Elizabeth Macarthur’s Letters, edited by Kate Grenville review – a fascinating dialogue | Books

Kate Grenville has been unsettling conventional narratives of colonial Australia since the publication of her 2005 novel The Secret River, which drew on her own family history. So far, this has been a fictional project: in her novels, Grenville asks what role stories have to play in the way we understand history and what new perspectives on the truth might be offered by fiction.

Her work has unnerved some historians, who have been uncomfortable with the idea that she might claim a status for her novels equal to historical truth. This misreading of her project is one that Grenville seemed to poke fun at in her most recent novel, A Room Made of Leaves, with the conceit that the novel was really a secret manuscript written by the early Australian settler Elizabeth Macarthur, then hidden for years in an attic. Grenville’s fictional Elizabeth revealed her feelings about her irascible husband, the colonist John Macarthur, and her struggle to make a life in the new colony.

With Elizabeth Macarthur’s Letters, Grenville does what she was just pretending to do in A Room Made of Leaves: she acts as editor and transcriber – and many ways, translator – of Elizabeth’s real epistles. More than 250 years after she was born, Elizabeth finally speaks in her own voice, no longer ventriloquized through a novelist’s imagination.

And yet, what does it mean for historical documents to speak for themselves, Grenville asks? What do Elizabeth’s letters have to say, if we attend to the complexity of voice, the workings of irony and literary deflection? On the surface, as Grenville acknowledges, many of these letters are surprisingly bland and seldom offer insight into the turbulent times or the woman herself – although later in life, as her husband’s mental illness progressed to extreme paranoia, Elizabeth’s anguish and “great grievance” are more plainly expressed.

Grenville believes that these documents are themselves a kind of fiction, a “mask of demure formality” hiding a woman who was not able to openly show the shrewd wit and penetrating intelligence that occasionally flashes through.

This mask was adopted, Grenville argues, at least partly in response to the myriad constraints on writing, not least the fact that Elizabeth’s letters were not private; her husband most likely read them, and they would have been also read by a sphere of acquaintance around the addressee. In contemporary terms, these letters are more like social media posts made on a person’s public profile rather than a discreet direct message.

The correspondence collected here spans Elizabeth’s first extant letter, addressed to her mother as Elizabeth is about to leave England with her husband and sail to the brand-new colony of New South Wales in 1789, to one of the last she wrote to her son Edward before her death in 1850. Grenville provides a short introduction to each letter, and the vivid energy of the volume derives from the fascinating dialogue between these two voices: the colonial wife, writing to family and friends alike in achingly constrained prose; and the contemporary novelist who is by turns obsessed, compelled, and discomforted by her enigmatic subject.

John Macarthur has taken all the credit for establishing the wool industry in Australia, but Grenville points out that he was away in England for long periods during the most crucial phase of this development. In his absence, Elizabeth overlooks all aspects of the Macarthur estate, which became a massively complex enterprise. Grenville explores the disjunction between this reality and Elizabeth’s careful representation of herself as “timid and irresolute”; a modest, subordinate wife.

She was one of those clever, unconventional women who have always been of interest to Grenville, and this collection displays the author’s inner conflict as her admiration for Elizabeth lives with critique of this woman whose advancement was conditional on the oppression of others.

Grenville does not attempt to gloss over or excuse Elizabeth’s indifference to enslaved people and contempt towards Australia’s Indigenous population, so very different from the compassionate attitude Grenville gave her in her novel. “She could have had a more humane perspective,” Grenville admits, “and I wish she had.”

Grenville makes her argument with the delicate skill of a literary scholar, but invites the reader into a zone of doubt, uncertainty, and disquiet that feels entirely belonging to a novelist. She constantly questions her own reading, allowing for the possibility of other perspectives, other truths.

We have the fictional, hot-blooded version of Elizabeth constructed in A Room Made of Leaves, born from Grenville’s fascination with a single, erotic “blush” confessed in one of the letters collected here. And we have these letters, which “give readers a chance to decide for themselves,” as Grenville says. In the counterpoint between them, she offers a compelling perspective on the author’s dialogue with an elusive, complicated subject.

  • Elizabeth Macarthur’s Letters, edited by Kate Grenville, is published by Text Publishing ($34.99).

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