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People often used to ask me, ‘have you ever thought about writing a book with your sister, Kate?’ I always used to laugh – and say, ‘that would never work!’ Yet that’s exactly what we’ve done, and it was an absolute joy.
Writing Searching for Charlotte with my sister has been an extraordinary voyage of discovery. Our book is inspired by the fascinating life of our great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who 180 years ago in 1841, wrote the first children’s book published in Australia. It is inspired by her story of love, grief and violence – and her struggle to assert an independent spirit.
Charlotte was not only a bestselling author, she was an early Australian artist and a pioneer in the fight for women’s legal rights, waging a bitter court battle for the right to raise her own children. In Searching for Charlotte, the story of her life is woven together with our own anecdotes and experiences, untangling the mysteries of the past.
Our journey really began when we were children and our grandparents would take us on excursions to the beautiful Southern Highlands to show us the golden sandstone house, called Oldbury, that had been built by our great-great-great-great grandparents in 1828. As we bumped along the rough, dirt track, Nonnie and Papa would tell us romantic stories of our ancestors – their enthralling adventures, sorrows and triumphs.
Perhaps it was these early tales of our writing ancestors that inspired both of us, and our brother Nick Humphrey, to become authors ourselves. Writing is definitely in our blood! We come from a long line of poets, novelists, journalists and essayists going back many generations. Kate and I started writing as children, and now have published over 80 books between us.
So many people had suggested over the years that we simply must write a book about Charlotte. We decided that the 180-year anniversary of the publication of A Mother’s Offering, Charlotte’s book, would be the perfect opportunity to fulfill this dream.
It was a daunting task. The research took many, many months of wrong turns, amazing discoveries and diligent fact checking. We spent days trawling the archives of the National Library and the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales; interviewing historians and genealogists; reading old newspapers and court depositions; and four-wheel driving through rivers and over rough mountain tracks to visit key settings. It was more than two years of hard work.
It was sometimes stressful; Kate and I would struggle with how we should tell the story, what to put in and what to leave out, and who should cover what parts. Fortunately, Kate and I have similar approaches and backgrounds, although quite distinct voices. We both worked as journalists, love writing historical fiction and have collaborated with other creators on different books. Most importantly, we get on very well, so we were able to work through our differences of opinion without getting a sisterly divorce.
For me, the most challenging part was writing memoir. It is so much easier to write about other people, than to reveal your own innermost thoughts and feelings. My early attempts at memoir seemed stilted and unnatural.
The breakthrough was when we travelled to England, with our daughters Emily and Ella. We enrolled at the University of London to take the course ‘Writing the Memoir’, with respected English journalist Jane Shilling, to learn more about writing narrative non-fiction. Jane encouraged us to use our historical fiction skills to bring Charlotte’s world alive and tell her enthralling story, while using our journalistic background to discover the truth, through rigorous research and fact checking. She suggested handwriting our experiences in a journal to help us find our own authentic voices.
While in England, we visited the places where Charlotte had lived and worked in her early life before she left for Australia in 1826. We explored the busy laneways of Marylebone and Bloomsbury; searched daisy-sprinkled graveyards; visited grand estates and ancient villages; met with local historians; and hiked the stunning Kentish downs. We saw where Charlotte said goodbye to her family forever and where she met the love of her life.
Walking in Charlotte’s footsteps was a remarkable experience, which truly brought her alive. It was as though Charlotte was smiling down on us, showing us the way.
Belinda Murrell is an award-winning and internationally bestselling author. Searching for Charlotte (NLA Publishing, 2020) has been longlisted for the 2021 Indie Book Awards and is available now from the National Library Bookshop and selected retailers.