Title: Searching for Charlotte: The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author
Author: Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell
Publisher: NLA Press
Published: 1st November 2020
Synopsis: For almost 140 years, the author of Australia’s first book for children was a mystery. Known only by the description ‘a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’, she was the subject of much speculation. It was not until 1980, after a decade of sleuthing, that legendary bibliographer Marcie Muir gave her a name: Charlotte Waring Atkinson. And not only a name, but an extensive creative family history, connecting her to two of the nation’s celebrated contemporary children’s writers, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell.
To Forsyth and Murrell, Atkinson (also known as Barton) is great-great-great-great grandmother and the subject of the stories they grew up on—part of a thread of creative women that runs through the history of their family. Hers is one of the great lost stories of Australian history: a tale of love, grief, violence and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
After spending half her life educating the children of the well-to-do in England, in 1826, at 30 years of age, Charlotte Waring accepted a job on the other side of the world. She was to teach the children of Maria Macarthur, daughter of former New South Wales governor Philip Gidley King. But on the voyage, love diverted her to a different future: marriage to the eligible James Atkinson meant she spent just seven short months with her charges. What followed were years of hardship in the New South Wales bush, including the death of Atkinson and her subsequent marriage to an abusive drunk, a brutal attack by bushrangers, penury and the threat of having her children taken away.
In Searching for Charlotte, Forsyth and Murrell tell Charlotte’s story along with that of their own journey to discover her. In an intriguing account, the sisters join the reader in reacting to Charlotte’s actions: wondering what could have motivated certain choices; admiring the strength of spirit that pushed Charlotte through turmoil in the Australian colonies; and reviling attitudes that were common to the mid-1800s but are abhorrent in the twentieth century.
The extraordinary, long-buried life story of Australia’s earliest published children’s author, Searching for Charlotte combines elements of biography, recreation of history and rediscovery of family history. It is a sometimes confronting but ultimately heart-warming journey into the story of a family with writing in its blood.
Every now and then, a very special book comes along. These books are pure magic and find ways to get into your heart and soul in ways you could never have imagined. Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and her sister, Belinda Murrell, is one of these books.
Kate and Belinda are descendants of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who wrote the first children’s book in Australia – they are her great-great-great-great granddaughters. Generations of their family have written, so writing is in their blood. I’ve known about Charlotte for a while, from talks with Kate, and my own reading. What this book does is open up Charlotte’s life for readers, and reveals a long-buried story, and identifies the true author of our first children’s book in Australia – which for many years was wrongly attributed to someone else until dedicated research resolved that.
I love Kate and Belinda’s books, and reading about their journey across the Southern Highlands and England in search of their ancestor and her story, what she went through, I felt like I was travelling with them, both in the present and in the past with Charlotte as they recounted their family stories and history, and what Charlotte went through from the time she left England, to her escape from second husband, George Barton. Reading these books I felt as though I could feel the biting cold in England during their research trip, and felt as wet as they did. It was executed so effectively, that the past and present met and united as they followed the paths of their ancestors.
The book reveals attitudes that in today’s world, we would not accept, yet in the 1840s, were accepted – though Kate and Belinda’s research and story shows that their ancestors were a bit more enlightened than the majority of their contemporaries yet were still influenced and touched by these abhorrent attitudes – and as Kate and Belinda note in the back – these were included for context, and they discuss their shock and horror at reading their ancestor’s words at times. They touched on so many things – racism, Charlotte’s life, and issues surrounding parental law realistically and sensitively.
Charlotte was brave – she was facing a life in a distant land, as a governess, and later, working the land, looking after her children and surviving a bushranger attack, an awful husband, patriarchal law, and so many obstacles to ensure her children could stay with her and get the education she wanted to give them that the colonial schools could not offer.
This beautifully written book is evocative and moving, and I was savouring it, but once I hit the halfway point, I found that I had to read on to find out more about Charlotte. It was a highly anticipated book as I have been following Kate and Belinda’s journey ever since they announced they were writing it, and watched them update everyone on Facebook, and the power of their family history, words and the pull of their ancestral home and desire to find Oldbury, where Charlotte lived, made this a wonderful book, where fiction techniques were combined with non-fiction to create a powerful and touching story of feminism, family and the will to survive – and the impact of family history on the future – and the way the present mirrors the past sometimes.
This is a book to be treasured, especially with my lovely signed bookplate that came with the pre-order from the National Library. I wish this had been around when I was studying children’s literature at uni – it would have truly been something to bring up when discussing Australian Children’s literature, and to compare to what anything I was given in class said about this exceptional and talented woman, whose love for her family and desire to write has created a brilliant legacy that I can see continuing for generations to come.