To set the scene, I’m reading my manuscript out loud, to test for clarity and sense. The dog seems nonplussed but the cat is appreciative. I’m also beginning to realise how lazy my pronunciation usually is.
Govvumen. Govvament. Government.
I’m reading the part where it is 1790, Elizabeth has just arrived in New South Wales, and is lonely and bored. It’s the third paragraph (in the second half) where I’d like your opinion – what am I trying to imply? Is it clear enough?
Elizabeth ‘filled up the vacuum of many a Solitary day’ by reading, or by writing long letters in which she complained of having no female friends. None of the other officers were accompanied by their wives. Some of the rank-and-file soldiers had brought wives along, but the class divide rendered any friendships there impossible. Even if Elizabeth was willing to bridge that gap (although nothing suggests that she was), the social habits of a lifetime – reinforced by notions of regimental propriety and proper discipline – prevented the soldiers’ wives from expressing anything beyond mere civilities to the only ‘lady’ in the colony. Reverend Johnson had brought his wife but Elizabeth described her as ‘a person in whose society I could reap neither profit or pleasure.’ The Johnsons were not well-liked – two months after the Second Fleet arrived, the convicts were threatened with the withdrawal of rations unless they attended the Sunday church service. Elizabeth’s antipathy was such that she delayed little Edward’s long overdue baptism for nearly another year.
But Elizabeth’s natural optimism soon asserted itself. Just as she had at the Cape, Elizabeth took the time to look around and appreciate the landscape. ‘Every thing was new to me, every Bird, every insect, Flower, &c in short all was novelty around me, and was noticed with a degree of eager curiosity.’ Elizabeth was herself noticed with a similar degree of eager curiosity by Sydney Cove’s small society of officers, who had endured more than three tedious years of one another’s constant company. Among the officers at least, Elizabeth was instantly, and extraordinarily, popular. They fell over one another to be her friend. Here was a pretty young woman who, protected by her marriage and her child, could converse with freedom and intelligence.
Second Lieutenant Dawes, at twenty-eight only four years older than Elizabeth, was a talented polymath whose skills encompassed engineering, science, surveying, and astronomy. ‘He is so much engaged with the stars,’ wrote Elizabeth, ‘that to Mortal Eyes he is not always visible.’ Elizabeth attempted to learn astronomy from Mr Dawes and he went to great efforts to make models of the solar system for her and to explain the general principles of the heavenly bodies. Elizabeth, though, soon claimed she had mistaken her abilities and she quickly brought an end to her astronomical studies, writing ‘I blush at my error,’ to Bridget and implying that, intellectually, she simply wasn’t up to it. But she may well have been blushing about other things entirely – the evening visits to Dawe’s observatory opened many opportunities for others (including Dawes?) to misinterpret her educational motives. Instead Elizabeth and Dawes sensibly looked to the daytime art of botany and Elizabeth was soon able to class and order common plants.
I then go on with a paragraph about her new friend George Worgan (who gave her a piano), and another about Watkin Tench.
The actual text contains lots of footnotes but they don’t paste neatly in to WordPress. So the sources for all the above are as follows:
- Elizabeth Macarthur to Bridget Kingdon 7 March 1791.
- Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, August 1790.
- Edward Macarthur was baptised at St Phillips, Sydney on 1 April 1791. C. Smee, Born in the English Colony of New South Wales 1788-1800, self published, 2009.
Any and all assistance gratefully received!
Sydney Cove from Dawes Point – painting by Joseph Lycett, 1817. Source: State Library NSW
“the general principles of the heavenly bodies.”
And can we audition Zac Efron for the role of Dawes? :)
I think we’re going to need to audition LOTS of handsome young men for all the key roles… And if we’re not sure, they’ll damn well have to audition over and over again.
Firstly, x-Mrs wadh and I think you express yourself very well, no changes needed. I commented, odd only John of the officers brought his wife out. She thinks, others daunted by unknown and Eliz brave and too stubborn to be left behind.
Aha! She’ll need to read the book to find out. See what I did there!!!! So cunning.
I think you could safely leave out the sentence “But she may well have been…” as I think you habe captured it beautifully with your other words, especially using “blush” and “daytime”.
Interesting – I’ll have a good think about that one.
It’s clear to me that discussions between Elizabeth and Dawes became more intimate than she’d anticipated or was prepared for. Daytime botany was more manageable (and acceptable) than evening astronomy. The metaphor of the heavens and earth works very well. Invisible to the mortal eye implies secrecy and elusiveness. Earth (through studying botany) brings a more grounded, third dimensional quality which is easily seen.
I’m hooked! I can’t wait for the book.
Thanks Gail – what a generous reader you are. The part I probably need to make clearer is how much I’m speculating here. Fact: she studied astronomy with Dawes. Fact: she wrote to her friend Bridget to say she was out of her intellectual depth and she ‘blushed at her error’. Fact she took up botany instead. Everything else is just me connecting dots that may not even be connected. That’s why I’ve left in the line ‘may well have been’ that others have suggested be removed. Hmm, more thinking required. I’m such a nerd – this becoming a really fun puzzle!
So many things which a biographer has a hunch about but can never know for sure. Would be boring if you left them all out but irresponsible to present them as certainties. You seem to be taking the right approach with or without the “may well have been”.
Whoops, to clarify, I’m actually recommending you leave it as is! And, as a sidenote, it’s engaging prose, great to have a taste of your book.
Thanks Nathan – it’s the eternal conundrum of the biographer, I know.
A good puzzle to have. Perhaps I should have included ‘may have become’ in my comment about the intimacy of their meetings. I knew that you were speculating about the nature of their relationship but I did conclude there were enough facts to raise a question about what transpired through these meetings. It’s stimulating prose Michelle and a delight to read.
Thanks Gail, for your comments and ongoing support. Frankly, I can’t imagine that evening meetings between a much-liked woman and an officer who was not her husband, taking place within a garrison, would have gone unremarked. It wouldn’t go unremarked today!
I agree about leaving out the ‘But it may well have been’ – it’s clear already, and you don’t want to sound coy. Walter Davidson adored Elizabeth too, and he was a lot younger than her (b.1785) – she must have had the knack of friendship.
See my comment to Gail, above, about my speculation problem. I now fear that I’ve made it clearer than it actually was! I didn’t know Davidson was another fan but I’m not surprised – no one she knew ever has a bad word to say about her. It might have been easier for me if they did!
I think you’ve done a good job of laying out the dots but also making it clear that it is just your speculation :)
That’s helpful, thanks. And welcome.
Reads beautifully — all 3 paragraphs. And I think you have right blend of presenting facts and an engaging, readable narrative. Promising to be a great book.
Thanks Warren – it should be released in April of next year. Which seems simultaneously too far away and not long enough!
Sorry I’m only doing this now. I was away in the second half of October and am still trying, every now and then, to catch up on posts I missed. Firstly, I agree that the writing is lovely and engaging, so well done on that.
And yes, I agree too that that second part of paragraph is clear. As a reader, I’d be assuming that either Elizabeth felt Dawes misunderstood her motives AND/OR she caught a whiff of rumours that others were suspicious (or malicious), so she gracefully withdrew. Her use of “blush” though is intriguing, and makes you wonder whether it was more the former? How was “blush” mostly used those days.
Oh, and on another tangent altogether, I love the use of capitalisation in those days. (Have seen it before of course.) Very Germanic.
Goodness Sue – no apologies required – clearly you have a life, ha ha! And your comments are super helpful, as ever.
Thanks Michelle. I get to my favourite blogs in the end!