Convict ship Scarborough was no place for a gentleman’s daughter. Elizabeth Macarthur – wife of soon to be notorious John – was cold, pregnant and bone-weary. The Southern Ocean pummelled the ship with storm after storm but Elizabeth hardly noticed: her soldier husband and infant son were both grievously ill. She lofted some desperate prayers. Somewhere on that roaring sea, exhausted by her nursing duties, constantly pitched and tumbled, Elizabeth was ‘thrown into premature labour, & delivered of a little Girl who lived but for an hour.’  We only know of the nameless baby’s existence through a single line in a letter Elizabeth wrote to her mother many months later. No-one on Scarborough could help. The ship’s surgeon was unlikely to have been sober, let alone skilled and no other women were aboard. We have no record of the shipboard funeral; no record of just where the small bundle wrapped in weighted canvas was delivered to the sea; and no record of Elizabeth’s grief. All we have – all Elizabeth had – is that single tragic hour.
That’s the opening paragraph of the Elizabeth Macarthur biography I’m working on.
That paragraph, honed to the nth degree, currently makes the rest of my manuscript in progress look like a shaggy dog. I spent hours revising it in order to enter a competition for a non-fiction work of 200 words or less. I knew those 200 words had to explode on the page and capture the imagination of a bored judge dutifully working through her pile. I already had the rough outline but to begin with that paragraph was buried on page 32 of the MS.
Before that I had dutifully started at the beginning – EM was born at…, grew up in…, met and married…, sailed for New South Wales. I had to mine that opalescent paragraph, carve it out of the lumpen prose in which it was originally embedded and then polish it up into a competition winning gem. It remains somewhat over-written but I needed to convey a particular voice in a very short time.
I liked the newly shining paragraph so much that I determined to restructure my narrative around it. Instead of starting at the beginning, the biography begins here.
What do you think? Is it enough to make you want to keep reading?
And the blog begins here too. Working on the Elizabeth Macarthur biogrpahy has already taken me to lots of places – emotionally, intellectually and physcially – that I’d otherwise never have visited. In the weeks and months and, yes, years to come, I hope to share some of those places here.
And that competition for a 200 word work of creative non-fiction? Reader, I won it. The prize was a copy of a poorly written biography…
Elizabeth Macarthur to her mother Grace Leach, 18 March 1781, Macarthur Papers 12, Mitchell Library, Sydney.