John Macarthur was a British lieutenant who sailed on the second fleet to Botany Bay in 1790 with his wife and child. By all accounts he is a thoroughly nasty man, quarrelsome and jealous. As he manipulates his way to grants of land and stock his influence and holdings increase dramatically. This much is recorded history. But he is not the hero of this story.
In A Room Made of Leaves Macarthur’s supposedly loyal and supportive wife steps up and offers a new version of their lives. The known history of Elizabeth Macarthur is of a cultured and intelligent woman who hosts early society in a scene of domestic bliss —a orderly foil to her husband’s belligerence. She’s his little help-meet as he grows his sheep empire. Her letters home are full of the delights of society without mention of the hell hole of the colonial penal colony. You can imagine historian Kate Grenville’s BS monitor flashing as she reads straight between the lines.
Grenville supposedly discovers a stash of documents in an attic, letters and diaries written by this clever woman that reveal what really happened in those early, hostile days of the Australian colony. She transcribes them for us and they read with the beautiful clarity that is pure Grenville.
My disbelief kicked in pretty early—there’s a modern voice in the telling of intimate things. It’s not that colonial woman didn’t think, or experience such things, but they would never have put them to paper. I doubt they would have had the words to articulate them. But I adored this story, Elizabeth is a magnificent heroine —a woman with few options who finds the strength to create a world for herself that makes life bearable, a place where she can not only survive her noxious husband, but find pleasure.
The titular Room Made of Leaves is a physical place where Elizabeth goes (without her husband, obviously) to find joy but also is a metaphor for a space created in her head where only beauty and kindness can enter. A woman controlled by a sociopath is, unfortunately, a common enough story but set in this world of convicts and enforced prostitution, brutal land grabs, racism and sexism, for a woman to control any part of her life appears a remarkable achievement. As 21st Century readers, we can only weep for the plight of our historic sisters.
If you enjoyed Grenville’s The Secret River (it’s one of my favourite books of all time), and enjoy well paced and informative historical fiction, race to the bookshop for this one.