Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Room Made of Leaves



 A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville.  Jacket image by Lisla/Shutterstock.  Text Publishing, Melbourne, July 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Each of the three novels, Hamnet, Truganini and A Room Made of Leaves, respectively by Maggie O'Farrell, Cassandra Pybus and Kate Grenville, focusses our attention on a woman – significant in history but unknown to us as a real person.

In each case her “disappearance” is because of a man in her life who shines in the limelight of history.  Agnes, or Anne, was the wife of William Shakespeare; Truganini was the guide assisting George Augustus Robinson; Elizabeth was the wife of John Macarthur.  We appreciate Shakespeare for his playwriting; Robinson for trying to save Tasmania’s original people, according to his own lights; and Macarthur for establishing Australia’s wool industry.

Each of the three women authors starts from the premise that these men lived in highly personal relationships with these women.  Without coming to know those lives as lived by the women, are we seeing only one side of the history we are taught and have come to accept as sufficient?  Might not the women’s stories, experienced by us imaginatively from within, reveal another view of history?

The answer by each author in her own way, is Yes – indeed!

Myths grow on men in history like lichen on ancient rocks; women of all ages have to live in a different moving reality.  These works are novels, drawing on the authors’ knowledge as women; and their historical research – though remarkably extensive in each case – has to be presented as if it is fiction, since their characters’ actual personal records have disappeared.

It is in the creation of the characters of Agnes, Truganini and Elizabeth that we come to understand them as people first.  Then, in their roles as wife or guide, we see through the men’s auras, scraping away the patina, to see a new kind of truth.

I reviewed Truganini first (8 May 2020), fascinated by this First Nations woman of such self-determination, strength of character and cross-cultural diplomatic sensibility.  I knew of Hamnet only as William Shakespeare’s son, who died aged 11.  I had no preconception of his mother who made her life her own, including in her mid-twenties marrying an 18-year-old Latin tutor.  Nor how she and her often away from home husband came to terms with Hamnet’s death. (Reviewed here 19 June 2020)

And now, just published in July,  as if by magic, I’m led to believe that Elizabeth née Veale had been born and brought up in Devonshire, not far from my own favourite haunts as a child, though pigs happened to be more in my purview than sheep.  And so I was under way, with a touch of Jane Austen, into the life of this young woman needing to marry into some kind of regular income.

And what a woman, who, with all her wits about her when she has reached about three score years and twenty, living in Australia, just like me now, writes up her life and leaves her story hidden in Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta.  I don’t have her wits, but I’m sure that Kate Grenville does.  The “transcriber and editor”, as Grenville describes herself, writes of Elizabeth Macarthur: “In these private papers, written near the end of her life, she steps out from behind the bland documents that were her public face.  They’re a series of hot outpourings, pellets of memory lit by passionate feeling.  With sometimes shocking frankness, they invite us to see right through into her heart.”

Some readers may find it hard to accept Grenville’s subterfuge.  But, in effect, this apparently advertorial “quote” lays out her intention in this novel.  I believe she achieves her aim most powerfully.  Not only do we experience what surely must have been the reality of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life from a child taught so much by her sheep-farming grandfather to a woman without whom the development of the Australian Merino wool industry would never have happened, but we come to understand, as her character grows, the awful contrast between the emotional ineptness of a man like John Macarthur and the emotional maturity and subtlety needed to be learnt by a woman in the position of such a man’s wife.

It is in this understanding that Grenville’s work matches the creation of the characters of Agnes by O’Farrell and of Truganini by Pybus.  William Shakespeare and George Augustus Robinson are quite different men from John Macarthur and each other, of course.  Each of the three authors cleverly reveal the nature of those particular men, through each woman’s eyes, but each of the women have the same basic issue to deal with.

As, surely, all women do.  Agnes, Truganini and Elizabeth are wonderful models of real people in history – women from whom men can learn, as I hope I have myself.  Each of them are different, too.  From Agnes I think of her originality of approach; from Truganini her vivacity in youth and dignity in old age; from Elizabeth her growing self-awareness.

From all three it is the importance of women’s self-determination that stands out.  Disappearing from history should be no woman’s fate.  

In this sense, all three books are political – A Room Made of Leaves perhaps more overtly, in Grenville’s characterisation of Elizabeth Macarthur who seems to have been so much more deliberately written out of the record, in favour of the scoundrel, John Macarthur.  Many surprises await you in this novel approach to what really happened in the penal colony, according to this "truly incredible and strangely little-known story: How Elizabeth Macarthur's long-lost secret memoirs were discovered."

Frank McKone's reviews are collected at