Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

‘Who is Charlotte?’

In this book, sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell set out to learn more about their great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte de Waring Atkinson (1796-1867).  The sisters had heard enthralling stories about Charlotte and her family: stories that had passed through the generations for over 150 years.  Surely, along the way and in the telling, these stories had become romanticised, embellished, and exaggerated.  Isn’t that the way of most oral family history?

When I first heard about this book I was intrigued.  I had never heard of Charlotte or her book: ‘A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’ (published in 1841).  It was the first children’s book to be published in Australia and was a collection of instructional stories arranged in the form of a dialogue between a mother and her four children.  

Part biography, part personal journey, part re-discovery of family history, this book serves (at least) two purposes.  First, to try to find out more about Charlotte the woman, who sailed to New South Wales in 1826 to take up a position as a governess,  and secondly to try to provide context for Charlotte the author.

As I read this book, I was delighted by the way in which Belinda and Kate were able to work together and were able to travel with their own daughters, to learn more about their family history.  Charlotte met several challenges in her life, including being widowed early with small children, making a disastrous second marriage, having to fight to retain her children.  This is a very personal journey through nineteenth century attitudes, customs, values, and law. 

While the authors (and readers) can only speculate about some of Charlotte’s choices, she comes across as determined to do the best she could to look after the interests of her children and to equip them for adult life.  Certainly, creativity seems to have passed through her descendants.

This is not a straight biography, nor is it purely fictional.  It is a blend of fact, of imagination, of impressions gained by research and travel.  As Kate writes: ‘We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.’

I enjoyed the book and I imagine I would have enjoyed it even more if I was a family member.  And I have discovered that ‘A Mother’s Offering to Her Children’ is available as a digital text through the University of Sydney Library.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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