History is full of women who, among their other unheralded achievements, don’t get nearly enough credit for not murdering their husbands.
Such is Elizabeth Macarthur, the first “gentlewoman” in the newly-formed colony of New South Wales. She grew up in a middle class English family, married a man who was only just barely a gentleman, gave birth to a son five months later, and was loyal to him as he spent the following decades trying to make his fortune and, along the way, alienating just about everyone he met.
Not that John Macarthur was a terrible person! In Michelle Scott Tucker’s account, he initially comes across as a lesser Austen villain, but his real sins are perfectly unremarkable. He’s proud, ambitious, has a thin skin when it comes to slights on his honour, and accordingly gets into duels which, had he been killed, would have left his wife and young children destitute and with little to no support network.
“Hey,” you say, having a peripheral awareness of American history via musical theatre, “that makes John Macarthur sound like Australia’s Alexander Hamilton.”
Oh dear. If only.
My real beef with this book is not with the subject, or the author, or anything that’s actually reasonable to complain about. It’s with the nature of Australian history, especially in the early days of colonisation. It’s all so small and petty and —
Put it this way: a few decades after the American War of Independence, certain Australians also sought to rise up against tyranny, which in this case took the form of Governor Bligh giving handouts of land to the wrong type of people.
(“The wrong type of people” included a Scottish farmer named John Turnbull, who was so grateful for Bligh’s support that he named his son after the governor. This became a family tradition, and that’s how the current prime minister came to be named Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. This is Peak Lolstralia, and would no doubt be a gift to satirists if the PM ever did anything decisive enough to evoke Bligh.)
Setting aside my cultural cringe around early white Australian history, Scott Tucker has done a wonderful job of finding Elizabeth Macarthur. Which is harder than it sounds — although she was a prolific correspondent, she tended towards the most optimistic interpretation of events, if not actual self-censorship.
This means there’s a lot of “she must have felt…” and “surely she thought…”, which I always find frustrating in a biography, even when the conclusions drawn are perfectly reasonable. (Which, here, they are.)
Nevertheless, Macarthur’s life is interesting, even if you’re not into agricultural or ovine history. (Ovine history is a thing, right?) Macarthur was in the right time and place to unconsciously participate in the devolving relations between Aboriginal Australians and the white invaders, from mutual curiosity to the frontier wars. Scott Tucker doesn’t shy away from exploring that, or the fact that part of Elizabeth’s social isolation came from her unwillingness to associate with former convicts.
Though her husband has traditionally been credited with the introduction of wool exports to Australia’s economy, Scott Tucker points out that it was Elizabeth who did a lot of the work, John Macarthur himself having spent extended periods in England
having a sulk making connections and giving Elizabeth useless advice which she politely ignored. Because empires may rise and fall, but mansplaining is eternal.