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Five minutes with author Alison Booth

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You might think that being a Professor of Economics at the ANU would be an all-encompassing occupation.

Yet somehow economist Alison Booth also finds time to put pen to paper, crafting not one, not two but four fiction novels, the latest of which has just been released.

The Philosopher’s Daughters takes readers to the grey of 1890s London and the heart of the outback, following sisters Harriet and Sarah Cameron as they tackle inequality in all its forms.

We caught up with Alison to discuss gender equality, researching nineteenth-century Australia and what’s next.

The Philosopher’s Daughters holds a fascination with the Australian outback—where does this stem from?

My new novel, The Philosopher’s Daughters, is set in 1890s London, Sydney and the Northern Territory. This is the first book I’ve written with an outback setting, although my earlier novels share similar strong links to the landscape.

My love of the bush and the countryside stems from my childhood, when we did a lot of travelling around Eastern Australia, and also from my father’s tales of the Northern Territory where he’d spent time as a young man.

In the early 2000s, I had the first of many visits up north, and at that time I fell in love with the remote outback. 

The two main characters of The Philosopher’s Daughters are the Cameron sisters—how does the dynamic between the two steer the novel?

The novel is written from the viewpoints of sisters Harriet and Sarah Cameron. The two sisters were brought up by their widowed father, a moral philosophy professor who—with Harriet—was active in the push for female emancipation.

The family lived in a tall, terraced house in Gower Street Bloomsbury, a narrowly-confined existence that was in sharp contrast to the world of wildness and male derring-do that the sisters travel to.

Harriet’s commitment to the campaign for women’s enfranchisement also illustrates how Australia was seen as a land of promise, for in 1894 women in South Australia and its Northern Territory were given the vote.

Throughout the novel, both sisters uphold the values of Gower Street, that all human beings—black or white, male or female—are equal and deserve equal consideration. But they put these ideas into practice in very different ways.

Harriet writes sharply critical letters to newspapers about the injustices that she sees at the frontier, but ultimately it is Sarah who engages in a heroic act to defend those she loves.

What drew you to writing historical fiction?

Historical fiction opens a window onto the past. What I love about it is that it doesn’t only report what happened in the past, it also makes the reader feel what happened, and in so doing it creates empathy for preceding generations.

It helps readers understand what was experienced by people living through different times and in different places. It also helps readers understand who we are now, and how we got here, so we can appreciate what progress humankind has made.

In the context of The Philosopher’s Daughters, I hope the reader can see—and perhaps better comprehend—the extent to which female and racial equality have evolved, and to see this in a much more personal and moving way than in a straight history text.

Alison Booth. Image supplied.

How did you immerse yourself in the world of nineteenth-century Australia (and London) while writing the novel?

I browsed relevant material in the Northern Territory Library in Darwin, in the Chifley Library at the Australian National University, and in old newspapers at the National Library.

There was a wonderful collection of the Northern Australia Research Unit held in the basement of the Chifley Library until early 2018. I was fortunate to have browsed this before it was destroyed in that terrible flood that hit the ANU campus in early 2018 (the library is working to rebuild this).

To write the London part of the novel, I drew on my years living and working in Bloomsbury. I also read up some aspects of British history too, as needed: for instance, the women’s franchise movements, the fashions, shipping, the poor law guardians, and the extent of poverty.

What’s on your TBR pile?

There are rather a lot of books on my TBR pile!

At the top at the moment are The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante; A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville; Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson; and Her Last Words, by Kim Kelly.

What’s next?

What’s next is another historical novel, this time set in Sydney and Budapest in early 1989, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The main character, Anika, is a traumatised young immigrant from Hungary who inherits an impressionist portrait of unknown provenance, of an auburn-haired woman.

As Anika attempts to discover more about the painting, she is inexorably led back into her family’s past, a journey that will bring her many surprises.

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