Georgette Heyer and Genre


I’m afraid I’ve been bingeing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Poldark.  Outlander. And the inimitable Georgette Heyer’s regency romances.

Women Rejecting Marriage Proposals in Western Art History
i’m totally listening
this is my listening guitar
i’m playing my listening song

I could explain it away as research, of course. Trying to immerse myself in the subtleties of the period so as to better to convey the context in which Elizabeth Macarthur lived.  But lets not kid ourselves. I’m just swept away by the Read the rest of this entry

Camden Park House


Camden Park House Source: Adventures in Biography

Took my family to Sydney for the weekend, ostensibly for a quick sightseeing stopover but actually so that we could attend the annual open day at Camden Park House.

We were lucky with the rain, and managed to explore the house and extensive gardens before it poured.

* * * * *

During the first week of June 1805 the signal was made at Sydney Harbour’s South Head and Elizabeth’s prayers were answered. John Macarthur, having left NSW for England in 1801 under the cloud of a pending court-martial, triumphantly sailed up the harbour in a ship he part-owned, unsubtly named Argo. Its figurehead was, equally unsubtly, a golden fleece.

During his enforced English sojourn (this was the first, the second time was after the Rum Rebellion of 1808) John had gained an important friend in Sir Walter Farquhar, avoided sanction for duelling with his commanding officer, sold his military commission, convinced the government that the future of New South Wales rested with him, and wrangled the purchase of seven rare and prized Spanish rams.  He even managed to bring five of them home alive. There is luck here, certainly, but also a canny ability to spot an opportunity and to capitalise upon it.

John also brought home his Read the rest of this entry

Vale Inga Clendinnen


clendinnenInga Vivienne Clendinnen AO, FAHA,  author, historian, anthropologist and academic died yesterday aged 82. What a sad loss to the Australian life of the mind.

Clendinnen’s sharp insights and beautiful prose were (for me) best displayed in Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2003, Text Publishing). This small but perfectly formed exploration of the relationships and interactions between the Europeans and the first Australians in the earliest years of white settlement in NSW is a book I have returned to many times. Clendinnen illuminates without failing to acknowledge the shadows left by unanswerable questions. And she brings the period, and the players, so vividly to life that it almost reads like fiction.

Which takes us, of course, to the other work for which Clendinnen is well known – indeed notorious.  In the Quarterly Essay The History Question: Who Owns the Past (2006, Black Inc) Clendinnen took Australian novelist Kate Grenville to task, apparently believing Grenville had claimed that only fiction could deliver genuine historical empathy.*

Clendinnen, whose academic day job involved specializing in Aztec history, was an equally gifted essayist and memoirist. Tiger’s Eye (2000, Text Publishing) is an intriguing examination of illness and self.

In 1999 Clendinnen presented the 40th annual Boyer Lectures, which were published in 2000 as True Stories.  In 2006, supposedly in retirement,  she produced Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays (Text Publishing).  Just like Helen Garner, if Clendinnen wrote the blurb on the back of a box of cereal it would be worth the reading.

In 2014 Clendinnen was the subject of an excellent, and poignant, feature piece by former 60 Minutes reporter Jana Wendt.

Vale Inga Clendinnen.  What an example you have set for us all.


Note: for a related Adventures in Biography post, which draws on and quotes Clendinnen’s work, see Saying goodbye to your children.

* Update 29 September 2016. Grenville actually never made any such claim. An earlier version of this post (hastily drafted) implied she did but I have subsequently amended the relevant sentences.

Elizabeth Macarthur’s Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria


The gallery had sold out of the glossy, colour catalogue for Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 by the time I saw the exhibition last week. But I had a terrific chat with the young woman serving at the museum shop while I placed an order to have the catalogue mailed out (at a discounted rate, no less).

“Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “how contemporary some of those quilt designs are. It’s amazing to think they predated modernism by decades.  But not acknowledged, of course.” She gave me a gorgeous, wry smile. “Why would women’s sewing be acknowledged as art?”

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is a wonderful and important exhibition now showing at NGV Australia (the gallery at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne). Over eighty works are on display – mainly quilts and bedcovers – and they are variously beautiful, historically significant, poignant, charming and fascinating. Intricate quilts stitched by convict women en route to Australia. Depression-era blankets (called waggas) made in desperation from scrounged bits and pieces. Delicate embroidery commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria.

But you know there was only one quilt that I really wanted to see. EM QuiltThis hexagon quilt, pictured above, is attributed to Elizabeth Macarthur. Her descendents believe she started it sometime around 1840 and her daughters (and/or grand-daughter) finished it. By the 1840s Elizabeth was in her seventies, with fading eyesight and prone to headaches. If she did begin it, I do wonder how much is actually hers…

The colours have faded with time, of course, and some of the fabrics have started to perish. But if you look closely below you can see the individual stitches – perhaps made with Elizabeth’s own hand. I’m a (sometime) quilter myself and I can assure you that those stitches are impressively tiny!

EM Hexagon StitchesLady Mary Fitzroy, the wife of the NSW Governor, was making a similar quilt at around the same time. But in 1847 she was killed in an accident (she was handed into the carriage but before her husband could take the reins the horses bolted, took a downhill corner too fast and her carriage tipped over and hit a tree). She’d attended a Macarthur wedding only three days earlier.

The coverlet Lady Fitzroy was working on remains unfinished to this day – the colours of her hexagons a little brighter for having spent a century and more tucked in her sewing bag (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Sewing Bag and HexagonsLady Fitzroy evidently had a better eye for design than the Macarthur women. She practiced what today we would call ‘fussy cutting’ – deliberately selecting and then cutting fabrics in such a way that a secondary design is created once the hexagon was pieced together (see photo below).

Lady Fitzroy Single HexagonBut Lady Fitzroy and the Macarthur women used the same technique to ensure the consistency of each hexagonal piece: paper piecing. Hundreds of paper templates were cut, then the fabric was basted on top of the paper, then each hexagon was whip-stitched (with those tiny stitches we’ve already seen) to those adjacent. It’s a technique still very much in use today.

One of the quilts in the exhibition was displayed with the wrong side showing (below).

Hexagon quilt - reverseUsually a quilter will pull out all the papers once the quilt top is finished but historians are often very grateful if the quilt-maker didn’t manage to get around to it!

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is open until 6 November 2016.  The adult entry fee is $15 (concessions are available). The curators have done an excellent job of selecting and displaying the works and it’s an exhibition well worth a visit. I can’t wait for my catalogue to arrive so I can enjoy it all over again.











Mrs Macquarie and the tragic accident

Veale Headstone

Headstone of Grace and Richard Veale, Elizabeth Macarthur’s sister and father. St Bridget’s churchyard, Bridgerule. Source: Adventures in Biography

One of the problems of being a researcher of women’s history is all the dead children.

Over and over again the archives yield stories of families broken by illness, accident and disease – so many stories that they are in danger of seeming commonplace. But of course the death of each child was, to his or her own family, an occasion of enormous tragedy.

Elizabeth Macarthur lost two of her nine children as babies – one daughter born prematurely who ‘lived but an hour’ and a little boy who died at the age of ten months from ‘teething’. Elizabeth was not yet six when her younger sister Grace died aged two years and nine months. Her father died a month or so later.

Elizabeth’s girlhood best friend Bridget Kingdon lost a younger sister too. When the friends were twenty years old, little five year old Griselda Kingdon drowned in a sudden flood of the Tamar while riding her pony across the ford at the Bridgerule Bridge.

As far as I can tell few, if any of Elizabeth’s New South Wales friends managed to raise every one of their own children to adulthood. But some lost their children in particularly awful circumstances.

In August 1801 Elizabeth’s friend and neighbour Betsy Marsden was involved in an accident. Not twenty yards from the Marsden farm gate Mrs Marsden’s chaise overturned, spilling out a pregnant Betsy and her three year old son Charles. The little boy subsequently died in his mother’s arms. Two months later Betsy gave birth to another boy, John, but heartbreak and depression kept her from writing to friends in England for more than a year.

Two years later tragedy struck again. Little John Marsden, the baby born two months after his mother was flung from the chaise, died from a scalding received in his mother’s kitchen.  Betsy never really regained her equilibrium and forever after considered August a fearful month, a time when she could hardly bear to let her other children out of sight.

I only recently learned that Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth lost a ‘dear angelic girl’ in 1808, not long before they departed for New South Wales. The girl Jane, their first child, was only twelve weeks old when she died. Between then and 1814, when Elizabeth Macquarie was finally delivered of a healthy boy, Mrs Macquarie endured seven miscarriages ‘and some of these,’ wrote her husband to his brother, ‘very bad and dangerous ones.’ Unsurprisingly, she was subsequently something of a helicopter parent to her son, the couple’s only surviving child.

Too often, I think, historians forget that fathers grieve for their lost children too. The ADB entry for Lachlan Macquarie, noting the death of little Jane, describes the decision to transfer his regiment to New South Wales as a ‘dramatic distraction from grief.’  Really? Could he truly be so easily distracted? And what was the impact of all that worry and grief surrounding each miscarriage on Macquarie’s governorship, I wonder? At least the ADB entry notes that he was a doting father to his son.

Not long after the birth of her son, Elizabeth Macquarie was witness to yet another childhood tragedy. She subsequently suffered a nervous collapse and was confined to her bed for weeks. On 6 October 1814 Private William Thomas, a Light Horseman in Governor Macquarie’s personal bodyguard, was on duty, riding alongside the Governor’s carriage. The carriage, with Mrs Macquarie inside, passed along the road in front of Private Thomas’ own home. What happened next was related many years later by Private Thomas’ eldest son, William.

Shortly after the McQuarries came to Sydney, my little brother’s third birthday came round, and my mother put him in knickerbockers. In the afternoon Charlie rushed into the road to meet my father and show him a set of whistling bells that Lady King had sent him. Just as he reached the road Lady McQuarrie’s carriage dashed round a corner. People shouted to the coachman but he paid no heed, and before any of the onlookers could reach the child the foremost horse had knocked him down and two wheels passed over his body.

My father couldn’t even pick up his own child – it was all he could do to protect the coachman, as the crowd were mobbing him. They would have killed him if they could; but my father told them they would be doing him the greatest kindness if they went away quietly, as he couldn’t go while they were likely to molest the coachman, who, as it happened, was drunk, so the people contented themselves by letting loose the horses and dragging the carriage to Government House.

In her own wordsMeanwhile Lady McQuarrie had picked Charlie up and carried him in to mother, who, when she saw him, fainted. And then I remember that the doctor came and said that death had been instantaneous, and a few days afterwards I remember going to the funeral and standing by the open grave holding my father’s hand.

Years afterwards when we lived in Hobart Town Lady Macquarrie often came to see my mother, and she always used to cry and blame herself for my brother’s death. She was a very good woman, and most kind. Everybody liked her.

Elizabeth Macarthur, in a letter to her god-daughter, called Mrs Macquarie a ‘very good woman’ too.

I found the story above, and much much more, in a beautifully produced book called In Her Own Words: The Writings of Elizabeth Macquarie. The book was published by Macquarie University and edited by Robin Walsh, the curator of the Lachlan Macquarie Room in the Macquarie University Library and the man behind the digital Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive (LEMA).

An earlier post about Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie can be found here.

In the media #1


bplusp_masthead3My first mention in the media has occurred already.  That was fast.

Books +Publishing  is, according its own website, Australia’s number-one source of news about the book industry, keeping subscribers up to date with the latest book industry news, events, features, interviews, opinion, personnel changes, job advertisements and classifieds. Books+Publishing is also the only source of pre-publication reviews of Australian books.

And today they’ve published a little article about me and my book!

Gosh, I wonder if people will stop me in the street now? Will I get mobbed at my regular lunchtime sushi place? Are the other kids going to tease my children?

No?  Nothing? Right.  Best get back to the day job then…

Just for the record, though, my last name is Scott Tucker.  Two words, no hyphen.  Like Mary Grant Bruce.😉

Had a coffee with my publisher yesterday…


Text LogoWow. It feels unbelievably good to say/write that out loud.

After much deliberation and a lengthy discussion with my agent (ok, yes, it was over lunch but we both drank water – honest!) I decided to go with Text Publishing.

In the end I was lucky enough to receive seven generous offers for the manuscript. I can’t imagine that will ever happen again so I was careful to enjoy every minute! And speaking at length with the wise, intelligent and enthusiastic editors from each of those houses has been a genuine privilege.

It was very much a line-ball decision – and I’m sure any of the publishers I spoke with would have been great – but I chose Text because Michael Heyward and the people there really ‘get it’.  They asked smart questions and clearly want to take the manuscript in the same direction I want to go. Their deal includes a second version of the biography, rewritten for a Young Adult (YA) audience. Also and importantly, Text’s backlist is full of books I admire very much, that hit the sweet spot between intellectual depth and commercial readability. The fact that Text is home to authors like Helen Garner, Inga Clendinnen, Peter Temple, Kate Grenville, Clare Wright and Tim Flannery (to name a few) wasn’t a deciding factor but, once again, wow.

Jane Pearson

Jane Pearson

So yesterday I had a coffee with my editor at Text, the lovely Jane Pearson.

Jane introduced me, one at a time, to everyone in the office (they were all very friendly and kind) and then took me into a literary lollyshop – the Text Publishing storeroom. Heaven!  Suffice to say that, with Jane’s blessing and encouragement, I walked out of heaven hefting a Text carry bag loaded with gorgeous new books. I like it here already…

Then we walked down the street to very hipster cafe and spent an hour or so in a wonderfully intense conversation about next steps, the editing process, deadlines, our children, contracts, and – best of all – the party held by Text for writers and industry people during next month’s Melbourne Writers Festival. To which I am invited. Yes, I know.  Wow.

At this stage it looks like the book will be released in 2018.  So if this blog goes quiet over the next little while, with less regular posts, it’s because I’m working hard on my manuscript – the biggest adventure in biography so far.