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)

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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).