Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 28, 2017

Mrs M (2017), by Luke Slattery

Luke Slattery has lofty ambitions for this novel – his first, though he’s written other books.   In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, he writes that he wants Australians to be proud of their convict beginnings rather than embarrassed, and he wants to subvert the notion of colonial Australia as a ‘gulag’, a perception, he says, that arose from the popularity of Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore (1986). 

Slattery says that Hughes’ vision of early colonial Australia is flawed:

It is certainly at odds with the reality of the earliest years, when convicts were told after the first muster at Sydney Cove that they could find their own lodgings and fare for themselves as long as they turned up for work at the appointed hour.  Afterwards they were permitted to work for piece rates, or goods in kind.  Only the worst – and particularly repeat offenders – manned the iron gangs.  The sites of secondary punishment, such as Port Arthur and Moreton Island, might have been a truer reflection of the book’s title.  But Sydney Cove, for the vast majority of convicts who landed there – 160,000 in all – offered a path out of poverty, pollution, oppression and the bleakness of a European winter.  It wasn’t so much a benighted as a blessed shore.  (p.311)

But, he says,

Australians have largely failed to appreciate the moral force of their society’s creation, so blinkered are they by the shame of it, by the convict stain.[…] France knew Liberty as a slogan.  Early Australia experienced it as a lived and felt reality, as a release, en masse, into freedom from penal servitude.  (p.306)

Slattery’s intention in writing this book is to draw attention to the idealism of the Macquarie years and the reaction these ideals of criminal redemption and sub-proletarian betterment provoked from a quite vicious Tory Government.   To achieve this, he has chosen not to write non-fiction, but created instead an imagined portrait of Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and her affectionate partnership with the architect who designs many of the government buildings in early Sydney and Parramatta.  Mrs M is written entirely from Elizabeth’s partisan point-of-view, showing the Macquaries as a benign partnership based on shared ideals of rehabilitation and social justice as a deterrent to crime.

The historical record tells us that Macquarie (1762-1824) was the fifth Governor of New South Wales from 1810 1821 and was acknowledged as a social reformer who transformed the penal colony into a free settlement.  Elizabeth took an interest in the welfare of women and of indigenous people, and was also influential in the planning and architecture of public buildings, while Francis Greenway (who is never named as such in the novel) was the first government architect.  Macquarie’s reputation, however, was damaged by the Bigge Report, which arose from disquiet about the impact of Macquarie’s policies on deterrence of crime in England, and he returned to England in disgrace.  From this scaffold, Slattery has made many departures from the historical record, and although Mrs M is a most enjoyable novel, I think that these departures compromise his purpose in writing the book.  Because unless the reader spends time researching for the ‘facts’, it’s difficult to know how much of what he wants us to believe.

Over the course of a single night on the island of Mull in the Hebrides, Elizabeth remembers her time in the colony as she tries to write a memorial that will redeem her husband’s damaged reputation.  Her recount includes her solitary girlhood, her desire for adventure, and her acceptance of marriage to an older man still in love with his long-dead wife.  It covers the voyage, her arrival, the very earliest days, and the transformation of the settlement into a thriving colony along with the establishment of impressive buildings.  Most importantly she tells us about her husband’s ambition to use the skills and talents of the convicts to transition the penal colony into a free society where people are absolved from their crimes and able to make a fresh start.   More problematic in terms of the historical record is the tale of Elizabeth’s attachment to the Architect, along with her memories of Macquarie’s strategies to keep them apart while at the same time managing to retain the Architect’s vision for the settlement.  The climax is reached when the English judge Bigge attends a dinner party at which the French mariner Freycinet and his wife are present and Elizabeth becomes aware of the menace Bigge poses to those she is fond of.  I have no idea whether this dinner party actually happened or not, but Slattery ‘fesses up to having invented a more romantic ending for the novel than the reality.

This was an interesting book to read after my weekend at the Word for Word Non Fiction Festival in Geelong, where I heard a lot about creative non-fiction.  Mrs M raises questions which book groups will probably enjoy discussing.  There is a case for inventing gaps in the historical record, especially when it comes to the depiction of marginalised groups whose presence in the documents tends to be ephemeral.  There is a case for resurrecting the dead in fiction that explores genocide so that their presence is reasserted.  But I am a little uneasy about distorting the moral reputation of historical figures.  The ABC is currently screening a TV program about the young Queen Victoria which stretches credulity in some of its scenes, and it’s annoying not to know whether these derive from artistic licence or from history.

Kate Evans interviewed Luke Slattery for Books and Arts on Radio National.

The cover art and the endpapers, BTW, are gorgeous.  The design is by Hazel Lam from the Harper Collins Design Studio.

Author: Luke Slattery
Title: Mrs M
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2017
ISBN: 9780732271817
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Mrs. M



  1. “Gulag” definition: a system of labour camps maintained in the Soviet Union from 1930 to 1955 in which many people died. Sounds a lot like Port Jackson in 1788 to me, and in 1810 too. Macquarrie may have been an improvement on Bligh, but if the settlement was maturing it was due to the arrival of free settlers and of convicts reaching the end of their sentence and staying on.


    • Well, ‘gulag’ is an interesting name for it all the same. I have to confess that most of what I know about the era comes from The Fatal Shore and For the Term of His Natural Life, and I need a proper historian to set me straight with some stats about death rates and recidivism and so on before I have an opinion one way or the other. But it seems to me that Slattery has missed one crucial point even as he gives an example of a wife deliberately committing a crime so that she can join her husband and enjoy the opportunities in the colony. I know from personal experience that no matter what the incentives might be, leaving your family and your culture is a momentous decision, and the loss of freedom, no matter how theoretically benign, is a personal tragedy.


  2. […] place for the restoration of the family’s fortunes.  As Luke Slattery showed in his novel Mrs M, Australia’s egalitarian ethos in the colony enabled social mobility even during the convict […]


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