Inside Story

The Macarthurs from inside out

Alan Atkinson wants to rescue John and Elizabeth Macarthur from the judgements of history

Anne-Marie Condé Books 8 November 2022 1987 words

“Sincerely happy”: Joseph Lycett’s depiction of the Macarthur residence near Parramatta in the 1820s. Art Gallery of South Australia

Stand now, in our bright day, in that little corner room, John’s dressing room set up as a bedroom, and feel the pain of that time and place… The grammar of sound and silence, as I call it, that had filled the house for so long, the happy productivity, the measured curiosity… were pushed aside by savage delusions and bruised affection…

The corner room is John Macarthur’s bedroom at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, and John is seriously unwell. His wife Elizabeth believes he “labours under a partial derangement of mind.” She and the family have feared for some time, she writes to their eldest son Edward in England, that John’s “mighty mind would break down, and give way.”

It does. In April the family decides John must be forcibly moved to their other property, at Camden, where they hope the change will improve his state of mind. And so, struggling and shouting, he is driven away to be cared for by his sons James and William.

In our bright day, this image of John Macarthur in humiliating vulnerability might surprise many readers of Alan Atkinson’s new biography of the couple, Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm. Our prevailing impression of that colonial figure, Atkinson notes, is of a “strange genius,” a “ruthless bully” and “a colonial monster,” a man novelist Kate Grenville recently characterised as having no redeeming features other than his ambition and his skill with “bullying, flattery and fibs.”

In those years, the early 1830s, John had “all the symptoms of bipolar affective disorder,” says Atkinson. It would have made no difference if Elizabeth had accompanied him to Camden — the feelings of others had become a “blank” to him — so she stayed at Elizabeth Farm in the house they had built for themselves in 1793. There, she shut herself off with her misery, knowing that John never asked after her. He died at Camden in April 1834. He and Elizabeth, married for forty-five years, had both turned sixty-seven that year.

John Macarthur is remembered today as an instigator of the “rum rebellion” of 1808 and, as the “father of the Australian fleece,” producer of the sheep on the backs of which Australia’s prosperity is said to have ridden. Elizabeth was his loyal helpmeet and the able manager of the family interests during John’s two long absences from New South Wales, from 1801 to 1805 and 1809 to 1817.

Atkinson begins his biography by tackling accepted views of Elizabeth and John head-on, beginning with the earliest publications about the couple and noting especially Malcolm Ellis’s 1955 biography of John, which he admires for the grasp Ellis had of the characters of his two protagonists. Historians of the 1960s were more sceptical of the Macarthurs’ achievements, and John emerges from Margaret Steven’s 1967 entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as an “emotional cripple” (Atkinson’s term), unable to sustain personal relationships. This, he contends, is patently untrue.

Atkinson wants to take us back to the beginning, to start the enquiry afresh, to tackle the surviving evidence with an open mind, “searching for a deeper and more complex humanity.” The internet is his friend here, not just for the new evidence that allows him to efficiently piece together kinship and social networks around the family, but because it enables a better understanding of how people in the past spoke and thought.

Atkinson often mentions the books Elizabeth and John read — Coriolanus was John’s favourite Shakespeare play — and has been able to match phrases in published books, recently digitised, with their letters. Now we can imagine lives from within (his emphasis): what it was like to live in a faraway time “as a thinking, feeling being.” A theme to which he returns repeatedly is that Elizabeth and John were natives of the late-eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, beneficiaries in particular of the “new skill” of introspection, looking inward and thinking about thinking about oneself.

Elizabeth’s and John’s thoughts were formed by writing. They and their children were all prolific letter writers and, when separated, as they so often were (their son John left for England aged seven and Elizabeth never saw him again), wrote to one another constantly. The family papers were transferred to the Public (now State) Library of New South Wales in 1940 and 1957. In this “forest of voices” as he calls it, Atkinson has been travelling for fifty years.

Atkinson unfolds his view of John’s character slowly, guarded in his judgements and avoiding unnecessary drama. (His treatment of Governor William Bligh’s downfall in 1808 is so laconic I found myself flipping back and forth in those chapters, wondering if this really was the most sensational event in Australian colonial history.)

Little is known about John Macarthur’s mother Catherine, and Atkinson is careful to note where he is speculating. In assessing the mark she left on his character, Atkinson suggests that the success of John’s partnership with his powerfully self-reliant wife Elizabeth would have been impossible without a mother just as strong.

Political economy was John’s great interest all his life. This new “science,” Atkinson explains, explored the interweaving of material welfare and human welfare, and how “men of capital” might secure the happiness of mankind. He learned it during a boyhood at Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) near Plymouth on the Devon–Cornwall border, where his father was a linen draper. The shifting, opportunistic economy of the shipbuilding town, a “hurried and hybrid” place, taught him much about money: that its value was contingent on how it was moved around via human connections, often through conversation, the shake of a hand or “the measured dance of a pen nib.”

One of John’s early experiments was taking up the job of the colony’s inspector of public works in 1793. Freehold grants of land were made to groups of men in the NSW Corps, not just officers like him but also soldiers, to work to feed themselves under their own arrangements of trust, effort and risk. The scheme failed, Macarthur resigned in 1796, and Governor Hunter wrote that he was “restless, arrogant and overbearing.”

John had more success on his own property, but there he worked in harmony with his wife. Elizabeth too was a keen observer of interconnecting patterns and systems. Ever curious, she began studying algebra, astronomy and, especially, botany. Atkinson ventures that it might have been Elizabeth who first thought of keeping — and breeding — sheep for their wool as well as their meat. She was interested by the way hair could change to wool from one generation to the next.

It might have been Elizabeth who prepared eight samples of fleece to send to London in 1801 for expert assessment, annotated to show how the fleeces changed across the generations. The finest of these samples were judged by English experts to be among the best they had seen. But it was John who, in London, took advantage of scarcity of homegrown wool to gain support for expanded production in New South Wales. The result transformed their lives.

Atkinson tackles questions he believes his predecessor Malcolm Ellis shied away from. John was a born “planner and organiser,” according to Ellis, and Elizabeth could translate John’s views and intentions from the “visionary to the practicable.” But what exactly did that mean? With Atkinson’s analysis of the various intellectual influences on the Macarthurs — he discusses prominent writers and thinkers, and how their ideas spread, in considerable detail — his answer is that there developed at Elizabeth Farm a “shifting pattern of need, obligations, questions and answers, mutual adjustment and shared understanding.”

John, Atkinson concedes, was bold, self-dramatising, supremely self-confident, clever, dogmatic and conceited. Did this make him a “monster”? No. Always reaching for a bigger stage on which to develop his ideas and plans, though, he had less capacity for happiness than Elizabeth.

After only nine months in New South Wales Elizabeth wrote that since she had “powers of reason and reflection” she had never been more “sincerely happy” than at that time. The concept of happiness was a little different then, Atkinson shows, and for Elizabeth it meant a satisfaction that she was able to make the most of what God had given her. Her curiosity and sense of adventure were amply gratified. She loved walking in the Australian “forest” and was happiest with her children, her work and her garden at Elizabeth Farm, which she greatly preferred to Sydney.

Elizabeth and John is preceded by two pages of endorsements by eleven leading Australian historians. The book is a stunning achievement… a magisterial work… enthralling and powerful… amazing… breathtaking…

Not that I’m arguing, but I am struck by the fancy that these historians are forming a protective cordon around Atkinson’s book against another incursion by novelist Kate Grenville. Grenville received huge media attention in 2020 with the fictional notion that “Elizabeth Macarthur” had left a sealed box at Elizabeth Farm containing her long-hidden memoirs, which had miraculously ended up in the hands of “Kate Grenville,” who transcribed and edited them under the title A Room Made of Leaves.

Until then, we are told, Elizabeth has been an “enigma,” known only for a few unrevealing letters, a half-finished shipboard journal and a lot of “dull correspondence” with her adult children. The blurb on the back cover calls it a shockingly frank memoir of Elizabeth’s marriage to a “ruthless bully.”

I tried to read A Room Made of Leaves shortly after it came out but gave up when I found the character of Elizabeth simply didn’t grip my imagination. I didn’t care what happened to her and that, in a novel, is fatal. Atkinson dismisses the novel with the curt remark that it is “cut loose from evidential moorings.” Grenville later published an edited selection of Elizabeth’s real letters, so she clearly believes there is value in them.

And yet — did Elizabeth feel constrained from expressing her feelings in her letters, given that they were probably shared around among family and friends? Atkinson doesn’t say. If the Macarthurs were skilled at introspection, what then was their idea of privacy? Did Elizabeth expect to have an outlet for her innermost thoughts?

In some respects Grenville’s and Atkinson’s books are not so different. Both authors endeavour to give us access to the minds of their characters. Atkinson uses some of the skill of a novelist in shaping his narrative into forty-six short, carefully paced chapters, which helps to make a 500-page book (including notes and bibliography) accessible for a general reader. The beautiful cover design features Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s depiction of a flowering plant, an Amaryllis Josephine. The Macarthurs grew one at Elizabeth Farm. A colleague passing my desk picked up the book thinking it was a novel.

As with a novel, I found myself wondering what the characters were doing while I was away from the book. In odd moments, making a sandwich, or in the car waiting for the lights to change, I thought about Elizabeth and her eight fleece samples. I pictured the diamond ring John bought her in Paris, and longed to listen in to her talk with her daughter Elizabeth as they walked around their garden together.

I greatly enjoyed reading about this younger Elizabeth Macarthur, who was born in 1792. Although her health was poor as a child (she may have had polio), she gradually took on much of the household management at Elizabeth Farm, especially the garden, where she showed real talent as a botanist and horticulturalist. Deeply loved by both her parents — her father missed her terribly during his second sojourn abroad — young Elizabeth had suitors but never married. She died suddenly in 1842, aged fifty.

“She was a clever woman, well worth knowing better,” Atkinson observes. I would rather hear more about her from Atkinson than from anyone else. •

Elizabeth and John: The Macarthurs of Elizabeth Farm
By Alan Atkinson | NewSouth | $39.00 | 500 pages