Meet the Author: Karen Fox

27 January 2022

‘I’d like to think that my book might help to give people a better idea of the history of the system, because – like any good historian! – I think it’s important to know the history behind contemporary institutions and events…’

Dr Karen Fox is a senior research fellow in the National Centre of Biography and a research editor for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the School of History, The Australian National University. A historian of Australia and New Zealand, she has taught Australian and imperial history and biography at ANU. Her latest book, Honouring a Nation is out now

1. What drove you to research and write this book?

I’ve been interested in the history of honours for a long time, ever since Katie Pickles, my supervisor for my Master of Arts at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that women’s place in the system in New Zealand would make a good thesis topic. (It did!) So, after I finished my PhD thesis at ANU, and the book that resulted from that, I thought that the history of honours in this country might be a good research project. That was confirmed for me particularly after Tony Abbott revived the titles of knight and dame in the Order of Australia in 2014, when he was prime minister, because as I read and listened to the debates about that, I realised that we were having quite a similar conversation to those that were going on in the 1880s and 1890s, but there didn’t seem to be much public knowledge of that. So then I became really keen to write the book to share that wider history of honours, and, hopefully, to inform our future conversations about the honours system.

2. What did the process of writing this book look like?

So this has been a really long process – embarrassingly long, really! I’ve been working on the topic of the history of honours in Australasia on and off since my master’s thesis on the subject in New Zealand. The story of honours in Australia hasn’t really been told in detail before, so there was a lot to cover, and it took me a long time to figure out the shape I wanted the book to take, and how to handle a history covering such a lengthy time period. Along the way there has been a lot of research and thinking, and I’ve tried to familiarise myself with the history of honours in comparable countries, like Canada and Britain as well as New Zealand, so that I could set the story of Australia’s experiences with honours in that wider context. I’ve been helped enormously in that by the work of other wonderful scholars of honours, like Tobias Harper, Christopher McCreery, Peter Galloway, and Sir David Cannadine.

3. Can you tell us any surprising facts about awards history in Australia?

One of the aspects of this research that fascinated me was the various ideas for creating new honours that never went ahead. For example, there were suggestions made in the middle of the nineteenth century for one or more new British orders of knighthood for the empire, including an idea for an order for Australasia. If that had been pursued we might have seen an order for Australasia included in the British system of honours well before Federation, which would have meant a very different history of awards in this part of the world. In the end, an existing order – the Order of St Michael and St George – was reorganised instead to provide for colonial service and achievement.

I was also surprised to learn that a national honour for Australia was proposed as early as 1911, by the newspaper editor William Sowden, who suggested creating an Order of the Wattle Blossom. And we might have had an Order of the Southern Cross instead of the Order of Australia, because in 1949 Ben Chifley’s Labor Government considered creating an honour by this name – although other names, like the Order of the Golden Wattle, were also canvassed – in time for Australia’s jubilee celebrations in 1951. But the matter hadn’t been resolved by the time the government lost power in the 1949 elections, and the idea didn’t go ahead. I really enjoyed learning about these ‘might have been’ honours!

4. Why do you believe this history is important to tell and what do you hope this book will achieve?

Well, I guess one reason is that I think the system matters! It’s an important national institution, which offers the opportunity to say something about what matters to us most as a community, but we don’t often talk about it in depth, or, as I said before, necessarily know its history very well. So I was definitely motivated by those aspects of the topic. I’d like to think that my book might help to give people a better idea of the history of the system, because – like any good historian! – I think it’s important to know the history behind contemporary institutions and events, and I hope that knowledge of that history can inform our future conversations about honours, and about the system.

5. Why did you choose ANU Press to publish this book?

Several reasons. I’ve worked with ANU Press before, and I know that you produce lovely books and are great people to work with! As an ANU academic, too, I am a strong supporter of ANU Press, and I’ve enjoyed watching the Press go from strength to strength. I also appreciate that ANU Press produces its titles as freely available online, as I think open-access publishing is really important for academic research, and it means that many more people might have access to the book than with a more traditional print-focused publisher. Another, related, reason is the print-on-demand system, which combines the extraordinary reach of electronic publishing with the pleasures of being able to hold a hard-copy book for those who wish to do so, and at a reasonable price, which is not always the case for academic publishing.

6. What is next for you?

I’ve already started work on my next book project – or possibly my next two or three books, since I seem to have a habit of taking on very large topics! – which will hopefully explore the making and unmaking of historical reputations in Australia. I have a broader interest in the history of fame and celebrity, and I’d like to investigate the history of celebrity in this country, so that’s also an area that I’m planning to research and write on. With all that has been going on recently around the question of statues and monuments, and the naming of places and buildings and so on, I think the moment is really ripe for a deeper, historically focused, analysis of reputation and renown in this country, so that’s what I’ll be working on for the next while.