Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2018

Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, by Michelle Scott Tucker #BookReview

I first heard of Elizabeth Macarthur when I was ten years old in Grade Five.  I’d been in Australia for less than a year, but I was in my third Australian school by then, with the first teacher whose name I can remember and the only one I ever loved.  Her name was Miss Baird.  She was young and pretty and enthusiastic and kind, and when she asked us to do a project on wool I put my heart and soul into it, to please her.  I sent away to the Wool Board for their ‘project kit’, learned ‘all about’ John and Elizabeth Macarthur, and proudly told their story on my project poster, complete with samples of fine merino wool .  Miss Baird was so impressed with my efforts she showed it at some conference she went to – and even asked if she could keep it at the end of the year. I wonder what became of it!

At some time in Form One or Two when we did Australian history, John Macarthur stole the show.  We learned that he was the Father of the Wool Industry, and though we got a sanitised history of his other more colourful activities such as deposing Governor Bligh, we heard nothing about his wife Elizabeth.  My Oxford Dictionary of Australian History mentions her ‘greatly assisting’ her husband in the development of the Australian fine wool industry but says no more, and Thomas Keneally in Australians, Origins to Eureka mentions her quite a few times but mainly as a sensible woman who chronicled events starring her husband.  Well, with the publication of Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World, no one will be able to get away with that any more.  As Clare Wright says in the blurb:

Finally, Elizabeth Macarthur steps out from the long shadow of her infamous, entrepreneurial husband.  In Michelle Scott Tucker’s devoted hands, Elizabeth emerges as a canny businesswoman, charming diplomat, loving mother and indefatigable survivor.  A fascinating, faithful portrait of a remarkable women and the young, volatile colony she helped to build.

But Tucker does more than that, IMO, because in writing this lively, entertaining and profoundly empathetic biography, she has also brought other colonial women out of the shadows and told their story too.

As her daughter’s health improved, Elizabeth turned her energies and focus to the farms.  That is not to say, with John away, she hadn’t already been working.  Apart from a handful of aristocrats, Elizabeth and the other women of her era never stopped working.  They worked every day of their lives and worked extraordinarily hard.  The so-called ‘farmer and his wife’ were, in reality, both farmers and then, as now, the wife’s labour inside and outside the home was crucial to the running of the farm and the economic wellbeing of the family.  Elizabeth Macarthur was no exception.  She was, at that time, again, merely one of a number of women who had sole responsibility for their families’ farms.  (p.208)

Tucker quotes Governor Macquarie in 1810 as he toured the outlying districts of Sydney and passed judgement on the state of the farms he visited. Some of them, already overgrazed and poorly maintained, did not meet his high standards.  But others clearly met with his approval, including some that were managed by women – including a Mrs Bell and Mrs Laycock and her daughters:

That women are farming does not seem in any way remarkable to Macquarie; he merely notes the names and makes some comments in the say way he does for the men’s farms he visits. (p.209)

The fact is that Elizabeth Macarthur managed her farm for long periods of time in her husband’s absence overseas, and in fact it was she not John who despatched the first shipment of fine wool to Britain in 1812.  He was away in England for eight years dealing with the fallout of deposing Bligh, while under her discerning eye, the Macarthurs’ pioneering breeding regime, for fleece rather than meat, was finally paying dividends.  She got a good price for that first shipment but the financial gains were soon lost by John whose imprudence meant he was in debt and relying on Elizabeth to keep him in funds.  It was Elizabeth who kept the first merino stud book, and – tougher than her foolish husband – she was the only married woman of the period in the records to sue in her own name for the non-payment of debts.

Tucker’s awareness of gender issues is refreshing:

Many convicts were transported to New South wales for crimes committed to assuage their poverty, but certainly not all.  Each convict, each living breathing thinking person that staggered onto the shore at Sydney Cove after months at sea, had a separate story of their own.  However, the typical female convict was unmarried, in her twenties and could probably read but not write, except perhaps for her own name.  She was most likely English, from the slums of London or another port city, and she had most likely been convicted of robbery and transported for seven years.  Her chances of ever returning home were negligible.  A man could work in return for passage home but a woman had to save enough to pay for her own berth, or find a protector who would let her share his.  The convict women, as a group, were routinely described as prostitutes – or damned whores.  This doesn’t mean they were all sex workers, in the modern sense, although many of them were. In the language of the day, it meant that they were unmarried women who had had sex.  It made no difference if they had been raped, or sold, or obliged to cohabit with one man to escape the predations of all the others.  On the ship out they were subject to the molestation of the sailors, soldiers and officers.  When the women’s ships arrived the men of the colony (0fficers and administrators first, then the marines of soldiers, then the male convicts in positions of relative privilege, then the rest) were each allowed to select one newly arrived woman ‘at his pleasure, not only as servants but as avowed objects of intercourse…rendering the whole colony little better than an extensive brothel.’  With far more men in the colony than women, even walking in daylight was a hazardous venture.  A kind protector, a de facto husband, was often the least worst option. (p.102)

(Yeah, this is what we celebrate on Australia Day!)

Tucker is also sensitive to the frequent deaths of children in a way that I haven’t encountered before.  Elizabeth Macarthur lost a new born babe while on board ship, and Tucker reads between the lines of a single sentence written about it some months later, as she does when she encounters another brief allusion to the subsequent death of Elizabeth’s baby James, ‘a sweet boy of eleven months old’. Far from glossing over this, as many do when noting the frequent deaths of children in that era, Tucker calls it a searing bereavement and acknowledges that Elizabeth in writing to friends and family in England was self-censoring her grief and maintaining a stoic silence on many matters so as to prevent worry amongst those at home.  Tucker is mindful when she critiques Elizabeth’s letters that Elizabeth was writing for a specific audience, and so as well as concealing grief, Elizabeth is at pains to redress the disapproval about her marriage.  She is staunchly loyal to John, she brags about his achievements, and she always assigns decision-making to him.  It’s not from Elizabeth’s letters that historians know about his his intemperate quarrels and ridiculous duels, his constant carping at each successive governor and his imprudent business decisions!

Another aspect of this biography that is IMO exemplary is the inclusion of the Indigenous people and the Macarthurs’ attitudes towards them.  It is acknowledged that the Macarthurs were indifferent to the fact that the land was appropriated through dispossession, and incidents involving Indigenous people are handled respectfully and with empathy.  Tucker shows that Elizabeth Macarthur had all the principles, skills, opinions and prejudices of her upbringing in Bridgewater in Devon, and that over time her original conciliatory attitudes towards Indigenous people hardened:

Now that there were substantial sums of money to be gained or lost, now that white people known to her personally had been killed, Elizabeth could only see the original inhabitants as a threat. She shared the colonists’ general lack of insight about Aboriginal culture, affording it no credence or legitimacy.  ‘Attempts have been made to civilise the natives of this country,’ she wrote to her goddaughter in Bridgerule, ‘but they are complete savages, and are as lawless and troublesome as when the Colony was first established.  Our out settlements are constantly subject to their depredations.’ That the same could equally be said by Aboriginal people, about the colonists, completely escaped her.  Elizabeth, like most of the other white farmers, was far more concerned for her livestock than for the Aboriginal people of the area… (p.235)

Another important aspect of this biography that I really like is that gaps in the documentary record are clearly signalled (Italics mine):

While Elizabeth no doubt talked ten to the dozen… (p.153)

Although Elizabeth was well accustomed to hosting guests and although she’d never dined with tattooed Maori chiefs before, she likely took it all in her stride. (p.160)

There is a rumour that, for example, that the first Chinese man to live in New South Wales was engaged as a garden by the Macarthurs. (p.160-1)

One of those olive trees may well be the ancient one that still grows in the garden of Elizabeth Farm. (p.153)

But the one that made me smile was when we see the biographer’s frustration over a now-lost letter which might explain the duel between Macarthur and his commanding officer William Paterson:  If only we knew what the letter said!  Indeed!

Tucker has a great turn of phrase, but these two are my favourites:

Toy-town political games leading to intense rivalries and bitterness were inevitable in a claustrophobic settlement full of alpha males and unclear chains of command.  (p.108)

Despite their previous enmity, Governor King and John Macarthur managed to bury the hatchet, if only in a shallow grave.  (p.157)

There are not many biographies or histories of Australia that are unputdownable, but this one is.

Highly recommended!

Author: Michelle Scott Tucker
Title: Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603422
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World



  1. After years of following this book from conception to publication I can’t wait to get a copy of my own. Crow Books tell me I must wait!

    • Yes, I was lucky to get an advance copy:)

    • Stay tuned Bill, I believe an advance copy will be dispatched to you this week.

  2. Looking forward to reading this

    • I hope you like it. I get quite excited when I come across good bios of people I admire.

  3. Good to read your review of it. I remember those project kits- I particularly liked the Wool Board one with the samples of wool right through the process- I remember the ‘carded’ wool. We visited Macarthur Farm years ago, and I was struck then by the long absences of John Macarthur and his ‘difficult’ temperament. Didn’t think to research it further though! Well done Michelle.

    • You too! I bet you had the same trouble sticking the wool onto the poster!

  4. Oh. Wow. This is my first review. A bit overwhelmed, really. So glad you really GOT it. And so pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks Lisa, thanks so much.

  5. Thrilled to read this Lisa as I have this on my TBR pile & have been anticipating it forever, like Bill.

    • *chuckle* Yes,. it does seem like we’ve been waiting for this book forever, ever since I first heard about it I wanted to read it.

  6. […] if anything, the world makes of the book. And that will probably take ages! Although Lisa over at AnzLitlovers likes it, so that’s a relief. I can only wish that all the reviews of Elizabeth Macarthur are […]

  7. Well done, Lisa. It will be around 3 months before I get to my copy but I’m so looking forward to reading it.

  8. Loved your story of the wool project you did as a schoolgirl – sounds like you put your heart and soul into it. I wonder what it was that sparked your interest. Wool isn’t something I would have expected many young girls to get enthused by.

    • Well, no, wool doesn’t sound all that fascinating but remember these were the days when there was no expectation that interest had to be sparked or that kids could or should be enthused about anything! The teacher gave you work to do and you did it!

      • And of course you were the model student so you did the assignment

  9. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. What a lovely review! I grew up in the Macarthur region, so the title of this book immediately drew me in… and it sounds like a wonderful read.

    • Thank you, Lauren. It was easy to write. (I’ve still got that warm glow that comes from reading a book you really like!)

  11. […] if anything, the world makes of the book. And that will probably take ages! Although Lisa over at AnzLitlovers likes it, so that’s a relief. I can only wish that all the reviews of Elizabeth Macarthur are […]

  12. Thanks for the great review and I’ll be adding this to my TBR list. Elizabeth Macarthur is often portrayed as a background character when she was so much more than that. One can only imagine her strength of character when dealing with isolation, distance and her challenging husband. It sounds like a great read too.

    • I reckon that dealing with him might have been the most difficult part!

  13. Wonderful review Lisa. We loved this book for many of the same reasons you’ve noted and couldn’t put it down! We’re delighted to be welcoming Michelle Scott Tucker to the Williamstown Literary Festival in June – locking in the program. :)

    • Hi Loraine, that’s great:) I already have the dates for the WLF in my diary and have signed up for your newsletter so I will be booking my seat as soon as bookings are open!

    • And I am delighted (and honoured) to have been invited to speak at the WLF. Thanks!

  14. I meant to write back when you posted this… It’s been great to follow Michelle’s adventures in biography and to see this in print. Fitting the first / one of the first reviews should come from you! ‘Unputdownable’ is an achievement in biography, and (from a quarter into the book), I agree with your verdict. It’s also a fascinating world, skillfully evoked.

    • Gosh, coming from someone who knows as much about biography as you do, that is major praise:) I’m sure when you write your review you will pay attention to technical aspects that she’s done well, I just wrote mine as a reader who wanted to know more about this woman – and MST delivered exactly what I wanted.
      (In contrast, I should say that I am currently reading a bio that I am finding only too easy to put down, so my praise is certainly not indiscriminate!)

      • Yes, that’s my problem with a lot of biographies too!

        • …especially when the book is due back at the library…

  15. […] Michelle Scott Tucker’s first book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World is due out, in bookshops everywhere in a day or so. She has been kind enough to grant me interview while I scramble to produce a review. Meanwhile, check out Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review here. […]

  16. […] see also: Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker (here) Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here) […]

  17. […] I’ve had any feedback. But (with the exception of two very kind online reviews so far, thanks Lisa and Bill) it’s kind of like flinging the book into a […]

  18. […] ‘There are not many biographies or histories of Australia that are unputdownable, but this one is. Highly recommended!’ LISA HILL, ANZLitlovers […]

  19. […] wait to get my hands on was Michelle Scott Tucker’s bio of Elizabeth Macarthur.  If you read my review of Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World you will know that it’s unputdownable in a way that few biographies are.  I hardly ever go […]

  20. […] wait to get my hands on was Michelle Scott Tucker’s bio of Elizabeth Macarthur.  If you read my review of Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World you will know that it’s unputdownable in a way that few biographies are.  I hardly ever go […]

  21. […] (ANZ Litlovers) has already reviewed Elizabeth Macarthur here and Bill (the Australian Legend) has reviewed it here and also interviewed […]

  22. […] a new novel called The Bridge which I have just finished reading); Michelle Scott Tucker (author of Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World); Jenny Ackland (author of The Secret Son and her new one,  Little Gods);  and Dennis Glover […]

  23. […] Michelle Scott Tucker (author of Elizabeth Macarthur, a Life at the Edge of the World); […]

  24. […] to authors I caught up with at the festival: Jane Rawson (From the Wreck); Michelle Scott Tucker (Elizabeth Macarthur), Jenny Ackland (Little Gods) and Georgina Arnott (whose book The Real Judith Wright I bought at […]

  25. […] for other bloggers’ reviews of this book, do check out Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) and Bill’s (The Australian […]

  26. […] thought immediately of Michelle Scott Tucker and her bio of Elizabeth Macarthur when I read in chapter ‘Flooding the Colonies’ that Australia’s very first piano […]

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