Sue Williams' Elizabeth & Elizabeth is the story of two women forging a life in the colonies

Historical drama, but nothing on the real thing
  • Elizabeth & Elizabeth, by Sue Williams. Allen & Unwin, $29.99.

Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in Sydney with her husband John in 1790. He was a belligerent character who would be central to the Rum Rebellion against Governor William Bligh which resulted in the former sea captain being replaced by Lachlan Macquarie. In 1808, accompanied by his young wife Elizabeth, Macquarie was sent to tidy things up in the new colony. The two Elizabeths would become close friends and allies, sometimes scheming against their own husbands and it is this aspect of their lives that is the basis of Sue Williams' novel.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one in the voice of "Betsy" Macquarie and one telling the story of the other Elizabeth in the third-person voice of an anonymous narrator.

Oddly enough, there is little difference in the stilted and careful narration, rarely rising above the careful whisperings one might associate with polite after-dinner talk when the husbands have retired for their brandy and cigars.

In an opening note, the author warns that the story involves "the recounting of events from a colonial standpoint". It is a salutary warning because it would be easy to forget that all the characters involved were intruders, invading a place and a people at peace.

Patrick Pearse, in a different context, speaks for those forgotten in this story, "I am of the blood of serfs / [who] have been under the lash of masters / and though gentle, have served churls".

Apart from the two women who give the book its title, there are few characters in the story who rise above Pearse's final gibe.

This was colonialism at its worst, guided from afar, imposed by force and fortified by people like Macarthur, concerned about their own financial advancement and Macquarie, anxious for a title to adorn his name.

That being said, the governor does come out of the story with some semblance of honour, particularly for his work on behalf of convicts.

Elizabeth Macarthur is also a character of substance, a woman more than two centuries ahead of her time and is so described.

But text does little to exalt either woman. Even Macarthur is reduced to trivia, "When dinner is over, she helps Ms Lucas put the girls to bed and then comes back down the stairs alone". This kind of trifle dominates a novel in which the writing rarely rises above the ordinary.

The book may have particular appeal for Sydney readers, but for anyone unfamiliar with the geography of that city - a simple map would have been a bonus - it will be a poor replacement for a proper historical account of the first 30 or so years of the country that Lachlan Macquarie is credited with naming Australia.

This story Historical drama, but nothing on the real thing first appeared on The Canberra Times.