There’s something special about reading a good, engaging history – and this is how I’d describe debut author Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. There are, in fact, three prongs to my statement, namely, it is history, it is good history, and it is engaging history. I plan to tease out each of these in my post.
First though, a bit about Elizabeth Macarthur, particularly for non-Australians who may never have heard of her. She arrived in Australia on the Second Fleet in 1790, at the age of 23, with her husband John Macarthur who had an army commission with the New South Wales Corps. Their aim was for John to gain a promotion, and then return to England. However, they soon started making their mark in the new colony as farmers – including pioneering the Australian wool industry – and Elizabeth never did return to England, though John did twice. The first time (1801 to 1805) was to stand trial over a duel with Colonel Paterson, and the second (1809 to 1817) to stand trial again, this time for his role in the rebellion against Governor Bligh. Now, have you noticed those dates? Four years away and then eight years. So, who ran the famous pioneer farming enterprise? Yes, Elizabeth of course. It was partly to correct the longstanding image of Elizabeth as helpmeet to her husband that inspired Tucker to write this biography.
Now, my three prongs, starting with that it is history. This is easy to explain. In form this is a biography, but like most biographies of historical figures it also operates as history, because the reason it has been written, the reason we are interested, is the subject’s role in an historical period. This is somewhat different from literary biographies which don’t necessarily engage with wider historical issues relating to the subject, though you could argue, I suppose, that all biographies are history. I’m good, you’ve probably learnt by now, at this on-the-one-hand-but-then-again-on-the-other sort of argument! Still, the story of Elizabeth Macarthur is ingrained in the history of the early British settlement of Australia.
Next, that it is good history. Now, I readily admit that I’m not a trained historian. I did a little history at university – in fact just one subject on historiography – but I’m interested in history and like to read it when I can. So, what do I mean by “good history”? I mean that the history is, or at least appears to my lay eye, to be trustworthy. For it to appear this way, it needs to be well-researched, well-documented and well-presented. And this, Elizabeth Macarthur is. That it is well-researched is evidenced by the extensive bibliography containing significant primary and secondary sources, many of which I am aware and know to be authoritative. That it is well-documented is evidenced not only by this bibliography, but by the comprehensive, but unobtrusive end-noting. Very few facts that I wanted to check were not supported by a source. I read this book with a bookmark at the end-notes so I could easily check sources (or additional explanatory notes), which I did fairly frequently, not because I didn’t trust Tucker but because I was interested to know where she’d got her information. As for the presentation, this is also excellent with evocatively titled chapters, each headed with a quote, usually from Elizabeth or John’s own writings; the detailed index and the use of end-notes rather than foot-notes; and the sensibly selected and ordered pics.
These aren’t all that make it good history, though, because of course the “story” needs to be well-argued, and it is. Tucker marshalls the facts together clearly and logically to prove Elizabeth’s significant role in the family’s farming, but what I particularly liked was the way she handles her sources, and, in particular, the gaps, because of course there are gaps. There are, for example, letters not kept, information not documented in private journals, personal conversations not, of course, recorded. Tucker is careful to flag these, with words like “probably” and “maybe”, making it clear when she is presenting her own assessment of the situation. On one occasion when the frequently disputatious John Macarthur sends off a messenger with an inflammatory letter, that messenger is waylaid by his son Edward. Who sent the son, Tucker asks before exploring the possibilities, deciding in the end:
No. The most likely source is Elizabeth Macarthur, once more trying to mitigate her husband’s wilder misjudgements. But we have to imagine it: a hushed yet heated conversation with Edward to send him flying out after Oakes and then a vain attempt to placate and soothe John …
And finally, the last prong – that it is engaging history. It’s engaging partly because of the subject. Elizabeth Macarthur is an interesting woman, who lived long, achieved much, and left enough documentation for a story about her to be told. She was a woman of her times, as Tucker makes clear. She was aware of her social status, and wasn’t much into “good works” like some of the other leading women of the colony, but she and John were known to treat employees well. She was well-respected in the colony, and many times played conciliatory roles, but she and John were always driven, in the end, by money. And, of course, she was an excellent farm manager.
It’s also engaging history because of the writing. This story has a large cast. Elizabeth had seven children, for a start, but also, she lived in the colony for 60 years, so knew a large number of the often-revolving movers and shakers of colonial society. Tucker manages to keep the story moving despite all this, using some of the techniques more often found in fiction, including foreshadowing, clear character development, and succinct but evocative turns of phrase:
Yet for all their emphasis on the rewards of heaven, the gentlefolk of Georgian England maintained a steely gaze on the rewards of this earthly life.
When the court sat at 10am the scene was more circus than circumspect.
Why, though, should we read this now? Well, there are several reasons, the main one being to re-balance the historical record to properly recognise women’s roles. There’s also the discussion about indigenous relationships in the colony, with Tucker chronicling the Macarthurs’ early good relations with local people followed by their changing attitudes as “their” land and livelihood began to be threatened. There’s John Macarthur’s mental health and the role it played in his behaviour (and thus history.) Did he suffer, for example, from bipolar disorder as Tucker and others suggest? And then, there’s the insight Tucker provides into the daily life of the early colony – the relationships in such a close community, the economic ups and downs, the communication challenges caused by distance from England, and so on. If you like social history, there’s much here for you.
I did laugh at Tucker’s concluding comments that Elizabeth Macarthur, born 9 years before Jane Austen, is “a real-life Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham, instead of a Darcy – albeit one who loved her as much as he was able.” I’m not sure I agree, but I applaud her for taking on the Austen fans of the world this way!
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)