Passion, Spirit & Humour: Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves

WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM

If we played word association and I said “Australia’s colonial period,” most responses might be “convict.” Yet there is much more to 1790s Australia, and Kate Grenville explores it through the eyes of one woman: Elizabeth Macarthur. Australians are familiar with Elizabeth’s husband, John, whom history credits as the father of Australia’s wool industry. Streets and public parks bear his name. Yet in Grenville’s view, John Macarthur “had one thing going for him: a ruthless single-mindedness in pursuit of his own advancement.” She notes that he was “a larger-than-life character blustering and bullying his way through the little world of early Sydney…In my childhood, Macarthur was considered a hero, but values change, and Australians today wouldn’t put him on any kind of pedestal.” Grenville chooses to focus on Macarthur’s wife: “Without a doubt, the real Elizabeth Macarthur must have been a remarkable woman, but she’s always been a mystery…What did she think and feel?”

Grenville answers this question through A Room Made of Leaves, presented as a memoir after the discovery of (fictional) long-lost letters. Elizabeth’s actual letters, which Grenville excerpts in the novel, are “bland.” She says, “Elizabeth was, in my view, a canny writer of fiction. Her letters are nothing but cheerful…Those letters are masterpieces of decorous pretence, because…Elizabeth knew they were public things, written with the knowledge that they would be read aloud in the family parlour…[T]he one weapon a woman of that time had was irony, and I came to believe that, like her equally canny contemporary Jane Austen, she’d perfected the art of saying one thing and meaning something quite different. As I read the faded spidery old words of the originals of her letters, I often felt that I could hear her laughing.”

Elizabeth is ripped from her “genteel world” and dropped “into the brutal, squalid, hungry place that was Sydney.” The catalyst for this is a young officer, John Macarthur. He is not particularly handsome, yet she is drawn to him, and a single mistake changes the course of Elizabeth’s life: now pregnant, she has no choice but to marry a near stranger and accompany him halfway across the globe. Macarthur’s softer sentiments reveal themselves as pretense – he’s a Wickham minus the charm. Grenville explains, “Her marriage to John Macarthur is assumed to have been a passionate love-match and they’ve always been presented as a devoted couple…I had to put aside all the old ideas about the Macarthurs’ marriage and see it as something much more interesting but much more complicated.” Thus, there is no connubial sympathy for Elizabeth during the death of a child and a difficult sea voyage that lands her in a garrisoned backwater whose inhabitants, many of them convicts, are always one delayed resupply ship away from starvation. “I had to imagine my way into the bitter regret she must have felt, but also the strength and resilience she found, and her skilful determination to shape a rewarding life for herself against the odds,” says Grenville. This complete isolation from comfort and familiarity is a heavy burden for Elizabeth. “Like most of the early settlers,” Grenville notes, “she could only see the ways in which Australia’s landscape was different from England’s, and inferior to it. But over the course of the book she comes to recognise its beauty…she realises that this new landscape is truly home, the place whose dust she’ll willingly become part of.”

This settlement comes at a cost, both personal and societal – Grenville is careful to detail that, by making Australia her home, Elizabeth “dispossessed the indigenous people.” Elizabeth is allowed to interact with these people through her relationship with William Dawes, a man who offers her an intellectual and emotional engagement that her toxic, grasping husband is incapable of providing. Grenville fans may recognize Dawes; he’s the main character in her novel, The Lieutenant. Dawes is a soldier, but he is also, Grenville notes, “a man of sensitivity and the kind of intelligence that finds a new world fascinating rather than threatening.” Together, Dawes and Elizabeth explore this new world and each other, and Elizabeth realizes she need not be constrained by what, Grenville says, “society expected of women – to be compliant, obedient, pious and – if they could manage it – decorative.” She can have a life with more fulfillment; she can experience the “pleasure of straining to comprehend” the natural world and other, deeper pursuits and connections.

The contentiousness that makes John such an unpalatable husband eventually works in Elizabeth’s favor. Grenville elaborates: “When her husband spent two long stints in London (the first time – four years – because he shot his commanding officer in a duel, and the second – nine years – because he deposed the governor), it was Elizabeth who developed the gigantic Macarthur sheep empire into the richest in the colony.” Through clever breeding, Grenville’s Elizabeth becomes the mother of the Australian wool industry, helping the fledgling colony to prosper and providing herself with security.

At its core, Grenville says, her novel is “very much a book about emigration, about leaving the heartland of your childhood and having the courage and the largeness of spirit to embrace another place and another way of being.” Grenville wants her readers to feel, as she did after researching for this book, “that one individual woman has been rescued (even if fictionally) from the great silence that surrounds the interior lives of all our foremothers.” While the path may not have been an easy one, “Elizabeth Macarthur navigated an extraordinary world and a tumultuous life with passion, spirit and humour.”

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Bethany Latham is HNR‘s Managing Editor.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)


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