Published by Text Publishing, August 2021 | Historical Fiction, Australian, Women
When Kate Grenville was researching for her acclaimed 2005 novel The Secret River, she came across some letters by Elizabeth Macarthur that she found to be “very bland, very boring things”.
“But, in fact, her life must have been crazy and tumultuous,” Grenville says of Macarthur who arrived in Sydney from England in 1790, a 24-year-old with her junior officer husband and infant son, one of the few women living in the raw, violent, hungry penal colony in its earliest days.
Grenville came to understand Macarthur’s true voice had been smothered in her letters by the blandness expected of her by contemporary society.
Women of her time had little agency over any aspect of their lives and, while they may have talked together about what they felt, none could risk putting it in writing where it could be uncovered by – and perhaps dishonour – their husbands, fathers or sons.
So Grenville began, as she describes it, to “listen carefully” to Macarthur’s cautious letters and heard “another whispered voice” in between her colourless, cheerful musings.
“That’s the voice Elizabeth Macarthur was never able to speak out loud,” Grenville says.
And it’s that voice – she defines as “smart, sly, cunning and sexy” – that she’s given Macarthur in her latest novel, A Room Made of Leaves.
In the novel, Elizabeth Macarthur tells her own story through “her long-lost secret memoirs”, which Grenville cheekily claims had been found wedged under the beam in the roof cavity of Elizabeth Farm, the house near Parramatta where Macarthur lived until her death in 1850.
Although the memoirs are a fabrication, it is not pure invention.
Grenville bases her story in the real events and people captured in letters, including Elizabeth Macarthur’s own, along with journals and official documents of the early years of the colony. These include notes about her husband, the notorious wool baron John Macarthur; the author Watkin Tench; and the astronomer and botanist William Dawes.
The rich fictional account Grenville wraps around these facts is so vivid and plausible, it’s almost impossible not to erase from your imagination everything you may have ever learned about these often mythologised characters.
What emerges is just how remarkable Elizabeth Macarthur truly was.
During a brutal period in the colony’s development, she managed her family’s vast business enterprise, although women of her time were expected to stay home to look after the children (of which she had seven who survived beyond childhood, out of nine births).
For many of those years, her husband – whose real letters show him to be a ruthless, clever bully and a violent, unforgiving, dangerous man to cross – was often absent from the farm, having returned to England twice, for 13 years in total. He was reportedly overwhelmed by mental illness on his return to Sydney, yet the business his wife had so ably managed was the richest in the colony.
This is despite generations of schoolchildren having been taught that John Macarthur more or less singlehandedly bred the Australian Merino sheep that was the basis of the nation’s economy, many streets and schools named in his honour.
The most engrossing aspect of Grenville’s story is that it so credibly fills in the many blanks around Elizabeth Macarthur: What even possessed her to marry John Macarthur who was neither charming, nor titled, nor rich? How did she feel about her husband’s decision to uproot her and her newborn to travel to a penal colony on the other side of the world? Where did she pick up her sheep breeding skills? And for that matter her astronomical and botanical leanings?
As the silence around Macarthur's story lifts, her brilliant character shines, as we see her mastering how to put her intelligence and wiliness to use in out-waiting, out-witting and out-manoeuvring her husband in a way that few others could – even those at the top of the colony’s command.
But this book is more than just a way of setting the story right about this extraordinary woman.
It’s also about the power of false stories and the way they can erase – or silence – the truth: a salient contemporary theme as we seem to be daily peppered with “alternative facts” and “fake news”.
Women were not the only people whose voices have been silenced.
In the Australian context, the other great silencing was the stories of First Nation’s people.
The accounts left by early settlers are the only written accounts of that history, and those sources are flawed, partial and ambiguous.
A Room Made of Leaves goes some way to shine a light on this unbalanced telling of history, and the stories that have been silenced along the way.
As Grenville states in her dedication, her memoir is a way of honouring all those people of the past who were silenced by the world they lived in – and as Elizabeth Macarthur herself wrote: Do not believe too quickly!
To anyone who loves Australian history, I would recommend this one. It's easy to read, and gives a wonderful insight into the Colonial years. I possibly would have like even more of what could possibly have been going on in Elizabeth's mind when she was told she was going to the other side of the world and how she coped with the ship journey over. It seems to me like she took a bit too much in her stride! But overall, loved this novel.