August 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘A Room Made of Leaves’ by Kate Grenville
The author of ‘The Secret River’ returns with a canny twist to fictionalise the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of the Australian pioneering settler

Mrs John Molloy, Mrs Andrew McCrae and Mrs John Macarthur. I’ll translate: Georgiana Molloy (1805–43), brilliant botanist; Georgiana McCrae (1804–90), brilliant portraitist; Elizabeth Macarthur (1766–1850), brilliant businesswoman. Reading about women identified first through their husband’s name now is as infuriating as the word “husband”, but until recently that is what most women wanted. A husband was the achievement of their life, giving them the dignity of being that most desired thing, a “wife”. It gave a woman agency. Ask Austen. Ask Thackeray.

Kate Grenville, novelist, researcher and biographer earned the wrath of some historians with her 2005 novel The Secret River. Historians, they snapped, work with facts and it is rude, possibly dangerous, for novelists to mess with them. They have a point. The past always delivers a dusty answer but too much imagination can ruin reality. Still, the job of the novelist re-imagining history is to make us see in a new way, and to take delight in this. In Wolf Hall, Mantel’s thrilling psychological insight drags the dim past into the brightest light. 

Elizabeth Macarthur landed in Sydney Cove in 1790, the wife of the driven and perfectly horrible Lieutenant Macarthur, soon Captain, soon a “great man” in the colony. Kate Grenville has deep imaginative sympathy with Elizabeth. And who couldn’t feel for her, alone on the other side of the world, yoked to this disputatious man. Yet John Macarthur blossoms in history as the founder of the merino industry, a canny businessman and merchant. His face has been on our currency with all the other famous (disputatious) men. His wife, the educated and sensible daughter of Devon farmers who managed the massive properties when Macarthur was back in England for long years, has folded silently back into the shadows.

But Grenville is as canny as she is imaginative. Look, she says in her fictional preface. I, Kate Grenville, found a metal box in the rafters of Elizabeth Farm containing Elizabeth’s real diary, and the woman portrayed is flesh and blood as opposed to the historical woman, the blurred wife of the more famous man. Buried within the invented words of Elizabeth Macarthur is the caution: Do not believe too quickly. This line is also the book’s epigraph. Belief has multiple sides.

The room “made of leaves” is the bower where Elizabeth goes with her surprising lover. This gorgeous place is historically possible but the lover is not, and that is the point. Believe what you can. Grenville colours your imagination, designs a setting and gives you a push. Australian history is relentlessly inglorious but Grenville allows you to rearrange it through individuals who were not. Her Elizabeth is a woman studiously displaying herself as “wife” but privately trying to sort through the puzzle of her complex self as a fascinating cavalcade swirls about her. All of these people were here, they had hearts and minds, desires just as we do. But do not believe too quickly! Such an interesting prism of a book, it opens out rather than concludes. Grenville knows exactly what she can do and does it.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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