‘Armed irony’: After romanticizing the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, Kate Grenville edits her letters

Do not believe too quickly!

This warning prologue begins Kate Grenville’s novel A Room Made of Leaves (2021), a so-called long-lost secret memoir of Elizabeth Macarthur that Grenville “found” hidden in a roof cavity.

The award-winning novel reimagined Macarthur from the devoted colonial wife of John Macarthur to a passionate, intelligent and empathetic sheep queen.

During her reign, Elizabeth Macarthur built a pastoral kingdom, while her Machiavellian husband networked, plotted and fought court battles in England. The name Macarthur is synonymous with colonialism.

Their first business, Elizabeth Farm, remains a historic home in Sydney’s Rosehill. Similarly, in the Macarthur area (named after the family) southwest of Sydney, their large home, surrounded by pasture that once housed more than 5,000 merino sheep, still stands on Dharawal land.

The same cautionary prologue might have opened Grenville’s new companion book to A Room Made of Leaves, Elizabeth Macarthur’s Letters, in which she once again destabilizes expectations of truth, this time in non-fiction form. Grenville presents Elizabeth’s edited correspondence as scholarly fiction. Don’t believe too fast Elizabeth’s accounts of her life and feelings, despite archival evidence of her faded brown calligraphy.

Instead, Grenville suggests we read them as doubleness and concealment. She writes:

Questioning the disconnect between letters and life, I began to think that Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters could be considered wonderful fiction, sustained for sixty years.

She imagines Macarthur

smiling to herself as she writes sentence after sentence of this fiction, savoring the delightful ironies of saying the exact opposite of what she really meant.

Army Irony

Grenville’s theory is that Elizabeth used irony as a weapon in writing her letters, transforming them from solemn and faithful accounts into sophisticated “embroideries”.

She highlights a letter that describes the colony’s crops as having “prospered almost unbelievably” – they had failed miserably. In another letter, written after Macarthur’s return from England, Elizabeth writes: “You can imagine how great my joy was at McArthur’s arrival. [sic]”.

Grenville is bolstered by the fact that the women’s letters and diaries were largely self-censored, with omissions and careful wording. Irony and “embroidery” were key, as the letters were the 19th-century equivalent of a Facebook post shared among family and friends.

Lyndsey Jenkins of the Women’s History Network observes that the truth of a woman’s life at this time lies in what is do not said in their neat scrolls. Instead, it sits in the

ripped out pages and crossed out sentences… offering clues and clues to the unspeakable and the unacceptable.

Emily and Elizabeth MacArthur. Camden, Sydney.

In accordance with an edited traditional book of archival documents, Grenville filed these letters in chronological order, which she “pruned quite harshly”. She explains that pruning consists of removing trivial gossip and family movements, unrelated to the heart of the letters.

It begins with a letter to Elizabeth’s mother in 1789, which Grenville quotes in A Room Made of Leaves, and ends with Elizabeth’s short letter to her son, Edward, in 1849 – the year before her death.

As Grenville acknowledges, she is not the first to publish or transcribe Elizabeth’s letters. But beyond this timeline, introduction, and editing notes, Grenville deviates from convention to deliver a challenging book for a contemporary audience.

The problem of the contemporary gaze

In the comments that precede each letter, Grenville adopts an introspective and subjective approach that reveals the difficulty of bringing problematic historical material into the contemporary cultural gaze. Should Elizabeth be ‘cancelled’ for her descriptions of the First Nations people she and her husband enriched themselves with? How to interpret his careless pity for the convicts who built their empire?

Author Ruby Hamad argues that white women, as the “virtuous and innocent face of Western civilization”, benefited from and enabled colonialism.

As the face of colonialist women, should Elizabeth be sent back to the archives? Or should his letters be published without censorship to remind us to confront truths that defy political calls to gloss over the national history curriculum?

a big house on a green lawn

Elizabeth Farm, the home of Revs John and Elizabeth Macarthur, is the oldest surviving European building in Australia. Photo: Brian Yap/Flickr, CC BY

Grenville is obviously in the latter camp, and those questions are softened by the disconcertingly flippant style of the commentary, Bridgerton, “Lady Whistledown-of-the-colonies,” which is appropriate, given that the hit series is set in the same time as Elizabeth’s time. in Australia. It reveals Grenville’s conflicting feelings about Elizabeth, as much as the big questions about how we re-examine historical figures.

The commentary serves a dual purpose as a meta-narrative on A Room Made of Leaves. It provides insight into Grenville’s writing process and narrative decisions.

It also reveals her hesitations about whether she is right to read Elizabeth as an expert in irony, employed to conceal her dislike for her husband. Perhaps, dear reader, “Elisabeth was truly happy with him, as she so vigorously asserts.”

In A Room Made of Leaves, Grenville took Elizabeth’s letters as his starting inspiration. She could imagine the woman Elizabeth could have been and who Grenville wanted her to be. In doing so, she could align Elizabeth with contemporary cultural values. But in the Letters, Grenville must instead rely on his own accompanying voice, which is distressingly clear:

Reading Elizabeth’s letters, there were times when I found her unattractive – so much so that I gave up on the novel more than once… She could have had a more human perspective, and I wish she had.

The conversation

Kerrie Davies, Lecturer, School of Arts and Media, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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