I have to confess to not having as broad a knowledge of Australian history as I probably should and so I was looking forward to this non-fiction book about Elizabeth Macarthur, one of Australia’s first farmers.
Elizabeth came out to Australia with her military officer husband John, on the second fleet. She must surely have been an extremely tolerant woman. John by all accounts was a pushy, complaining, selfish and irrational man prone to episodes of disputes and disagreement with all and sundry (including the odd duel or two) in the new settlement of Australia, with little regard for his long-suffering wife.
By all accounts, she tolerated him and their relationship was claimed to be a loving one. The poor woman endured a lot and the author has done an amazing job to piece together her life by way of letters, court cases, journals and newspaper articles. The author gives us a slice of what the Macarthur family was like as well as an insight into their vast land holdings and businesses and the politics and life in 1800’s Australia. It’s a fascinating look at colonial power over convicts, free settlers and the treatment of indigenous peoples, none of which is sugar-coated. Indeed, to read the brutal journey on a second fleet ship needs a strong stomach as conditions are described in gory detail, yet serves to highlight Elizabeth’s strength and endurance.
Elizabeth was a remarkable woman raising her children and running the Macarthur holdings, while her husband gallivanted off to the home country for several years. Yet her husband’s name in history is credited with establishing Australia’s wool industry. The author corrects this perception by shining a light on Elizabeth as well as acknowledging that many other women ran farms just as successfully. As is so often the case, we learn a lot more about John and the author does a gallant job to draw conclusions about what type of woman Elizabeth must have been.
It’s a well written and wonderfully researched book although I’d had just about enough of John, yearning for more on Elizabeth. Sadly, like so many women who were never acknowledged in history, we can only draw enough conclusions to elevate her.
If you’re after a snapshot of life in Australia in the eighteen hundreds, give this book a go. It’s worth it.