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Collection Research with Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell
26 November 2020
‘Just one scribbled note from Marcie Muir led us to this amazing discovery … If we hadn’t had that serendipitous moment where Belinda [Murrell] was discovering in one book that Charlotte [Waring Atkinson] had written more than one published work, and then I almost simultaneously found this note, we would never have put the two things together and made that amazing discovery … It was a series of astonishing, serendipitous findings that led us to many of our most exciting insights.’ - Kate Forsyth.
Join bestselling authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell for the second installment of their pre-recorded, two-part author talk – a discussion about researching and finding collection material at the National Library, as they had to do when writing their new book, ‘Searching for Charlotte’.
Researching Collection Material with Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell
*Speakers: Kate Forysth (K), Belinda Murrell (B)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 30 October, 2020
K: Good morning, I’m Kate Forsyth and I am an author.
B: Hi, my name’s Belinda Murrell and I’m an author too but I’m also Kate’s sister.
K: We are the authors of a book together which is called Searching for Charlotte.
B: Searching for Charlotte, so excited about it.
K: It’s a fascinating story of Australia’s first children’s author and Charlotte Waring-Atkinson was actually our great-great-great-great-grandmother.
B: So we’re so excited to be here today in the National Library with this amazing collection ‘cause we spent months researching this book and a lot of our time was spent obviously researching Charlotte’s life with some of these amazing things and so we’re so thrilled to be here in front of a first edition of a book written by our great-great-great-great-grandmother which was published in 1841 but also a first edition of a book written by our great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Atkinson, which was published in 1826 and here they are, it’s so special.
K: It is, it’s such a lovely experience for us to be here. The story of how the National Library came to have this wonderful collection of our ancestors’ writings is one of the saddest and most poignant stories ever so James Atkinson and his wife, Charlotte Waring-Atkinson had four children and their youngest daughter, Louisa, is actually Australia’s first native-born novelist, journalist and botanist. When she was a young woman she had a little girl, a baby whose name was Louise and one day she was looking after her child and her husband, his horse came galloping into the yard of their house riderless and Louisa Atkinson was so overcome with terror at what might have happened to her husband that she had a heart attack and she actually dropped dead. So when her husband came limping into the yard he found her lying dead next to the cradle of their newborn baby.
B: It was such a sad story and one of the things we found when we were researching this story is there were so many moments of absolute triumph and joy but there were also so many incidents, it was so tragic and so sad. I found myself weeping often while we were researching this book. But Louise played a very important part in this story because when she was 15 years old she was an orphan, her mother had died when she was a tiny baby, her father died not long after and she was raised by relatives and she had a really unhappy childhood. Then when she was 15 years old her aunt – everybody in the family had died and her aunt decided to sell the grand huge house of Oldbury and burn everything so she was making this massive bonfire but she said to Louise, you can come and take away what you can carry. That little 15-year-old girl had to walk over fields and over hills and down dales to the house and she could gather up off that bonfire anything that she could carry home.
So everything that we have now in the National Library and then in the Mitchell Library, the State Library in Sydney is what that little girl, Louise, carried, walked 5km, gathered off that bonfire, everything she could carry and then she had to walk home 5km, carrying all the precious, amazing things so that we have them now. I bless that little girl, I think she was just so amazing but then I also want to weep for that bonfire of all the treasures that were actually burnt in that massive bonfire so long ago. So yes, it is a sad and a poignant story but how lucky we are to have these amazing things that Louise saved from that bonfire.
K: We could never have written our book if we hadn’t had access to this wonderful collection so we have here at the National Library, as well as the first editions of James Atkinson and Charlotte Waring-Atkinson’s books, which was the first children’s book published in Australia, we also have such lovely things as the little Bible that Louise Snowden was given on her christening and when she was married she carried that Bible in her bouquet at her wedding. Such a beautiful little touch. We have newspaper articles, there are drawings, photographs, sketch books, all sorts of ephemera.
B: Absolutely, boxes. Kate and I came down to the National Library and we must have had 40 boxes that were jam-packed full of tiny little documents, handwritten letters. Some of them are so incredibly difficult to decipher. My personal favourite in the collection is Charlotte’s shipward journal that she wrote in 1826 when she was coming out to Australia when she sat there every day in the Cutty writing in her journal about things that happened on board and it gives us a real insight into her personality, she was fun-loving, she loved a laugh, she was so determined and she just saw the whole thing as a great adventure.
But the very special thing about this book is it actually records the romance between her and her husband, James Atkinson. So she came on board the ship at Grave’s End and Kate and I went during our research to Grave’s End and we walked the cobblestones where they walked and she came on board the ship and then she met James Atkinson. He tipped his hat to her as she came up the gangplank and we’ve been told that story as part of our family mythology ever since we were little tiny girls.
The other story that I absolutely loved that we were told as girls that as part of their courtship ritual James Atkinson, when she was cold he would wrap Charlotte in his plaid cloak. I was so thrilled that when I transcribed this journal in 2012 and I found the very first reference to the plaid cloak, that this wasn’t just family mythology, it wasn’t something that someone had made up, it was actually based in fact. There was this first reference, twice in the journal she refers to James wrapping her in his plaid cloak and she was sitting on the poop deck and she was cold and she was sitting there watching the scenery wrapped in his cloak only a couple of days after she’d met him. Then later on there was this terrifying storm at sea and Charlotte nearly drowned and she got smashed by a wave and she had all those big heavy petticoats and she was under the water and she couldn’t get up and she was drowning and James scooped in, picked her up, saved her life and then wrapped her in his plaid cloak. It’s this absolutely beautiful romantic story and the next day he proposed to her so it was love at first sight and he -
K: That’s what we were always told when we were kids, it was love at first sight.
B: He was the love of her life and this story is just beautifully preserved in this journal that just took months to transcribe. So this is my favourite thing in the collection. But it led us to another amazing story, this story of the plaid cloak which we first heard as oral history then this was confirmed by transcribing the journal. Then what happened was when we were at the Mitchell Library we were going through a whole lot of archives there and we found this sketch book that had been misattributed to Charlotte’s son, James John, and as we’re turning the pages we’re thinking this is not the work of a teenage boy, this is Charlotte’s work so that was an amazing discovery. But then I turned the page and there’s this beautiful self portrait of this beautiful woman wrapped in a plaid cloak and we’re in the Mitchell Library, everyone’s quiet and I scream out, I go oh my god, she’s wearing a plaid cloak and everyone looks at me, glares at me as if ready to throw me out. Of course this was the first discovery of this beautiful self portrait of Charlotte as a young woman glowing with love and happiness and roses and wrapped in plaid cloak.
K: When we started this journey, when we decided that we were going to write a book inspired by the life of Charlotte Waring-Atkinson, our ancestor who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia, we were not sure if there were any discoveries left to be made. Both James Atkinson, Charlotte Waring-Atkinson and their daughter, Louisa Atkinson, have had books and papers and articles written about them, so much research done into their lives and so that the very first act of research that we did together, there was this incredible discovery. It gave us great hope and fortitude to know that our journey was actually going to be one of true discovery.
B: There were so many other amazing things we discovered on the journey along the way, just so many tiny little details about her life that we didn’t know, big things, little things. But one of my other favourite discoveries here was this particular book here which is The Reverend Woolls’ and it was his sermon that he gave when Louisa, Charlotte’s fourth child, her daughter died and he talked about her life and there’s a few really interesting details in here. He talked about the fact that Charlotte had written several books and this was the first clue we had that it wasn’t just a mother’s offering to her children that Charlotte had written, that she had written other works as well and then we found other clues as well, didn’t we?
K: That’s exactly right so we were here in the Special Collections Room at the National Library and Belinda and I are working through the many, many, many boxes of archival material and then Belinda’s reading this particular book and she turns to me and says isn’t this fascinating? This sermon says that Charlotte Waring-Atkinson was the author of more than one book and we thought I wonder what else she could have written. Then I was going through the Marcie Muir archival box. Marcie Muir was Charlotte Waring-Atkinson’s biographer and I found a hand scribbled note that simply said P and P Tales, question mark and I thought I wonder if Marcie Muir was wondering if this was a book authored by Charlotte.
So I began to research and over time I discovered that there’s a book here in the Special Collections called Peter Prattles, Amusing and Instructive Tales and it contains a short story which is the first time a story was ever set in Australia, in literary history of the world. The first story ever to be set in Australia was published in this little illustrated chat book called Peter Prattles, Amusing and Instructive Tales. So of course I pulled up the book and then I examined it and through a process of let’s call it linguistic forensics I came to the conclusion that Marcie Muir was right, that book had been written by Charlotte Waring-Atkinson which means that she’s not only the author of Australia’s first children’s book but she’s the author of the first piece of fiction set in this country and that was the most amazing discovery.
B: It was, quite incredible. I found another reference to her having written several works so with everything we have to substantiate it by having three pieces of evidence and so we had the Reverend Woolls, we had the other reference to it from a 19th century biography of Louisa’s life and then we had the Marcie Muir note so that was so exciting.
K: We feel that we are so lucky because so much of our research, we were able to draw upon our oral history, the stories that we were told by our grandparents and our mother as we were growing up. As a child we were completely enchanted by these stories, the romance and the drama and the intrigue of Charlotte’s amazing life but as we grew to be adults we began to doubt the veracity of these oral stories, we thought -
B: They seemed too amazing to be true, didn’t they? We thought oh she must have been far more ordinary than that.
K: That’s right, we thought oh of course they’ve been romanticised, of course they’ve been glamourised and so when we set out on our journey when we were searching for the truth of Charlotte’s life story we were expecting to find our childhood family mythology being debunked -
B: Demolished, in fact.
K: Exactly but what we found is that many of the stories that we were told as children, this oral history turned out to be true. That was I think one of the most amazing discoveries of all because it shows how stories that are passed down through the generations, they carry within them a kernel of truth and by listening to the stories of our forebears and of our parents and our grandparents we actually do receive truths about our ancestors and about how our families were shaped.
B: I think so but I think we were incredibly lucky because our family were writers so they all wrote and so it wasn’t just Charlotte that wrote stories about her life and wrote her journal and her children, both her daughters, the elder daughter, Charlotte, and also Louisa, who was the first Australian-born female novelist and journalist, I mean they both wrote articles for newspapers, they both wrote articles, stories, handwritten family histories -
K: Letters, journals.
B: Letters, journals and so we had these incredibly rich primary sources that we could use which just brought those characters to life, those people to life. Also the other thing that was amazing was the Trove, gosh, Trove newspapers. I mean I just can’t believe we’ve got all these digital newspapers going right back to the very early days of the colony and we could go through and we could see – they were all prolific letter-writers so James Atkinson was always writing to the newspapers. Not only that, there was advertisements that talked about how sad it was when they threw Charlotte out of Oldbury and they put the house up for let and it had a listing of how many sheep they had and how many cows they had and how many rooms they were in and it was this incredible list that gave a real insight into their lives.
Later on when Charlotte was selling another property it gave us these really interesting details into what she was doing at that time, when she was running a school, all of these discoveries we could make through the newspapers which were just – I mean I got lost down those rabbit holes for weeks and weeks and weeks following these little tiny leads which sometimes led nowhere but other times led to these incredible discoveries.
K: We had a rule. We had a number of rules when we were writing this book but one of our rules was to remember – everything was fascinating to us because we were making these discoveries about our own family but our rule was it might be interesting but is it relevant? So we had to choose what to keep in the book and what was probably not of interest to anyone outside the family. So that really helped us because at some points in the writing of this book we were so overwhelmed by the difficulty of the research and how much material there was and how difficult it was to read the faded handwriting written with a quill and ink, how difficult it was to know if the things that we found had significance or not. I mean just one scribbled note from Marcie Muir led us to this amazing discovery but if we hadn’t had that serendipitous moment where Belinda was discovering in one book that Charlotte had written more than one published work and then I almost simultaneously found this note -
B: Yeah, it was almost simultaneously.
K: - we would never have put the two things together and made that amazing discovery. So it was a series of astonishing serendipitous findings that led us to many of our most exciting insights.
B: It was and one of the things I loved discovering in the National Library archives was there was these beautiful letters and little handwritten family histories that were written by very many different members from our side of the family. So when Louisa’s daughter, Louise, and Janet Koch collected an amazing history but she was very much focused on her famous grandmother, Louisa Atkinson, whereas our side of the family were more interested about Charlotte Elizabeth Atkinson, the eldest daughter and so for us it was amazing finding these sort of records in the National Library that had been carefully collated and put aside in boxes. The fact that they all cared so much about this that they wanted to write it down and record it and I mean some of them were rather outlandish, some of their ideas of the family history.
K: Some were a little bit romanticised.
B: A little bit romanticised but it was still fascinating nonetheless and I learned to sort through the wheat from the chaff really and just double-check everything and make sure, find out what actually was real and what was true and then enjoy the romanticised, exaggerated parts of the story.
K: A very good thing that Belinda and I get on so well because we spent so much time together rummaging around in these archival boxes getting very tired and -
B: Dirty. No, they’re beautifully kept.
K: So because we were able to work together I think that we were able to make some of these discoveries while perhaps without – the fact that we are sisters, we wouldn’t have made quite so many.
B: No, possibly not and also I think our backgrounds were really helpful because we both worked as journalists so we’re very used to research, we’re very used to keeping very detailed research notes but we’ve also both written a lot of historical fiction so we’ve both written many historical novels which meant we could combine that meticulous notetaking and meticulous research together with the creative imagination of bringing that world to life, bringing Charlotte’s world to life, bringing that whole 19th century colonial society to life. So we’re very lucky, it’s almost an incredibly unlikely pairing of authors where we were not only sisters but we also had these very similar literary skills.
K: Absolutely and we were able to work on different parts of the book, know what we were searching for and then be able to write our own chapters so we weren’t trespassing on each other’s area of expertise.
B: No, absolutely. So sometimes that’s probably what we might have disagreed about the most, was what parts of the book - we were both fascinated with everything.
K: That’s right. So after Louise Snowden walked all the way back to her home carrying her armfuls full of these treasures she held onto them all of her life and in time she grew up and married and had a daughter of her own, Janet Koch and Janet Koch inherited this incredible archive of materials of her grandmother, Charlotte Waring-Atkinson. In time she felt very strongly that they should be saved for the future, that Charlotte Waring-Atkinson’s incredible achievements in her life, struggling through grief and loss and violence and this struggle to live an independent life, to write Australia’s first published children’s book, this is something that should be celebrated and should be studied for the future. So Janet Koch gave her collection to the National Library and that is why we have it here with us today. It was a great gift.
B: Absolutely, so precious. I hope you love reading our Searching for Charlotte.
K: The fascinating story of Australia’s first children’s author.
End of recording