A commemorative coin issued by the Royal Australian Mint in 1995 features Elizabeth Macarthur for her contributions to the Australian wool industry | Public domain
A commemorative coin issued by the Royal Australian Mint in 1995 features Elizabeth Macarthur for her contributions to the Australian wool industry | Public domain

Australian author Kate Grenville’s latest novel, A Room Made of Leaves, is loosely based upon the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, one of the few women who appear in letters, journals and notes recorded by the earliest settlers arriving in New South Wales, and a pioneer of the Australian wool industry.

It chronicles the beginnings of the notorious penal colonies, where boatloads of prisoners were sent to serve at the beck and call of officers of Her Majesty. It also marks the unfortunate and truly tragic dwindling away of the native Aboriginal peoples of Australia and their culture.

Based on real historical events, this is a story of an extraordinary woman who bears witness to a changing world and stands resilient and boldly ahead of her time despite her circumstances. Grenville uses this narrative to lay bare the cruel system of punishment in England and the devastating effect the movement of prisoners across the globe had on not only those incarcerated, but on the culture of the indigenous people of the soon-to-be colonised continent.

Grenville’s protagonist is Elizabeth, young, curious and smart beyond her years. With a barely-there mother, Elizabeth is taken under the wing of her stern yet loving grandfather, who owns a reasonable spread of land and sheep. It is the sheep that bind young Elizabeth and her grandfather. He teaches her all there is to know about raising and caring for them, and how to manage a thriving farm like his.

She is also sent regularly to Reverend Kingdon’s home to study with Bridie, the reverend’s daughter and Elizabeth’s lifelong friend.

The reverend, like her grandfather, is quick to understand that Elizabeth is an eager learner and advanced in her knack for numbers and words.

An important Australian novel, set in the gruesome world of Sydney in the 1700s, attempts to come to terms with the monstrosity of colonialism and the full extent of its horrors

Elizabeth, however, doubts herself, as many young girls often do even today: “even as a child I already knew, without anyone having told me, that it would be best for me not to be too clever.” Through various twists of fate, Elizabeth soon finds herself a ward of the kindly Kingdons, who take responsibility for her education and eventual marriage to the surly John Macarthur in an attempt to save her from scandal.

Grenville introduces John as a complicated creature. A victim of his circumstances, he is unbearably proud and overtly ambitious. Elizabeth, as his wife, sees him best: “His status as a gentleman — yes, that was important to him. Of that he was so unsure that he needed to test it continually, to the death if necessary.”

It is because of his insecurity, rage and incessant need to prove himself of a higher station that Elizabeth finds herself pregnant, on a boat filled with prisoners, on her way to New South Wales, where her husband has taken up a position as lieutenant to serve in a penal colony, in order to pay off his debts.

A six-month long voyage, made fraught by trying to understand the man she has married, his lack of empathy and questionable moral compass, makes her stronger despite the gnawing apprehensions about their new lives. Her arrival in Sydney is marked by hardship, but she “folds herself small” like she always has, and focuses on trying to survive the brutality of her new surroundings where food is scarce, as is shelter and trust.

Elizabeth is hounded by her scheming husband, a sickly child and an overwhelming ache for her home left behind: “Like a Musalman facing [Makkah], I turned towards home ... With the sound of foreign leaves rattling together and foreign gulls crying, I willed myself to remember the gentle breezes of Devon ... It was the place I knew in my bones. I yearned for it as a child might yearn for its mother.”

Amidst these circumstances, Grenville lays down her characters and their stories wrapped around themes of feminism and racism. Her protagonist, Elizabeth, is aware of “the narrowness of a woman’s choices” and is constantly faced with the reality that, whatever little privilege she is granted — be it shelter or any degree of privacy — is because of her husband; she herself has no bearing or control over her life. She struggles to maintain placidity at the surface: “If the surface could hold, like a brimming glass of water kept together by its own density”, perhaps she could also make do with her circumstances.

Within these confines, Elizabeth struggles to conceal and secretly feed her intellect by taking lessons from resident astrologer Mr Dawes, who opens for her a new world, introducing her to botany, mathematics and accepting and learning from the people on whose land they have unceremoniously landed. Grenville illustrates how Elizabeth — like most women even today — walks a constant tightrope, trying to exercise some control over her own destiny, all the while attempting to manoeuvre her husband. All this while, John Macarthur is a blazing ball of fire, bent on destroying anyone who may come in the way of his naked ambition.

Grenville’s writing flows as she creates a gruesome world of Sydney in the 1700s. She takes great pains to describe the plight of the prisoners who have been exiled for life, for crimes as minor as stealing a sheep or trespassing. Her writing humanises these people who have been inflicted a punishment that they see as second only to death. Their one upside is that they are alive — if only at the behest of their commanding officers, used as free labour, working off their sentences till they die.

In this extortionately classist and brutal environment, Grenville minces no words as she describes the inherent racism rampant among the settlers, regardless of rank: “The general sense among the settlers was that it was only a matter of time before, in a natural way like the turning of the seasons, our sable brethren would obligingly disappear.”

The sheer cruelty behind this deeply rooted sense of superiority falsely demeans the gravity of its implications, but Grenville shows clearly what it entails: “Every settler with deeds in his pocket felt entitled to chase away the tribes from the land that he thought now belonged to him by virtue of that piece of paper ... They [tribespeople] did not thrive, though, in the slivers of space we allowed them. Ailments that were no more than a week for us proved fatal to them.”

Grenville does not allow her own sensibilities or emotions to creep in and make a fuss over the injustice of it all; instead, she uses Elizabeth to show the reader how clinical, emotionless and methodical the process of colonisation is. Its human cost and after-effects are brushed under land title deeds and a sense of self-righteousness. Those being displaced are steadily dehumanised, referred to as “barbaric “or “savages”, their language invalidated and discarded into nothingness.

Grenville shows how, with a flourish of a pen moving smoothly across a piece of paper, an entire way of life is erased and made irrelevant, “the replacement of the true history by a false one.” The violence behind this thought process carries with it a sense of entitlement so firmly entrenched that to question it is to oppose it, and so, Elizabeth silently condemns herself to being no better than the others around her: “It was a shadow at the edge of my life, the consciousness, that I was on land that other people knew was theirs.”

History is often written by the pen of the victor and it is much later that the full picture emerges. Britain’s colonial past and its consequences are tangible even today as the world comes to terms with a history plagued by violence and, in this case, the forcible dismantling of indigenous cultures and languages. A Room Made of Leaves is a testament that stands to educate its readers to the extent of the damage done, to try and come to terms with the monstrosity of colonialism and the full extent of its horrors.

It is an important piece of literature because the story it tells is pertinent even today. It seeks to explain the concept of ‘home’ and how the settlers stubbornly hold on to their perception of home by displacing others, whom they perceive differently, when in reality no matter how hard one tries, ‘home’ remains a fluid concept.

Elizabeth Macarthur, Grenville’s feminist protagonist, is gentle in that she exists in a palpably helpless scenario throughout her life, but she does not allow that helplessness to define her. Grenville gives her a very distinctive voice and a level of consciousness that allows her to rise above the cards she has been dealt. Throughout the story, Elizabeth tries to come to terms with her new reality, be it her personal displacement, her own self-worth or the “indigestible fact: I am not prepared to give them back what has always been theirs.”

A Room Made of Leaves will transfer you across the world where a new civilisation is taking root at the cost of a much older and richer one. It is a worthy companion for long nights when, as the world gradually shifts its focus, authors such as Grenville remind you that there are wrongs still that need to be redressed and the only way forward is to be, like Elizabeth, “prepared to look in the eye what we have done.”

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature

A Room Made of Leaves
By Kate Grenville
Canongate, UK
ISBN: 978-1838851231
336pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 21st, 2021

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