In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning.
John Macarthur took credit for establishing the Australian wool industry and would feature on the two-dollar note, but it was practical Elizabeth who managed their holdings—while dealing with the results of John’s manias: duels, quarrels, court cases, a military coup, long absences overseas, grandiose construction projects and, finally, his descent into certified insanity.
Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.
Two years ago I read A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, historical fiction telling the story of Elizabeth and John Macarthur, who settled in Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, which made me keen to find out more about them. In particular it was the epigraph ‘ Believe not too quickly‘, which is a quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters, that highlighted for me that A Room Made of Leaves is a work of fiction. And then I came across Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World and I was delighted to see that Kate Grenville references this book as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements. So I bought a copy.
Elizabeth was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England and she married John Macarthur in October 1788. In June 1789 they sailed with their first child, Edward, initially on the Neptune, and then on the convict ship Scarborough to New South Wales where John joined his regiment, the New South Wales Corps, in the recently established colony of New South Wales. They went on to have four more sons, James (1793-1794), John (1794-1831), James (1798-1867) and William (1800-1882), and three daughters, Elizabeth (1792-1842), Mary (Mrs Bowman, b.1795) and Emmeline (b.1808).
For sixty years, Elizabeth ran the family farm in Parramatta, west of Sydney town – on her own during her husband’s long absences abroad, four years during her husband’s first absence, and nine years during the second, when she was responsible for the care of their valuable merino flocks, as well as the Camden Park estate and the direction of its convict labourers. By the time Macarthur came back from that second absence, he was overwhelmed by mental illness, and they spent the last few years of his life apart. He died in 1834. The house and gardens of her farm, aptly named ‘Elizabeth Farm’ is now an ‘access all areas’ museum. In 1850, she died in her daughter and son-in-law’s house at Watson’s Bay outside Sydney, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
I was interested to see how the biography differed from Kate Grenville’s novel. Both interpret the facts, based on Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters, journals and official documents of the early years of the New South Wales colony, trying to explain what happened and why, dependent on the available evidence. However, fiction is more flexible than a biography and can fill in the gaps where the documentary evidence is lacking. And Kate Grenville has used her storytelling imagination in filling in the gaps in the records, in particular about her relationship with William Dawes, an astronomer with the Corps, who was mapping the night sky. He had an observatory near Elizabeth’s farm and it was there that she attempted to learn from him about astronomy. However, in A Room Made of Leaves, Kate Grenville embellishes the basic facts, whilst exploring what it could have been that made Elizabeth ‘blush at my error‘, as she described it in a letter to her friend, Bridget, claiming she had mistaken her abilities and she ended her astronomical studies. Michelle Scott Tucker comments that the evening visits to Dawes’ observatory were open to misinterpretation, whereas Kate Grenville’s version is much more explicit as she imagines what might have happened. Her book, whilst it is based on history is fiction, as she makes clear in her Author’s Note at the end of the book.
I have only just skimmed the surface of this book – there is so much more detail about the landscape, the indigenous population, the disputes between various sections of the colony, about farming and the establishment of the wool industry, not forgetting the details of the Macarthur family members, illnesses, and the position of the women within the community – Elizabeth wasn’t the only colonial woman who was responsible for her family farm. She was resourceful, a good farm manager and business woman, was respected within the colony, and was loved by her family. There are a number of reasons I recommend this book. There is a ‘Select Bibliography’ which looks comprehensive to me, copious notes citing sources and a family tree. It is thorough, well researched and It provides an insight into the early years of Australia’s colonial history and it is an extremely readable biography of a fascinating woman.