Elizabeth Macarthur, Michelle Scott Tucker

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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 by 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.

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Elizabeth Macarthur, undated, State Library of NSW

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

see also:
Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)

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Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker

Michelle Author
Michelle Scott Tucker

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).

Miles Franklin’s Last Diary

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Between the last two entries in The Diaries of Miles Franklin (2004) Paul Brunton writes:

If Miles Franklin kept a diary for 1954 [the year of her death], it has not survived. She made her last known diary entry, for 1 January 1954, at the back of her pocket diary for 1953.

Jill Roe, of whom Brunton writes, “All those who venture into Franklin studies are in the debt of Dr Jill Roe for her scholarship over the last two decades”, does not write about Franklin’s diaries directly in her monumental Stella Miles Franklin (2008), though she occasionally quotes from them. For the last year of Franklin’s life she must have relied on Franklin’s correspondence which she had edited and published 15 years earlier.

Now, as of March 7, we know there was a diary for 1954, known of these last 30 years but inexplicably kept secret. Julie Power writes in the Age (and no doubt in the SMH but I come from Melbourne):

Everyone believed the diary of her final year was lost until her distant relative Margaret Francis spotted it in an old suitcase. Seeing the diary with Franklin’s tiny spidery writing was ‘‘ a moment of absolute exhilaration’’ , said Ms Francis, who lives in Wagga Wagga.

She glimpsed the diary 30 years ago, and had kept a promise to keep its existence a secret, hoping that someone had put it somewhere safe.

After finding it three years ago, Ms Francis – who has dedicated much of her life to writing three volumes detailing the extended Franklin family’s rise from illiterate convicts and settlers to the educated squatocracy – would get up at five in the morning to read and transcribe the entries.

By the beginning of 1954 Miles was 74 years old and presumably knew she was getting near the end. However, her first entry for the year was cheerful enough: “Awaked to a grey day. Must have had quite 7 hrs sleep!!! so I felt very well. Left at 10.45 for Killara & walked from station to 36 Springdale Rd [maybe 500m]” and there follows an account of a family gathering for dinner, “Beautifully roasted turkey & vegs & 4 sweets. Nuts & chocolates”.

Throughout 1954 Miles was mostly querulous, as might be expected. Wrote to friends “I can’t complain” but did. Continued her work in the garden, and with the Fellowship of Australian Writers; and maintained friendships with fellow writers Jean Devanny, Katharine Susannah Prichard (and KSP’s son Ric Throssell) and Dymphna Cusack – maybe she was a closet socialist realist after all! I was going to write that in 1952 she prepared “a lavish lunch” in honour of Lenin’s birthday, but I see on re-rereading it was actually for her Aunt Lena.

With recognition as a writer coming so late in life – after that amazing early start was so completely lost – she was still struggling with mss right up to the end. With Cockatoos, the next in line of the Brent of Bin Bin books which Angus & Robertson had undertaken to publish; an anti-war play The Dead Must Not Return; and a book of essays arising from a lecture tour to Perth, which was eventually issued posthumously as Laughter, Not for a Cage.

In her last chapter “Shall I pull Through?” Roe writes at length on Franklin’s ambivalent attitude to sex, which underlies all her writing. Franklin told Jean Devanny in 1954 “that now sex had come to stay it was time to give it a rest” (I think she means writing about it). But she was still interested enough to read Kinsey.

In 1952 when he met Franklin for the first time at a FAW meeting young playwright Ray Mathew saw her as “an amusing figure, a kind of combination of Mrs Pankhurst and Mary Poppins”, but he grew to respect her and in a 1963 monograph – the first literary assessment of the whole Brent of Bin Bin oeuvre – ‘argued that although Cockatoos was the only one of the Brent books likely to survive in its own right … the series was a masterpiece’, and defended Miles’ method of ‘possuming’ and ‘yarning’. But he also discusses Franklin’s ‘sexual confusion’ which “may either irritate or amuse the reader, but it does force the author into extraordinary studies of women desiring but incapable of consummation which are subtle and unique in Australian writing.”

As the end approached Franklin dictated a letter to Vance Palmer which begins, “Dear Vance, I had your book ready to read when I was taken with a heart attack five weeks ago; so I have not read it but I am glad it is out & know it will be a great success.” [I can’t see what book that would be, maybe a short story collection]. She speaks of her illness and of being taken to stay with Mrs Perryman in Beecroft and adds “I do not know whether it is worth struggling to survive.” (July 23rd 1954).

Her last (published) letter is to Pixie O’Harris, Sep 3 54. “Pixie dearest dear, You little know, I perceive, by your letters, how near I still am to tumbling into the grave.” Typically, she also writes “Tell Ray Mathew not to worry about his play, I always feel worse than he does.”

She died on September 19th. The final entry in her diary, three days earlier, was ‘‘Went to Eastwood by ambulance to be X-rayed . Ordeal too much for me. Day of distress and twitching. Returned to bed’’.

This last diary has been donated to the State Library of NSW, which already has the 46 previous diaries detailing the author’s life from 1909. What Ms Francis plans to do with her three years of transcription I’m not sure, maybe add it to her family history.

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photo: Louise Kennerley, the Age, 7 Mar 2018

 

Julie Power, Miles Franklin’s Secret Diary Discovered, The Age, Melbourne, 7 March 2018 here

Paul Brunton ed., The Diaries of Miles Franklin, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004

Jill Roe ed., My Congenials: Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters, vol 2 1939-1954, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1993

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

see also: Miles Franklin page for a list of her works and links to reviews and other posts

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

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One of my favourite novelists, Ursula Le Guin (b.1929) died last month (22 Jan 2018). I was barely aware of her children’s fantasy fiction which brought her so much acclaim but her adult novels, which are both Science Fiction and Literature, brought me, Mrs Legend and eventually our children, both pleasure and an awareness of what-might-be. Throughout the seventies and eighties she was the first writer we both looked for in second-hand stores and whose work we discussed, and just this xmas we inducted out oldest granddaughter into the club with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

Ursula K Le Guin in her writing and no doubt in herself, was a feminist, an anarchist and a conservationist, a (quiet) revolutionary in the sixties and seventies when it all seemed possible, right up to now when it seems less possible but rather more necessary. She was a fine story-teller who used her adult science fiction to picture and discuss her beliefs and who argued that science fiction was an important and necessary part of Literature. Her obituary in the Guardian says that

… she conveys her strong conviction that science fiction and fantasy, though fascinating in themselves, are also essential literary constructs or tools through which the world could profitably be described – but only if one honoured the tools. She was impatient – though respectfully so – with her friend Margaret Atwood’s disinclination to call some of her own novels science fiction.

Some time in the nineties or oughties I lost track of her and so was pleased when Michelle (MST at Adventures in Biography) wrote of her family’s connection with Le Guin (here) and then came up with Le Guin’s great defense of Harper Lee (here) on the release of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 (my review).

The Dispossessed (1974) was one of three political masterpieces Le Guin wrote at the height of her powers in the sixties and seventies, the other two being Left Hand of Darkness (1969) on feminism and The Word for World is Forest (1976) on conservation and the rapacity of capitalism.

The Dispossessed is the story of a man, Shevek, a physicist working on the Unified Field Theory which eluded Einstein, living on a planet Anarres which 200 years earlier had been colonised by ‘Odonians’ – followers of the woman, anarchist philosopher and revolutionary, Odo. Anarres circles a slightly larger and much more fertile planet, Urras. (The physics of their situation, which Le Guin glosses over by referring to each being the other’s moon, is that they would in fact have orbited each other around their common mid-point and their daily rotations would have synchronised so that they constantly showed the same face to each other.)

Urras, which acts as an analog for present-day Earth, is heavily populated and divided into countries with authoritarian governments. The wealthy country A-Io is an analog for the USA and the communist country Thu of course stands in for the USSR. They are not at war but during the course of the novel fight a proxy war in a third country, putting down a peoples revolt, with A-Io victorious and reinstalling a dictatorship (a reference no doubt to the USA’s intentions in Viet Nam at the time of writing.)

In the background of this story, of all Le Guin’s SF, are the space-faring and long-civilized Hainish who posit that an even earlier civilzation seeded thousands of planets throughout the galaxy with ‘mankind’. The Hainish have near-lightspeed travel, which they are happy to share, but Shevek’s work on ‘Simultaneity’ carries the promise, for the first time, of instantaneous communication. The Hainish, and Terre, almost destroyed by global warming (Yes, that was a thing in 1974. We have been ignoring it for a very long time. The only fiction I ever had published was on a Melbourne inundated by rising sea levels (RMIT Engineering magazine, 1970) ), have embassies on Urras which play a small part at the end of the story. The Terran ambassador tells Shevek:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species … There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot … There are nearly half a billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do …”

The story follows two paths: chapters of Shevek’s life growing into adulthood on Anarres, from maths prodigy to physicist, working within his chosen field and as a labourer as the people struggle to deal with shortages and drought, meeting women, getting married, having a family, increasingly having to deal with structural rigidities and social pressure which serve to prevent him disseminating his work; alternating with his time as a mature scientist in A-Io, feted but closeted away from ordinary people, becoming increasingly aware that by being the first person ever to make the trip back from Antarres to Urras he has sold himself, sold his groundbreaking work to the State.

I know there is plenty of boy own stuff in SF, lots of militarism and soft-sex fantasies (the mild, clerkish Robert Heinlein was derided for the enormous muscles of his heroes and breasts of his heroines), but there is also social and literary experimentation which did not, could not find a place elsewhere. The Dispossessed is not space opera, Le Guin makes us care about her protagonist, about his inner struggle to conform his conscience with a workable anarchist ethic. She gives him a life partner, Takver, and friends who share and guide his struggle. She is aware of the problems that will confront a working revolutionary society, and confronts them head-on: the decline of systems of work into bureaucratic rule-following; the failure of voluntary work-sharing and rationing when resources are scarce; the problem of inertia in science which Popper describes in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and of analagous failures in the arts. And she balances her male protagonist with an overtly feminist, “womanish”, political philosophy. Odonianism. Anarchism, syndicalism, socialism, pacifism.

Shevek in A-Io struggles with the comfort of his rooms, with the idea of servants, with the absence of women from all areas of work, with his increasing awareness that he is being “duchessed” – inundated with luxuries – in return for the completion of his thesis on Simultaneity. At a ball, consuming alcohol for the first time, he makes a fool of himself with his hostess – the women are naked from the waist up which he takes as an invitation – but in his subsequent hangover determines to defect to the workers, takes part in a massive demonstration which is dispersed by machine gun fire and, finally, ends up at the Terran embassy.

Shevek, a diffident man, is persuaded to address the demonstration. “There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many”. Exactly the situation in Bourke Street, Melbourne on Moratorium Day, May 8, 1970, when the capitalist press attempted to play down our numbers, 20 wide and packed solid all the way, a kilometre, from the GPO to Parliament House and back into the Treasury Gardens.

“I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Antarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful…”

Ursula L Guin was a great, great woman. We are the poorer not for her passing, but for our failure to pay her the attention she deserved.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, first pub. 1974. Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2002

see also:

John Clute, Ursula K Le Guin obituary, the Guardian, 25 Jan 2018 here
Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, 3 Aug 2015 here
Ursula K Le Guin, website here


Australia’s First Women Writers – Giveaway

Michelle in her guest post (here) promised a copy of Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 to a lucky commenter. She has written to tell me that the winner is … Jay Hicks. Congratulations Jay. Drop me a line at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com with your postal address and your book will soon be in the mail.

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, contributors

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

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Still no review!

I, I try not to begin posts with I, but today it really is unavoidable, or if not unavoidable … but why should I use a circumlocution? So: I. I find myself today unexpectedly with time on my hands. I spent yesterday evening loading when I could have been having a Saturday night out, down at the Balmoral maybe with ex-Mrs Legend, eating quinoa and pumpkin – me that is, she eats steak – and catching up on the week past over an immature and overpriced pinot gris, only to find that the customer didn’t need me.

So I thought that I should take the opportunity to highlight the contributions to this week that I haven’t re-posted and which you may have missed. If I ramble a bit it is because the idea only came to me this morning and I haven’t had time to properly think it over. However, if one thing is clear from all that has been written it is that we are surprised by the willingness of C19th Australian women writers and their heroines to rail against the laws and customs that restricted them. I guess this is at least partly because Australia was new, wealthy, with more fluid class boundaries than old Europe, and at the forefront of debate about democracy and labour politics.

But it is also because this period of our history has been deliberately obscured by layers of myths. From where we baby-boomers sit we must view this period, and women’s writing in particular, through the myth of the 1950s – a woman’s place is in the home, a reaction I think to the independence of women during the War, running farms and factories; the big literary myth, the Australian Legend, of men and their mates in the Bush and at war; and the myth of the Victorians – of women bound by corsets and rules to lives of virtue and strict obedience to scripture and husbands.

These books we have been reading blow away these myths. Love of the Australian bush began way before the 1890s and its appropriation by the Bulletin. You can see it in Rosa Praed who was born here, in Annabella Boswell in the 1830s and 40s (also born here) and in writers like Catherine Martin and Ellen Davitt.

Rosa Praed makes a virtue of doing away with husbands, but nearly all the women question the value of marriage, and a few, even if it does not show in their fiction, make their principal relationships with other women – Rosa Praed and Nancy Harward, Catherine Helen Spence and Jeanne Young, Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcombe (discovered for us by MST here).

The most important writer of the period is Catherine Helen Spence who throughout the second half of the century was the dynamo who got first wave feminism moving, in her novels, in her journalism, and in her activism for women’s suffrage and proportional representation.

The most popular (now) and maybe the most enduring writer was Ada Cambridge with her gentle social commentaries. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed Cambridge’s memoir Thirty Years in Australia (here) some time ago and if you are interested in reading it for yourself the AWW Gen 1 page has a link. A reader, Alison Stuart wrote in:

[Ada Cambridge’s] husband was vicar of Holy Trinity Williamstown for many years and she did much of her writing in the lovely old (it was new back then!) vicarage. She is honoured in Williamstown today with the Ada Cambridge Prize at the annual Williamstown Literary festival… As a side note she was a friend of Jeannie Gunn, who is reputed to have written part of We of the Never Never on the verandah of the vicarage on a visit to Ada.

and provides a link (here) to Ada’s web page.

Brona at Brona’s Books and Emma at Books Around the Corner put up reviews respectively of Sisters and The Three Miss Kings (which I also have reviewed, here). Brona writes that Sisters “is the story of four young women coming of age on a rural property in northern Victoria. But it is also the story of Guthrie Carey, a young sailor whose life crosses paths with the sisters at various points.” Cambridge, she says, “tackle[s] women’s issues and class consciousness head-on”. (Brona’s review).

Emma too enjoyed her Ada Cambridge. She writes:

The writer under these words appeared to have a progressive view of women’s place in society. She also refers to Darwin’s theories in passing and we know they were controversial at the time. Her vision of religion is also daring for her century. I had the feeling she was well-read and modern, that she was not afraid to speak up for herself and for her gender, that she was interested in new theories, in progress in social matters as well as in science. She comes out as a woman involved and in advance for her time.

(Emma’s review).

And there’s more. Narell Ontivero’s guest post of course (here) and an essay, Ada Cambridge: colonial writer and social critic (here) by Morgan Burgess, which was posted by AWW Challenge last year.

As is the way of trucking, my customer in Kalgoorlie has discovered they are about to run out of product after all, and I have to get going. But before I do let me point out for those few of you who may have missed them, Lisa’s two posts yesterday arising out of her reading of Australia’s First Century 1788-1888, EE Morris ed.

She has discovered a new writer for us, Margaret Seymour, who was in charge of the house (wife?, housekeeper?) on Alpha Station out Barcaldine way in far outback Queensland in (maybe) the 1860s (here). And she has uncovered Mary Gaunt’s journalism, of which I was previously unaware (here).

Finally, Sue (Whispering Gums) whose review of Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill will be with us momentarily put up this post on Tasma earlier in the week (here).

I’ll put up my final post for the ‘week’, A review of Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush overnight, with a list of all the posts received – I think apart from Sue’s there is one about Georgiana Molloy also on the way – but please, keep submitting reviews and I’ll keep adding to the AWW Gen 1 page.

 

Australia’s First Women Writers

Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week 15-21 Jan. 2018

The author of this guest post is Michelle Scott Tucker (MST of Adventures in Biography) whose Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out in April. Michelle’s essay on the very first of our first generation of women writers provides the perfect lead-in to AWW Gen 1 Week. Thank you Michelle.


Australia’s First Women Writers – a piecemeal and imperfect overview enlivened by a giveaway at the end.

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European women and men, as soon as they arrived in New South Wales, began writing letters to those they had left behind. So perhaps Australia’s first women writers could more accurately be labelled correspondents.

As Aboriginal people had been doing orally and pictorially for maybe 60,000 years, the European colonists used letters, diaries, drawings and paintings to share their stories, news, and hopes. Many of these sources are well-known and well-used, particularly the earliest ones, and historian Inga Clendinnen, in Dancing with Strangers, felt that all the archival material covering the early encounters of the British and Aboriginal peoples ‘takes up not more than one solid shelf.’

But, until relatively recently, Australian history tended to exclude the writings of women – it was too personal, too domestic, too unimportant. This was, of course, complete rubbish. From the female correspondents, we gain a fascinating perspective on the colonial experiment, a perspective that often belies the formal reports and documents recorded as ‘History’.

But I won’t pretend to provide any sort of comprehensive overview here – instead I’d simply like to share with you some of my favourite women correspondents, and the books in which their letters and diaries can be found. Clendinnen’s hope was that ‘readers will be stimulated to read some of that material themselves’. That’s my hope too and, like Clendinnen, ‘I promise they will be rewarded’.

A terrific place for the general reader to begin is with Patricia Clarke and Dale Spender, in their excellent book Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840. Clarke and Spender provide intelligent commentary, and the many excerpts they include are comprehensive and fascinating. Even the categories Clarke and Spender use to group women writers are illuminating and include: Forced Labour, Farm Managers, The Work of the Lord, Shipboard Travail, Charitable Works, Vice-regal Duties, Working Wives and Mothers, Shopkeepers and Needlewomen.

The following information, about convict women writers, is drawn from Clarke and Spender.

Convict Women

Few letters from convict women survive, and no diaries. Many of the convict women (and men) were illiterate, of course, but certainly not all, and their letters were, in many cases, crafted with creativity and skill.

The first letter we have from a convict woman (anonymous) was written on 14 November 1788.

I take the first opportunity that has been given us to acquaint you with our disconsolate situation in this solitary waste of the creation. Our passage, you may have heard by the first ships, was tolerably favourable; but the inconveniences since suffered for want of shelter, bedding & c, are not to be imagined by any stranger. However we now have two streets, if four rows of the most miserable huts you can possibly conceive of deserve that name. Windows they have none, as from the Governor’s house & c., now nearly finished, no glass could be spared; so that lattices of twigs are made by our people to supply their places.

She goes on to describe attacks on the colonists by Aboriginals, the convict women’s lack of clothes, and the pitiable situation of women who, on the voyage out, fell pregnant to sailors now long gone. Meals were ‘insipid’ for want of sugar and salt. ‘In short, every one is so taken up with their own misfortunes that they have no pity to bestow on others.’

A second letter survives from a convict woman who arrived in 1790, aboard the Lady Juliana (for an account of the voyage, try The Floating Brothel). Of the one thousand or so convicts sent out in the second fleet, more than a quarter did not survive the journey. The anonymous convict woman wrote that those who died after their ships entered Port Jackson were flung overboard, and their unweighted corpses washed up on the shore. Nearly half the convicts were landed sick. Upon reaching dry land some creeped upon their hands and knees, and some were carried upon the backs of others. All were filthy and emaciated. Governor Phillip was furious with the captains, wrote the convict woman: ‘I heard him say it was murdering them.’  Phillip’s dispatches back to England were, however, far more circumspect.

Farm Women

Elizabeth Macarthur, then the wife of an officer of the garrison, also arrived with the Second Fleet in 1790, although not aboard the Lady Juliana. She and her family would go on to establish the Australian wool industry.

As a correspondent and diarist, she was very much a typical colonial woman writer, but we know more about her, and have more of her letters, because of the wealth of material made available to us by her descendants. The Macarthur Papers, housed in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, amount to some 450 volumes, as well as boxes, maps and plans. In basic terms, we simply know more about Elizabeth, and her family, than we do about her female peers.

It is crucial to understand, though, that with the exception of Elizabeth’s journal recording her 1790 voyage to New South Wales, the letters that are available to us now are in fact excerpts and transcriptions – painstakingly copied out by Elizabeth’s grown-up children. We cannot know the extent to which they edited their mother’s original words, or censored them. Unfortunately, this is true of many colonial letters and diaries.

A selection of John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters were published as early as 1914 in a collection edited by Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter Sibella, but a comparison of the letters in the book with even a few of the ‘originals’ reveals changes in word order and whole sentences missing. And is it significant that, with a single benign exception, none of Elizabeth’s letters to her husband survived? Did John read and immediately destroy them? Or was it their children who did that, all too keen to remove any evidence that their mother might not have been entirely satisfied with her lot.

Elizabeth’s descendants did not, however, manage to completely erase her ability to pen a telling phrase. She described the nefarious captain of her ship as a ‘sea monster’ and in a much later letter drolly apologised to her adult son for not writing sooner. Instead of hiding away at the writing desk ‘I kept myself disengaged to talk, which occasionally you know Edward I am very fond of’. In another letter Elizabeth describes a Macarthur family visit (which she did not attend) to see her husband’s nephew Hannibal Macarthur at his Parramatta property, the Vineyard. In time the Vineyard would boast a fine, two story Georgian house but in the late 1820s Hannibal and his wife Maria were still living in the original small cottage. When Elizabeth’s family visited, two of Hannibal’s brothers were expected any day from England; Maria Macarthur a few weeks earlier had given birth to her eighth child; and Maria’s sister-in-law, also staying at the Vineyard with her family, had just given birth to her seventh son. ‘You may imagine,’ wrote Elizabeth, ‘the Vineyard cottage was well peopled. They must be as thick as hops.’

It is striking that Elizabeth’s existing letters are, with few exceptions, uniformly positive and cheery. This is possibly due to family censorship but may equally have been a result of self-censorship and a reflection of the circumscribed nature of women’s letters. Like other correspondents of the period, Elizabeth expected her letters to be widely read, at least within the family, and so did not necessarily consider them private documents. Maria’s sister-in-law (the one with the seventh son) summed up the problem in a letter to her husband. ‘I could make you laugh if I were near you but do not like to put my funny stories on paper.’

Clarke and Spender include excerpts of Elizabeth’s letters but the best hardcopy sources of at least some of Elizabeth’s transcribed letters are:

  • Hughes, J (ed), The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur 1789-1798, Historic Houses Trust NSW, Sydney, 1984.
  • Macarthur Onslow, S, The Macarthurs of Camden, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973.

Both are out of print though, and the former is particularly difficult to find. The State Library of NSW is in the process of digitising many of Elizabeth’s letters but, to my knowledge, few if any are as yet available online.

Maria’s sister-in-law Harriet endeared herself to me with her published letters but again the book, called The Admiral’s Wife: Mrs Phillip Parker King, is out of print and hard to find. Goldfields Library Service (in Victoria) have a copy, if you’re keen.

 

Diarists

In the 1840s Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb successfully farmed in Victoria.  Drysdale’s diaries survive, and extensive excerpts were published by the State Library of Victoria.  It’s a fantastic little book. The blurb states, in part:

In 1839 Miss Anne Drysdale sailed from Scotland to Port Phillip.  She was 47 years old, had a small inheritance, and was determined to be a sheep farmer.  Soon after arriving in Melbourne, she took up land near Geelong and formed a partnership with another enterprising woman, Caroline Newcomb.  They established a successful pastoral business, and for thirteen years lived and worked together on their properties.

Interestingly though, the book doesn’t include the diary excerpt that has Miss Drysdale describing how she joined a shooting party with the express aim of killing Aboriginal people. A brief footnote in Bruce Pascoe’s Convincing Ground brought that harsh point home to me. Another example of the need to be aware of what is left out.

Another fascinating diarist is Mary Braidwood Mowle (1827-1857), who lived in what is now the Canberra region, before moving to Eden, on the NSW South Coast. She provides many personal insights, including her description of childbirth as ‘the dreaded ordeal’. Mowle’s diaries have her galloping over the Limestone Plains in the heat of January with her hair flying; terrified in a gale when sailing with her children to Tasmania; absorbed in polite conversation in the drawing room of a Braidwood property. Again, Patricia Clarke edited this one.

Connections

Clarke and Spender argue, and I agree, that the letters and diaries of Australia’s first women writers ‘provide clear and creative examples of the connections between women’s letter writing and the growth and development of fiction.’ These women told exciting stories of their lives in the colonies, using the features of suspense, structure, and humour. They wrote to maintain family ties, and – some of them – as a creative outlet. Their letters are variously engaging, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking. Some are deeply conventional, others are just as deeply subversive.

Modern-day writers seeking to understand the colonial ‘voice’; historians seeking insights; readers wanting to know more about colonial Australia – women’s letters and diaries provide all that and more. But really, they are well worth reading simply for their own sake. Why don’t you give them a try?


Giveaway!

In the course of writing this post, I discovered that I have two copies of Clarke and Spender’s Life Lines. Both were purchased second-hand, and are in good (but not pristine) condition. I don’t need two copies, so I’m happy to give one away. If you live in Australia and you’d like me to send you a copy, leave a comment saying so by 31 January 2018 and we’ll choose a winner at random.


Books mentioned above

Clarke, P, A Colonial Woman: The Life and Times of Mary Braidwood Mowle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney,1991.

Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992.

Clendinnen, I, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2005.

Hughes, J (ed), The Journal and Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur 1789-1798, Historic Houses Trust NSW, Sydney, 1984.

Macarthur Onslow, S, The Macarthurs of Camden, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973.

Pascoe, B, Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007.

Rees, S, The Floating Brothel, Hodder, Sydney, 2001.

Roberts, B (ed), Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership, Australian Scholarly Publishing with the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009.

Walsh, D (ed), The Admiral’s Wife: Mrs Phillip Parker King, The Hawthorne Press, Melbourne, 1967.

Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, Miles Franklin

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Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) is Miles Franklin’s second published novel. It’s set where it was written – at Penrith (called Noonoon in the novel) now an outer western suburb of Sydney, but then a separate country town where Franklin’s parents had moved after leaving their farm at Thornford and where Miles lived with them for part of 1904, three years and two unpublished novels after her runaway success with My Brilliant Career. In her Introduction, Jill Roe says that Franklin …

… has two main things to say, and says them in typically forthright style. The first is that marriage is a material question and should be treated as such. The second is that women are citizens in their own right, and should take their responsibilities seriously. Both points relate to the position of women and debate about it in Australia in the early twentieth century, and reflect Franklin’s increased feminist awareness and commitment.

Roe also points out that we should do well to take notice of Franklin, rather than second wave feminists – she instances Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, but I would add Kay Schaffer – who see women in early Australian society as oppressed or irrelevant.

By contrast, Franklin presents a progressive, self-respecting and even prosperous female culture which is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of newly attained political status, participant in, rather than victim of, social forces.

Finally, Roe says, while we should not read fiction as documentary, Franklin writes an ‘astonishingly accurate’ account of electioneering in Penrith during the NSW 1904 state election, the first in which (white) women were permitted to vote, though maybe in stressing local issues, she underplays the Conservative’s great fear of the rise of Labor and Socialism.

So, the story. Dawn is an attractive young woman, living with her Grandmother Clay who has a large, old house on the banks of the Noonoon (Nepean) River, and who takes in paying guests, mostly over summer. The other members of the household are Carry – another young woman who shares housekeeping duties with Dawn, Mrs Clay’s brother ‘uncle’ Jake, who doesn’t do much, and Dawn’s grubby younger cousin, Andrew. The narrator, an older woman – thirtyish it later turns out, but grey haired – lately retired from the stage, has had to wait till autumn to become a boarder, so there are no summer staff – cooks and waiters and so on – and only one other guest, Miss Flip, “an orphan reared by a rich uncle”. Then there’s Mrs Bray, neighbour and gossip and Ernest Breslaw, a handsome young man, previously acquainted with the narrator, who appears serendipitously to rescue her from a rowing accident.

The unnamed narrator is an observer and occasional meddler in the action. She has a heart condition and is recuperating from a nervous breakdown after heartbreak. Miles was only 25 when she wrote this, but this foreshadows breakdowns she was to suffer herself – notably after the death of her sister only a few years later, and on her return from Serbia near the end of the Great War – and also the breakdown she ascribes to her heroine Bernice Gaylord in Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (review) written two decades later.

As in nearly all Franklin’s fiction there is a matriarch who is central to the action and usually from the NSW high country. In this case it is Grandma Clay, whose late husband had been the driver/operator of the mail coach servicing ‘Gool Gool’ (Tumut), the nearest town to Sybylla’s grandmother’s property in My Brilliant Career.

The various story lines are: the narrator’s attempts to match Dawn up with Breslaw, with more discussion on making a sensible match, rather than no match as in say My Career Goes Bung; Miss Flip’s “uncle” proves to be no uncle; and on choosing/voting for a good candidate rather than a particular party.

Franklin always struggled with plots but her descriptions are wonderful. And evocative – when I was little my grandparents’ farm didn’t have electricity, a lot of the outbuildings were thatched, horses were still used, cows were handmilked and grandma made her own cream and butter. Franklin writes of the daily ritual of pulling apart and washing the cream separator, which grandma would do in the outside laundry. It’s all so familiar (and I’m so old!). Here she describes the trains pulling through Penrith and heading up the mountain to Katoomba:

The little town retained a certain degree of importance as one of the busiest railway centres in the state, and its engine-sheds were the home of many locomotives. Here they were coaled, cleaned and oiled ere taking their stiff two-engine haul over the mountains to the wide, straight, pastoral and wheat-growing West; and their calling and rumbling made cheery music all the year round, excepting a short space on Sundays; while at night, as they climbed the crests of the mountain-spurs, every time they fired, the red light belching from their engine doors could be seen for miles down the valley.

Romances go as romances go; Grandma Clay is concerned about the perils of girls  marrying ‘up’; Dawn is inclined to marry any local yokel rather than be stuck at home; and the anti-marriage sentiment is mostly in the context of the election – men expecting that the women of the household will vote as directed (by them).

In fact, most of the book centres on the election, and when it was eventually published 4 or 5 years later, Franklin requested that publicity be directed at the women’s suffrage campaign in England where women were not to receive the vote fully until 1928.

There’s unfortunately quite a bit of gratuitous racism of the “even a gin wouldn’t behave so badly” variety, or the woman campaigner whose children were left to run about “so untended as to be indistinguishable from aboriginals”, and even if these are typical men’s views, Miles makes no attempt to counter them.

The incumbent makes his pitch to men in the bar where he can buy their votes with free grog, while the women mostly support the opposition candidate who is for temperance – a strong stream in the women’s movement when drunken husbands were a major problem. “The men on the Ministerial side were nearly gangrene with disgust, because, as one put it, “nearly all [the opposition candidate’s] men were women”.

Dawn becomes overwrought when one man, a neighbour, goes down the pub and leaves his wife to give birth alone, until Grandma comes to the rescue, and takes it all out on Ernest, who must be mollified by the narrator:

“Can you not grasp that she was irritated beyond endurance with the unwholesomeness of the whole system of life in relation to women, and that for the moment you appeared as one of the army of oppressors?”

After this, the “uncle”, whose perfidy has become known, is tarred and feathered (literally!) by Dawn and friends. Shades of #Harvey Weinstein, they tell him,

“Yes, good women have to continually suffer the degradation of your type in all life’s most sacred relations. They have to endure you at their board and in their homes, and leering at their sweet young daughters …”

Then the election. Miles is more concerned with women voting, and parliament therefore having to consider their interests than in who actually gets in. Then as now, there was no real difference in their policies, nor in the self interest of members on both sides. Interestingly, on the night following, the newspaper office has a scoreboard in the window, just as we do today on television, with the names of winners going up as they are declared elected.

The story glides slowly to its natural end. Miles Franklin is not a natural story-teller and this is a typically awkward account of love making (in the old fashioned sense!) though for once she has marriage on her mind, she was only 25 after all.What little narrative tension there is is in Dawn’s choice of suitor. But Franklin believes very strongly that the groom should be as pure as the bride and this limits her choices somewhat.

Overall, Franklin’s detailed account of electioneering and town meetings, of ‘everyday folk’ serving the railways and farming on the banks of Nepean, paints a brilliant picture of a few, important months in the life of one of Australia’s oldest white settlements.

 

Miles Franklin, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn, first pub. 1909. This edition Virago, London, 1986 with introduction by Jill Roe. Cover painting, detail from “Cove on the Hawkesbury”, Charles Condor.


For links to all my other Miles Franklin posts I’ve replaced my Miles Franklin Central post with a page – ‘Miles Franklin’ in the menu overhead – or click here