A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Kate Grenville’s latest novel is a wonderful continuation of her investigation of Australian history and the people who made it. In her best known novel, The Secret River, she built on research into her own family history to explore a wider colonial history. The research behind her current novel is equally thorough and fascinating. In A Room Made of Leaves, she goes back to the earliest years of British settlement and to one of the original families, telling a story well known to many Australians. John Macarthur is known as one of the founding fathers and his farmhouse in Parramatta  has been preserved as a museum with beautifully preserved interiors and costumed re-enactments.

The old history of the colony emphasised the heroic achievements of the early settlers who started to farm the land in European style, making fortunes for themselves and giving new opportunities to the unfortunate convicts transported there for punishment. It is chiefly a history of the lives of relatively privileged white men: governors, soldiers and farmers. John Macarthur was an army lieutenant, keen to take advantage of the availability of land and workers, and the distance from London. Seemingly, he was responsible for the lucrative development of merino sheep farming. In more recent revised histories, he has emerged as a colonising monster, greedy, violent, and corrupt.

The official account only briefly touches on the role of John’s wife, Elizabeth Macarthur, a young woman from Devon, but Grenville puts her at the centre. Importantly, Elizabeth is given the chance to tell her own story, rather than simply being a background figure, a wife and mother. It is the “pretend memoir of a real person”. This is a particularly significant strategy since the real Elizabeth had been partially known through letters sent home for a wider public consumption – reassuring letters about prosperity, domestic contentment and settled and hierarchical relationships. That version is what the author sets out to undermine. She dedicates her novel “to all those whose stories have been silenced”. Although from a modest rural background, Elizabeth benefited from more education than most girls after being taken into the vicar’s household and educated alongside his daughter. That education gave her the literacy skills to compose the “bland and boring” documents that have survived. It was while reading those that Grenville began to imagine the woman behind them whose life must have been extraordinarily difficult and who achieved more than she could ever have expected. It was clear that her learned respectable femininity suppressed not only feeling but also truth. Grenville quotes Macarthur’s own words “Do not believe too quickly!”

The novel imagines her unrecorded inner life and personal struggles through the device of documents found – by the author – in an attic many years after her death. This is her memoir, written at the end of her life, vividly recalling both a gradual awakening of selfhood and an increasing love of the land to which she has been taken. As the “Editor” tells us, “she steps out from behind the bland documents that were her public face. They’re a series of hot outpourings, pellets of memory lit by passionate feeling.” Elizabeth’s story is told in brief segments of reminiscence, like cameos of her life, suggesting the vivid if fragmentary nature of memory. Thus we glimpse her as a child, learning about sheep-farming from her grandfather, then about her female role as she grows older, followed by pregnancy and marriage and being forced to leave her Devon home. Her early years do stand her in good stead, however, as she revives her knowledge on the other side of the world to help make her family’s fortune. Before that there is a vivid picture of the hard life of  a settler woman with its child births (and deaths) in a harsh place surrounded by brutalised convicts, with no proper housing and food shortages. All this while serving and being obedient to a husband who is “ rash, impulsive, changeable, self-deceiving, cold, unreachable, self-regarding”.

The title refers to the heroine’s discovery of a private place in nature, away from the injustices and hierarchy of the militarised convict settlement, but I think it also has an echo of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, alluding to the private space denied to women for centuries which is essential to creativity and to a full sense of selfhood. The title thus combines the two main concerns of the novel – the confinement and exploitation of women and the expropriation of “Australian” land and displacement of native people. The latter theme slowly builds through the novel, as Elizabeth becomes more aware of and sympathetic to the inhabitants of the place. Some of her understanding is learned from a close relationship with William Dawes, a soldier-astronomer who introduces her to the otherness of the skies, to the different nature and wildlife, but also to the people who live there whose language he is learning and who he alone treats with respect. This character is also based on a real historical figure who featured in Grenville’s earlier novel, The Lieutenant. He is a bridge linking the novel’s themes. Through him, Elizabeth comes to see that her encounter with the alien continent is also an encounter with a self she had not known.

We come to understand Elizabeth’s growing attachment to the place through some lyrical passages of landscape description. They evoke the strangeness of what she sees along with her new sense of joy and freedom:

 a view through the bushes of a slice of harbour rough and blue like lapis, a tree with bark of such a smooth pink fleshiness that you could expect it to be warm, an overhang of rock with a fraying underside, soft as cake, that glowed yellow. The wind brought with it the salt of the ocean and the strange spicy astringency given off by the shrubs and flowers. There was an almost frightening breadth and depth and height to the place, alive with openness and the wild energy of breeze and trees and the crying gulls and the brilliant water.

Such sensuous and vivid writing is part of what makes this novel a pleasure to read. It’s important, too, because the sense of place, like the sense of self, is political. The history of the first peoples of the Australian continent is increasingly foregrounded in Elizabeth’s story. They are ignored by the settlers until the land to which they belong is taken from them. In telling her own story Elizabeth inevitably also tells their story from a critical perspective, showing the land grabs, the racist exploitation, and then the force of arms used to suppress them.

Throughout the novel, Elizabeth believes she wants to return “home” but gradually she settles, comes to love the land and to see England instead as a strange and alien place. Of course, that fulfilment and self-knowledge has costs for the original people on the land. This makes Elizabeth’s success through adversity more nuanced and awkward. Grenville isn’t writing a triumphalist feminist story. She has a sensitive understanding that Elizabeth’s survival and ultimate happiness in her new life is at the expense of the excluded people and on the backs of convicts who are effectively slaves. At the end of her memoir, as though through writing it she has learned this, Elizabeth says:

I am a newcomer here, ignorant of the inner grain of the place. The lifetime of one woman cannot be put beside the uncountable generations of people who were here before me….Now I am prepared to be more honest. As Mrs Brown did, I have to face the fact that I am a thief… I have been a thief for every one of those forty years.

This is an extraordinary novel. It vividly captures a sense of place and time, engages the reader with its characters, tells a gripping story and still manages to think deeply about injustice, inequality and the complexity of history.

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Kate Grenville, A Room Made of Leaves  (Canongate, 2020). 978-1838851231, 322pp., hardback.

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