Charmed by the Past, by Kate Forsyth

Mystery is at the heart of all creativity.

Ask any writer where their ideas come from and they will struggle to answer. Amy Tan has said: ‘Who knows where inspiration comes from? Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.’

I believe a writer takes everything they have ever seen and heard and felt and longed for and been disgusted by – they pour it into the crucible of the imagination and transform into something quite different. It is alchemy. It is magic.

A few years ago, I wrote a series of children’s historical adventure novels about two Romany children living in England in the time of Oliver Cromwell. ‘The Chain of Charms’ follow Luka and Emilia’s adventures as they set out on a perilous journey to find six lucky charms that will, they hope, help them save their family from the gallows. The books won five Aurealis Awards in Australia, and were nominated for a CYBIL Award in the US and the Surrey Book of the Year award in Canada.

What is most surprising about these books is that the very first seed was planted when I was only a little girl, leaning against my great-aunt’s knee as she told me the stories behind the trinkets on her charm bracelet.

Most of the charms had been collected by my great-aunt during a long and adventurous life. There was a Tower of London, an Eiffel Tower – the sort of charm you can find at most souvenir shops – and a few more unusual ones, like an antique Jewish prayer scroll found in Jerusalem.

But the oldest and most interesting of all the charms is also the most ordinary. It is a pebble. Smooth to the touch, banded with soft brown and orange, it is about the size of a thumbnail. It was picked up long, long ago, by a young woman who would in time become my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.

Her name was Charlotte Waring.

Born in 1796, Charlotte was the third daughter of an affluent and eccentric London barrister, Albert Waring. Being “a man of fortune”, he did not practice law but indulged his passion for zoology by collecting many exotic birds and animals which he kept in the garden of his great house. Charlotte was of “particularly handsome and brilliant” appearance with “full large black eyes, black hair which curled naturally and fine features.” She was unusually well educated, having been a child prodigy who read by the age of two.

When Charlotte was in her teens her father married again – to a young woman not much older than Charlotte herself – who soon after bore him a son. When her father died, Charlotte and her three sisters, like many a heroine of a Jane Austen novel, were forced to find work as governesses.

Yet Charlotte was strong-willed and strong-minded, and used to a life of privilege. The lowly status and pay lacerated her independent spirit. So, at the age of thirty, she applied for a position of a governess halfway round the world, in New South Wales, in an attempt to forge some kind of life for herself.

The advertisement in the paper was deliberately vague in its details – it omitted to tell the location of the job. Of the twenty-five woman who applied for the job, twenty-four withdrew as soon as they realised it meant traveling to the colonies, even though the salary offered – 100 pounds a year – was very high indeed . Only Charlotte had the courage to accept, though she insisted she must travel first-class.

She was engaged to teach the children of Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur, nephew to John Macarthur, by the wife of Admiral Phillip Parker King. At first Mrs King was fulsome in her praise of the new governess. A few weeks later, however, she wrote to her husband, “I am very much disappointed in Miss Waring the Governess, she is very different from what she ought to be, or we expected. We had not been 2 hours on board before I saw she was flirting with Mr Atkinson, and ere 10 days were over she was engaged to him … Her conduct is far from what I could wish otherwise, as she does not act with propriety … I have spoken to her … but she told me … she must be mistress of her own actions.’

Charlotte Waring left Plymouth on 19th September 1826, a penniless governess with few prospects. She arrived in Sydney on 22nd January 1827 engaged to James Atkinson, one of the richest and most influential young men in the colony.

James had landed in Sydney in 1820, only twelve years after the arrival of the First Fleet. He had been given two land grants totaling 2,000 acres as a reward for his services as principal clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. This land, called Oldbury after his father’s manor in Kent, was at Sutton Forest, 140 kilometres south of Sydney. He was good friends with the Kings and the Macarthurs, and was instrumental in the import of merino sheep into NSW. His book, An Account of Agriculture and Grazing in NSW, had just been published in London, to great acclaim.

Their romance scandalised Sydney. Alexander Berry, writing to Edward Wollstonecraft, said ‘I must say I never saw a lady whose manners were less to my taste … the grossest levity!’ Mrs King wrote ‘she behaved very ill and gave herself many airs’. In general, Charlotte was considered bold, forthright, and proud, characteristics which the women of my family are glad to lay claim to, along with the curly hair.

Charlotte and James were married on 29 September 1827 and went to live at Oldbury, where they built a grand two-storey English-style manor which still stands today (though not, sadly, owned by my family). Four children were born in quick succession – Charlotte Elizabeth (my great-great-great-great-grandmother), Jane Emily, James John Oldbury and Caroline Louisa Waring (known as Louisa).

When Louisa was only two months old, James Atkinson died of “a lingering and painful illness”. Charlotte was left alone, the mistress of a vast, isolated property and the mother of four children under six years of age.

It was a difficult and dangerous time to be a farmer in New South Wales. The labour on the farm was done by convicts, relations with the local Aborigines were uneasy, and attacks on homesteads by bushrangers were an almost daily occurrence. On one occasion, almost two years after James’s death, Charlotte and her overseer, George Barton, were visiting an outlying property when they were held up by bushrangers. One proceeded to brutally whip Barton, saying he “considered it his duty to go around and flog all the gentlemen so they might know what punishment was.”

Just over a month later, Charlotte married Barton – perhaps because she was afraid, perhaps because she was lonely, perhaps because her reputation was compromised. Either way, it was a decision she was to regret bitterly.

George Barton was a violent drunk. In time he would be charged with manslaughter, and certified insane. Charlotte’s problems were only worsened by continual conflicts with the executors of her husband’s will, which saw Oldbury left in trust for the two-year-old James John. Despite being the widow of one of the wealthiest men in the colony, Charlotte was penniless. 

In December 1839, three years after her second marriage, Charlotte packed up her four children, her writing desk and the children’s pet koala and fled Oldbury. They went to live at another of the Atkinson properties at the very edge of the unexplored wilderness. There was no grand manor house there, only a primitive shack, and Charlotte had only a few convict servants to help her till the soil and look after her children. She had no income at all from Oldbury, supporting her family by the sale of her furniture and jewellery, and by running up debts.

This refuge was only short-lived, however, for the wrangles with the executors of James’s will had reached such a point that the only recourse was the courts. For the next six years, Charlotte would battle not only for the allowance she was entitled to under her dead husband’s will, but also for custody of her children. The executors of the will – Alexander Berry and John Coghill – maintained she was ‘not a fit and proper person to be the Guardian of the Infants … in consequence of her imprudent … intermarriage with George Bruce Barton.’

In the meantime, Charlotte had to find some way to house, feed, clothe and educate her children who were ‘literally starving’. So she wrote a book, the first children’s book to be published in Australia. Called A Mother’s Offering To Her Children, it was published anonymously ‘By A Lady Long Resident In Australia’. It was released in December 1841, in time for the Christmas trade, and became an instant bestseller.

I have a copy of my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s book, though they are rare nowadays and worth a lot of money. It is an odd little book, stilted in style, being written in the form of a dialogue between mother and children. It ranges from discussions on Australian natural history to the customs of Australian Aborigines. Cleverly, A Mother’s Offering was educational enough to appeal to early Victorian sensibilities and yet still exciting enough to appeal to children, filled as it was with descriptions of storms, shipwrecks, strange animals, fossils and cannibals.

It was by no means original in style, yet Charlotte’s book was the first to draw upon true Australian history, the first to feature native trees, birds and animals, the first to try and engage with the impact of colonisation upon the Australian Aborigines. I have to remind myself of this, because the first time I read it I was horrified at her racism.

At one point, Emma (the child based on Emily) says: “It is very odd, that animals should know the difference between black and white people.”

Mrs S, her mother, replies: “I do not suppose it is their colour altogether. It may be the unpleasant smell which they have; from want of cleanliness; and constantly rubbing themselves with the fat of animals which they kill.”

It is hard to remember that Charlotte was writing in the early 19th century, and that her depiction of “the natives” was considered rather too sympathetic.

By the time the book was published, Charlotte had resoundingly won her case, though she was fined in court for her ‘impertinence’. The Chief Justice, Sir James Dowling, ruled: “It being made manifest, therefore, that Mrs. Barton is herself competent to educate her children … it would require a state of urgent circumstances to induce the Court to deprive them (all of whom are under thirteen years of age) of that maternal care and tenderness, which none but a mother can bestow.”

Berry wrote, in disgust, that he was totally averse to having anymore to do with “such a notable she-dragon” and, despite the court ruling, stalled the paying of any allowance for another five years. Charlotte continued to fight for her rights, which ended up being rather hollow, since the value of Oldbury had fallen to only 500 pounds from the valuation of 6,000 pounds made at James’s death. Nonetheless, Charlotte and her children returned there in 1846, to find the house derelict, “the glass broken in many places, and the walls damp-stained and cracked”.

By this time Charlotte Elizabeth was eighteen, Emily was sixteen, James John was fourteen, and Louisa was twelve. Charlotte Elizabeth – who by all accounts was quite as wilful as her mother – promptly eloped with a groom, an Irish Catholic former convict, and so was considered utterly disgraced. She went on to have eleven children, of which only six survived. Emily married young too, and died in childbirth less than a year later. Her son, Henry, also died before the year was out.

James John finally inherited Oldbury at the age of twenty-one, some nineteen years after his father’s death. Charlotte and her youngest daughter Louisa moved to Sydney, where the nineteen-year-old took up the writing career that would later have her described as ‘the colonial Charlotte Bronte’.

Louisa Atkinson’s story is quite as fascinating and melodramatic as her mother’s. A noted naturalist and artist, Louisa was also the first Australian-born novelist. She wrote four novels, all serialized in The Sydney Morning Herald, of which Gertrude the Immigrant: A Tale of Colonial Life is probably the best known. Louisa was only twenty-three when it was published, in 1857.

She went on to a flourishing journalistic career, writing a regular column in The Sydney Morning Herald for more than ten years. In 1865, Louisa caused a sensation when she provided a free pot of native cranberry jam with each copy of the Horticultural Magazine, to try and encourage Australians to eat their own native fruits.

By March 1861, Louisa had provided Kew Gardens and the Melbourne Botanic Gardens with over 300 plant specimens, many of which were very rare. Several Australian plants are named aft her, notably the Loranthaceous genus Atkinsonia, the Erechtites atkinsoniae and Epacris calvertiana – the last attributed to her married name, Calvert.

Louisa Atkinson married James Calvert in 1869, two years after the death of her mother, Charlotte, at Oldbury. Three years later she too was dead. Her heart had always been weak, probably after a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. Eighteen days after giving birth to a daughter, Louisa’s husband went out riding on a horse and was thrown. Frightened, the horse galloped for home. Hearing the sound of hooves, Louisa ran to the window, her baby in her arms. Seeing the riderless horse, she collapsed and died. Her husband discovered her body when he limped home some hours later. She was just 38.

With odd synchronicity, her brother James John died a few years later after being thrown from the back of a horse. His widow sold Oldbury, and Louisa’s daughter Louise Snowden Annie – who had lived there with him – found herself orphaned and penniless. She, like her grandmother before her, had to work to support herself.

Her daughter later died childless. Of Charlotte Waring’s four children, only the disgraced Charlotte Elizabeth – my great-great-great-great-grandmother – lived and prospered and procreated. She ran a private school, painted beautifully and was, her daughter Flora said, ‘a frequent writer to journals and newspapers.’ Family mythology insists that she could well have been quite as brilliant as her younger sister Louisa, if it were not for the intemperate husband and the eleven children. Of her descendants, I am not the only writer – both my brother and sister are also published authors.

You may well be wondering what all this has to do with a small brown pebble, hanging from my great-aunt’s charm bracelet.

Let us go back to the beginning of our story.

Charlotte Waring, a spinster of a certain age, is about to embark on a perilous journey to the far reaches of the earth. On her last night on English soil, she bends and picks up a pebble. I like to think she is in the garden of her father’s grand house, standing on the bank of the river Thames, looking up at the familiar constellations that she will never see again, but this could just be a romantic flourish.

Charlotte slips the pebble into her pocket and, every time her courage fails her on that long difficult journey into the unknown, slides her hand into her pocket and closes her fingers about the little brown pebble. It represented home, and hope, and the chance of happiness. It was her link with the past, her last little piece of a land to which she would never return. Many years later, after her death, her daughter Charlotte Elizabeth found the pebble and had it mounted in gold so it could be worn hanging from a chain, a small symbol of her mother’s courage and fortitude. It was the first in our family’s chain of charms. Or so the story goes.

For me, hearing the stories of my great-aunt’s charm bracelet was a way of scratching our family’s history into the stone. The stories taught me a love of the past, a desire for adventure, a fascination with charm bracelets, and the knowledge of how even small, plain relics can have the power to conjure up lives far, far away, and long, long ago, connecting us across time.

So how does the story of Charlotte Waring’s pebble turn into a swashbuckling tale of gypsy children in the time of Oliver Cromwell? Well, that, my friends, is the mystery of creativity … and a whole other story.

*

With thanks to Patricia Clarke’s biography of Louisa Atkinson: ‘Pioneer Writer – The Life of Louisa Atkinson: novelist, journalist, naturalist’, 1990. The quotes about Charlotte Waring in the article, unless otherwise attributed, were all written by Louisa Atkinson.

***
You can find out more about Kate Forsyth and her writing at www.kateforsyth.com.au. An audio interview with Kate Forsyth about her ‘Chain of Charms’ series can be found at http://www.sydneywriterscentre.com.au/podcast/kateforsyth.htm.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

The Silver Horse (Chain of Charms)The Butterfly in Amber (Chain of Charms)The Cat's Eye Shell (Chain of Charms)The Lightning Bolt (Chain of Charms)The Butterfly in Amber (Chain of Charms)The Heart of StarsThe Shining City

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3 Responses to Charmed by the Past, by Kate Forsyth

  1. Pingback: Writerly Links « Kirstyn McDermott

  2. Pingback: Kate Forsyth – Author Interview | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Pingback: The Puzzle Ring (first chapter) by Kate Forsyth | The Australian Literature Review

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