Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A Life at the Edge of the World (Book Review)

Elizabeth Macarthur: a Life at the Edge of the World
Michelle Scott Tucker
Text Publishing
 (the cover shows the young Elizabeth and in the background Elizabeth Farm around 1826)

Those who are interested in early colonial Australian history will be familiar with the name of John Macarthur, who is credited with establishing the wool industry with stock descended from Spanish merino sheep. He is equally known for being a leader in the infamous Rum Rebellion in which he deposed Captain William Bligh (of “Bounty” fame) as the Governor. Macarthur also passed through the pockets of millions of Australia when the first $2 bill came out with his image imprinted on it.

Of his wife, Elizabeth, less is known, although she has given her name to the NSW Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute and a high school, and Elizabeth Farm is one of Australia’s oldest buildings open to the public.

For years at a time, John Macarthur was absent from the family’s properties around Parramatta and left Elizabeth to hold the reins. This book tells her side of the story.

Married in 1788 (the year the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales) 22 year-old new bride Elizabeth and her arrogant, but almost penniless, army officer husband John followed three years later and began to build their own empire “at the edge of the world”. 

Although she often longed to see her beloved Devon countryside again, Elizabeth would never return to England and devoted the rest of her life dealing with the many hazards and challenges of a tough and strange environment. Family issues had to be negotiated alongside pragmatic business ones. In her husband's absence, she had to manage both the household and business matters, attend to the employment of convicts. She personally oversaw the processes of wool production, including washing, baling and transport, as well as a breeding program to produce the best flocks.

With her cautious diplomacy, Elizabeth negotiated the inevitable feuds and jealousies common to all small insular societies. She endured booms and busts and tragic personal losses.  Yet through it all she continued to love a husband who was notorious for his recalcitrance and irascibility, and willingly deputised for him at a time when women of her genteel background were expected to be little more than decorations.

Elizabeth bore nine children, and progressively lost several of them before she herself died aged 83.  One of her sons was sent to England at the age of seven and died thirty years later without ever seeing his mother again. A daughter suffered from what might have been polio and needed constant care for many years. There would be no quiet retirement for Elizabeth, however, as John Macarthur increasingly suffered from insanity, finally being institutionalised. Through it all, Elizabeth persevered in her steady and competent way.

This biography is a fine and most fitting tribute to one remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Macarthur, c. 1845

Elizabeth Farm as it is today, sydney.com

More here:

(Several photographs of Elizabeth Farm through the years)

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