‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

2020, 304 p.

On a mid-summer day, established Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell are in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank, London. They had planned to meet outside to share a gin and tonic and conversation with Emma Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great great grand-daughter. Emma has written several historical fiction novels, but she has also published This is not a book about Charles Darwin, a hybrid of memoir, family history and fiction. Forced inside by pouring rain, Emma has words of advice for the two sister authors, who were embarking on a similar challenge:

In fiction I am empress of all I survey. I can make up my own rules. I only need make my story seem authentic. The problem with non fiction is that a well-documented archive can be a potential censor…The kind of book you are writing is akin in fiction in many ways, and that means that the inner life can be explored as well as the outer. The interior life is the novelists’ true work.

(p.162)

This book is, as Emma Darwin noted, “akin to fiction”. Or as Kate Forsyth noted “We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.” (p.241) I am glad that as authors, they are clear-eyed about what they are doing. This jointly-written book is not a straight biography: instead, like a Who Do You Think You Are? episode, this is just as much about the searchers and the search as it is about the quarry. As in Who Do You Think You Are? there is an emotional attachment through ancestry that draws out empathy, and a degree of identification that arises only because they are family.

In this case, the two authors, who are sisters and each a published author in her own right, feel a particular affinity for their great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson who wrote the first Australian children’s book A Mother’s Offering to her Children by a lady long resident in New South Wales in 1841. Charlotte’s daughter, Louisa Atkinson, published two books also under the name “an Australian lady”, as well as serialized works, and is recognized as a botanist and illustrator.

But there was more than this professional connection amongst authors set 180 years apart from each other. The story of James Atkinson, early settler and agriculturalist, his marriage to Charlotte, and the construction of the family property ‘Oldbury’ in the Southern Highlands of NSW was part of family lore. Much of the book involves the sisters travelling overseas in a type of investigative pilgrimage, visiting homes, churches and inhaling the spirit of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, whom they mentally link with Charlotte. There is a lot of imagination in this book, but it is clearly identified as such. I must confess to not feeling comfortable with these flights into fiction, but I would have bridled more if they weren’t edged with qualifiers like “perhaps” and “maybe”.

There is an almost innocent transparency about their speculations, even if I find myself balking at them. Historians and biographers weigh evidence all the time, but don’t often show the workings. In the chapter ‘Changing the World’, Kate Forsyth speculates about the possibility that Charles Darwin may have met with Charlotte during his trip to New South Wales. The genealogical origins of the Forsyth/Murrell project are very obvious here. Charles Darwin’s great great grandmother Anne Waring was the third cousin of Charlotte’s great grandfather Richard Waring, making Charles Darwin the 5th cousin once removed of Charlotte – surely a connection that only a genealogist could love. (p144) In family lore, Charles Darwin met with Charlotte in Sydney. However, there is no hard evidence that he did. His diaries are silent about it and the timing for him to ride to Berrima to visit her for just one night is tight. The clues that she offers are just that: clues, based on Darwin’s interest in the Waring family, and his use of Waring as a middle name for a child. Forsyth provides her evidence and holds it up for scrutiny, admitting that it is slight. It is.

Nonetheless, there is considerable research that has gone into the book, although the lack of reference to the footnotes section in the body of the work tends to obscure this. There is rich material here, without needing to be bolstered with the present-day framing narrative. Charlotte came out to Australia with a job lined up as a governess with Hannibal Macarthur, the nephew of John Macarthur and son-in-law of former governor Phillip Gidley King. On board, she met James Atkinson, one of the well known Atkinson brothers who were early settlers in New South Wales. They married, and had four children. Two years after her husband died she remarried, apparently hurriedly, to George Bruce Barton, a man who along with Charlotte suffered a bushranger attack. Forsyth and Murrell struggle to make sense of this hasty marriage to her fellow crime victim. Whatever Charlotte’s motives, it was a poor choice, as the marriage was abusive and they separated. This thrust Charlotte into the public eye as the defendant in a significant court case mounted against the executors of her first husband’s will over Charlotte’s fitness to be appointed guardian to her children (see Atkinson v Barton). She received a sympathetic hearing from Chief Justice Dowling and was granted guardianship (had my own Justice John Walpole Willis still been in Sydney at the time, I do wonder if she would have received the same outcome). Disapprobation attached to a remarried and separated woman fronting the courts against the highly respectable executors of the will, and it may have been this need for anonymity as well as income, that led her to write her book for children under the coy nom de plume “a lady long resident in New South Wales”.

Kate Forsyth contributes several chapters discussing A Mother’s Offering, taking it largely on its own merits and within the context of Australian literature. In fact, the question-and-answer format within a framing domestic story occurs in other settings across the empire in the mid 19th century as well. For example, here I reviewed Tales of a Grandmother by Mrs. A. Carmicheal, based on stories of St Vincent in the West Indies, published at exactly the same time- 1841- and also dealing with plant life, climate and geography, as well as the benefits of slavery. For many years the identity of the “lady long resident in New South Wales” was thought to be Lady Gordon Bremer until booklover and bibliographer Marcie Muir identified Charlotte as the author in 1980. Patricia Clarke’s biography Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson, Novelist, Journalist, Naturalist publicized Muir’s discovery even further.

Forsyth reads A Mother’s Offering closely, noting Charlotte’s excursions into paleontology, mineralogy, conchology and cetology (p.243). She winces at Charlotte’s depictions of indigenous people and the imperial bombast of stories of shipwrecks and the death of “little Sally the black child”. She moves beyond A Mother’s Offering to examine P.P’s tales, mentioned briefly in a newspaper advertisement and which she suspects may be Amusing and Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle, reviewed in 1837 but given as a gift in 1832. A second Peter Prattle book Instructive Tales by Peter Prattle was listed as a ‘new publication’ in British newspapers in 1842. The evidence for Charlotte’s authorship of these other two books is, as Forsyth admits “circumstantial evidence, but suggestive nonetheless”(p.271). The book has been generously illustrated with colour plates from Charlotte’s sketchbook, showing her skill in drawing plants, birds and insects.

But Charlotte’s story is only one aspect of this book. Like Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, it is the story of a search. It is also the family story of two sisters who have their own careers as authors, and as such, it is also story about writing, both in the 1840s and in the 2020s. Their childhoods, their parents, unexpected family secrets and their responsibilities as part of the ‘sandwich generation’ between children and elderly parents are also interwoven into their search for Charlotte.

Ten of the chapters are written by Belinda, particularly at the start of the book, and eight by Kate. The chapters blend together fairly seamlessly, and I was not particularly aware whether I was reading a Belinda chapter or a Kate chapter. There are, for me, too many descriptions of food and sightseeing and at times it reads like a travel diary. Just like the television program Who Do You Think You Are? the search, and not just the discovery, becomes the story.

I think that a reader’s response to this book will depend heavily on how strictly they interpret the ‘rules’ of biography. For myself, I found the present-day family history rather unnecessary, the imaginative writing superfluous and the speculation unstable. However, for other readers I’m sure that the humanizing and integration of the past and present would have a strong appeal. The authors claimed to be taking historical facts and framing them within their own personal lives. That’s exactly what they have done.

Source: Review copy from NLA via Quikmark media

I have included this on the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

8 responses to “‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

  1. I read about half of it and honestly, it was exasperating to read. It was full of waffle and flights of fancy, plus the stuff to wade through about their children picking wildflowers, and the details of what they are eating when visiting rellos, plus nonsense about “eerie” similarities between Charles Darwin and the ancestor in whom they take so much class-conscious pride, I couldn’t bear to read any more. It’s not a biography that interrogates the subject’s life, it’s a hagiography stitched together with rambling digressions that have nothing to do with the subject.
    It was a real disappointment and Charlotte deserved much better.

  2. I think you’ve been very generous in your review:)

  3. PS Can you edit my comment, please, Janine, to “what they are *eating*”, thanks

  4. I enjoyed this review Janine. I doubt I’ll read the book itself, but I was curious about it, having been privy to its creation via Kate. However, while I like biographies, I’m not so keen on memoirs, so I’ll settle for your review, which is honestly terrific, and tells me all I need to know!

  5. Sounds a shame as I’ve been interested in Charlotte Barton and Louisa Atkinson for a decade or more. (I did a lot of work on Louisa Atkinson’s Wikipedia page back in 2007 (my first retirement project was doing Australian Wikipedia pages.)

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