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.
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