My dear son James has given me a task for my last years, or months, or whatever time I have left beyond the many years I have lived so far.
Sometime in April or May last year, I was given an advance reading copy of Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves. I was very excited, having thoroughly enjoyed her previous books.
However, the premise of this story about Elizabeth Macarthur hinges on the sudden discovery of some “shockingly frank secret memoirs” and begins with an ‘Editor’s Note’ that describes said discovery and details Kate Grenville’s role as transcriber and editor of said secret papers.
Last year, I found this premise completely ludicrous.
Perhaps it had something to do with the visit I had to Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta just weeks before the first lockdown in 2020. I was aware of the real story and knew that this was not something that had happened. But I decided to push past this, and moved onto the first chapter, showing us Elizabeth in old age, being given the task by her son James, to write their family history. Again, I found this scene terribly clunky and obvious. There was something about the voice that repelled me – I simply could not continue.
The back cover blurb did not help matters. The sensational use of the words ‘notorious’, ‘miraculously’ and ‘playful’ turned me off, as did this particular paragraph.
Marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her heart, the search for power in a society that gave women none- this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir lets us hear-at last!-what one of those seemingly demure women from history might really have thought.
At the time, I thought it was one of the worst written blurbs ever, making the story sound like some kind of bodice-ripping, pot-boiler. I resolved to leave it at that.
But then, A Room Made of Leaves was longlisted, then shortlisted for the ABIA’s Literary Fiction Book of the Year AND the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Finally, a few months ago, the book won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
With each nomination, I wondered if I had missed something, judged too quickly. Was I in a bad mood thanks to our first lockdown? What were all these literary judges seeing that I didn’t?
I also read Margaret @Books Please review around this time, who wrote:
It gave me much to think about, in particular bearing in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, reminding me that this is a work of fiction. I enjoyed it immensely. And it makes me want to know more about the Macarthurs.
But to be honest, I really wasn’t interested enough to try again…until my book group nominated it for our October read.
I put it off for as long as possible, waiting until the weekend before our meeting to start reading. Begrudgingly, over a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning, I opened up my copy and tried again, keeping in mind all those judges who thought well enough of it to shortlist it for three different awards.
The same problem occurred though. I found the set-up utterly ludicrous and the opening chapter so annoying, I couldn’t continue. That’s me done, I thought.
I continued on with my last Saturday in lockdown routines – a long walk with Mr Books, some housework and blogging, more cups of tea and coffee than is good for one person – all accompanied by a niggling feeling that I was being unfair somehow.
I like Kate. I’ve met her a few times and I really enjoyed her previous books, despite, or maybe because of their problematic issues around historical interpretation. However, it’s nearly a decade since I read any of her fiction. Perhaps my reading tastes had moved on?
So I made a decision. I was going to ignore the first chapter and flick through the book to get a taste of it. I immediately saw that the structure of the rest of the book was significantly different to the first. They were short chapters (2-3 pages long mostly) with distinct, succinct chapter headings. The first such chapter was titled ‘I WAS NOT AN ORPHAN’ and began ‘When baby sister Grace died I was five years old, too young to know the word.‘
And I was off. Just like that!
There were a few little problems along the way, but there was no denying Grenville’s storytelling ability. She spins a very good yarn.
I struggled with the insertion of modern sensibilities into nineteenth century life. I’m sure that physical intimacy between young girls is as age-old as every other human behaviour, but it felt out of place here, no matter how fleeting. It felt convenient rather than plausible.
Where Grenville excelled, though, was in her descriptions of unhappily married life. It would appear that the Macarthur’s marriage was a shot-gun wedding between two people who barely knew each other.
We were in this together, this stranger and I, as we had said, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, and his weakness gave me strength. He was that foreign creature, a man, who spoke the foreign language of power and assurance, but we came from the same country, where a person had to appear to be someone other than who they were.
Barely a year later, Grenville has Elizabeth saying of her husband that he was,
rash, impulsive, changeable, self-deceiving, cold, unreachable, self-regarding….My husband was someone whose judgement was dangerously unbalanced.
How does a woman, with next to no dowry or contacts in the world to support her, survive such a marriage to such a man? This is the point where Grenville spins a good and plausible yarn. Rather like some of our favourite Jane Austen heroines who learn how to ‘manage’ their challenging husbands (think Charlotte Lucas), Elizabeth Macarthur uses all her skills and wiles to manage John.
Grenville’s description of the impact on Elizabeth of the death of a baby was also touching. After nursing her husband through a life-threatening fever on their journey to the new colony of New South Wales, Elizabeth goes into labour too soon. The baby only survives an hour or so.
Still, each year on the day of her birth and death I think of Jane. Not with grief, not with regret or longing or rage, but in stillness, honouring the fact that there was, for a short time, such a person in the world.
The Macarthur’s arrival in the new colony was makeshift to say the least. Barely two years into existence, the colony was struggling to thrive, clinging to its small scrap of land taken from the ‘natives’, the new settlement didn’t have enough food, housing or women. In fact, Elizabeth was the very first soldier’s wife to arrive in the new colony (although I’m sure that a number of the soldiers had taken ‘native wives’ by this point. But that’s another story.)
‘Lies in truth’s clothing‘ are at the heart of this story. Elizabeth’s letters back home, carefully skirt the realities of life in the colonies and life married to John. Things were glossed over or embellished. Reading between the lines of Elizabeth’s letters is where Grenville has created her story.
Yet some things could not be glossed over – for Elizabeth there was no denying the truth about Sydney.
Sydney Town was a dusty ugly angry place, a sad blighted bit of ground on which too many souls tramped out their days dreaming of somewhere else.
One of the things I was really looking forward to at this point, was ‘seeing’ early Sydney through the eyes of a woman. To get a sense of what life was really like in the colony – what it looked liked, smelt like – the hardships, the routines, privations and fears. It is almost impossible to image what it must have been to have come from cold, rainy, lush green England to dusty green, hot Australia where absolutely nothing was familiar or convenient or easy.
Unfortunately I didn’t learn anything new about this time that I hadn’t already gleaned from other sources. The best bit was Elizabeth’s daily walk up to what we now call Observatory Hill, which was the limit of the town in Mrs Macarthur’s time.
At the top of the ridge, the damaged valley fell away behind us and the place opened out onto a broad platform of rock. As was never possible in the settlement, here we could see for many miles in all directions. To the east great fingers of land, furred with forest, lay across the path back out to the ocean, and to the west there was a panorama of unexplored peninsulas, islands, hills and valleys, with here and there the smudge of fire telling of other lives, for which this land was not prison but home.
One thing I did learn about though, was Mrs Macarthur’s Sydney Salon’s. Once the Macarthur’s moved into their larger home, the officers started to visit. They had a piano, she served tea ‘perhaps they were drawn to the rituals of home: a mother with her little lad running about, tea cups and a silver teapot, a song or two.’
As I mentioned above, just weeks before the first lockdown of 2020, I took a tour around Elizabeth Farm (slideshow below). As often happens to me in such places, I spent time gazing off into the horizon, trying to imagine what this place would have looked like in 1797, to Elizabeth, but also to the Burramattagal. Elizabeth saw ‘sweet slopes‘ and open views, but what did the Burramattagal see?
The house at Parramatta stood on a sweet slope looking out to the north, the river at its feet. The township was a few minutes’ walk away, the governor’s house less than a mile….The first morning there, I walked from room to room, not a tremendous journey by any means, but from each of the main rooms I could see down to the brook, sparkling over stones as it ran to join the main river glinting between the mangroves.
Did I enjoy the book in the end?
Yes I did. Grenville writes historical fiction (or fiction set in the past as she prefers to call it) well and the voice she gave to her version of Elizabeth felt authentic. It was a quick, absorbing read. Some of the fictionalised elements felt clunky (i.e. the affair) but showing Elizabeth as a strong, independent women capable of hard work, with business and farming acumen and great diplomacy was a good choice for these times. Showing Elizabeth as someone who fell in love with the natural beauty of this land to the point that she felt it was her home, also endears her to modern readers.
Most of my book group loved it a LOT more than I did though. One member alerted us to a really interesting talk that Grenville did with Indigenous author, Larissa Behrendt on Youtube, presented by the Wheeler Centre. It’s 47 minutes long, but worth the time. The National Library of Australia, with host Professor Clare Wright, provides a slightly shorter 39 minute talk that covers a lot of the same ground.
I came away from this reading experience wanting to know more about the real Elizabeth, but also about Pemulwuy, the Indigenous warrior who led an attack against the early Parramatta settlement. I have Michelle Scott Tucker’s, Elizabeth Macarthur on my TBR pile, but I will have to look further afield to read more about Pemulwuy. The Australian Dictionary of Biography has this brief glimpse to get me started.
I also learnt that I should never say never when it comes to a book!
Do not believe too quickly!Elizabeth Macarthur
Title: A Room Made of Leaves Author: Kate Grenville ISBN: 9781922458025 Imprint: Text Publishing Date: 31 August 2021 (originally published 2 July 2020) Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 321
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.