Kate Grenville has been disrupting conventional narratives of colonial Australia since the publication of her 2005 novel The Secret River, which was inspired by her own family history. Until now, it has been a fictional project: in his novels, Grenville wonders what role stories should play in how we understand history, and what new insights into truth might be offered by fiction .
Her work has puzzled some historians, who are uncomfortable with the idea that she can claim for her novels a status equal to historical truth. This misinterpretation of his project is the one that Grenville seemed to poke fun at in his most recent novel, A Room Made of Leaves, with the conceit that the novel was really a secret manuscript written by Australia’s first settler Elizabeth Macarthur, then hidden away for decades. years. in an attic. The fictional Elizabeth de Grenville revealed her feelings about her irascible husband, colonist John Macarthur, and his struggle to make a living in the new colony.
With the Letters of Elizabeth Macarthur, Grenville does what she pretended to do in A Room Made of Leaves: she acts as the editor and transcriptionist – and in many ways, translator – of the real Elizabethan Epistles. More than 250 years after her birth, Elizabeth finally speaks with her own voice, no longer ventriloquized by the imagination of a novelist.
And yet, what does it mean that the historical records speak for themselves, wonders Grenville? What do Elisabeth’s letters have to say, if we pay attention to the complexity of the voice, the workings of irony and literary deviation? At first glance, as Grenville acknowledges, many of these letters are surprisingly bland and rarely offer insight into turbulent times or the woman herself – albeit later in life, as her husband’s mental illness progressed. towards extreme paranoia, anguish and Elizabeth’s “great grief”. express themselves more clearly.
Grenville believes that these documents are themselves a kind of fiction, a “mask of wise formality” hiding a woman who was unable to openly display the shrewd wit and penetrating intelligence that sometimes manifest themselves in them. .
This mask was adopted, Grenville argues, at least in part in response to myriad writing constraints, including the fact that Elizabeth’s letters were not private; her husband most likely read them, and they would also have been read by a sphere of acquaintances around the recipient. In contemporary terms, these letters are more like social media posts posted on someone’s public profile than a low-key direct message.
The correspondence collected here covers Elizabeth’s earliest extant letter, addressed to her mother as Elizabeth was about to leave England with her husband and sail to the newly established colony of New South Wales in 1789, to one of the last she wrote to her son Edward before his death in 1850. Grenville provides a brief introduction to each letter, and the lively energy of the volume stems from the fascinating dialogue between these two voices: the colonial wife , writing to family and friends in painfully constrained prose; and the contemporary novelist who is by turns obsessed, constrained and embarrassed by her enigmatic subject.
John Macarthur took all the credit for establishing the woolen industry in Australia, but Grenville points out that he was away in England for long periods during the most crucial phase of this development. In his absence, Elizabeth oversaw all aspects of the Macarthur estate, which became an extremely complex enterprise. Grenville explores the disjunction between this reality and Elizabeth’s cautious portrayal of herself as “timid and indecisive”; a modest and subordinate wife.
She was one of those intelligent, unconventional women who have always interested Grenville, and this collection shows the author’s inner conflict as his admiration for Elizabeth rivals criticism of this woman whose advancement was conditioned by oppression of others.
Grenville makes no attempt to conceal or excuse Elizabeth’s indifference to slaves and contempt for Australia’s native population, so different from the compassionate attitude Grenville gave her in her novel. “She could have had a more human perspective,” Grenville admits, “and I wish she had.”
Grenville argues with the delicate skill of a literary scholar, but invites the reader into a zone of doubt, uncertainty and worry that seems to belong entirely to a novelist. She constantly questions her own reading, suggesting the possibility of other perspectives, other truths.
We have the fictional, hot-blooded version of Elizabeth constructed in A Room Made of Leaves, born out of Grenville’s fascination with a single avowed erotic “blushing” in one of the letters collected here. And we have these letters, which “give readers a chance to decide for themselves,” as Grenville says. As a counterpoint between them, it offers a compelling perspective on the author’s dialogue with an elusive and complicated subject.
Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters, edited by Kate Grenville, are published by Text Publishing ($34.99).