Cover of Elizabeth Macarthur, book by Micheel Scott TuckerMichelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World

Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2018, ISBN 9781925603422, pp 1-386, RRP $32.99

Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is the author’s first book. And what a fabulous triumph it is. Well researched and richly absorbing, this is the remarkable story of Australia’s first free female European to settle in colonial New South Wales. Expansive, engaging and utterly engrossing the fascinating life of one brave pioneer woman is here explored with lovely attention to detail. The reader is transported into her world with such vivid intensity, it is almost as if you are right there, standing by Elizabeth’s side and willing her on through all her trials and tribulations.  Of which, during her long and interesting life, there were many.

It is also a timely book. Hazel King’s Elizabeth Macarthur and her World was published back in 1980 whilst Lennard Bickel’s Australia’s First Lady:The Story of Elizabeth Macarthur followed later in 1991. It was time for a fresh telling and the author is to be congratulated for doing it with such aplomb.

Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in the colony with her husband John and young son Edward in 1790. She died here in 1850 on the eve on the gold rushes when the colony was a very different place indeed. During those sixty years, she was a loving wife and mother, entrepreneur, worker, farmer, businesswoman, sheep expert, gardener, homemaker, teacher and nurse. She worked damn bloody hard for much of her long life and she was also the peacemaker, the wise matriarch and the central key to the family’s subsequent success. Like a solid English oak firmly planted in the wilds of the Camden Park area. Elizabeth was also a prolific journal and letter writer, and she penned realms of regular correspondence to her friends and family back in England. Those that survive are housed in the collection of Macarthur Papers in the Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales, together with diaries, journals, ledgers and account books. The author skilfully weaves them throughout the book to let us hear Elizabeth speak.

The Macarthurs travelled as part of the Second Fleet and the author vividly captures the sheer terror of the long voyage for a young genteel lady who was heavily pregnant with her second child. Tucker also reminds us of the utterly abysmal conditions of the convicts stowed, starved, and chained below decks, as the tempestuous Southern Ocean slowly rolled them all towards the fledgling colony at the edge of the world. Over a quarter of the convicts sent out in the Second Fleet did not survive the journey. It was a scandalous state of affairs and it might have been avoided. Starvation and scurvy, disease and dysentery wasted many away. Neither did Elizabeth’s first born daughter survive. She too died at sea, soon after birth. Seven more children would bless the Macarthurs’ long marriage of forty-five years, and so commence a dynasty.

Along the way, the book includes the horrors of frontier violence, the politics of colonial society and the convict era, the vagaries of snobbish genteel ladies and the propensity of their husbands (including her own) to duel to resolve their gentlemanly disputes, the rum rebellion and the overthrow of Governor Bligh. But that is all in the background. This is the story of the making of a family dynasty through good luck, hard work, resilience and family loyalties. It is also the story of the sheer harshness of living in a frontier society for a woman with frequent pregnancies, and a husband frequently absent, either in Sydney or in exile back in Europe, or when he was suffering an episode of the mental disquiet which plagued him throughout his life.  But Elizabeth managed. Even when four of her own children very sadly predeceased her. This book is her story of living through all of this and the legacy she left behind for both her family and for the growing young nation itself.

There is a select and yet expansive bibliography, endnotes and a comprehensive index. The picture credits are rather brief, although this is merely a small observation rather than a large criticism.

A sweeping saga, a soaring family epic, this is an expansive book and takes us from Elizabeth as a new young wife to an aged, beloved and yet still sprightly grandmama aged eighty-three years of age, which in 1850, was a vintage age indeed.  It crosses decades and spans continents exploring exile, longing, memories and family ties. This would make for a fabulous television drama. I wanted to weep when Elizabeth died. Not that it was unexpected. But after 328 pages of experiencing this incredible woman, it was like losing a good wise friend. Her remarkable story, albeit of a different time and era, is yet a story which still resonates so deeply today. And ultimately, this is what makes A Life at the Edge of the World such a compelling and unforgettable read.

Just gorgeous.

Dr Catie Gilchrist

May 2018

Available at all good book stores now. Find out more about the book and author on the Text Publishing website here

Dr Gilchrist is the State Library of NSW Nancy Keesing Highly Commended Fellow 2018.

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