When I was in high school, in Sydney, every class at some point was taken on a day trip to Elizabeth Macarthur’s farm, to learn all about the history of the colony days and how the country was built “on the sheep’s back”, that is, it’s first export would be wool. When Australia was being colonised, Elizabeth was brought from England by her husband John, who was credited as being a hard drinking, ambitious man who developed the sheep that would thrive in the Australian heat and went from humble officer to leader of the Rum Rebellion. He gets a lot of credit for this, but by the time I was in high school, we were also taught that the whole sheep farm was run by Elizabeth, and that John spent most of the time in England. Which is no mean feat, it’s huge, and she was therefore the one who bred the sheep to get hardy wool producers, and managed labour on the property. It was really all down to her, but we know nothing about her because whatever she did leave was either burnt on her death, a common practice at the time, or just ordinary letters and notes.
I’ve often wondered what her life was like. And clearly Kate Grenville did as well. In this book, we get the candid diary that we wish we had, the author telling us that it was found hidden after all these years. The book is actually fiction, but is based on what real documents that there are, and mostly filled in with research and imagination.
Kate Grenville is a well loved Australian writer, and her book works to create a world that feels real and characters who have dimension. I liked the way that she made John feel like someone who was pretty awful sometimes, but human, and who may have been different under other circumstances. If he was born in the modern era, for example. I also liked the descriptions of life in England at the time and the early days of the colony. It’s interesting. The book takes Elizabeth from her young life and childhood through to her marriage and it’s a while before she gets to Australia. And a little longer than that before the farm is built. I think I assumed it would be more about her day to day life as a women in the colony and running the farm, but it almost speeds up at that time. Perhaps the author felt like that time was self evident or known in some way.
I did feel like this book reads like a lot of books about historical women: the brutal husband who crushes her spirit, the generous attitudes to indigenous people and gay people that seem very modern, and the open attitude to sex. It doesn’t spoil the book. We do know that her husband was a difficult man, but perhaps she did love him? Perhaps he was kind to her? It just felt cliche. Women in these books are written in the first person and are basically us, placed back in time. Which doesn’t help us understand history, really, and replaces the complexity of the situation with something that’s too easy, I think.
Anyway, that said, I did like this book. It’s entertaining and the historical period is an interesting one. The book, with it’s lovely intricate cover art, is a delight to curl up with and sink into, and I like Grenville’s accessible writing style. For me, it was a little slice of home, and it’s nice to read about a time in history that’s often dismissed or left unexplored. I also liked hearing a little about the original inhabitants of the lands that became Sydney. I hadn’t known the names of those people’s before and what their live styles were like, and I liked that inclusion in a story of this setting.
Read It If: You like strong female characters or historical fiction. Elizabeth is a pleasant and intersting person to spend time with, and I enjoyed reading this, in general.
Thank you PGC Books for the copy of this book for review. This is a review, so all opinions are my own.