If you loved Kate Grenville’s colonial trilogy that started with the best-selling The Secret River, you’re pretty much guaranteed to want to hide away with her new novel. Blending fact and fiction, A Room Made of Leaves (The Text Publishing Company, 2020) is set in the same early days of Sydney, but this time readers walk in the imaginary shoes of Elizabeth Macarthur. She was married to John Macarthur, the Australian wool pioneer who is famous as the founder of the Australian wool industry (for those who can remember it, the green $2 bill featured his portrait and a merino sheep). But he was also renowned for being ambitious, cruel, volatile and vindictive. So much so that he was a leader of the so-called Rum Rebellion that overthrew Governor William Bligh, who tried to clean up the rum trade that had been so profitable for Macarthur.
But this novel isn’t so much about John as Elizabeth. “It’s a book that breaks all the rules. It’s a pretend memoir about a real person,” says Grenville. During her research, she read Elizabeth’s letters to friends and family in England. Grenville quotes from these bland affairs, self-censored to guard against accidental discovery by John. “Oh, how I loved to find a two-faced form of words. That private pleasure never staled,” Elizabeth says in her pretend memoir. She thought one way and acted another. She was clever (but couldn’t show it), resourceful (she built the successful wool business, but allowed her husband to claim the credit), passionate (but behaved with restraint) and romantic (but very unhappily married). “Her [Elizabeth’s] memoir is a way of honouring all those women of the past who were silenced by the world they lived in,” Grenville says.
Some of the territory, such as the harsh conditions for early arrivals, isn’t new. But Grenville’s beautiful, descriptive writing makes it feel fresh. Elizabeth’s vivid internal dialogue and recounting of life in the early colony are entertaining and fascinating.
John Macarthur built a farm in Parramatta and named it Elizabeth Farm in her honour. It’s still there today and is managed by Sydney Living Museums. Friends and I enjoyed A Room Made of Leaves so much that we decided to visit the farm to see if it offered any more clues about Elizabeth. While booking our visit, a guide offered to take us on a tour of the farm. She said she was happy to talk about the book, warning that she had strong views. Turned out she thought Grenville had done John Macarthur a huge injustice, twisting a happy marriage to a loving husband into something else altogether. None of us will ever know the truth, but I loved the journey into the past.