All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

on January 18, 2021

Elizabeth & Elizabeth
Sue Williams
Allen & Unwin
2021, 323p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The story of how two women, who should have been bitter foes, combined their courage and wisdom to wield extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony.

‘I’ve waited for this moment so long, dreamed of it, prepared for it, I can barely believe it’s finally here. But it is. And it is nothing like I expected.’

There was a short time in Australia’s European history when two women wielded extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony.

One was Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the new governor Lachlan Macquarie, nudging him towards social reform and magnificent buildings and town planning. The other was Elizabeth Macarthur, credited with creating Australia’s wool industry and married to John Macarthur, a dangerous enemy of the establishment.

These women came from strikingly different backgrounds with husbands who held sharply conflicting views. They should have been bitter foes. Elizabeth & Elizabeth is about two courageous women thrown together in impossible times.

Borne out of an overriding admiration for the women of early colonial Australian history, Sue Williams has written a novel of enduring fascination.

Fun fact: the town where I grew up and where my family still live, is named for Governor Lachlan Macquarie. This is not particularly special, lots of things are named for both the families that are in this book, the Macquaries and the Macarthurs. They dominated the development of New South Wales in the early 1800s when Lachlan Macquarie arrived with his wife Elizabeth, known as Betsy, to take up the post of Governor, replacing William Bligh, who was famously overthrown in the Rum Rebellion of 1808, with one of the loudest voices being John Macarthur, a sheep farmer of much renown.

This book focuses on a friendship between two Elizabeths: Macquarie, who as a new bride (but not a young one) accompanies her husband to Sydney and finds it to be much less than she expected and Macarthur, who handles their family’s extensive sheep flock after her husband goes to London to defend himself on charges for the ousting of Bligh. The two women met once when Betsey Macquarie was just a child and Betsey is eager to establish a friendship with the older Elizabeth, a woman she believes to be her equal and one she admires and looks up to.

I enjoyed this – I spent my whole life in NSW until I was 24 so its history is probably my strongest, in terms what I was taught and I liked the fact that I was really familiar with the players in this story, both the Macquaries and also the Macarthurs. My cousin was actually married at Elizabeth House, which is the house that Elizabeth Macarthur lives in, in this story and is now a museum and function venue. I felt like it gave quite a good impression of firstly, what it might’ve been like for Elizabeth Macquarie to arrive in Sydney and experience the colonies first had and also how Elizabeth Macarthur might feel about the new arrival, as someone who had already been in Sydney for a significant amount of time. Although the two women do establish a strong friendship, it’s not instantaneous and Elizabeth Macarthur does often have quite negative thoughts about Betsey Macquarie. Elizabeth Macarthur is on her own, with her husband John having gone back to England but even from there, he’s working to discredit Lachlan Macquarie which, as the friendship of the two women flourishes, ends up causing quite a concern for Elizabeth, given she has loyalty to her husband but has also come to really respect and like the friendship with Betsey and she even has warm feelings toward Lachlan, who has always treated her with courtesy, when her husband’s actions meant that he could’ve made her quite an outcast.

Lachlan Macquarie was quite a progressive governor, who wanted to build roads and hospitals and buildings and grant convicts settlement rights once they had served their time, which didn’t always sit well with traditionalists. His wife Betsey had a good education and was keen to involve herself in the development of the colony – she takes an interest in the welfare of orphans and architecture and Lachlan Macquarie is happy to host those who came here as convicts in his home. But there are ugly sides to this as well – clashes with local Indigenous groups who steal sheep from properties, hunger and poverty and crime. Whilst the book skims over these, it doesn’t delve too deeply into some of the issues in the creation of Australia itself and more focuses on the friendship between the two Elizabeths and how it managed to flourish despite one woman’s husband working relentlessly to discredit and undermine the other’s as well as the stresses and strains that Lachlan’s work as well as issues in their personal life, put on their marriage. It also delves into Elizabeth Macquarie’s fight after her husband’s death, to have his rebuttal to the charges against him of mismanagement and incompetence in the colony, published.

This book also features Betsey’s strong desire to “do something” and to carve out a role for herself in this new nation, much in the way Elizabeth Macarthur has been, in managing the sheep properties whilst John has been forced to go back to London. Elizabeth Macarthur is highly capable, also raising quite a few children in a harsh environment as well as overseeing the sheep for shearing, breeding, and the export of the high quality merino wool that they became so well known for. Betsey wants to make a difference and she often looks to Elizabeth Macarthur for advice and ways in which to accomplish things without ruffling feathers.

An interesting combination of fact and fiction that held my attention and made me want to investigate both women more.


Book #8 of 2021

Elizabeth & Elizabeth is book #3 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

It’s also the 2nd book read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge of 2021

One response to “Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

  1. […] I read Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a book that detailed a friendship between two very well known Elizabeths in New South Wales […]

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