Introductory activities

Lilian’s Story is inspired by the real life Sydney identity (and eccentric), Bea Miles. Prior to reading the novel, students are to read the two articles in the activities below about Bea Miles.

Activity 1

Read the article ‘The Life of Bee* Miles’ at the B Miles Women’s Foundation website.

* Bea Miles is referred to throughout this article as Bee Miles.

As they read the article, students should complete a table looking at key vocabulary used by the author to describe Bea. The activity requires students to consider the denotative and connotative meanings of the words to identify what the author is attempting to convey to the reader about Bea’s character.

Make a list of both the denotative and connotative meanings of the following words:

  • original
  • eccentric
  • anti-social
  • Bohemian
  • intellectuals
  • larrikin
  • cheekily
  • lunatic

Activity 2

Next, students are to read the article ‘Colourful Sydney Identity: Bea Miles’, originally published in Time Out Sydney, 9/11/07.

Using the information about Bea Miles from the two articles, students should write a paragraph answering the question, ‘Who was Bea Miles?’

In their responses, students are to think very carefully about the words they use to describe her and think about the connotative meaning of those words they use. Do they view Bea in a positive or negative light? Their descriptions and choice of vocabulary should help the reader to determine whether Bea could be considered in a positive or negative light.

These Introductory activities are provided as a worksheet (PDF, 120KB).
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Personal response on reading the text including such aspects as:

Framework for understanding

Use the questions provided by Kate Grenville on page vi as a framework while reading the novel. These questions helped Grenville write a ‘novelisation’ rather than a biography of Bea Miles. Ask students to write the questions in a journal, and as they identify moments in the story that relate to each question, they can take notes and include relevant quotations that provide an understanding of the ideas posed in the questions.

Novel structure

The novel is written in three parts and uses chapters to divide information. Each chapter has a title that is intended to provide insight into the events within the chapter. As students read the novel, ask them to consider the impact of the chapter titles on their understanding of the novel.

Ask students to write two journal responses related to the chapter titles.

  • The first journal should be written as a predictive task. Students are asked to look at a chapter title in the second section of the novel before reading the chapter and make a prediction regarding what will happen in that chapter and explain that prediction based on the information they feel is revealed through the title.
  • The second journal response is reflective. Students should explain how the chapter title helped or hindered them in understanding the events of the chapter. In this journal response they could explain the impact of the chapter titles in general on their enjoyment and understanding of the novel as a whole.

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Outline of key elements of the text


The story is told in three parts: A Girl; A Young Lady; A Woman.

Have students complete the following activities to understand how these parts impact on the reader’s understandings of Lilian.

  1. Ask students to research the background of the era of the novel – this could be divided up within the class (family/home life, education, social events, societal expectations for children) and a brief report back to the whole class on what they have found.
  2. Complete a comparative chart on expectations of young people, especially women, in Bea’s era and now.
  3. Think-pair-share discussion regarding the connotative meanings of the words: girl, young lady, woman. Extend the ideas by discussing how these terms are used by Kate Grenville to position the reader in relation to Lilian and why.

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Ask students to create a table and identify key facts about each character and the way their personalities are described in the chapters where they are introduced. The table could have a further column where students reflect – after finishing the book – whether the original descriptions were a fair perspective on each character.

  • Lilian Chapter 1 (‘A Girl’)
  • Norah (‘Mother’s Story’)
  • Albion (‘Father’s Story’)
  • Kitty (‘Among the Sisters of Albion’)
  • John (‘Birth, the Slippery Adventure’)
  • F. J. Stroud/Frank (‘Pursuing Wisdom’)

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Two key themes explored throughout the novel are identity and societal constraints versus independence. These themes are explored within the context of post-Federation Australia. The characters in the novel are products of this time period. In small groups, ask students to explore what this time was like for men and women from privileged backgrounds. With that knowledge, ask students to identify the freedoms and constraints placed upon Lilian and John in the story. At this point they can look at the work they completed in relation to the plot and on the differences between Lilian’s era and now. They may choose to add to their table.

Other themes in the novel are: domestic violence and incest and the impacts of that on families. This is extended in ideas of ‘madness’ with Lilian’s hospitalisation later in life. These issues are complex and in a number of instances confronting, especially for a Year 10 reader, so need to be treated carefully by teachers. Consider the way that you may look at these themes with students and whether they are issues to explore further.
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Synthesising task/activity

At the end of reading the novel, ask students to again look at the series of questions posed by Grenville in her author’s preface. Students are to write an extended literary response to one of the questions.

Lilian’s Story: Extended literary response (PDF, 117KB)

Kate Grenville used Bea Miles’ life as a framework to explore the following issues in her novel.

  1. What was it like to be a clever woman born at a time when women were not even supposed to go to high school, much less university?
  2. What does it mean to refuse the life-story that has been prepared for you, and choose another of your own making?
  3. Once you step outside society’s norms and aims, what alternative structure can give your life a sense of purpose?
  4. What might you put in place of motherhood, comfort, the trappings of a pleasant middle-class life?

(Questions sourced from Author’s Preface, p. vi)

Choose one of these questions and write an extended literary response (between 500–800 words) that examines how this question is dealt with by Kate Grenville. In your response, make reference to what society expectations were in relation to these questions during post-Federation Australia; then outline how the life of Lilian reflects/responds to the ideas posed. Finally outline how you think you would have wanted to behave had you been in Lilian’s situation? Use the ideas and quotations you sourced while reading the novel to provide evidence in your literary response.

The task and accompanying rubric (PDF, 117KB) are provided. Please attach this sheet as a cover sheet for your response. You must complete a self-assessment of your own work using the marking rubric.
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The Writer’s Craft

Activity 1: Lilian’s voice

Ask students to read page vii of the novel. Kate Grenville describes how she developed Lilian’s ‘voice’ in the novel. She states that her aim was to write in, “a kind of expansive, confident, slightly self-mocking voice.” She also states that she discovered, “… an astonishing freedom” when writing as Lilian.

Students are then to read the opening three chapters of the book, where Lilian and her parents are introduced. Ask students to identify specific elements of the writing that make Lilian’s voice distinctive. Students can describe:

  • key words or phrases that are interesting;
  • the narrative perspective used in each chapter (are they all in first person narrative?);
  • chapter titles and how they are used;
  • sentence structure and the use of questions;
  • use of italics.

Activity 2: What’s in a name?

“Father spent a week in the study before he could decide on a name for his son.” (p. 15)  and, “In the end, John Thomas was disappointing.” (p. 16).

The use of names in the novel provides some insight into the characters’ development. Ask students to identify the meaning of the family members’ names and respond to the questions:

  • Lilian Una – What was Albion hoping for his daughter by giving her these names? How does it reflect (or challenge) the expectations for women in this era?
  • Alma – Alma is named before Lilian’s parents. Why would the servant’s name be the second name the reader learns in the novel before the parents’?
  • Albion – What ideas/aspirations are evoked with this name? How does Albion live up to/fail to live up to his name?
  • Norah – Norah is not named until the third chapter of the story. What does this indicate about her role in Lilian’s life? How does Norah live up to/fail to live up to her name?
  • John Thomas – What was Albion hoping for his son by giving him these names? How does it reflect (or challenge) the expectations for men in this era?

Students could look at the meaning of their own names and determine whether they have the most appropriate name for their personality. They could write a short piece defending their names or choose a different name and explain why that would be better for them. This could be done as a short informal speech to the class.

Activity 3: Men and women in post-Federation Australia

Previously, students were asked to create a table that compared and contrasted the freedoms and constraints placed on Lilian and John. Ask students to extend these ideas by looking closely at the chapter ‘Modesty’ (pp.18–20), and identify ways that Lilian and John are treated differently by their parents and Norah’s friends. Ask students to look back at their table and add any further ideas to this table based on their reading from ‘Modesty’.

Students could extend this idea by reflecting on the societal expectations placed on men and women in Australia today. Are there similar constraints? Are men and women afforded much more freedom now than Lilian and John were? If there are still constraints, engage students in a discussion about why they believe men and women are still categorised according to gender in Australia. This could include a survey of the types of jobs the students are hoping to get when they leave school. A discussion could be undertaken about what the survey shows.(ACELA1564)   (ACELA1565)   (ACELA1571)   (ACELT1639)   (ACELT1640)   (ACELT1643)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-3B)   (EN5-8D)


Text and meaning

In her author’s preface Kate Grenville asks: “Once you step outside society’s norms and aims, what alternative structure can give your life a sense of purpose?”. Lilian, on page 299, states: “I have always been my own destiny, and loved my inventions of myself.”

The life described in Lilian’s Story is not what many would consider normal or good. (This relates to notions of ‘madness’ that you may have explored with students and could be included in student responses at this time.) Yet Grenville is careful to demonstrate Lilian’s contentment with her life. Ask students to create a T chart comparing their idea of what would make life good and things that Lilian indicates that make life good. Share the ideas as a class and ask students to add to their tables based on comments from their peers.

Students can then explain why, despite its difference from ‘normality’, Lilian’s life could be described as a good life.
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Synthesising task/activity

Ask students to re-read the opening chapters, to complete a creative writing task.

In pairs, ask students to re-read the opening line of the novel – “It was a wild night in the year of Federation that the birth took place” (p. 3) – and then determine what this opening line foreshadows about the kind of person Lilian will be.

  • Students should write a short piece describing their own births in a similar way to the opening line of the novel. It is to be a creative task that establishes (through their descriptions) the kind of person they are rather than a factual account of their births. They can also use the structural elements used by Grenville in the opening three chapters within their own writing to create a clear voice. Using Google Drive or a Wiki space, ask students to share their stories with their peers. Each student is to comment on two stories, providing feedback on how the control of content, organisation, use of vocabulary and sentence structure help to create a sense of personality in the writing.

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Ways of reading the text

Unreliable narrator: Lilian’s perspective

The novel is told entirely from Lilian’s perspective, with Grenville creating a distinctive voice for her. At a number of moments in the novel, the reader sees how Lilian’s perspective may not match the perceptions of others around her. As students read the novel, they could be asked to identify these moments.

In the chapter ‘Destinies’ (pp. 248–253) Lilian believes she is in a relationship with a banker; however, it is clear to the reader that the ‘signs’ she is given are not an indication that the man is in love with her. Ask students to read a chapter when Lilian is in the mental institution and identify moments where they believe Lilian’s perspective may be limited; where her perception of events may not be fully accurate. Ask students to determine what specifically makes them doubt Lilian’s words.

Give students an excerpt from an autobiography or memoir and ask them to critically read it and determine whether that piece has authority or if that person is also an unreliable narrator. For this activity, choose an excerpt from someone who students may normally want to trust, such as a politician or serious actor. A final question to ask students is, can any first person narration (be it fictional or non-fiction) be fully trusted?
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Comparison with other texts

Film adaptation

A film adaptation of the novel was released in 1996, starring Toni Collete and Ruth Cracknell as Lilian. The film’s focus is much more on Lilian’s relationship with her father and institutionalisation. In this version she is institutionalised for 40 years.

Activities that could be done in relation to the film are to compare specific scenes from the novel to the film version, such as the ‘relationship’ with the banker or Lilian’s aunt releasing her from the institution. Or students could be asked to write a review of the film as it compares to the novel, paying attention to what the film chooses to tell of the story and what is omitted and why. The film’s focus on Lilian’s institutionalisation could inspire a discussion on mental health and the stigma associated with mental health.

Way Home – Libby Hathorn (Random House)

“I had never set up house with anyone before, and loved the feeling of coming home at the end of the day to the place Frank and I shared.” (p. 302). Lilian lives in a storm water channel with Frank but describes it as her home. Ask students to read Way Home by Libby Hathorn and look at the images of Shane’s home with the cat. Ask students to create an image of Lilian and Frank’s home, using the images from Way Home as inspiration.

On page 285 Lilian also talks about Sydney being her home, based on the people and the way she feels treated. Undertake a class discussion on what makes somewhere/some place home. Students could write a journal entry about their home and what makes it home to them and identify ways that Lilian’s home, despite being the streets, is the same as their home.(ACELA1564)   (ACELA1565)   (ACELT1639)   (ACELT1812)   (ACELY1749)   (ACELY1752)   (EN5-5C)   (EN5-7D)   (EN5-8D)


Evaluation of the text

As a representation of Australian life

In the initial activities, students looked at the context of the novel and what life was like for Lilian and other young people in post-Federation Australia. After students have read the novel, ask them to look back at their table regarding the differences between the eras and then conduct a class discussion with students identifying key ideas or interesting aspects of the time period (as revealed in the novel) and how it differs from the experiences of young people living in Australia now. A final question for the discussion could be: would Lilian exist in modern Australia or is she too much the product of her upbringing and the time she lived in?
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Rich assessment task (productive mode)

After the class discussion on whether Lilian would exist in modern Australia, ask students to choose a famous ‘eccentric’ from any historical time period (prior to the 21st century) and explain why they were considered eccentric in their time and whether their behaviour would still be considered eccentric today. Ask students to include in their response an evaluation about whether the tag ‘eccentric’ connotes positive or negative ideas and whether it should be applied to the person they are evaluating.

The journal response can be written in an online environment and students can be asked to make comments on two of their peers’ responses to add to or challenge their ideas about what makes someone eccentric and whether it is a ‘fair’ label to use when describing someone.
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Synthesise core ideas

Give students the summative literary response (PDF, 113KB) set out below on the legacy of Lilian. Students are to write an extended literary response that synthesises ideas about Lilian’s personality and her impact on the life of Sydney and its people.


Rich assessment task (receptive mode)

‘Fame’ Extended literary response 

Students will write an extended response that analyses Lilian’s fame and power by the end of the novel. Lilian’s life experiences and context (Sydney in post-Federation Australia) created the individual she becomes in the story. In previous activities you have analysed whether Lilian’s choices in life lead to her having a ‘good life’. In this response you will analyse whether she has become a positive or negative figure (or perhaps a bit of both).

Re-read the chapter ‘Fame’ (pp. 290–295). This chapter is a culmination of Lilian’s experiences and the legacy she leaves. It is at this point that Lilian’s story aligns closely with the legend of Bea Miles.

Lilian states, “My story was beginning to have a part in the stories of others, and I was becoming a small part of history” (p. 290). In this chapter we see how Lilian interacts with two different women. One she ‘plays’ with and the other she calls good, courageous and beautiful. In each instance she becomes part of the women’s stories.

Using examples from the novel, including specific examples from the chapter ‘Fame’, write an analysis of the kind of woman Lilian has become and whether her impact on Sydney and the people is ultimately positive. Has Lilian become a positive or negative ‘public figure’? (p. 290)

Remember to use clear paragraphs to structure your writing.

Please attach this sheet (PDF, 113KB) as a cover sheet for your response. On this sheet, you must complete a self-assessment of your own work using the marking rubric.
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Rich assessment task (productive mode)

Students are to use the skills developed through reading the novel and close textual analysis on how Lilian Singer’s ‘voice’ is created by Kate Grenville to complete the creative writing task (PDF, 114KB) set out below. Students are asked to pick one of the following characters and tell part of the story from that character’s perspective. The creative response should be written in a way that creates a voice for the character that reflects the way the character is presented in the novel by Lilian. A rubric is included.

Lilian’s Story: Creative response 

In the author’s preface Kate Grenville outlines her process for developing Lilian’s voice in the novel. Look at the opening of the companion novels to see how Lilian’s voice differs from that of Albion (Dark Places extract) and Joan (Joan Makes History extract).

Using the style and structural elements you have previously identified as ways Grenville created Lilian’s voice as inspiration, choose one of the following characters from Lilian’s Story and write about a key event in the novel from that character’s perspective.

You will be assessed on how well you create the character’s voice and whether their point of view about the event resonates with how they are described by Lilian (taking into account the fact that she is an unreliable narrator) throughout the novel.

Characters Suggested events
Miss Gash Meeting Lilian in ‘Meeting a Madness’

Lilian being rude in ‘The Power of Words’

John Thomas Singer Lilian and the tiles in ‘Pride and Its Fall’

Visiting Lilian in ‘My Other Visitor’

Rick Being mean to Lilian in ‘Public Pride’
Norah Singer Lilian’s behaviour in company in ‘Modesty’
Kitty Singer Advising Lilian about husbands in ‘Aunt Kitty Advises’

Providing Lilian with an apartment in ‘A Woman of Means’

Ursula Ending the friendship with Lilian in ‘Other Games’

Trying to help Lilian in ‘Choices I Have Made’

F. J. Stroud Meeting Lilian in ‘Pursuing Wisdom’
Duncan Meeting Lilian in ‘A Beau up a Tree’
Frank or Jewel Living with Lilian in ‘All Happy Families’

Please attach this sheet (PDF, 114KB) as a cover sheet for your response. On this sheet you must complete a self-assessment of your own work using the marking rubric.
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