I enjoyed moderating A Room of Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville.
Her novel tells the story of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur an Army Officer and pioneer of settlement in Australia in the late18th century. John Macarthur came from humble beginnings. An ugly-looking man he was an aggressively ambitious, manipulating bully who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Within 10 years of arriving in New South Wales, he was one of the most wealthy and powerful men there presiding over large sheep farms producing valuable Marino wool.
The early history of Sydney is well documented through the eyes of men, Anglo white men at that, but what of the women? Why had Elizabeth married such a difficult man with seemingly little prospects? How had she coped with arriving at a fledgling outpost on the other side of the world? John was twice sent back to England to face trial for violent acts. He was there for four years the first time and eight the second. Where had Elizabeth acquired the fortitude to run the sheep farm in Parramatta?
In the foreword to the novel, Granville recounts how “some time ago” a box of faded private papers was found hidden in the roof cavities of their home, Elizabeth Farm. It turns out that this was a lost memoir that Elizabeth had written towards the end of her life. Granville has the honour of transcribing these documents and using them as a basis for this novel where she hopes to elucidate more about Elizabeth’s character and motivations.
The book is split into five parts, each full of short chapters.
Born in 1766, Part 1 covers her childhood in Devon. One night she has an assignation behind a hedge with John Macarthur a man for whom she had little regard but in whom, Granville writes, she also saw something of herself in his ambition. The resulting pregnancy finds her married off to John and following him to Gibraltar, his next military posting.
In Part 2, John is unhappy as a minor officer in Gibraltar. Where is the prospect of advancement? Saddled with crippling debts John takes an offer to go to NSW and its new settlement of Sydney. They endure a terrible boat trip to get there.
In Part 3, they arrive at Sydney which, of course, did not meet the claims in the sales brochure. Grenville introduces us to other leaders in the settlement. Gov Arthur Philip, Captain Trench, Captain Nepean, Captain Collins and engineer Mr Dawes. John networks with and flatters these men. His ultimate aim is to be granted land in Parramatta. Elizabeth proves she is equally good at managing politics.
In Part 4, Trench arranges for her to have lessons in astronomy and botany with Mr Dawes. They become lovers in a hideout, the titular Room Made of Leaves. Mr Dawes introduces her to the native inhabitants. He has learnt their language. Elizabeth sees propaganda she has been feed, about natives eating their babies, is a falsehood.
In Part 5, the relationship with Mr Dawes is long over. John has been granted land in Parramatta. They build a house named Elizabeth Farm and Elizabeth encourages John to farm sheep for wool, not meat. He has violent conflicts with the natives and their leader Pemulwuy. Later these are described as The Battle of Parramatta in one-sided reports by Captain Collins sent back to England. John returns to England two more times. He is away for many years facing the courts for acts of violence committed against fellow colonialists. He returns and breaks down with psychotic dementia, dying in 1834. Elizabeth lived another 16 years, dying in 1850.
In the afterword, Grenville gives us a twist. There never was a memoir. We have been hearing Elizabeth’s voice through Granville’s imagination. Throughout the novel, Grenville has been teasing us with what is true and what isn’t.
As the discussion progressed, amongst 12 OBG-Zoomers, it became clear that we fell into three camps.
Camp 1 – Those who had believed they were reading a memoir, realising their error at the end, or at least within the first fifty pages. They enjoyed a page-turning read with Granville’s trademark fluid style and laughed at their red faces on discovering her hoax.
Camp 2 – Those who saw through the hoax but enjoyed the read and a play on reality versus fiction. Understanding that many of the events had no basis in historical fact did not bother them. History is always “his-story” as opposed to “her-story” so it was refreshing to read how Liz might have seen events. Room Made of Leaves was clearly in the genre of historical fiction. In the interplay between fiction and fact from the banal gossip of the early settlers, Elizabeth’s affair with Mr Dawes to Captain Collins formal report of The Battle of Parramatta was Granville reminding us how fake news has dominated our airwaves in recent years?
Camp 3 – Those who patently disliked her novel being so removed from historical records. One member held up historian Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth MacArthur: A Life at the Edge of the World an account based entirely on the scant available records. She commented it was a valuable companion read. Another felt frustrated Granville spent more time on Elizabeth’s childhood In Devon and then rushed through the years that cemented John Macarthur’s reputation as “Father of the Australian Wool Industry”. An achievement that saw the Australian economy successfully ride off the sheep’s back for generations. Several felt Elizabeth’s voice was far too modern both in language and conceptual thought. Geraldine Brook’s historical novel Year of Wonders was referenced where she used 17th century language to great effect. Elizabeth’s acknowledgement in the final chapters of the novel that she was stealing the Aboriginal land (though she conceded she was going to give it back) was not an idea that ever struck the early settlers.
All agreed that her descriptions of early Sydney were very evocative. It’s new inhabitants survived on edge of starvation, instructed to build a settlement by their government located on the other side of the world.
One member noted that the short chapters seemed to be a common style in many recently published books. Another opined that maybe this reflected the shorted attention span of the modern world where YouTube had replaced TV documentaries only to be superseded by Tik Toc. Well, it’s good for bedtime reading quipped another member.
Regardless of which camp you are in, a post-lockdown visit to Elizabeth Farm should be on the agenda to feed the Elizabeth of your imagination.
Please see the link below of Kate Grenville in conversation. Well worth a listen…. we didn’t have time to get onto Grenville’s take on the assignation behind the hedge.
A day trip to Elizabeth Farm?