My masters was built around My Brilliant Career, my truck is named after it, I have done innumerable (well, 23) posts about Franklin, but I have never posted a review of this her first and most famous novel. Luckily however, Emma of Book Around the Corner, last year, and now Karen of Booker Talk – who coincidentally, being respectively French and Welsh, bring an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to the task – have stepped up to the plate for me.
Every time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image. That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes. Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.
Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn. Read on …
Following on from my last, I got out of Sydney ok on Wednesday morning and dropped my trailers at Tolls, Perth late Friday, hopefully to be unloaded overnight. I’ve been asked to turn straight around, which I’ve agreed to, Milly’s away working on site till some time next week, but as I write, on Saturday morning, I’m yet to hear from work. Still, I can take today as a 24 hour break and leave this evening.
Despite what I wrote, I did pick up Mothers of the Novel for a while. The next authors after Aphra Benn are Delarivière Manley (1663-1724) and Eliza Haywood (1693-1756). Spender is furious that Manley worked with Jonathon Swift on the Examiner and succeeded him as editor, yet Swift is a celebrated satirist and Manley a forgotten ‘gossip-monger’. Alexander Pope describes her “as one of those shameless scribblers who, in libellous memoirs and novels reveal the faults and misfortunes of both sexes, to the ruin of public fame or disturbance of private happiness.” High, if unintended, praise! Spender writes:
The entry I would like to see for Delarivière Manley in the history of letters would be as follows: A prolific and innovative writer who helped to develop the genre of fiction by her use of the epistolary form and her introduction of political satire.
I have Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) which I had better not read until next year, until I have some Australian reading out of the way. So I will put off dealing with Haywood until then. But Spender, in lamenting that Manley and Haywood had family duties which made it difficult for them to earn an income from writing, includes by way of illustration this extract from a letter from Katherine Mansfield in 1913 to her lover, John Middleton Murry.
… the house seems to take up so much time if it isn’t looked after with some sort f method. I mean … when I have to clear up twice over or wash up unnecessary things I get frightfully impatient and want to be working. So often this week, I’ve heard you and Gordon talking while I washed dishes. Well, someone’s got to wash dishes and get food, otherwise – ‘There’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat”. Yes, I hate, hate, hate doing these things that you accept just as all men accept of their women. I can only play the servant with a very bad grace indeed. It’s all very well for females who have nothing else to do … and then you say I am a tyrant, and wonder because I get tired at night! The trouble with women like me is – they can’t keep their nerves out of the job in hand – and Monday after you and Gordon and Lesley have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘Will there be enough to go round?’ …. and you calling (whatever I am doing) ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock’ as though I were a dilatory housemaid.
I loathe myself today. I detest this woman who ‘superintends’ you and rushes about, slamming doors and slopping water – all untidy with her blouse out and her nails grimed. I am disgusted and repelled by the creature who shouts at you. ‘You might at least empty the pail and wash out the tea leaves!’ Yes, no wonder you ‘come over silent’.
Well that all sounds very familiar. I didn’t go down the pub, or gamble, and I cared for and cooked for the kids when Milly was at her (part-time, manual) work. But I had satisfying full-time employment and on-going education, doing degrees part-time throughout our marriage, and Milly had neither, and I made no effort to back off, or take over housework, to give her space to do either of those things. Milly is not one who “rushes about, slamming doors” but she did try to talk and I couldn’t or wouldn’t hear.
Nine am. Still haven’t heard. My washing’s done, I’d better pay some bills, I’d better go and check my PO box! There’s not much left to do except the library for more audiobooks. Food I can get at IGAs along the way, got some very sweet mandarines from a roadside stand a couple of days ago near Mildura.
Spender has made some remarks about the influence of the middle classes on eighteenth century writing, and when I have time that is what I will be following up next.
Jeff Abbott (M, USA), Panic (2005)
Gillian Flynn (F,USA), Dark Places (2009)
Camille di Maio (F, USA), The Memory of Us (2016)
For some reason the writers of my childhood, all British of course, all regarded being ruled by Kings as natural, desirable and romantic and being ruled by themselves as unthinkable, and this was particularly the case in relation to the English Civil War (1642-1651). I’m thinking of Children of the New Forest, all those Bonnie Prince Charlie stories, and the execrable Scarlet Pimpernel, which we were expected to read (uncritically!) in high school. I’m proud to say that I was an unnatural child and took the side of Cromwell and Robespierre, and of even more obscure figures like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers.
Which is by way of coming to Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a novelist, a feminist and, sadly, a royalist.
I am of course slowly(!) making my way through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. At this rate WG will be able to start her reading some time next year and still beat me to the end. Spender writes that when she started Mothers she thought she would find that Behn was the first woman writer, but as we saw in an earlier post she was able to push that honour back another half century, to Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish. Spender still claims that Behn was the first woman to earn her living by writing, but she also makes that claim for Wroth.
Excesses of all kinds were forbidden during the Commonwealth, but the opposite was true under Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. Theatre flourished –
The popularity of the stage and the revitalisation of drama – and ‘immoral’ and bawdy drama at that – reflected the shift in interest and taste, and suggested new realms of literary possibility.
Aphra Behn’s writing reflects these times and mores, but Spender argues that ‘immorality’ also gave the male literary establishment the fig leaf it needed to ignore her. So, despite her 13 novels (and reams of plays and poetry), Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe 30 years later, is generally credited with the invention of the novel. Behn was also accused of having no Latin or Greek, but as she herself pointed out, neither did Shakespeare.
Behn’s early life is unknown but it seems she sailed to Suriname in the West Indies – the setting for her most famous work, Oroonoko – in the late 1650s or early 1660s; returned to London in 1664; married Mr Behn, a merchant who died or departed soon after; was a spy for Charles in the Netherlands in 1666; incurred debts for which she was briefly imprisoned; began writing poetry and then comic verse plays, the first of which, Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670.
She turned to writing novels after wearing out her welcome in the theatre – her plays often attacked prominent Whigs (politicians seeking to impose limits on the power of the King). Spender says this was a natural progression as there were only two playhouses in London, so limited opportunities for production, and dramas were often circulated as scripts.
This meant that Aphra Behn was quite used to thinking of the presentation of her dramatic stories in printed form. It also meant that the reading public had been prepared for prose stories in print through their familiarity with published plays.
Behn was a successful professional writer who both anticipated the desire of her public for bawdy romantic comedies and was still able to present the issues that interested her – the abolition of slavery, the lives of ordinary people, and a woman’s perspective on relationships rather than deeds.
With her representation of the world which is distinctly not that of the dominant sex, Aphra Behn symbolises the nature and extent of the omissions while women are excluded from the literary canon. In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour – which frequently makes men the butt of the joke – contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.
Spender gets angry a lot. Justifiably I know, but wearing.
… when Aphra Behn became the first woman to seek commercial publication, she plunged right into the problem that has plagued women writers ever since. The problem of having to obtain the approval of men.
Behn believed and wrote “that justice called for a single moral standard for both sexes”, but remained aware that men’s occupation was obtaining a paid place in the world, while women’s was obtaining a man who could support them. Spender does not say “Behn’s first novel was …” but provides a list of works by and about her which goes on for two and a half pages. From it I gleaned that her novels were –
The Adventures of the Black Lady (1684) Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, a True History (1688) Agnes de Castro, or The Force of Generous Love (1688) The Fair Jilt, or The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688) The Unfortunate Bride, or The Blind Lady a Beauty (1688) The Lucky Mistake (1689)
The Novels of Aphra Behn (1905) includes all the above plus –
The Nun The Lover’s Watch The Case for the Watch The Lady’s Looking Glass to Dress Herself By The Lucky Mistake The Court of the King of Bantam
That’s twelve novels, Britannica adds –
Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) an epistolary novel of which Spender writes “Attributed to Aphra Behn, but not included in her ‘Works'”.
The first Collected Novels (with a Life) came out in 1696 and others subsequently in 1771, 1886 and 1905, so I’m not sure how Behn managed to be omitted from the canon. Wilful blindness probably, as in Australia with Spence, Praed, Cambridge, Martin. Vita Sackville West wrote a biography in 1927 – Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea – and Virginia Woolf wrote glowingly of Behn in A Room of Ones Own (1928).
The Nun may in fact be two novels – The Nun, or The Perjured Beauty and The Nun, or The Fair Vow-breaker – they, along with The Fair Jilt, portray convents as little more than brothels and are, according to Spender, laugh out loud funny.
Oroonoko, a short novel which was also made into a popular play, draws on Behn’s experience of Suriname (sometimes disputed but almost certainly genuine) with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and scenery. Oroonoko had been a prince in Africa, he and his wife are enslaved and transported. He escapes, kills his wife rather than allow her to be tortured, is captured and hacked to death (So no happy ending, then!). Sackville-West suggested, “Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation.” But,” Spender writes, “nonetheless we are provided with a horrific portrayal of slavery. There is no doubt we are intended to deplore its practices.”
Project Gutenberg (here) has the works of Aphra Benn in six volumes plus Love Letters. Looking on Goodreads, Penguin Classics has published at least Oroonoko and Love Letters.
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986
My understanding, prior to today, of the history of English Lit. goes like this:
Greeks & Romans
The Bible in Greek, Latin and Hebrew
The Dark Ages Beowulf (975-1025) Piers Ploughman (1370), William Langland The Canterbury Tales (1387), Geoffrey Chaucer
Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press (1440)
The Bible in English
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Walter Allen in The English Novel: a Short Critical History (1951) writes “The comparatively sudden appearance at the turn of the seventeenth century of the novel as we know it was a manifestation of a marked change in men’s interests.” Dale Spender is nothing if not a feminist and you can imagine how this gets up her nose!
The subtitle of Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) is ‘100 good women writers before Jane Austen’ and Spender’s intention is to demonstrate the influence on the early development of the novel of women, who were then and I am sure are often now, completely ignored by the literary establishment, not least of course by Allen. I have in previous posts discussed male writers and essayists (here) who influenced Jane Austen, and I have also started working backwards, with a review of Austen’s immediate predecessor, Fanny Burney’s Evelina (here).
I won’t say much about the list above. Beowulf, which begins, “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,/þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”, I know only from seeing in Campus Lit that real lit. students had to study it. Piers Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales I owned and read in my (Engineering) student days. English translations of the Bible were mandated by Henry VIII in 1539 (see for instance my review of The Taming of the Queen, Phillipa Gregory (here)).
Shakespeare is credited by Allen with the introduction into literature of fiction, by which he means the telling of made-up stories in current settings.
Then there is Jane Austen from whom the modern novel sprung fully formed.
On reflection I might add John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which Allen regards as the modern novel’s immediate predecessors. Alongside Shakespeare there were poet/dramatists Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Samuel Pepys was a bit later and his Diary (1660-1669) wasn’t published until the C19th.
Spender begins her account of the rise of the novel with Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance Arcadia (1590). Sidney was another contemporary of Shakespeare’s and Shakespeare drew on Arcadia for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear (wiki). This brings up two issues, firstly that ‘pastoral romances’ were fictions carefully avoiding any connection with current times (longer definition below); and secondly that writers routinely used each other’s plots, writing variations on a theme so to speak, which is why there is so much material for the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ crowd.
The first of Spender’s 100 is Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroath (1587-1652) who wrote Urania (1621), a variation on Arcadia with significantly stronger female figures. Also, for the first time –
Realism intrudes: and it is not just the realism of content. Wroath also introduces dialogue … and it is impressive and realistic dialogue… One of the responses to Urania … was widespread discussion among writers and readers about who these realistic characters really were.
Lady Mary Wroath (or Wroth) was clearly the first woman to write with the intention of being published, and the first to write for money, her husband having died in 1614 leaving her destitute. She was also a notable poet. See for yourself, Latrobe Uni have published transcribed and modernized versions of her poetry side by side (here).
Spender goes on to discuss – and I’m only talking about Spender’s first three chapters for the time being, there’s already too much to write about – Anne Weamys who wrote A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1651); Katherine Philips, one of a number of women who wrote poetry privately but was published posthumously; Anne Clifford, Lucy Hutchison and Anne Fanshawe who wrote biographies of their husbands, to assert claims arising out of the disruption of the Civil War or just for family information; and Margaret Cavendish.
… if there is to be one woman singled out to represent the starting point of women’s entry to the world of letters, it must be Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1624-1674). She wrote and she wrote; she wrote poetry, prose, philosophy; she wrote about people and she wrote about science…
She wanted to be a writer, a serious writer, and a recognised writer, and because she did not shrink from public view, because she unashamedly sought publication and wasted not one whit of her time in trying to preserve or protect her reputation, she encountered the most savage and sneering response that society could devise. She was called ‘Mad Madge’ for her literary efforts and was publicly mocked and ridiculed.
Margaret Cavendish was a feminist who reflected at length on the position of women and the power of men.
She had, writes Spender, to invent many of the genres of writing (including SF!) which are today taken for granted, and was as well or better known as a writer in her own time than all the men cited by Allen.
The exclusion of women from the literary heritage has not been confined to efforts to keep them out of print but has extended to keep them out of consideration even when they are in print.
Spender is a fierce feminist, and Mothers of the Novel is a polemic, well argued and bursting with the stories of previously unacknowledged women writers.
Spender writes of the literature Mary Wroath would have grown up with –
Any reading for leisure or pleasure would have consisted of versions of the classics with their heroes (and occasional heroines) of antiquity, or pastoral romances, based on conventions of courtly love, and which were unrealistic, highly extravagant and affected affairs, such as those written by Marie de France in the twelfth century …
Apart from the more imaginative offerings (some would say fantastical offerings) of the pastoral romance – where romantically named shepherds and shepherdesses [who mostly proved to be princes and princesses in disguise] gambolled in exotic surrounds and obeyed the ritualistic dictates of love, compounded by mistaken identities – there were also … sermons, tracts and ‘philosophies’ which were associated with education.
Venturing down yet another rabbit hole: Marie de France who is not otherwise mentioned by Spender was a poet of the C12th whose life is completely unknown except from her surviving work. She may have been French, but then so was the whole English court (of Henry II). She was a “creator of verse narratives on romantic and magical themes that perhaps inspired the musical lais of the later trouvères, and author of Aesopic and other fables, called Ysopets. Her works, of considerable charm and talent, were probably written in England” (Britannica).
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986
Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (Abridged with modern spelling), 2016 (buy it here)
Margaret Cavendish, [her ‘science fiction’ classic] The Blazing World, 1668. Project Gutenberg, 2016 (here)
Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760, Project Gutenberg, 2015 (here)
Aurélie Griffin, Mary Wroth’s Urania and the Editorial Debate over Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Études Épistémè [Online], 22 | 2012 (here)
Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1896) is clearly the seminal short story of Australian Lit. against which all other accounts of life in the Bush must be measured. Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife (2017) is a collection of essays on ways The Drover’s Wife has influenced and been reflected in Australian writing and painting. I won’t review the book here, not least because I’ve only just started reading it (and thank you B.i.L who gave it to me for my birthday) but what I do wish to explore are two essays within it which go to the heart of my thesis – that there is an Independent Woman in Australian Literature who is a counterpoint to the myth of the Lone Hand/Bushman/larrikin soldier which most Australians see as the only true symbol of Australianness.
Louisa Lawson, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889)
Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was of course Henry Lawson’s mother. But she was also a story teller, a writer, a poet, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, and for many years, a drover’s wife. By 1889 when this essay was commissioned by the Boston Woman’s Journal she had been publishing and writing in her newspaper Dawn and its predecessor for more than a year.
… for hasty purposes, my colonial sisters may be roughly sorted into three heaps – city women, country women and bush-women, and it is of the last I will write; for it is of their grim, lonely, patient lives I know, their honest, hard-worked, silent, almost masculine lives.
Bush-women she says may be all day in the saddle alongside the men, then doing “what little had to be done in the house on her return… It would not anyhow be much more than making a ‘damper’ in a tin dish and putting it in the ashes.”
For by bush-women I mean … the wives of boundary-riders, shepherds, ‘cockatoo’ settlers in the far ‘back country’; women who share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe.
The bush-woman is thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned. She could be nothing else, living as she does.
… she will tramp five miles with a heavy child on her hip, do a day’s washing, and tramp back again at night. She works harder than a man. You may see her with her sons putting up a fence, or with the shearers, whistling and working as well as any.
There is one thing the bush-woman hates – it is discipline. The word sounds to her like ‘jail’.
In those remote and isolated spots, man is king and force is ruler. There is no law, no public opinion to interfere. The wife is at the man’s mercy. She must bear what ills he chooses to put upon her and her helplessness in his hands only seems to educe the beast in him.
Louisa concludes that all of the bush-woman’s hopes reside in her daughters – “now wherever a dozen children can be got together there is a school.” The girls surpass the boys, besides, the men always “have the drink washing away their prospects.” These girls, “quick, capable and active … will give us a race of splendid women, fit to obtain what their mothers never dreamed of – women’s rights.”
Louisa’s vision is remarkably similar, no doubt because of its inherent truth, to that of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), another woman who spent her early married years imprisoned on an isolated back-block.
Kay Schaffer, Henry Lawson, The Drover’s Wife and the Critics (1993)
I went straight to Kay Schaffer’s essay because countering her arguments had been an important motivator for my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (2011). Basically, Schaffer argues that “Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition” and that the Bush stands in for the feminine, abused and conquered by men.
Yes, the tradition excludes them, but women are only “absent in the Bush” because Schaffer, and Marilyn Lake, and Gail Reekie and Anne Summers don’t look for them. I argued in my dissertation and I think I have demonstrated over a number of years on this blog that there is a considerable body of work supporting both the Independent Woman and Pioneer Women as ‘myths’ in their own right, most recently of course our own MST’s Elizabeth Macarthur.
Schaffer manages to dispute The Drover’s Wife, in which Henry Lawson essentially restates his mother’s thesis as a short story, by claiming that the wife is a surrogate man – “That is, she becomes part of man’s battle against the land as a masculine subject”.
So Schaffer claims that there is no myth of independent women in the bush because those women who are portrayed as independent are just standing in for men:
In most of [Lawson’s] stories the characters who struggle against the hostile and alien bush are men, but this is not necessarily the case. The position of ‘native son’ could, in exceptional circumstances, be filled by a woman. That is, the bushwoman can stand in place of her husband, lover, or brother and take on masculine attributes of strength, fortitude, courage and the like in her battle with the environment (as long as she also maintains her disguise of femininity). She could also be called and have the status of a pioneering hero. This is the position of the drover’s wife.
For a few pages she discusses The Drover’s Wife and its ongoing iconic status, variously interpreted. But still she comes back to –
She stands in place of her absent husband. The drover’s wife is a woman. But heroic status is conferred upon her through her assumption of masculine identity.
Schaffer can only support her thesis of men vs the Bush by claiming that independent bush-women are token men. Tell that to Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, child bearing and child rearing on their own in the Bush while still working the properties of their absent husbands.
Kay Schaffer is an Emerita Professor in Gender Studies and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide.
In January, 2019 I’ll hold an AWW Gen II week – I don’t expect the tremendous response we got to Gen 1 week this year, but I guess I’ll have some time off work, and I think it would be worthwhile to discuss women writers who came of age in the period 1890-1918 and the background against which they were writing, ie. the Bulletin and the Legend of the Nineties. More anon.
Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017
Australia Post – celebrating the sesquicentenary of Lawson’s birth (here)
WAD Holloway, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)
Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds (review)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate (review)
Barbara Baynton, Human Toll (review)
Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (2018) is Australian (Melbourne) author Michelle Scott Tucker’s first work. It doesn’t show. This is an assured account of the life of a woman whose name we all know, but who has always – till now – lived in the shadow of her husband John.
Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born in Bridgerule, Devon where her father was an affluent farmer, in or aspiring to the lower reaches of the landed gentry, and able (and willing) to provide his daughter with a good education. She married army Ensign John Macarthur in 1788 and when, on half pay and needing to support a wife and young son, he joined the newly-formed NSW Corp as a Lieutenant, she sailed with him on the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove, the only officer’s wife to do so.
Michelle points out that Elizabeth was only 9 years older than Jane Austen and that the circumstances in which she was raised would be familiar to readers of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I’m friends with Michelle and on reading the early chapters of her book was imprudent enough to text her, asking if she thought Elizabeth was a ‘Lydia’. “No idea,” she replied, “I don’t make stuff up”. And she doesn’t. Although her account gets along at a cracking pace, it is clearly documented at every step.
To get back to Elizabeth’s Lydia-ness though, I formed the definite impression that Elizabeth was both strong willed and besotted with John. When their first child is born it is clear marital relations had begun before the marriage, indeed it is probable Elizabeth accompanies John on an uncomfortable trip to London in late pregnancy just to be out of sight of family and villagers doing simple arithmetic; there is that lovely cameo on the front cover, so different from the responsible matron (below) she was to become; she alone of the officers’ wives accompanies her husband to what was little more than a campsite on the other side of the world; and later, although I accept she was a devoted mother, I also suspect that when John returned from his long sojourns in England, bringing with him the older children, it was John she welcomed first not the children. Well, maybe the first time anyway.
Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters home have always been an important source for writers about the early days of white settlement in NSW. We are lucky that she was a constant correspondent with her childhood friend, Bridget Kingdon, daughter of the Anglican vicar at Bridgerule, because to her she allowed herself a little more freedom in writing than she did to her mother. After Bridget’s untimely death in 1802 Elizabeth continued to write to Bridget’s younger sister, Eliza. Later, when John was forced to return to England, they exchanged letters about family and business (though Elizabeth’s to John have not survived) and we also have correspondence between Elizabeth and friends she made in the colony, notably Capt. John Piper.
Elizabeth’s story is often told in Elizabeth’s own words, using short excerpts from her letters, giving an immediacy to the writing that makes the biography flow like a novel without resort to passages of imagination, so-called ‘faction’. And we end up with not just Elizabeth’s story but a whole new perspective on the early years of the colony.
In a way I’ve had years to prepare for this review and it was my intention to have reviewed by now Watkin Tench’s two accounts of the first days of white settlement, MH Ellis’ John Macarthur (1955) and the Eleanor Dark reimagining of first contact and the early days of settlement, The Timeless Land (1941). As it happens I only got to the Tench (here, here).
Tench writes of his shock at the terrible state of the convicts on the arrival of the Second Fleet and Scott Tucker fleshes this out, as the Macarthur’s cabin on the voyage out was actually down with the women convicts. Briefly, with the Second Fleet the British government ‘privatised’ the transport of convicts and the successful tenderers and their ships captains economised on the food and conditions of especially the male convicts in order to sell the left over supplies at extortionate prices on arrival in Sydney. Of the 1017 convicts who were despatched from England 258 died, from starvation, illness, from being almost constantly in irons.
The Macarthur story is well known (to Australians). The initial farm, Elizabeth Farm, on the river at Parramatta (20 km up river from Sydney Harbour). The land grants at Cow Pastures, 20 or 30 km further out, which eventually became Camden Park. The importing of merino sheep, from South Africa and from the King’s flock in England. John’s two long absences in London (1801-05 and 1809-17), the first for a court martial and the second after he, now a civilian, led a rebellion against Governor Bligh. The slow growth of the fine wool industry to serve the mills of England and the Industrial Revolution.
Scott Tucker slowly and surely builds a lawyerly case for John’s fecklessness, right from the beginning. The rushed marriage, his constant disputes with his fellow officers, duels, risky business decisions, grand plans for the future. As he gets older he complains of frequent debilitating bouts of depression, interestingly recognised as illness by both the sufferer and Elizabeth, eventually interspersed with bursts of mania until we, and his family, recognise that he is out of control, in modern terms is bi-polar, and his sons become his guardians.
The bulk of the story concerns naturally Elizabeth’s management of the family business while John is away. He and later their older sons are valuable envoys in London, but they must be supported in style and Elizabeth must manage the flocks, the horses, the home farm and orchards, the large numbers of convict servants and farm workers, the younger children – the boys were schooled in England, keep the accounts. Above all she must improve the quality of the wool and get it off to England. She has some standing in Colony society both as a modest gentlewoman and as a relatively (though not always!) prosperous businesswoman. Scott Tucker does not think she mixed with convict and emancipist women, but on the other hand neither does she seem to have been a social climber.
There is a proper emphasis throughout the account on the Eora people who were displaced by the colonists, beginning with early friendly relations. But as the original inhabitants, and particularly the Gandagarra from the mountains enclosing the Sydney basin, begin to fight back, Elizabeth’s attitudes harden and she goes along with the retributive raids by government forces which culminate in the 1816 Appin massacre.
Right at the end Michelle allows herself a little whimsy:
Elizabeth was a real-life Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham instead of a Darcy – albeit a Wickham who loved her as much as he was able.
So no, not a Lydia.
As John became increasingly incapable of dealing with his illness, he demanded, in 1831, that Elizabeth leave him. In 1833 the family confined him to Camden Park and Elizabeth who had been living with other members of her extended family was able “to return to dear home” at Elizabeth Farm. John died in April 1834, and Elizabeth, without ever carrying out her oft expressed wish to return to Bridgerule, in February 1850.
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, Text, Melbourne, 2018
Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker’s first book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out, in bookshops everywhere in a day or so. She has been kind enough to grant me interview while I scramble to produce a review. Meanwhile, check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review here.
Q. So first up, I think you went from school to university to the Commonwealth Public Service. At what stage did you decide to become a writer.
A. Yes, that’s right. After uni (in Melbourne) I moved to Canberra and worked in Australian government policy roles for over a decade, then moved back to Melbourne and into consulting (mainly for government clients). Essentially, I’ve always written for a living. And despite what you’ve heard about government writing, I think my various day jobs gave me a solid grounding in how to turn complex issues and ideas into readable, accessible prose. But I was in my mid-thirties before I realised that writing was always the part of my job I enjoyed most, and that writing – for its own sake – was something I wanted to pursue. And I’ve probably only been confident enough to call myself ‘a writer’ for the last year or two. Getting a publishing contract definitely helped!
Q. Your book is a biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, who came out to Sydney on the Second Fleet and was instrumental in establishing the wool industry here in Australia. How did you light on her as a subject? Did you intend all along to demonstrate that she had agency, that she was not just John Macarthur’s wife?
A. One of my government jobs involved (briefly) working with women farmers in outback Queensland. I was young and pretty green, and they were very kind. They explained that there was no such thing as ‘a farmer and his wife’. In reality each farming couple were both farmers, and usually part of a farm family. Although the farm work might be split along gendered lines, the women’s work was just as crucial to the financial viability of their farms as the men’s.
I studied history at uni, and speaking with those outback women made me wonder why farm women seemed to be missing from the Australian historical narrative. So I started doing some basic research, stumbled across Elizabeth Macarthur’s story and found it absolutely compelling – there was so much going on! So yes, I definitely and deliberately set out to demonstrate that she was far more than just someone’s wife.
Q. Some time ago I saw a piece in which you imagined from Elizabeth’s point of view the birth and death of (I think) Elizabeth and John’s first second child, while they were still at sea on the way here. Did you ever consider writing this whole work as Historical Fiction? And in the context of this question, how much have you looked into the theory side of modern biographical writing – the mixing in various proportions of documented fact, disputed facts, speculation, authorial research, fiction to cover the gaps and so on.
A. The book opens at sea aboard a convict ship, on a stormy Southern Ocean, with Elizabeth Macarthur giving birth prematurely. No part of the scene is imagined, or fictionalised. The historical record is clear about the premature birth of the baby girl, and her subsequent death, about the ship, about the storms, and even about Elizabeth’s prayers. We know nothing about Elizabeth’s subsequent grief, and I say so.
Nor is any other part of the book fictionalised or imagined, and although occasionally I provide commentary, or speculate about something, it’s clearly flagged as commentary or speculation. If there are disputes or gaps in the historical record (and there are always gaps) I flag them too, and leave the reader to decide. Essentially, I abide by the code that historian Clare Wright calls ‘not making shit up, ever’. In the book, I’ve selected words very carefully so that every sentence is as accurate as possible. But, that said, I do use all the narrative tools associated with fiction to ensure that I present the facts in a compelling, interesting and accessible way. As a result, I seem to have written a history book that reads like a novel.
I do love reading books and articles about writing and especially about writing biography. I also enjoy reading lots of different kinds of biographies, including those that describe the author’s research process. But I’m really not a fan of including fictionalised scenes in non-fiction narratives. It’s distracting, and rarely adds to my understanding of the subject. If I want the fictionalised version, I’d rather read a historical novel (and I do read lots of those, too). For myself, I wasn’t ever tempted to go down the historical fiction route, not when the real story was so interesting anyway.
Q. We your loyal followers have been following the progress of Elizabeth Macarthur for years now on your blog Adventures in Biography. On 4 Jan 2015 you wrote, “I aim to spend 20 minutes every day working on my Elizabeth Macarthur biography. And slightly less time in my hammock swing …” How did that work out? How long had you already been writing by then. And how long before that had you been thinking about writing?
A. Like all my New Year resolutions, that ’20 minutes a day’ one lasted less than five minutes. Although probably slightly longer than the ‘do more exercise’ or ‘be a nicer person’ resolutions. I have a family, a job, and plenty of things on. I write when I can, in the cracks of my life, so to speak. I started working on the book when my children were tiny, so the actual start date is lost in the baby-haze, but maybe about 12 years ago? I’d do some research, do some writing, do some more research. Some years I didn’t write more than a chapter. But in 2016, once I had a contract, and therefore a deadline, I started writing a whole lot more.
Q. When you told me that you had started a blog, in June 2014, I of course started reading it – the first blog I ever read – and also the blogs that you followed. They were/are a fascinating mix of literature, history, and biography and I have followed much the same blogs ever since. I am sure your interaction with these bloggers has been both enjoyable and informative, and we have loved sharing in the progress of your work. What would you say as a writer about being a blogger, that is, does the interaction contribute to your writing, or your thinking?
A. Starting a blog, and being part of that online community of bloggers, has made a huge contribution to my writing – and thinking.
Before becoming a blogger myself, I came across ANZLitLovers and vividly remember nervously posting a comment for the first time. Lisa, the blogger behind ANZLitLovers, was immediately welcoming and supportive and that motivated me to keep exploring the literary blogosphere. It’s a terrific place to learn about and discuss Australian (and other) books.
Through my own blog I’ve made contact with some really lovely people, and their encouragement really did mean (and still means) a great deal to me. We’re friends now, and I occasionally see some of them offline too. A few were directly helpful, for example: Dr Marion Diamond (Historians are Past Caring) generously pointed me towards relevant research information that I’d have never found on my own; and Bernice Barry, a published biographer, shared some incredibly useful insights about what to expect from the publishing process. Twitter and Facebook, in their different ways, have also provided me with useful and interesting connections.
Q. If starting writing was the first big step forward, was your acceptance into the Hard Copy programme the next big step? The perspective from the outside was that it of course gave you confidence and practical ideas but there also appeared to be quite a bit of ongoing fellowship and support.
A. My first big step was the culmination of lots of smaller steps. I entered small competitions and didn’t win. I submitted pieces to literary magazines and received lots of rejections. I applied for a fellowship and was shortlisted (the Hazel Rowley). Then I applied for a residential fellowship (to Varuna) and was accepted. Each step drew on what I’d learned from the step before.
Acceptance into the ACT Writers Centre 2015 HardCopy program was a terrific next step; I learnt a huge amount that year and, as you say, gained a valuable friendship group of other non-fiction writers. But the big break was meeting with (and getting incredibly positive feedback from) publishers and agents at the end of the program. During that process the woman who became my agent, Jacinta di Mase, offered to represent me. That was the real break – scoring a top-class agent. Thanks to her efforts, I subsequently received generous offers from seven different publishers for my unfinished manuscript. That’s when it all started to feel real, and I really did start to think of myself as a writer. That feeling also made it easier to carve out more time for writing.
Q. Finally, your blog is often overtly feminist, for instance in addressing the inequality of opportunity for women writers compared to men. Would you say that Elizabeth Macarthur is informed by feminism? Or that it is consciously part of a feminist project to redress the balance of male and female stories in histories?
A. Yes, Elizabeth Macarthur is definitely informed by feminism and yes, it is an attempt to redress the balance. The Australian historical narrative is full of white men working (mining, exploring, soldiering, etc). The Australian historical narrative is also full of white men failing (and there’s perhaps a PhD thesis in this for someone). Bourke and Wills: fail. Ned Kelly: didn’t end well. Even the Gallipoli campaign – the men themselves may have been heroes but it seems to be that not every Australian realises we actually lost that battle.
Elizabeth Macarthur was an interesting, intelligent successful woman who played a crucial role in Australia’s colonial history. Hers is not a household name – but it ought to be. And it’s a bit sad, really, that merely writing about a female historical figure remains a feminist act, but it’s true.
Thank you Michelle. I should have my review of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World up early next week (here).
Michelle’s website (here) includes a link to her blog and dates for author talks/book signings (under News & Events).