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- author Jackie French

Monday 30 November 2020

Guest Post: Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell - Part One

Searching for Charlotte: The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author has just been released. 

Multi-award winning writers and sisters, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, descendants of writers and artists, have co-authored an exquisite documentation of their research journey, undertaken to uncover unknown aspects about the life of their great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring. We welcome and thank them as they share with us, a little about this epic undertaking.

What inspired you to start this research together?
K: We have often been invited to tell our great-great-great-great-grandmother's fascinating life story at literary festivals and events, and we are always mobbed by people telling us we must write a book about her. Next year is the 180th anniversary of the publication of her book, A Mother's Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales, and so it seemed the perfect time to celebrate her achievements.

B: Both Kate and I have been intrigued by the story of Charlotte’s life since we were young. As children, we grew up on romantic family tales about Charlotte’s life of love, grief and violence – and about her struggle to assert an independent spirit.

Our grandparents would take us down to Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands, and we would peer through the tangled hedges at Oldbury, the beautiful sandstone house built as a wedding present for Charlotte in 1828. It was this lifelong fascination which inspired me to write my children’s book, The River Charm, about the Atkinson family. I had done months of research into Charlotte’s life and discovered so many enthralling details, but there was still so much we did not know. It was such a joy to collaborate with Kate, and work together to dig up the details of Charlotte’s extraordinary life and ultimate triumph.

Family stories have been handed down to you since birth. How familiar was Charlotte’s life to you before the research?

B: The stories from our grandparents were romantic and inspiring tales, and I suspected that her real life might be more ordinary than we’d been told. Yet in fact, the truth was far more mysterious and tragic than we had imagined. Although we knew the broad facts, we had no idea how many amazing discoveries there were still left to find.

For me, an absolute highlight was finding Charlotte’s 1848 sketchbook, buried in the archives of the Mitchell Library, which had been misattributed to her son. This included a beautiful self-portrait of Charlotte as a young woman, wrapped in James’ plaid cloak, on the journey to Australia when she became engaged to the love of her life. There were also several unknown family portraits, including a tender sketch of her 19-year-old daughter Charlotte, our great-great-great grandmother, on her wedding day.

K: We also discovered that Charlotte was probably the author of two other books, including one which contains the very first children's story set in Australia. That was so exciting! We found the first clue in a handwritten note by the literary bibliographer Marcie Muir, buried in the archives at the National Library of Australia. She had scribbled down the name of another early colonial book: P & P's Tales. As I was wondering why Marcie Muir had included such a notation in her file on Charlotte, Belinda found a reference to Charlotte being the author of ‘several’ books in the archives she was reading. So, we wondered if Marcie Muir had perhaps been conjecturing that Charlotte was the author of that book too. I did some investigative work and found a collection of stories that had been published in London in 1832 called Peter Prattle's Tales. The Mitchell Library had a copy of this very rare book, and so I examined the book and found very compelling evidence that it may have been written by Charlotte. It was a kind of linguistic forensics!

Following in Charlotte’s footsteps must have been very rewarding to you and your daughters who accompanied you. Can you please expand.
K: It really was! Such a special sister-mother-daughter-cousin expedition. We went on literary pilgrimages to the houses of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, went hiking on the moors, discovered our ancestors' long-lost graves, and listened to the girls reading each other Pride & Prejudice out loud as we drove all over England. It was such fun, and very poignant. My daughter was 15 - the same age that Charlotte began work as a governess. It really helped me understand our great-great-great--great-grandmother as a young woman!

B: By the time we went to England with the girls, we had been intensively researching Charlotte’s life for over a year. Visiting the places where Charlotte had lived and worked transformed the dry facts of her life and made her seem very real to us, as though we could see into her thoughts and motivations. Both Emily and Ella embraced the trip as an enthralling treasure hunt, sharing our excitement. It truly was a life highlight for us all.

A tremendous amount of research was demanded of you both. How did you recognise what to keep and what to ignore for the purpose of this book?
B: That was the difficult part! To me, the research was addictive and fascinating, but I began to feel like I was getting lost down rabbit holes, chasing tiny details. Yet sometimes it was when we were lost checking endless newspaper articles or dusty archives, that we made our best discoveries. In the end, Kate and I learned so much information, that we just could not include in the final book. We had a mantra which helped asking ourselves ‘It’s interesting but is it relevant?’ In the end, we both had to cut out whole chapters because the book was too long.

K: For example, we had always been brought up on stories that the Waring family was descended from a Norman knight called William de Warenne who fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I’d always been fascinated by this romantic history, and spent far too long investigating it. In the end, we decided that all we needed for the book was a paragraph or two! But sometimes you need to do the research to know what you don’t need …

When learning about the predicaments Charlotte faced as a woman in Colonial times, is there any comparison to be made with women in the same situations in today’s society?
K: Absolutely! Charlotte had to struggle to make her own way in the world, she had to fight against a patriarchal court system to keep custody of her own children, and to find a way to support them. She suffered sexual violence and domestic abuse, a problem that is still far too prevalent in our world, and still find the strength to care for her little family. And, like many women, she had to find some way to balance her own artistic aspirations with the need to make a living. She is a woman for our times!

B: Life for colonial women, was tough, violent, and unfair. Yet we discovered there were so many similarities to the concerns of modern women – the love of family, raising and educating children to be the best they can be, dealing with life’s setbacks, finding your passion, being resilient and determined, and the importance of standing up for what you believe in. Charlotte was a fiercely independent woman and an early feminist who was derided as being abrasive and a ‘she-dragon’ because she fought to keep her children! Kate and I joked that even now, a man who stands up for himself is called a leader, while a woman who stands up for herself is abrasive. So sadly, there are some things that haven’t changed at all.

We invite you to re-visit the site on Wednesday 2 November for Part Two of this mesmerising interview with Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrel