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Longlisted for 2021 Indie Book Awards: Non-fiction
For almost 140 years, the author of Australia’s first book for children was a mystery. Known only by the description ‘a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’, she was the subject of much speculation. It was not until 1980, after a decade of sleuthing, that legendary bibliographer Marcie Muir gave her a name: Charlotte Waring Atkinson. And not only a name, but an extensive creative family history, connecting her to two of the nation’s celebrated contemporary children’s writers, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell.
To Forsyth and Murrell, Atkinson (also known as Barton) is great-great-great-great grandmother and the subject of the stories they grew up on—part of a thread of creative women that runs through the history of their family. Hers is one of the great lost stories of Australian history: a tale of love, grief, violence and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
After spending half her life educating the children of the well-to-do in England, in 1826, at 30 years of age, Charlotte Waring accepted a job on the other side of the world. She was to teach the children of Maria Macarthur, daughter of former New South Wales governor Philip Gidley King. But on the voyage, love diverted her to a different future: marriage to the eligible James Atkinson meant she spent just seven short months with her charges. What followed were years of hardship in the New South Wales bush, including the death of Atkinson and her subsequent marriage to an abusive drunk, a brutal attack by bushrangers, penury and the threat of having her children taken away.
In Searching for Charlotte, Forsyth and Murrell tell Charlotte’s story along with that of their own journey to discover her. In an intriguing account, the sisters join the reader in reacting to Charlotte’s actions: wondering what could have motivated certain choices; admiring the strength of spirit that pushed Charlotte through turmoil in the Australian colonies; and reviling attitudes that were common to the mid-1800s but are abhorrent in the twentieth century.
The extraordinary, long-buried life story of Australia’s earliest published children’s author, Searching for Charlotte combines elements of biography, recreation of history and rediscovery of family history. It is a sometimes confronting but ultimately heartwarming journey into the story of a family with writing in its blood.