Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.
At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.
Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.
That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.
We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.
In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.
Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.