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Penny Russell

Penny Russell

Penny Russell is a historian of families, intimacy, and social encounters in nineteenth-century Australia, with a longstanding interest in the intricacies of gender, class, race, and culture in colonial societies. Her books include (with Nigel Worden) Honourable Intentions? Violence and virtue in Australian and cape colonies, c.1750 to 1850 (Routledge, 2016) and Savage or Civilised? Manners in colonial Australia (NewSouth, 2010). Penny is a Professor Emerita at The University of Sydney.

Penny Russell reviews 'Restless Dolly Maunder' by Kate Grenville

September 2023, no. 457 25 August 2023
In Restless Dolly Maunder, Kate Grenville weaves a fictional narrative around her grandmother, a woman she remembers as ‘aloof, thin, frowning, cranky’, and knew through her mother’s stories as ‘uncaring, selfish, unloving. Even a bit mad.’ Dolly Maunder left no written records of her own: no memoirs, letters, diaries, or even account books to show how she carved out a life or filled it ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'A Brief Affair' by Alex Miller

January-February 2023, no. 450 28 December 2022
Frances Egan, ‘a smart-looking woman of forty-two’, seems to lead a charmed life.  A scholar of national distinction in the field of management, she was recently shoehorned into the role of head of school by a vice-chancellor who needed a woman ‘for the appearance of the thing’. Driven by ambition (she wants to be a professor), she accepted. She and her husband, Tom, a cabinetmaker commi ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm' by Alan Atkinson

November 2022, no. 448 21 October 2022
'If we take it for granted that John Macarthur was a bad man,’ writes Alan Atkinson, ‘then all the surviving evidence takes on a colouring to match. If we think that, then every word he wrote is suspect. On the other hand, leave the question of character open and the evidence takes on a new richness altogether – a deeper and more complex humanity. That is what I aim to do in this book.’ I ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'The Coast' by Eleanor Limprecht

August 2022, no. 445 28 July 2022
A child of nine is taken to Sydney for the first time to visit her mother, a patient at the Coast Hospital lazaret. Upon arrival, she learns that she, like her mother, has leprosy. Her fate is fixed from that day; she will live the remainder of her life in the lazaret. She takes the new name of ‘Alice’ to hide her former self, and the world closes in upon her. There will be no more school, no ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'Lessons from History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges' edited by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity, and David Lowe

July 2022, no. 444 25 June 2022
Lessons from History is a big, ambitious book. Its twenty-two essays – amounting to some 400 pages of research, reflection, and references – seek to pin down, in accessible form, the combined expertise of thirty-three practitioners of history and related fields. Together they address a mélange of pressing issues facing Australia today, testament to the diversity of contemporary Australian his ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'An Uncommon Hangman: The life and deaths of Robert "Nosey Bob" Howard' by Rachel Franks

May 2022, no. 442 23 April 2022
When the offer came to review this book, I accepted enthusiastically, and unthinkingly added, ‘That sounds fun!’. Upon reflection, I deleted that last sentence: what would it say about me, I wondered, that I should expect the account of a hangman and his work to be entertaining? I thought better of the sentence, but the anticipation remained. ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'Making Australian History' by Anna Clark

March 2022, no. 440 04 February 2022
There are many ways one might write a history of Australian history, but from any angle it is a heroic project. In Making Australian History, Anna Clark is open about the difficulties, the possibilities, and her choices. How do you make sense of Australian history, she asks, amid a ‘swirl of changing sensibilities, methods, culture, politics and place’? How do you trace the story of a discipli ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'William Cooper: An Aboriginal life story' by Bain Attwood

December 2021, no. 438 23 November 2021
The name of Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper shines bright in the history of Aboriginal activism in Australia between the two world wars. It is linked with the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League, of which he was the founding secretary; the Day of Mourning on the anniversary of white settlement in 1938; and a petition intended for George V, signed by almost 2,000 Aboriginal people and ... (read more)

Penny Russell reviews 'Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women Across Two Countries' by Alistair Thomson

September 2011, no. 334 23 August 2011
Gwen Good’s migration to Perth in 1963 turned out well. She loved Australia, the climate that turned life into one long summer holiday, and the house that she and her family soon acquired. She was an active member of her church, and a contented wife and mother who revelled in her children. By the 1980s she was ready to give away the bundle of reel-to-reel tapes on which, decades before, the fami ... (read more)