Billabong series, Mary Grant Bruce

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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 came out in April (2018). Lisa (ANZLL) and I were at the launch party to wet the baby’s head, and within weeks the book was into a second print run. During 2018 Michelle became Executive Director of The Stella Prize, Australia’s pre-eminent literary prize for women writers.

Michelle’s essay on her childhood love of the Billabong books leads AWW Gen 2 Week. Thank you Michelle.


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The books, old and musty, were stashed at the back of a cupboard for want of shelf space. They’d been there for quite a while. A friend of my mother had owned them once, but had passed them on, suggesting vaguely that “Michelle might like them.” I was in primary school, probably, an avid reader but not much tempted by the heavy, old-fashioned tomes, with no dust jacket or blurb to hint at what lay within.

Not tempted until boredom drove me, one weekend, to dig out those books. Reader, I was transported.

My newest favourite character, Norah Linton, lived with her widowed father and beloved older brother on a huge and prosperous farming property, called Billabong, in country Victoria in the early 1900s. And oh what jolly adventures they had. I would eventually discover that there were 15 books in the series (the cupboard held maybe only 5 or 6), but even within the first, A Little Bush Maid (1910), heroine Norah at the age of 12 manages to save, quite separately, the lives of two men and a valuable flock of sheep. One of the men was a deeply grateful lion tamer (!) but her family seemed more impressed by the saving of the sheep. It’s all very Enid Blyton meets the Australian bush, with effectively parentless children going on picnics and having improbable adventures. In one of the later books, they discover enough gold to start their own mine… Norah, however, was always appropriately modest about her efforts, and rightly so, because far more important to her – and to me, marooned in deepest darkest suburbia – was the ordinary, day to day life of the farm.

On Bobs, her perfect pony, Norah raced her brother Jim and his two best chums across the paddocks. Accustomed to working beside her father, Norah mustered cattle, thought nothing of driving a cart seventeen miles to the nearest town to collect the mail, looked after a menagerie of pets, and fished in a nearby river.  Norah is, in short, a paragon but she is painted with such love and good humour that her character fairly lifts off the page. And, in a very Australian way, the books are genuinely funny. The children are realistically prone to pranks and teasing. They fall in the water, they fall off horses, and the boys fall asleep in the drawing-room after dinner – only to be gently awakened by Norah pouring a “trickle of water on their peaceful faces. Peace fled at that, and so did Norah!”

First published between 1910 and 1942, Mary Grant Bruce’s hugely popular Billabong books influenced, alongside Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, our concepts of The Bush and Australian identity. Her work “was characterised by fierce patriotism, vivid descriptions of the beauties and dangers of the Australian landscape, and humorous, colloquial dialogue celebrating the art of yarning.”

The Billabong books, and Bruce’s two dozen or so other books for children, championed the values of independence, mateship, hard work (for women and children, as well as men), and bush hospitality. The children age as the series progresses, and several of books of the series follow Norah’s brother Jim, and his best mate Wally, as they serve in WW1 – so even the ANZAC spirit gets an airing (even though they served in the British Army, rather than the Australian one – it all makes sense at the time).

But, and sadly there always seems to be a but, my beloved Billabong books belong very much to the era in which they were written.

Almost every writer I know cites Enid Blyton as one of their favourite childhood authors. She transported them in a way few other writers could. But almost every writer I know is also sorrowfully aware that once you’ve grown up there is no going back to Blyton’s magical worlds. The racism, the class barriers, the gender stereotypes are just too distressingly obvious to make Blyton an enjoyable adult read. And so it is for Billabong.

A footnote to later editions, published in the early 1990s, noted that “Some of Bruce’s earlier works are considered to have had offensive and dated content, particularly in regards to racial stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and Chinese and Irish immigrants, and her earlier belief in the theory of Social Darwinism. More recent reprints of the Billabong series have been edited to remove controversial material.” I haven’t looked into those later editions, and frankly I’m not sure how all the ‘controversial material’ could possibly be removed without materially altering the story, because there certainly is a lot of it.

The Linton family are very much lords of their Australian manor, ruling in a benignly patronising way. The house (large enough to have ‘wings’) is staffed by a doting cook and various ‘girls’. The decorative front garden is maintained by a Scotsman, the vegetable garden and orchard at the rear by Chinese Lee Wing (and oh isn’t his silly accent funny!) Numerous unnamed men work the farm itself with one of them, called Billy, seemingly assigned to be the children’s personal slave. Billy is never, ever described without with an adjective like “Sable Billy” or “Dusky Billy” or “Black”. And in case the reader hadn’t quite caught on, he is also variously described as careless, lazy or – just once – as a n—-r. At 18 years of age Billy is older than the children and, according to Norah’s father, the best hand with a horse he’d ever seen, yet the children casually order him about and call him Boy. Billy, like every 18 year old bossed by a 12 year old girl, living without friends or family, and with no girlfriend in sight, seems perfectly content with his lot.

The class barriers are there too, in the patronising colloquial dialogue and simply in the assumptions of the day. Norah, left at home for several days while her brother and her father are away, will inevitably be “desperately lonely with only the servants to talk to.” A stranger who might otherwise be mistaken for a tramp is immediately identified, when he speaks with a cultured accent, as “not your ordinary sort of swagman.”

Crucially, though, gender stereotypes are played with a very light hand. Well, sort of. We are talking about books written a hundred years ago.

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Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) was herself born and raised in country Victoria, in East Gippsland. At the age of twenty she moved to Melbourne and fairly quickly made a modest living as a freelance journalist. Her first Billabong stories were serialised in the Leader, before being published in London by Ward, Lock & Co. The success of the first led to an ever-increasing demand for more, until Bruce was producing a book each year, in time for Christmas. She didn’t love the Billabong series quite as much as her fans, and she eked them out – one year producing a Billabong book, the next a stand-alone title, and the following year another Billabong book. She married an army officer, lost two of her three children in tragic circumstances, and lived variously in Ireland, Australia and England. She was, in her day, one of Australia’s most successful writers. She has, in this day, very nearly been forgotten.

Bruce was a typical country conservative who, just as many do now, believed that men and women were equal, but necessarily separate. Bruce herself wrote that “the position of women in Australia today is largely what the pioneer women made it. They took their place definitely, equal fellow-workers with men, the more secure because no one had any time to talk of women’s rights.”

In Norah, Bruce epitomises the self-reliant country woman who can hold her own with a man, without becoming (or threatening) one. Norah is, categorically, the star of the Billabong show. She loved music, and was a good cook but “lived out of doors, followed in Jim’s footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people would have thought distinctly impracticable) and spent two-thirds of her waking time on horseback…her chosen pursuits brought her under the discipline of the work of the station…she had all the dread of being thought “silly” that marks a girl who imitates boyish ways.”

For Norah, her brother and father are at the heart of all she does and loves. Male activities are valuable and worthy, female ones much less so.  Norah “had no little girl friends” partly because none were closer than the town seventeen miles away but mainly because “little girls bored Norah frightfully.” Little girls, apparently, are prone to prattle about dolls, and play dress up and ‘ladies’. “When Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better.”

Reader, c’est moi. Or so I wished. While I lacked a prosperous county estate and a fine, well-bred pony full of life and go (yet without the smallest particle of vice), I spent many happy hours with Norah enjoying hers. Her esteem of male pursuits echoed my own, as did her disdain for most things girlish. I too was a little girl always seeking her brothers’ and father’s approval. I sobbed when Norah’s pony died, and was on tenterhooks until Jim and Wally came home safe from the war (spoiler alert – they come home safe from the war). Norah and the boys grew up and married but they never really changed at all, and I loved being part of their world.

But it’s a world long gone now, if it ever was, and that’s for the best.

The Billabong books, in their original unedited form, remain readable, funny and even entertaining. They are also profoundly disturbing. Their value now is more for their insights into a not-so-distant historical period and mindset, rather than as a book that a modern child might thrill to read by torchlight, under the covers.

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Want to know more?

Yes, the now famous Australian biographer Brenda Niall’s very first book was about Billabong. She and Alison Alexander must have been cross, though, about their books coming out in the same year!

 

Today it rained

Journal: 023

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MST’s book launch. Photo by Lisa Hill

Today (Wednesday) it rained. If you’re a Sydneysider you’ll know what I mean. Though it wasn’t just Sydney, grain harvest and carting was suspended all the way across South Australia as I came over at the weekend, to Melbourne, arriving early enough to have coffee with MST and her wonderful children and then tea with Lou (teacher son) in non-rainy, post Dan-slide Victoria.

MST gave me a copy of this year’s Stella winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker which I hadn’t intended reading, but which having started I can’t put down. A review is coming, though it may take me till the xmas hols.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who misses Michelle’s blog since she started working at Stella. She says she has 160 books to read for next year’s prize (or some such number). Even if there’re half a dozen judges, that’s still a lot of reading. But she has undertaken to review the Billabong series, of which she has long been a fan, for AWW Gen 2 week. That’s 13-19 Jan. Michelle.

Lou had a book for me too, on an episode in Australian working class history, which has long been absent from my library, but I told him to wrap it and give it to me when he comes over for Christmas. Psyche has phoned just in the last hour to say that she has booked her flight from Darwin, Milly and I have booked time off, Gee and the grandkids won’t go on holidays till the new year, so that’s all of us, in Perth, on the actual Christmas Day, and Milly is planning a feast (my jobs are transport and grog, purchase of).

My deliveries in Melbourne were quite straightforward, though way down in Dandenong (an outer south-eastern suburb), but after that I got thoroughly Draganned. I had a pickup in the outer west, then a second in Frankston, back past Dandenong (we’re talking two 100 km round trips, in traffic), and a third in Cowra – yes that Cowra, 500 kms north in NSW. That was this morning, which means the rain had come. I’m not used to rain. And it got worse. With three quarters of a load I came on into Sydney. Unloaded it all at a depot for transport at a later date. And now I sit at the Eastern Creek truckstop. The rain still falls. I await further instructions.

Sitting around in Melbourne – there was a 24 hour break somewhere in those cross-city back and forths – I started sorting through the newspapers that populate my passenger seat. I know I said I’ve given up paper newspapers, and I have, but Milly and I bond over cryptics, so when I think of it I buy a weekend paper. The West, which has the cryptic we’re used to, or the SMH/Age which we find harder. I keep the motoring sections ‘for later’, and then there’s Owner-Driver which is free in truckstops, and in amongst all these I found the last six Australian Book Review, which subscription I will not renew but which I must have paid a couple of years ahead – and still the reviews are mostly not Australian and if they are, are mostly not fiction.

But I found a few interesting Indigenous stories. In Wright’s wonderful biography Tracker Tilmouth seems to identify various groups within his community by the matriarch, so ‘Geraldine mob’ or ‘Ursula mob’. This is not a usage I’ve run into before but it comes up again in ABR May 2018, “The Paradox of Recognition” by Richard Martin, about native title in the Ceduna area. I wrote in Crossing the Nullarbor, “… from Yalata to Ceduna, were the Wirangu whose language was subsumed by the related Kokatha, another member of the Western Desert family of languages to their north.” Ceduna’s Aunty Sue Mob are identified as Kokatha and are initially excluded from the Wirangu native title claim. The article – a review of two books – discusses how legalistic views of native title are breaking up communities.

Two other articles on Indigenous issues are Kim Mahood on archeology (April 2018). Indigenous occupation has been extended back 65,000 years and the book she reviews, Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths studies the question ‘Who owns the past?’; and Alan Atkinson on The Sydney Wars by Stephen Gapps (August 2018). “In response to invasion, various Indigenous groups on the Cumberland Plain were drawn together from time to time, apparently in innovative ways …” to fight back.

On a different subject altogether, Beejay Silcox writes ‘We are all MFAs now!’ (August 2018). Over a number of pages she argues that MFA programmes make no difference to what we read, but have merely taken the space formerly offered by cafes as forums for budding writers to meet and criticize each other’s writing. Studying in America she discovers, quelle surprise!, that American courses teach only American writing. My own opinion is that Masters degrees have taken the space formerly occupied by tech college diplomas.

 

Recent audiobooks

Mary Burton (F, USA), The Hang Man (2017) – More dead young women, their deaths described in loving detail. Do the authors get off on writing this stuff?
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Dark Matter (2016)
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), Angelica’s Smile (2014)
Eve Chase (F, Eng), Black Rabbit Hall (2016)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), When Will There be Good News (2008)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)

Stuff on the Internet

The NY Times flies out to Australia, to Goroke in western Victoria to meet the next Nobel Laureate in Literature (thanks to my brother in law who sent me this) and finds him behind the bar at the local golf club (here).

 

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 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.

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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)

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).