Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2021
“I blush at my error”, wrote Elizabeth Macarthur. It was a phrase that stood out from the rest of the bland, genteel prose that was her correspondence … and enough to inspire Kate Grenville’s latest novel. What if this correspondence was just a mask, beneath which there hid an unruly woman? What would her private papers reveal? That is Grenville’s central conceit. In the prologue, she claims to have found a box of just such documents.
That which follows, written in short, lively and colourful fragments, is purportedly written by a woman capable of making the most of the hand life has dealt her. It is necessary for survival after making the disastrous mistake that results in a shotgun wedding to John Macarthur, a man with very few prospects, a fierce sense of honour and unbridled ambition. Emigration to Australia follows where Macarthur bides his time until he inveigles his way to 100 acres of land in Pittamarra (Land of Eels). It is a modest start. John Macarthur’s reputation in history is as a sociopath, and while, in her social correspondence, practicing a two-faced form of words, Elizabeth declares herself content, in these private writings she does not hold back about the difficulties of living with a man who is
rash, impulsive, changeable, self-deceiving, cold, unreachable, self-regarding … someone whose judgment was dangerously unbalanced. There was a wound so deep in his sense of himself that all his cleverness, all his understanding of human nature, could be swept aside in some blind butting frenzy of lunatic compulsion.
Watching Elizabeth dance on eggshells, taking care not to wound the man’s ego, might be frustrating these days. But she has nowhere else to go. So she keeps him on board, bears him eight children and conducts a secret life when there is space to do so. The blush mentioned at the beginning is a sensual one, and there are times when Elizabeth’s life is very sensual. Out in Australia she meets her soulmate, though she cannot keep him. Having been brought up on a farm in Devon, hers is the steady hand that enables Macarthur’s expanding estate – which he called Elizabeth Farm after his wife – to prosper, and she makes the decisions that enable their sheep to produce such fine wool. (Though she lets Macarthur think the ideas are his.) When Macarthur finally acts with that frenzy of lunatic compulsion, wounding a senior officer, he must return to England for court martial. Elizabeth barely contains her glee staying behind to run the farm and enjoy a perfect solitude!
In the meantime Australia has become home. This is evident from the appreciative descriptions of its landscape, which are as lush as the dust jacket and endpapers of the Canongate hardback. Elizabeth particularly loves the place by the river which she calls mon petit coin á moi, where she can slip out of the skin of Mrs Macarthur. She is honest about the dilemma inherent in her putting down roots in this place. She is no better than the transported thieves. Has she not stolen this land that she is calling hers from indigenous people? Yet she has no intention of giving it back.
Thus does Grenville approach the paradox at the heart of contemporary sensibilities. Yet I found myself asking would the real Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) have felt that way? I thought not. Then more of her experiences – in particular the sexual ones – struck me as being too modern. “Believe not too quickly” – another quote from Elizabeth Macarthur’s actual letters – is used as the epigraph. It serves as a warning to take this intimate piece of historical fiction with a pinch of salt, but not to let that stop you from enjoying it immensely.