Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams
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.
Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan
In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.
The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?
She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.
The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.
I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.
Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!
The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.
Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Rollicking re-telling: ‘The Good Wife of Bath’ by Karen Brooks
In her re-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story within The Canterbury Tales, Australian author Karen Brooks has brought us the dry tone of a mediaeval English woman whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags life is full of passion, love, misfortune and plain bad luck.
The author’s extensive and meticulous research into the period makes for a warts-and-all glimpse of England in the fourteenth century, including the awfulness of life for so many women. There is the Wife’s first marriage at twelve years old to a man more than twice her age. There is poverty, plague, domestic violence and abuse. There is also humour, bawdiness and plain speaking, making for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the reader.
The disrespect in which women were generally held at the time is not airbrushed out of Brook’s version, and her Good Wife demonstrates the struggle that women had to gain and retain any agency over their lives.
Eleanor/Alyson lives out her eventful life against a backdrop of tumultuous times in England and Europe. Death of a king, battling popes, resurgences of the plague, changes in industry and the economy, are all woven skillfully into the fabric of the story, much as the Good Wife herself learns to spin and weave beautiful thread and fabric. Reflecting on her life and the family and community she has created around her, Eleanor/Alyson thinks:
How did this happen? This marvellous workshop of colour and quality – of bonds tighter than the weave itself. I couldn’t take all the credit. It had been a combined effort… every household, every husband, had added its own ingredient – coin, wool, skills, but above all, people.The Good Wife of Bath p313
Brooks explores the long-standing debate over Chaucer’s intent in writing a story that ostensibly mocked women who wish to be in control over their own lives, opting for the interpretation that it was meant as a satire. Whatever his motives, The Good Wife of Bath offers a modern-day take on his original story.
It’s an engrossing and rollicking re-interpretation of a classical English story that will please lovers of historical fiction, especially those set in the mediaeval period.
The Good Wife of Bath is published by HQ Fiction in July 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
More stuff I didn’t know! ‘The Codebreakers’ by Alli Sinclair
Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.
People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.
I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.
What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.
Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.
Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.
The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.
Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.The Codebreakers p324
If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.
The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Time travel: marking 200 years of the Parramatta Female Factory
Today, Sunday 21st February 2021, the Parramatta Female Factory marked two hundred years since the convict prison building, commissioned by Governor Macquarie, took in its first cohort of 109 women and 71 children. It has been many years since the site operated as a gaol, workhouse, marriage bureau, work assignment centre and even an early version of a women’s health service (of sorts), but the Greenaway-designed buildings still stand, as do others added on over the decades.
A group of volunteers called Parramatta Female Factory Friends have been advocating for this site to be given world heritage status and for local, state and federal governments to recognise its importance and do what needs to be done to protect and enhance its future. It was a committee from the Friends who organised and ran today’s event.
It’s estimated that one in seven Australians today can trace their heritage back to a Parramatta Female Factory woman. That includes me: my 4 x great-aunt Mary Greenwood was an inmate here in the 1830’s, almost certainly her mother passed through here briefly before being assigned to work at the (then brand new) King’s Grammar School – as a laundress. Her name was Mary Ann Greenwood and she was my 5 x great-grandmother.
Thomas and Meg Keneally, both patrons of the Friends of Parramatta Female Factory, spoke of the power of the stories it can tell modern Australians about the women who lived and worked there. To survive the whole transportation experience, including incarceration in the various female factories around the country, women needed to be resilient and tough. They were voiceless and powerless then, but as Meg said, she and other descendants of her 3 x great-grandmother can now be her voice.
The day included an opportunity to lay floral tributes along the commemorative wall, which is inscribed with the first names of every woman known to have passed through its forbidding gates. Here I am with my little posy; if you look closely you’ll see my forebears’ names on the wall.
Another special part of the morning was a performance by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald, along with Nigel Lever and Ann Palumbo, of four songs specially commissioned by the Female Factory Friends to mark the bicentenary. The song suite is called Mothers of the Nation and includes recognition of the many women who, as the title song’s lyrics tell us, were
Mothers of the Nation, black and white,‘Mothers of the Nation’, by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald
Written out of history
Mothers of the nation, hold your heads high
Mothers of the nation, elders yarn,
her story of strength and fight
to carve out a life in this land.
My thanks to the organisers of today’s special occasion.
If you’d like to know more about the stories of the Parramatta Female Factory and the activities of the PFF Friends, you can visit their website.