Dianne Griffin’s From Cornwall to Moonta – Q&A
With the steady hand of ones family’s history, in-depth research and invaluable experiences to guide her please read along as we interviewed author Dianne Griffin for a behind the scenes look of her new book From Cornwall to Moonta and more!
Q: How did you mediate between fact and faction in the process of producing From Cornwall to Moonta from your family history?
A: I depended a lot on research. Over a 15-year period I interviewed all family members, especially old aunts and uncles who actually knew the central characters Ben and Emma—asking for their stories. I quoted many tales from my grandparents’ book, History of Agery. I searched thousands of old newspapers, acquired hundreds of books on the subjects of emigration, early South Australia, and books such as Life and Death in the Age of Sail. From the information I had, and some psychological profiling, I began to compose their personalities.
Example: William Trethowan emigrated first, and, looking at his choices, I deduced he was the more adventurous of the two men. Ben was more cautious. Ben’s wife was a bit like her brother, hyperactive.
I stayed as true to events as I could. There were a lot of stories that were true. And once my characters had been through one event, it was easier to follow on. I acquired British weather records to understand the extremely wet weather of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. And I have a book of calendars that shows the full moons. Full moons upset some people, and yet it is great for a night out in the 19th century when there were no lights. People scheduled events for the full moon. I travelled to Cornwall several times and visited the relevant addresses. I spoke to local historians and cousins of Emma and Ben’s. I researched every inch of Helston where Emma worked as a servant. And I walked in their footsteps when we took the train from Falmouth to Plymouth.
Q: What was the most fascinating thing about British, Australian or your own personal history that you discovered in the years researching this project?
A: Hundreds of enthralling facts come to mind. It is one of the reasons I wrote the book. These fascinating insights could not be lost to time.
E.G. Wakefield’s plan for South Australia was called A Cure for Pauperism. And the paupers weren’t treated exactly as promised. Wakefield wrote in his book, Letters from Sydney, (although he never was in Sydney), that land prices were to be kept high enough (one to two pounds an acre) to stop labourers from buying land immediately. Land in NSW was 5 shillings an acre. Ben and Emma’s rail journey through the glorious Cornish countryside from Falmouth to Plymouth, peppered with over 40 of Brunel’s fabulous tall wooden lacy viaducts (we made the journey for research purposes). Migrants staffed the ship throughout the journey. Some of the passengers (labourers) were even conferred Constable status for the journey.
On a more personal level, I realised how differently each of us views our siblings, parents and grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
Example: my two old grandfathers were pleasant—fun to me as a child. A pat on the head, a few sweets. But don’t ask their children. That is a whole different story. Almost unbelievable. It helped me a lot, to understand their backgrounds.
Q: How did your experience working as a nurse assist you in understanding the health issues faced by migrants to Australia in the 19th century?
A: Being a nurse is understanding medicine, and how it affects our patients. Probably most important is knowing about cross-infection. Even in the 2020s, non-medical staff still don’t know the simple basics of antisepsis, and how to prevent cross infection.
In the previous centuries, patients, especially women, were not listened to by most of their doctors. I could feel their frustration, their sense of inadequacy and the crushing self-blame, when their families, children suffered and or died.
Q: Regarding the legacy your grandparents and great-grandparents left behind mentioned in From Cornwall to Moonta, the kind of people they were, the life they lived, and the struggles they faced — what are you most proud of?
A: With both my great-grandparents and my grandparents, who were never wealthy, I am most proud of their generosity, particularly their anonymous donations to the poor. Even with their large families, during the great Depression they gave work and food to countless, homeless, jobless men. My aunt complained that she and her sister had no money, and that they paid rent for living at home. “Yet Dad gives money away” she cried. But even my aunt and her sister gave free music lessons to their anxious poorer students. And my grandfather succeeded as a responsible farmer, giving countless years to the committees of the district—schools, church, councils and organisations such as the Wheat and Barley Board.
Q: Having experienced re-immigration to both England and Australia in your own life, what were the biggest challenges you overcame?
A: Saying goodbye, even when not forever, hurts. And on arrival not having your friends to help you through. Finding our way around in strange places. In Ireland I took my baby to the supermarket in a large pram. It was heavy work, a few hills. As soon as I arrived there was a terrifying announcement, someone had phoned to say there was a bomb in the store. Imagine the chaos as people exited the building!
When we emigrated to Australia, it was much more relaxed for a while. Then there were the shopkeepers etc., who turned away from our strong accents and served Aussie speakers first. I was incensed. And we were endlessly plied with Irish jokes. The Australians just didn’t see they were basically saying we were stupid. My children were so upset, that I searched around for an “Australian” joke. They didn’t so much as use it out loud, but it helped, until they made friends.
Q: Will readers who enjoy From Cornwall to Moonta be seeing more from you in future creative writing projects?
A: Yes. I have begun to write about the next generation, (my mother) and the next, which is my story. As a nurse to the rich and famous I was flown to the Bahamas and also flew a patient who was in status epilepticus, from Adelaide to Greece. I travelled on the Orient Express, having booked for the wrong night. We followed an Easter procession in Italy of a bleeding Christ figure, hoisted on strong shoulders, and shared painted hard-boiled eggs with strangers in Greece. And then there was the search for my father’s story. And my own lifelong journey, silencing the critical little voice in my head.