June 10, 1840: A skinny teenager in a hand-me-down suit steps out of a crowd of genteel Londoners on a summer evening and shoots, twice, at the Empress of the Empire, Queen Victoria herself. She survives, barely shaken; but for the gunman, nothing would ever be the same. On that fleeting moment hinged a life of suffering, decades behind bars, and a redemption achieved only by escaping to the other side of the world and lying continuously to everyone he met and loved.
I wish I’d made that up. I don’t mean I wish it wasn’t true: it is, and I’m perversely glad it happened. But I wish I’d made that up in the way that, when I read stories and novels I find particularly affecting, I wish I’d written them. Edward Oxford’s life seems to me to be a wonderful story, as perfectly shaped as fiction. It has drama, pathos and misery enough to carry a Russian novel. It has doubling, dark sides and deceptions that make it as Victorian as Queen Victoria herself.
The connections between the small domestic world of one unimportant male and the great forces of history would satisfy any self-respecting historian. But most importantly, to me at least, it has elements that speak to the twenty-first century. Who are we really? How do we survive the unbearable? What is a good life?
Edward Oxford (born Birmingham, 1822) was a nothing: a vain and unstable bar worker, recently unemployed and more than a little full of himself. He pointed his guns (probably unloaded) at the Queen and her husband in a misguided attempt to gain notoriety. He achieved the desired effect, but in the end his infamy required him to effectively murder himself: to cut all ties, take a new name and become a new man in the furthest possible place – Melbourne, Australia.
For eighty plus years, no one knew what became of him. His tale was lost to history, except for one small parcel of letters held in a family archive in England. Even when those papers eventually came to the National Library of Australia, it took another thirty years before a scholar made the link between Oxford and the man he became: John Freeman, writer and churchman.
And it took another thirty years, until 2010, for me to come across him and be hooked like a fish on a line. Now I’m halfway (if I’m lucky) through writing a historical novel in the voice of a little-known figure who crossed paths violently with the woman who gave the Victorian era her name.
Historical fiction doesn’t have a great rap, Hilary Mantel notwithstanding. Its melodramatic, cheap and unreliable image doesn’t endear it to serious writers and readers. It’s stealing from the past, misrepresentation, bodice-ripping. It’s certainly not what I thought I’d be doing when I started to write fiction ten years ago. But I’m doing it, and by way of planning, procrastination or justification, I want to explore why, and how, historical fiction could be worthwhile.
This project wasn’t even supposed to be a work of fiction. All I wanted to do, back in 2010, was to write a short, neat biography of Edward Oxford. Arcade Publications’ little books about Melbourne history had long appealed to me, and when I came across Oxford’s story I recognised a perfect subject for an Arcade book. His tale was exciting, mysterious, full of Victorian-era flourishes and so very Melbourne. A year or two’s work, I thought. Well, yes and no.
Edward Oxford’s life did indeed make a nice little Arcade book (A Walking Shadow, 2012) and I’m very happy with it. But in the research there were gaps. And in the gaps there were questions. And the questions – what if? How did it happen? How did it feel? – invited fiction. The fiction I’d written before was about made-up people in modern times. But I wanted answers to my questions about Edward Oxford (or John Freeman, after 1867), and the only satisfactory way to get them seemed to be to make them up.
At the end of 30,000 words of A Walking Shadow, I wasn’t done with Oxford. It was partly that I’d spent so much time with him, but it was mostly those questions.
Example: when Oxford, an impecunious immigrant with a very shady past, landed in Melbourne in 1868, how did he get on? How did he avoid the pitfalls awaiting the ‘new chum’, and did he avoid them at all? How did he find work, lodging and friends while living a complete and utter fiction?
I couldn’t find any records of him for his first five years in the colony. I can find men who might have been him, but I can’t tell for sure. In the biography, that space is empty; I take up the story where the records begin. But in the novel, Oxford meets a man in a boarding house, the man gives him an introduction, Oxford pays a call, buys some brushes and ladders and thus begins work as a painter, a trade he certainly plied in Melbourne.
The questions I had were partly like that: factual and procedural. Where did he get the guns from? How did he survive in Bedlam, a sane man amongst the truly mad? But other questions were both wider and narrower. What social forces shaped his life? What did his life say about his times? How, in that journalist’s cliché, did he feel?
Literary theorist David Carr writes that it’s in our nature to experience events as a narrative; that we use narrative to make sense of disconnected events. That makes sense to me, and explains why I found the gaps in Oxford’s story so hard to leave alone. A real historian would simply say, ‘I don’t know’, but I wanted a story that cohered. To do that, I’d have to fill in the gaps. But I didn’t want to just make it all up at random. I wanted the infill to match the original brickwork, if you like. I wanted the story to be something that really might have happened. I wanted it to address the nature of the missing bits: to be a fiction that might not be the true story of Edward Oxford, but was still about Edward Oxford.
That, I guess, is why I chose to take the project on in an academic environment, as a hybrid essay-fiction thesis at the University of Melbourne. I’m having to justify my choices, to really think about what I’m doing when I take such liberties with the past. I’m having, reluctantly or not, to read books about the era: analyses of Victorian prisons and the history of madness (Foucault, anyone?), tomes on the nature of colonial emigration. Less reluctantly, I’m reading about early Melbourne: the boom of the 1880s and bust of the 1890s, writers like ‘The Vagabond’ (John Stanley James) and Marcus Clarke, who painted vivid word-pictures of Oxford/Freeman’s town.
I didn’t want to just ‘make up’ my novelistic Oxford. Here, I was lucky. Oxford not only wrote a book about Melbourne (Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life, 1888) in which he pontificates in his proudly half-informed voice, describing what he’s seen and where he’s been; there are also those letters, sent back to England to a friend and confidant, hinting at how deeply he buried his troubles.
For this co-opting of his voice, I have good antecedents: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, for instance, which takes Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter and runs with it. When it comes to storytelling, the first person is an advantage fiction has over non-fiction. Oxford’s voice is pompous, to be sure, but it is also sharp, observant, and at times he gives away his anxieties: about the past, about making good, and about social order.
Instead of writing a separate story, I could have just written a racier biography, I suppose: inventing dialogue, dramatising scenes with details of colour and movement that appear nowhere on the record. But, as a former journalist, I am firmly down the don’t-make-up-details end of the creative non-fiction debate. I can never quite accept that there is some kind of deeper truth that justifies pretending something happened when it didn’t. When James Frey defended A Million Little Pieces by suggesting it represented “the essential truth of [his] life”, I scoffed. I believe that to make up details in non-fiction is to somehow cheat the reader.
That’s not to say there isn’t a deeper truth. Sometimes fiction really can be the better vehicle to convey it; but that fiction needs to deal with real-world questions and issues. This is how the factual piece (a long essay) and the fictional piece (the novel) will interact, or at least I hope so. The research will tell me about the times, the wider forces at play: political unrest, the English habit of packing problem children off to Australia. I can use that information for my practical infilling.
I’m having to justify my choices, to really think about what I’m doing when I take such liberties with the past.
In the unanswerable questions I come across, I’m finding the shape of my novel. When I ask how Oxford established himself as that newly renamed man, John Freeman, I’m really asking how anyone creates their own persona. When I wonder if he ever told the truth about himself to the woman he married in Melbourne, I open a door on his character, his wife’s, and the way lies can underpin a marriage.
When I notice how many instances of doubling and pairing there are in Oxford’s life, I find a Victorian theme with questions that still resound in modern life. Are we ever really just one person? How do our opposites and contemporaries affect us? Here, I can draw on more than the obvious fact that Edward Oxford became John Freeman. ‘Doubling’ can also draw in Edward Oxford’s dead older brother (an ‘idiot’ child he breastfed alongside), his crazy father and his friend Henry Haydon, who was his age but lived a much more privileged life. In non-fiction, all these elements are interesting enough; in fiction, they can feed the conflicts and yearnings behind a character, investing them with a rich inner life.
Then there are the either/ors, which are not quite doublings but have such wonderful novelistic ambiguity. Were Oxford’s guns loaded when he aimed at the Queen? Was he really mad when he fired those shots? There was a man, claiming to be Oxford, who was convicted of theft in Melbourne eleven years after Freeman’s arrival in the city. In non-fiction, he’s a footnote; in fiction, I hope he and his slightly crazy exploits will become a kind of dream, a pushing-forth of Oxford from whatever pit John Freeman buried him in.
When I find something missing in the record – say, who paid for Oxford’s passage to Australia – I really find two questions. The first is the simple, ‘Who?’ The second is, ‘Why do I think it matters?’
In a way, the questions I ask spring from my own interests and prejudices. I think missing detail matters because it will tell me who cared for him and why. Those gaps in the record only appear to be gaps because of what I think a story needs; the narrative I’m writing is one that satisfies me. Similarly, and this isn’t much different from what non-fiction biographers do, I can scrap details I don’t think are important. I don’t care what Oxford ate for dinner on any given day, but I do care whether he relapsed, despite determining to live a good life in Australia.
After hours spent trawling through microfiche records at the State Library and archived church newspapers, it’s a wild relief to just decide how it was – to see scenes that may never have happened, but that I like to think did.
Imagining the past is not always enjoyable. I spent a few weeks working in a cell at the Old Melbourne Gaol, and while I loved the peace and simplicity, the idea of being locked in there theoretically forever with a bunch of smelly, unpleasant fellow prisoners gave me the heebie jeebies.
What I write doesn’t all spring directly from Oxford’s life. My conviction that his sea voyage from Plymouth to Port Phillip Bay – a wild, uncomfortable and foul-smelling passage – was a crucial psychological turning point, and the key to Oxford’s story, could be quite wrong. He might have thought nothing of the voyage; he might have already had all of his epiphanies in prison. But having it be so works in the story, and that’s the other beauty of this fiction over the factual account: I can construct that ‘deeper truth’ exactly as I see it.
While Oxford’s connections and work for the Church of England may have sprung from deep faith and penitence, for me and the character I’m writing it’s more than that: it’s a social springboard, a way of slotting in that bespeaks the kind of street-smarts a man learns in prison. In the end, the Edward Oxford of the novel will be a man born in the eighteenth century, but made in the twenty-first.
A few lines in Oxford’s surviving letters to his friend Haydon seem to offer a guide to the retelling of his life. One was written from the Plymouth ship before it sailed:
This is the first independent act of my new existence. Last night for the first time for nearly twenty-eight years I slept, or rather went to bed, with the key of the bedroom door on my side. You may fancy my feelings if you like, but you won’t be able to feel as I then felt.
Believe me ever gratefully yours,
Another was written a day or two after Oxford’s release from Broadmoor Prison, where he spent three years after Bedlam:
For a man who has once been in the grip of the law to remain where he is known stands but a poor chance among those who have not. It makes no matter what his offence, or whether he has paid the full pound of flesh ten times over, the taint clings to him like a leprosy, and makes even worse men than himself affect airs of superiority over him. All that, at a distance, and where he is unknown, is prevented. He can then find his own level, by putting on the bold front necessary […] Whatever has occurred in the past, in the future no man shall say I am unworthy of the name of an englishman. [sic]
Edward Oxford is buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery, under a headstone bearing the name John Freeman. Whenever I pass the cemetery, I wave and call out ‘Hi, Edward’, hoping he won’t mind too much that I’m invading his long-treasured anonymity; that I’m daring to fancy how he felt, and to take his name for my own purposes.
When Oxford was eighteen, he wanted to be famous; he wanted people to care about him. I’m only trying to make that happen.
Jenny Sinclair is a Melbourne writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Island, Verandah, Wet Ink, the Griffith Review, the Age and on ABC radio. She has published two non-fiction books: When We think About Melbourne (Affirm Press, 2010) and A Walking Shadow (Arcade Publications, 2012). She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.
Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).
Lithograph by J. R. Jobbins (1840)