I’m currently working on one that Elizabeth sent to Captain John Piper, in 1804. The original is held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. John Macarthur was away in England at the time and Captain Piper, a good friend to both Elizabeth and John, was stationed at Norfolk Island (a secondary penal colony, some 1600kms northeast of Sydney).
The letter is a crucial one because in it Elizabeth describes how she and her children fled from their farm in Parramatta to Sydney, during an uprising of Irish convicts. The letter is an oft-quoted source but I’m very glad to have gone back to the original, despite the frustrations of trying to transcribe Elizabeth’s handwriting from a photocopy of a scanned image.
Over the course of some 11 pages Elizabeth spends little more than a single page describing the family’s escape. She doesn’t even get around to it until about the fourth page.
It seems to me that the story Elizabeth writes about escaping down the river is a polished anecdote, told and retold to her Sydney friends until all the fear and confusion has been edited out. What remains reads more like a jolly midnight adventure – which it became only in hindsight.
Throughout the rest of the letter:
- Elizabeth complains about getting ripped off by suppliers (with her husband away, Elizabeth’s legal status – if indeed she had any legal status – was unclear and likely unenforceable)
My Bargain with [him] has been attended with much vexation & I have every reason to suppose that the most unfair advantage has been taken of me, without my having the means of redress. Had I known the man before I should have taken clear precautions.
- Discusses an imported stallion (in all likelihood an illegal import, brought ashore in defiance of the East India Company’s monopoly) and knowledgeably remarks upon a foal recently produced by a mare belonging (I think) to Piper;
Capt Abbott has written you, I believe, a cosy letter. He & I took a particular survey of Kitty and her foal yesterday. The mare looks well & has much improved … The young one does not promise to be large but in action much resembles her Grandmama.
- And notes that she is taking care of a ‘little terrier’ for a mutual friend, also stationed on Norfolk Island.
[It is] an agreeable & lively companion for me when I travel in the woods, but barks if he divines that he may be sent to Norfolk Island.
It is a warm and friendly letter, clearly part of an ongoing conversation and full of allusions that, from one friend to another, need no explaining.
But oh how I wish that they needed explaining! To what (or whom) is Elizabeth referring when she says “Of the disagreeable difficulties that have arisen, various reports are here unchecked, & each party is blamed”? Who was behind the mysterious case of bananas that Elizabeth “accidentally learnt …were in the ship for me”? What about this little snippet of gossip: “The circumstance you mentioned to me of your leave-taking of the Colonel & Mrs Paterson had been communicated to me by Mrs Marsden to whom Mrs Paterson mentioned it.”
Oh well. I’m in fact grateful that Elizabeth left behind, and her family preserved, so many letters to work with. And often it is the reading between the lines – the tone, the hints, the judicious omissions – that provide just as much insight as the information in the letter itself.
And paleography – isn’t it a wonderful word? I challenge you to use it in a sentence today!
For useful hints on how to transcribe old letters, try the UK National Archives. The best bet, though, seems to be just giving it a go.