your research into Georgiana’s life? The very first steps?
Bernice: The first steps came from my longstanding interest in 19th Century literature. I’d read a biography of Georgiana Molloy and didn’t really connect with her a lot at that point but it seemed strange that the books she packed in her trunk for the voyage to WA didn’t match with the woman described in the book.
I read her diary at the Battye Library in Perth and saw significant, personal entries not mentioned in the biography. I realised there was a lot more to her story. I began doing quick searches online. As new information began appearing in front of me, it threw up mysteries in her life and I was hooked.
Q3: Once Georgiana’s story took full hold on your imagination, on a practical level how did you expand your research? And how long did it take you to write the book?
Bernice: I wish I’d known from the beginning that one day I’d decide to write a book.
The research was spasmodic when I had time. In those days I was still travelling to the UK about once a year for work and I used those opportunities for research visits. I’m very lucky to have a partner who was happy to go on graveyard and dusty archive trips instead of holidays!
I ended up with a huge, jumbled collection of notes and lists and photographs and a picture of her life that was very detailed but not organised as a research project.
One day I realised that if anything happened to me, everything I’d discovered would be lost once again. Writing a book seemed like the best way of gathering all that stuff and sharing it. The first draft took about a year (2011) and there were 12 more drafts before we self-published in 2015. The Picador edition was published exactly a year later in 2016.
1880s Girl: One of my favourite quotes from the book is:
“There are many approaches to research and they do not just involve the finding and interpretation of facts. Sometimes it is only by combining imagination and empathy with knowledge and secure sources that the past begins to appear. Questions that ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’ and ‘What did that mean for the way these people lived their days, hour by hour?’ can sometimes flick open the closed door of time.”
Your empathy for Georgiana, the early settlers and the Noongar people comes across in each chapter. The book glows with warmth and compassion that makes this a unique historical biography.Q4: How important was it for you to visit the scenes of Georgiana’s early life both to inform your writing and to further your research?
Bernice: I think it’s possible to write well about a place you’ve never been to if you immerse yourself in first-hand, contemporary descriptions and images, and feel as if you’ve experienced the place yourself.
Even so, being in the places that were part of Georgiana’s life was the most significant thing of all for me, especially places that are new to the story, like the garden of her school in London and the flower garden in Scotland where she gathered the flowers for her wedding. It’s impossible to describe how very close she felt at those times and, in one particular place where her emotion was running high in 1829 and mine was too in 2007, I felt sure that, somehow, we’d actually connected through time.
1880s Girl: About 9 years ago just before becoming very ill, I tried to learn more about Georgiana myself through primary resources available at the Battye Library in Perth, but with no experience, no idea who to approach or request information from and suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and a lack of self-confidence I gave it up. What with juggling being a new mum and debilitating fatigue, delving into dusty archives took a back seat but it raises the question,
Q5: How does a private individual gain access to archives from institutions?
Bernice: There are times when access is a bit easier if you have academic weight behind your enquiries but my experience has been that most queries end up in front of a librarian or archivist who will work just as hard to help you as they would anyone else. These are knowledgeable, professional people and I’ve always been blown away by their kindness, patience and expertise.
You can usually find a contact phone number or email address, even for the archives of the most lofty institutions. Being a bit shy doesn’t help but I’ve learned to be brave and ruthless when I’m desperate! Knock on a door. Write a letter. Just ask.
1880s Girl: How exciting that moment was when you got to put your hand on the very stem of the Acacia extensa cut by Georgiana herself! Just thinking about it makes my heart palpitate with excitement.
Q7: What were the most exciting moments of discovery for you while researching Georgiana?
Bernice: There were lots. A highlight would have to be the moment when I found the connection between John Molloy and the Kennedy family, leading me to work out when and how John and Georgiana first met, soon after her fourteenth birthday. Another was finally working out where she went to school in London, visiting that garden and touching trees that had been there since those days.
1880s Girl: At the Perth Writer’s Festival you mentioned that for each fact, especially on new information, you set yourself a standard of needing three points of proof.
Q8: On a practical level how on earth did you organise and keep track of all 630 references that made it into the book and undoubtedly the many that did not?
Did you use a computer program? a spreadsheet? alphabetized manila folders in a file cabinet?
Bernice: I wish I had, but for years I wasn’t planning to write a book. Luckily, I’m an obsessive hoarder so I kept a record of every source as I gathered information.
When I started the first draft, I saved my writing every couple of days with a new filename so I had a complete record of everything, even after I’d deleted bits.
The first notes for each chapter were just a structural collection of the sources and quotes and facts I wanted to group together in that section.
I drew on those and built the text around them as I wrote the first draft. As I was writing, I inserted an endnote as an aide memoire to myself for every fact I mentioned, so I could always track back to find out where each bit of information came from.
When the final draft was complete, I went through and edited the endnotes down to reduce the load but I’ve still got all of them safely saved – just in case.
And finally for the encouragement and edification of all us amateurs out there…
Q9. What websites or online sources do you recommend for the budding historian?
The most useful ones to me have all been obvious but I couldn’t have done my research without them.
- Trove for Australian history, particularly shipping records, advertisements and clues about the weather!
- The Australian National Archives and UK National Archives online because searching is quick and easy. When I’ve ordered documents online, the photographs have arrived in moments by email.
- The British Library website always seems to have what I’m looking for, however obscure. I use it mainly for background information, like photographs or paintings of places to help me with the description of settings and for examples of books or magazines published in the years I’m writing about.
Thank you so much, Bernice, for your time and generosity in sharing your research process with us.
And thank you, readers, for joining us. Check in Friday for Bernice Barry’s Top 3 Tips for the amateur historian.