Often when we talk about early colonial history of Australia we mention great governors such as Major General Lachlan Macquarie (1810-1821), or the 1808 Rum Rebellion agitator Mr. John Macarthur. However, what if we explored the lives of each of their wives, Elizabeth and Elizabeth?
On Saturday 3rd September, City of Canada Bay Heritage Museum had a wonderful visit from Sue Williams, the author of Elizabeth & Elizabeth. Her expertise and passion for the story were felt by all. Ms. Williams explained how this book came about. There are many novels and biographies on Elizabeth Macarthur née Veale and her life in Australia. However, there are very few on Elizabeth (Betsey) Macquarie née Campbell, and her contribution to our early colony. This book began as a biography of Betsey Macquarie née Campbell and transformed into a novel showcasing through fiction the details of the Elizabeths’ unlikely friendship from 1810 until Betsey’s death in 1835.
Both women came from difficult childhoods and unlucky strings of circumstance. Betsey Campbell was the youngest child by many years and pursued a good education instead of young marriage. Elizabeth Veale lost her father young and was put in the care of friends after her stepfather refused to care for her. Both women married prominent military officers; Betsey Campbell married Lachlan Macquarie, who was soon after granted the Governorship of New South Wales (Australia). Elizabeth Veale fell in love with John Macarthur; she was the first officer’s wife to arrive in Australia.
Betsey and Elizabeth had vastly different experiences in Australia. Throughout the book, we learn about the individual struggles of the two women, and how they overcame adversity together. We read about their fights against power-hungry men, betrayals from close friends, loss of children, and the decline of their husbands’ health. These women persevered with their ambitions, Elizabeth growing and improving her family’s wool empire alone, Betsey designing public buildings and pushing for safer conditions for female orphans and convicts. They were forced to make sure their “gun is loaded” and leave their embroidery underfoot.
Ms. Williams writes Betsey and Elizabeth with such emotion and reality that we forget that the intricate details of their friendship within the novel are fiction. The Elizabeths manage to maintain a friendship despite their husbands being enemies, Macquarie an emancipist fighting for convict rights, and Macarthur an exclusivist fighting against these rights. We read along as they learn about one another, each woman gaining respect and appreciation for the other. Together, these women forge a friendship full of undying encouragement and support. As Elizabeth says to Betsey, “we women must stick together, otherwise where would we be?”
Living now in the 21st century, it may be difficult to know how to draw inspiration from these 19th-century women. Ms. Williams was kind enough to offer her insight into this. She noted that it is their fighting spirit that we can draw from. Their resilience to not only survive but succeed despite terrible odds. We can learn an important lesson from these women and their strength to carry on through almost constant hardship. This lesson is particularly valuable for today’s youngest generation of Australians who are taught so little of the inspirational side of Australian history, especially inspirational women of history.
Untold truths from history are becoming an increasingly popular subject in our community. Ms. Williams suggested that our collective isolation during the Covid-19 lockdowns over the last two years sparked a trend of looking inwards at ourselves and our histories. With less time to travel, we have had more time to think about ourselves, our nation’s past, and the phenomenon of history repeating itself. This new interest seems to stir our intellectual and emotional desires during our long months of social isolation. For our Canada Bay museum, this reflection came in the form of a display comparing the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 to the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020. Elizabeth & Elizabeth has been a welcome addition to our Covid comfort novels.
It is through their devotion, strength, dignity, and courage, that these women not only survived but succeeded in their own missions. As a suitable ending to the novel, we read about a reflection on their friendship, Betsey acknowledging, “It is so strange that we’re much more alike than either of us could ever, at first, have imagined.”
Thank you to Sue Williams for her insightful novel and her visit to our historical society.
Note: All quotes included in this article are sourced from Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams.