I learned a bit about the Macarthurs in school – John was supposed to be “the father of the woolen industry” in colonial times sydney and his wife, Elizabeth, was, well, just his wife. Like all the other women of our past, she was a blurred figure on the sidelines.
Fifty years later, I was doing research for the book that would become The Secret River and came across an excerpt from one of his letters. She had asked William Dawes, an officer in the First Fleet, for astronomy lessons, but says, “I mistook my abilities and blushed at my mistake.” That word “blush” made me sit up and pay attention. Blushing is the body’s way of announcing some powerful feeling, usually one we prefer to hide. To a novelist’s mind, that blush indicated an interesting possibility about Mrs. Macarthur and Lieutenant Dawes.
So I read some of his other letters. Naturally, she was looking for what happened after the blush but, if she did, she wasn’t going to put it in writing.
Between the lines I caught a glimpse of something else. Elizabeth Macarthur was married to a man who, as her own letters show, was quick-tempered, vindictive, manipulative, thuggish. Her home, the Sydney Correctional Settlement, was a miserable place full of violence, pain and ugliness. Yet hardly a whisper of it appears in her cheerful letters.
I began to imagine the letters as a magnificent piece of fiction, sustained for 60 years. Here was Elizabeth, trapped in a dreadful marriage in a dreadful situation, but unable to write freely about any of it, because the conventions of her time and place dictated that a woman should be devoted to her husband and not complain about life. her.
But she would hardly be human if she did not want to register, somewhere, the truth behind her cheerful fiction. What if she had written some secret memoirs and hidden them? What if it had come out and somehow gotten into my hands and I transcribed and edited it?
That insight offered a way to write about a topic I’ve been mulling over all my writing life: the unreliability of any version of “truth.” No writing is a transparent window to a reality: the writer always has an objective that shapes his choices, whether he is aware of it or not. But that partial, simplified or false story can be powerful enough to erase any other. In the Australian context, the story of settlement and pioneering that settlers have been telling themselves for 200 years has, until recently, erased that of invasion and dispossession. How to look behind the history that dominates, to see the one that has been hidden?
I had the title of the book before I started writing: Don’t believe too fast.. Elizabeth Macarthur and the secret memoirs he was to write for her were a way of highlighting the unreliable nature of the narrative as much as the story itself. Playing with those ideas was a great pleasure, and she was happy with the novel, which ended up with the less schooly title of A Room Made of Leaves..
But the game he was playing was almost too successful: some readers thought the book was really a long-lost memoir. That made me stop. Elizabeth Macarthur was a real person. I had kidnapped her, to put it brutally, and imposed my own speculations on her. By telling a story about false stories, I could have created one myself.
That restlessness made me go back to reading the letters again. I don’t regret the novel, he had his own work to do. But a book of letters from him would tell a different kind of truth and unravel yet another layer of the story.
Some of Elizabeth’s earliest letters had been published in the 1980s by the forward-thinking historian Joy Hughes, and others in a 1914 Macarthur family history. The handwritten originals are in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. But there was nowhere to access Elizabeth’s lifelong letters in an easy-to-read form.
As I edited the letters (yes, this time I was really the editor), my understanding of Elizabeth Macarthur changed again, in the way your knowledge of a friend deepens and complicates over time. I appreciated even more his perceptive and ironically witty way with words. I recognized her as a woman of strong feelings that might have included, but also did not, a passion for William Dawes. And I saw that, yes, she may have chafed under the burden of being married to a difficult husband. But their relationship, like so many others, was probably complicated and contradictory, made up of equal parts love and disgust, loneliness and companionship. I’m so glad that she finally gets a chance to speak for herself.