Book Review: Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur is a love letter to a successful businesswoman in a fledgling colony

We so often read about history but what about her-story? At school many of us learned about the contributions of John Macarthur to Australia’s agricultural industry. But little has been said about his wife, Elizabeth Macarthur, another integral player in this story. Michelle Scott Tucker rectifies this  with her debut, the engaging biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life At The Edge Of The World.

One thing that is immediately apparent in this rich and comprehensive book is Scott Tucker’s ability to provide excellent grounding and context. She successfully paints a vivid portrait of Elizabeth, describing her in very similar to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, except that instead of marrying Mr Darcy, this particular Elizabeth wound up marrying George Wickham.

It is well-documented that John Macarthur was a difficult and prickly character. He was responsible for instigating the Rum Rebellion and over-throwing Governor Bligh. John also engaged in various arguments and duels in his lifetime. One of these culminated in his shooting Colonel Paterson – his superior – in the arm. John would be exiled to England for this and other misdemeanours. Luckily he had a good, conscientious woman in Elizabeth to play the role of matriarch and manage the family’s affairs.

Elizabeth Macarthur was from a farming family. She was a gentlewoman from the-then remote English village in the county of Devon when she met John. They would marry for love because John was, at the time, a penniless army officer. The pair would embark on an adventure, traveling in squalid conditions with the Second Fleet to arrive in the newly-colonised Australia. They would find their fortunes in this fledgling environment and Elizabeth would never return to her native England.

This book appears to be a labour of love for Scott Tucker. It is a meticulously researched and well-written volume. It is the culmination of twelve years of hard work and it certainly shows. The end product is a stunning and intimate look at Elizabeth and the family’s lives. It captures her character by drawing on her original letters and diaries and Scott Tucker also provides expert commentary to fill in the gaps that occur through the passage of time.

Elizabeth Macarthur is a fascinating subject. She was integral in managing the day-to-day operations of the family’s vast land holdings and in the establishment of the Merino wool industry. She also knew many famous individuals from that time like Charles Darwin and Matthew Flinders, to name but two. This work isn’t a hagiography because Scott Tucker isn’t afraid to show how the Macarthurs were complicit in the mistreatment of our indigenous people. This certainly shows that Elizabeth was very much a product of her time and the society in which she was living in.

Scott Tucker’s work should be required reading in schools. The book is an informative and learned look at colonial history. It should be applauded for restoring Elizabeth to the history books and celebrating the vital role she played. Elizabeth was ultimately a formidable and inspiring woman and this biography is a testament to her finery, merino wool and all.

Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life At The Edge Of The World by Michelle Scott Tucker is available now through Text Publishing