Originally published: 29.01.17
Not actually today, obviously.
Elizabeth Macarthur the woman died almost 167 years ago, on 9 February 1850. She was eighty-three years old.
But today I wrote the paragraph in which Elizabeth dies, the final paragraph of the book really, and I felt strangely sad.
It’s been my job to make her come to life on the page and I’ve been working to do so for more years than I care to admit. Yet there she was, having a stroke and quietly dying at Watson’s Bay in the company of Emmeline, her youngest daughter and Dr Anderson, a long-time family friend. It was sad and I hope I can make my readers feel that same soft pang.
The other part of my sadness, though, was less easy to articulate.
For months I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point: to be able to write “and then she died. The End.” Which is not what I actually wrote, of course, but you see my point. It is The End. The end of the research (almost), the end of the first draft, the end of laying down the facts of Elizabeth’s long and interesting life. Did you know that Ludwig Leichhardt called in to Elizabeth Farm for a visit? That Charles Darwin, when he visited Sydney as a young man, dined with Elizabeth’s nephew and his family? That Matthew Flinders was a personal friend?
It’s not as if the book is anywhere near finished. I still want to write an afterword that provides a brief overview of what happened to each of Elizabeth’s surviving children, and their descendants. I still need to work back through all the comments I’ve inserted along the way, little notes to myself saying [check this fact] or [insert some words here about X and Y] or [needs a chapter break here – revise]. I still definitely need to revise and rewrite and revise some more to ensure the whole thing flows with vigour and verve. And the footnotes – OMG the footnotes – have to be checked and consolidated and made consistent and turned into endnotes and a bibliography. What else? Oh yes, then I have to source the relevant maps and images of Elizabeth and her family and their homes (and obtaining the copyright permissions is entirely my responsibility).
Then, after all that, it goes to my editor at Text who will no doubt tell me it’s unpublishable, to try harder and to rewrite the whole thing.
So writing the paragraph where Elizabeth dies was going to be, I thought, a positive milestone. An important hurdle after which I’d find myself sort of in the home stretch. And it was – is – both positive and important.
But also sad.
Up until today I was sure I would feel relieved to finish this book. But, even though I’m not finished yet, I’m no longer quite so sure.
Adventures in Biography : I have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth MacArthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.