Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Two powerful women – one the wife of the Number 1 man in the colony of New South Wales, Governor Lachlan Macquarie; the other married to the greatest landowner of the time, a man wined by Colonial Secretaries and blessed by bishops, John Macarthur. There should be plenty of scope for amicability in this scenario, one would have thought. However, the big ‘Oh dear!’ factor is that Macarthur could not bear to be crossed. He set about making miserable the lives of Macquarie’s predecessor William Bligh and of Macquarie himself. Bligh had him arrested and shipped under guard to England. For much of Williams’s book, Macarthur is living in England, forging alliances fuelled by his hatred of the NSW governorship.
Two questions must be asked and answered. Did Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie ever actually meet? Is Sue Williams’s book an accurate history of the time?
The Australian Women’s Archive Project reports that ‘Elizabeth Macquarie and another prominent Elizabeth (Macarthur) the wife of prominent colonial pastoralist John Macarthur, helped to introduce haymaking to New South Wales’. This is a source recognised by governments and universities and makes completely certain that the two Elizabeths did more than simply meet – they collaborated. It seems likely that other aspects of their relationship might also be true e.g. Betsey Macquarie’s entries in her journal.
But wait! If a book looks like a history book, reads like a history book, is constructed like a history book, and breathes like a history book, it must be a history book. Unfortunately, Sue Williams’s book is not. It is a clever piece of fiction. It is thoroughly researched, it contains conversations between the two women, reports of social events attended, and correspondence between them. It refers to Betsey Macquarie’s journal and quotes extensively from it. There is no mention of a journal in the Afterword and we must conclude that its presence was a fiction.
Williams’s book is a fascinating and evocative story of friendship. Both women, like women at that time in history, lived subservient lives to their husbands, sometimes under duress. Elizabeth Macquarie might have wanted to be involved in the discussions Lachlan was having and she might have been desperate to play an active role in the tasks ahead, instead, ‘I’m left to conduct small talk with other women and do this damned embroidery’ (15). By contrast, with her husband overseas, Elizabeth Macarthur led a very active outdoor life making crucial decisions about the future of her husband’s property, defending herself against intruders, and acting as her husband’s spokesperson. Her life is presented as fulfilling; in history, she was a cipher.
The book is presented as a serious piece of scholarship. It never deviates from its academic dress to suggest it might be a work of the imagination. It would be so easy to quote Williams as an authority in the field. She is a frustrating woman. One finds that it is necessary to consult the usual authorities to check what it was she has had to say about Bligh’s delayed voyage home to England. Doubt eats away at established scholars. Is that not a sign of a confident writer?
As a piece of explosive and wonderful prose, I recommend this book. Read it – and experience the joys of frustration.
by Sue Williams
Allen & Unwin
$29.99; 336 pp