Title: Elizabeth and Elizabeth
Author: Sue Williams
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 11th January 2021
Synopsis: The story of how two women, who should have been bitter foes, combined their courage and wisdom to wield extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony.
‘I’ve waited for this moment so long, dreamed of it, prepared for it, I can barely believe it’s finally here. But it is. And it is nothing like I expected.’
There was a short time in Australia’s European history when two women wielded extraordinary power and influence behind the scenes of the fledgling colony.
One was Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of the new governor Lachlan Macquarie, nudging him towards social reform and magnificent buildings and town planning. The other was Elizabeth Macarthur, credited with creating Australia’s wool industry and married to John Macarthur, a dangerous enemy of the establishment.
These women came from strikingly different backgrounds with husbands who held sharply conflicting views. They should have been bitter foes. Elizabeth & Elizabeth is about two courageous women thrown together in impossible times.
Borne out of an overriding admiration for the women of early colonial Australian history, Sue Williams has written a novel of enduring fascination.
Most of the history we have read and been taught until recently has been taken from the records of the winners, the victors, the leaders – mostly men. Women were present but there were times when we didn’t always hear their voices or learn about their experiences. In the past few years, there have been many books – both fiction and non-fiction that explore women’s stories. There are too many to list here, but there have been some that have highlighted people in their times that have previously not been taught.
In Australia, there have been many people who have helped shape our nation over the centuries. Two of these people – two women – are the focus of Sue Williams latest novel.
In the 18th century, during the early decades of the colony in New South Wales, two women established themselves and the way the colony ran separate from their husbands. The first was Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur – credited with creating the wool industry, though this book and Michelle Scott Tucker’s book that I’m yet to read, establish that Elizabeth had more of a role than her husband, who was absent for large periods of time. The second was Elizabeth (Betsey) Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and she had a role in nudging her husband towards social reforms in the colony.
Elizabeth and Betsey had a friendship that went beyond societal standing and who their husbands were and what they did. It was something that kept the two going, a friendship that was powerful and withstood tragedy. The focus is on the two Elizabeths, so the other characters within are peripheral yet still important. The story is told through their eyes in alternating chapters – first person for Betsey, and third person for Elizabeth. Subheadings under the chapter titles let the reader know whose turn it is to speak, and the dates and years being explored – this helps build the historical feeling of time and place, and the interrelated chapters show the passage of time and at times, how long it would take for news to reach each other is shown through dates at the top of chapters.
When combined, these techniques set the scene and setting very well, giving the modern, twenty-first century reader an insight into the role that distance and time spent travelling played in the evolution of Betsey and Elizabeth’s relationship. It is a testament to friendship, and the powerful yet hidden role these women played in the evolution of the Australia we know in 2021. Every now and then, there are hints at what we know – as though they are predictions that these people made for the future.
Books like this are important, because they give women a voice, and show that they have always had a voice, and have always had bigger roles than being wives and mothers in history. They influenced society and those around them, and they gathered information and supported each other. Whilst this novel focuses on the friendship between the two women, it does hint at and explore what they did together and individually for the colony, and how they influenced those around them and lived their lives.
The books that give insight into our history and the stories and people who have been hidden, silenced or simply ignored beyond what historians might have thought people needed to know. They give so much more scope than some records, and prove that history is much more complex than we think it is, as there are many strands to tug, pull and explore to give a full picture of the history of a nation.