‘I paid the boatman with a bag of fresh cherries this morning.’
Mrs M is Elizabeth Macquarie, widow of Lachlan Macquarie, the former governor of New South Wales (between 1810 and 1821). Lachlan Macquarie has died, a year after the release of Commissioner John Thomas Bigge’s damning reports of his administration. At the time of his death, Macquarie was defending himself against Bigge’s accusations. Mrs M has accompanied his body to Mull.
‘So the priest requires the words on Macquarie’s tomb; would that he had loaned me a church candle two feet high for this solemn vigil.’
Over one sleepless night on the island of Mull, as she struggles to write her husband’s epigraph, Mrs M remembers her life in New South Wales. She is remembering and mourning, both the loss of her husband as well as their shared dream to transform the penal colony of New South Wales into a thriving community, not just a prison camp.
Mr Slattery has imagined an infatuation between the Architect (Francis Greenway) and Elizabeth Macquarie. I’m not comfortable with imagined relationships for historical figures, but I was fascinated by the setting. Elizabeth Macquarie was Lachlan Macquarie’s second (and much younger) wife. It’s easy to imagine the three of them (Macquarie, Mrs Macquarie and Francis Greenway) discussing the public works planned and undertaken. And, in the novel, it’s a nice touch to think of the Architect having a hand in the creation of Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.
I enjoyed seeing the challenges Macquarie was facing through Mrs M’s eyes. I know the history, but facts can be dry and distant. I also enjoyed Mr Slattery’s descriptions of people and place. But I finished the novel dissatisfied with the intersection between fact and fiction. The infatuation between Mrs M and the Architect doesn’t work for me because I am unable to forget that are Mrs Macquarie and Francis Greenway are real people.