The twelve-year journey to publication is over for my fellow biographer-blogger Michelle Scott Tucker – her book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, is out. It’s an impressive debut, telling the life of a key Australian colonist as a compulsive story and handling adeptly the gaps in the archive and the jagged edges of an ambitious woman married to a difficult, impulsive man. In 1789, aged in her early twenties, Elizabeth left Britain for the fledgling New South Wales colony with her officer-husband, John, on the Second Fleet. She lived the rest of her long life in New South Wales, conscious of her position as one of the first ‘ladies’ in a convict colony and determinedly steering her family’s wool-growing business to success, despite John’s appalling feuds and vendettas which sabotaged their efforts.
From Michelle’s biography, it seems far more archival traces of Elizabeth survived than for most people of this earliest period of Australia’s colonial history, but there are still major gaps. Michelle fills these well. To take one example, in the first chapter she has no information about the original hut the Macarthurs were allocated, and so instead quotes from a letter by John’s superior officer describing his living conditions at the same time and place. Many letters of Elizabeth’s survive, but the formal sentiments and avoidance of saying things directly mean Michelle has to read between the lines or interpret silences.
One device Michelle uses to handle a number of unknowns throughout the book is what I might dub ‘the biographer’s question’ – for example, ‘Why didn’t Elizabeth go with John and the children to England? Having seen one too many toddlers die recently, was she scared to sail with the little ones, or was it simply too expensive to take the whole family?’ (135) Its benefit is clarity and transparency about unknowns, and I have found myself drawn to the device in my own biography for these reasons; its price is, possibly, a jarring effect stylistically. There are no perfect solutions to gaps; all devices are open to criticism.
One of the significant achievements of this biography is to make colonial New South Wales come alive. In focusing on one key person over the colony’s first six decades, I had a sense as I read of what it meant to live in that time and place. I had a new understanding of a period of our history before the long Victorian age, a fifty year stretch of the Georgian era. A general history of the same period would tend to overwhelm me with details and people; but with Elizabeth as a unifying thread, we learn about key events and people in an engaging way. This is testament to Michelle’s narrative skill; it is a biography that never flags, never becomes bogged down, and balances survey and detail superbly. It also helps that John and Elizabeth were central to the colony’s early history, including the deposing of Governor Bligh and the takeover of the colony in 1808. Over the course of the book, we meet Watkin Tench, William Dawes, Arthur Phillip, Bennelong, and even Charles Darwin.
When Darwin came to Sydney in 1835, he visited some of the Macarthurs and noted ‘The whole population, poor and rich, are bent on acquiring wealth; among the higher orders wool and sheep grazing form the constant subject of conversation.’ (293) I’m used to reading biographies of writers (or other creatives) who are driven by the desire to create art and make meaning of the world. It was disorientating but also refreshing to come to the biography of a person whose ambitions are for material success and social standing. Elizabeth wants to build bigger farms, grow better wool and sell it at higher prices, and be at the top of society. Of course, there was not much room for poets in colonial Sydney; starvation and ruin were never distant. Yet even within the category of entrepreneurs, Elizabeth does not seem to have been concerned with charity or to challenge the prevailing worldview. In her attitude to Aboriginal people, she was no better or worse than most at the time. Michelle handles this issue in a balanced way, not making undue excuses for her while also looking at her in context. ‘Elizabeth’s attitude towards Aboriginal people seemed to harden. Like many others in the colony, she moved away from her original conciliatory view… Now that there were substantial sums of money to be gained or lost, now that white people known to her personally had been killed, Elizabeth could only see the original inhabitants as a threat.’ (235) Though Elizabeth’s worldview leaves me feeling less sympathetic, to be fair, the lives of the virtuous can be boring. Elizabeth and John are not boring and it’s intriguing to read the twists and turns in their fortunes over the course of their lives. Furthermore, compared to John, who fought several duels and set out to ruin anyone who crossed him, Elizabeth was positively saintly.
I found this account of Elizabeth’s life not just interesting but moving, too, despite my lack of ideological sympathy. Narrative tension was building as I wondered if she would ever again get to see her aging mother, who was still living in England. The story of John’s decline at the end of his life as he struggled with mental illness moved me as well, and Michelle’s late suggestion that he had bipolar disorder cast new light on his actions.
Along with other bloggers, it’s been great to follow Michelle’s journey toward publication on her blog over the last few years. She generously made this acknowledgment:
Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is a great read. It crafts a compulsive story with good research, giving a convincing look into colonial New South Wales. It offers the pleasures of fine biography in tracing one person’s life in all its seasons, through its successes and failures, joys and miseries.
A Life at the Edge of the World, Michelle Scott Tucker (Text, 2018), 386 pages. Review copy supplied by the publisher.