Week 2: (November 8-12) – Book Pairing with Katie at Doing Dewey: This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.
Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors, so I was very keen to read A Room Made of Leaves. It’s historical fiction telling the story of the Macarthurs, Elizabeth and John Macarthur, who settled in Australia at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s based on the real lives of the Macarthurs using letters, journals and official documents of the early years of the New South Wales colony. Her writing suits me – historical fiction, with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. I find her books difficult to put down and they stay in my mind long after I’ve finished reading. This one is no exception.
Whenever I read historical fiction I always want to know how much is fact and how much is fiction, how accurate it is. And so this novel intrigued me because Kate Grenville’s book begins with an editor’s note about ‘the ‘incredible discovery of Elizabeth Macarthur’s secret memoirs’ in a tin box containing old papers, revealing the real person behind the few letters she wrote home to her family and friends and a lot of ‘dull correspondence with her adult children’. Was this true, I wondered. So I turned to the back of the book to read Grenville’s Author’s Note and in that she clarifies that this is not history and, although the extracts from Elizabeth’s letters are from the letters of the real Elizabeth Macarthur, she has ‘taken some liberties in order to shape this work of fiction’. The old documents were Grenville’s ‘inspiration and guide’. In other words you have to bear in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, a reminder that this is fiction.
It made me want to know more about the Macarthurs, and what was indeed their history, so I was delighted to find out that Kate Grenville references Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements and I was even more delighted to see that it’s available as a ebook. So it is now in my Kindle and I’m keen to read it as soon as possible. I want to see what Michelle Scott Tucker has made of the same historical sources – history, after all, is an interpretation of the facts from the records, trying to explain what happened and why, dependent on available evidence. Fiction is more flexible and can fill in the gaps where the documentary evidence is lacking.