I’m spending a lot of time developing the character (based on a real person) of a fourteen-year old girl living in colonial Queensland in the late 1880s. It’s hard to imagine what a fourteen-year old was like back then, because teenagers didn’t exist, or at least not in the shape and form with which we are currently so familiar.
I think about my own ten-year old daughter (a tween??), still clutching Ruby, her stuffed horse, as she goes to sleep each night, and still racing towards the swings as soon as she spies a playground.
But the signs are there!
She’s forsaken pink for darker colours and kindly and freely offers her poor mother advice when she thinks I need it, which seems to be quite a lot of the time.
And then this morning she staggers to the breakfast table, headphones firmly in place, iPod in one hand, grunting and rolling her eyes when addressed. Her father and I roll our eyes at each other. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the first real sign that our daughter is becoming, gasp…a teenager?
Ah, but then it turns out that instead of the mangled and inappropriate words of a scantily clad pop star our daughter is listening to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Yes, George, Julian, Dick, Ann and Timmy the dog, as they go on jolly, wholesome adventures through the English countryside, complete with lashings of ginger beer, their socks falling down around their ankles and all adults gloriously conspicuous in their absence.
Life for my very own would-be teenager could not be more different than that of a young girl more than one hundred years ago, but I suspect they’re probably not as different as I think, ipods and Enid Blyton notwithstanding. Like that whiff of independence that makes them lift their heads, that realisation that family is not everything and that the world outside is only a few steps away.
Yet in my novel (and in real life, too) my colonial teenager has already sailed across the world from Cornwall to Queensland. She’s witnessed things my daughter will never, I hope, have to see and she’s partly grown up in a colony characterised as much by violence and racial hatred as that much-lauded pioneer spirit, however much we might wish to deny it.
There is much I would wish for my own daughter as she continues to grow, but the understanding that history is not as clearcut and neat as some books would have it, that the world is not as perfect as she might like it or as she’s been told, and that there are some lessons that will never be learned so she should keep on trying (always) are definitely on the list.
In the meantime, I’ll try to imbue my colonial teenager with that same growing sense of wonder and scepticism I can see in my own daughter, no matter the hundred or so years that separate them.
And I’ll try not to smile when I shouldn’t (nothing makes my daughter crosser when she’s in a bad mood), or cry when I shouldn’t as Ruby the horse and I watch my daughter move from being small to not-so-small.