A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

‘Dearest, he said, and I was immediately wary. ‘

In this novel, Ms Grenville reimagines aspects of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur.  In her reimagination, Ms Grenville discovers a secret memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, one which brings her out of the shadows.

First, a few facts.  Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England, daughter of Richard Veale, farmer, and his wife Grace.  She married John Macarthur in October 1788.  In June 1789 he joined the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth and their son Edward (born in March 1789) accompanied him when he sailed to take up his position in the colony.  Mrs Macarthur’s letters to her family written during the journey to New South Wales are one of the outstanding records of early voyages on convict transports.  John Macarthur (c1767-1834), soldier, entrepreneur and pastoralist was a prominent figure in colonial Australia.

Around these facts (and others) Ms Grenville portrays Elizabeth Macarthur as a passionate woman who learns how to manage marriage to an opinionated and ruthless bully.

‘As I copied out his words I noticed that the word we never appeared.  In Mr Macarthur’s lonely cosmology, there was no such pronoun.  Only me, myself, I.’

While I read this novel and enjoyed the imagined Elizabeth Macarthur’s view of and opinions about the role of women and colonial settlement, aspects made me uneasy.  How many people will read this novel and believe it is fact instead of fiction, despite Ms Grenville’s disclaimer?  Despite my unease, I enjoyed the opportunity to view colonial settlement through a different perspective.

‘Down beside the river I had a spot of my own, where now and then I could slip out of the skin of Mrs John Macarthur.  It was screened by bushes that framed a view up and down the stream: another airy room made of leaves.’

I suspect that the real Mrs John Macarthur will always remain elusive.  We know of her from her letters, written within the strictures of the society of the time.  But the person behind the letters?  Ms Grenville presents us with some interesting possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith