What if the wife of a colonial monster had left behind brutally frank secret memoirs? | Books

Elizabeth Macarthur – the wife of early colonist John Macarthur – is a minor footnote in Australian history, celebrated for keeping the Macarthur sheep empire going while her famously aggressive husband was going to court in London. From the letters she left, our picture of her is of the perfect wife: uncomplaining, devout, unfailingly cheerful. Yawn.

But when you look more closely at that picture, it falls apart. She was married to a bullying, ruthless, cunning man.

What if Elizabeth Macarthur had left behind brutally frank secret memoirs? What if they told the real story behind the myth of the devoted 18th century wife?

That’s the idea behind A Room Made of Leaves.

This book had its starting point in the gap between those relentlessly cheerful letters and what I thought was the likely reality of her day-to-day life with such a man. My guess was that all those goody-gumball letters she left must have been, to put it bluntly, fiction. I decided to tell the “real” story behind that fiction, by creating the memoir in which Macarthur told the truth about her life.

A portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur hangs in the entrance hall of Elizabeth Farm

A portrait of Elizabeth Macarthur hangs in the entrance hall of Elizabeth Farm. Photograph: James Horan/Sydney Living Museums

It would be a book that exploded the stereotypes we have about women of the past: that somehow they were so different from us that they didn’t mind lives that we’d find unbearable in their complete lack of freedom. Those women could only speak within the bounds of what was permitted to them: letters that could be read by the whole household, novels that would only be published if they weren’t too shocking. If we take those documents at face value, we come away with a comfortable prettified version of what must have been hell for countless numbers of them.

The savage glaze of irony that colours every sentence of the novels of Jane Austen is as far as any of those women could go towards letting us see how it really was for them. Elizabeth Macarthur’s imagined memoirs would – in a way no woman of her time could do – take the image of the devout, demure, compliant and uncomplaining woman and blast it open.

As I wrote, that idea grew into a bigger one: not just to tell a story that hadn’t been told, but to question the whole idea of stories. Stories are a way of wrapping up in a tidy bundle all the ambiguities and contradictions that are part of the real. A good story makes hard things easy – you don’t have to think about them again.

Women aren’t the only ones whose complicated truths have been replaced by false stories. In the Australian context, old stories about colonisation and Indigenous people have only relatively recently been exposed for the self-serving myths they were. Wherever one set of people has power over another, they’ll construct a story about their dominance that makes it seem acceptable. As the old saying goes, history is written by the victors.

Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur

Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur. Photograph: Doug Riley/Sydney Living Museums

Far from being any kind of biography of Elizabeth Macarthur (that has already been done, in Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World), this is a kind of anti-biography, raising questions about where stories come from, and how much we should trust them.

Draft by draft this became a book about secrets and lies, fake stories and hidden truths. The structure of the book came to embody that: it’s a series of truths and lies nestled one inside the other like Russian dolls, each one breaking open to reveal another layer in a playful dance of possibilities.

Cover image for Kate Grenville’s 2020 novel, A Room Made of Leaves

Photograph: Text

The innermost layer is the real letters of the real person Elizabeth Macarthur, but even that layer cracks away to reveal them as clever fictions constructed by Macarthur herself. In turn the letters are embedded in the “long-lost memoirs” of Elizabeth Macarthur, which in turn are framed and distanced by bookends that Elizabeth Macarthur tells us she wrote in order to set the record straight. Outside the bookends is an editor, someone called Kate Grenville, who claims to have found the memoirs, and beyond that again is the author Kate Grenville, admitting – to no one’s surprise – that the entire thing is made up.

Misinformation, fakery, lies for commercial or political gain: this is the toxic air we breathe daily. How to sort out the true from the dangerously fake – in fact, even to remember that sorting has to be done – is the challenge. We’re living through a time in which lies and deception have a reach and power and effectiveness that’s unprecedented.

In writing this book, I did a great deal of research from the letters and official documents of the time. I spent a lot of time in the places where the story took place, both in the UK and Australia (especially Elizabeth Farm where Macarthur lived for 40 years and where, in my fiction, she wrote and concealed her scandalous memoirs). I found out a lot I hadn’t known about sheep and saw first-hand the descendants of the original Macarthur flock.

I took some liberties with relatively minor aspects of the historical record. But I’ve made a story that’s plausible, at the same time as it is fundamentally a work of the imagination.

For most of the writing, the book’s working title was Do Not Believe Too Quickly. That’s what I’d like readers to take away from this book: to be reminded not to take any story – including the one they’ve just read – at face value.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville is out now through Text Publishing

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