Searching for Charlotte – Review

Searching for Charlotte – Review

The manuscript I’ve just completed writing is historical fiction. I’ve discovered it’s a fascinating genre to write in. I didn’t study history at university, so I didn’t understand how addictive it can be when you start researching the past. For those of us who don’t delve into the dark side of humanity by writing crime fiction, historical research also allows us to tap into our inner detective. You start by learning the facts, then a little clue leads you down a pathway to unexpected reveals. It can be frustrating, challenging, and ultimately exciting. When you uncover something you’ve been hunting for, there is real elation. In writing Searching for Charlotte, beloved Australian authors Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell clearly went through this array of emotions.

Inside the book

This beautifully presented book charts Kate and Belinda’s emotional and physical journey as they uncover the life story of their ancestor, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the first Australian children’s book author. It is part travelogue, part detective investigation and part historical recounting.

Cleverly structured, the book follows Charlotte Waring’s journey, from England to Australia, and from governess to landowner’s wife to author. Simultaneously, it takes us on Kate and Belinda’s journey to learn the realities of her life. Kate and Belinda alternate writing the different chapters. They discuss their responses to discoveries, as well as describing parallels in their lives during the long process of research. From this angle, the book offers fascinating insights into the work process of two highly regarded authors. It also draws us into their inner worlds, as long-standing family stories come to life or are transformed by uncovered truths. We walk beside them as they become attached to Charlotte and her children.

Charlotte and her personal story

Book cover of 'Searching for Charlotte', with a lit candle and quill pen next to it.
The cover uses one of Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s own floral illustrations

I’ve discovered through my own writing that there’s a strange process of counter-transference that happens when you write historical fiction. Even though you know the events you are writing about happened a long time ago, the people come alive to you in the writing. Dr Diane Murray speaks about this in her PhD thesis, Unreal truths: the lies in every story. Inevitably this is traumatic when you know there are life experiences that had a terrible impact on their life.

Charlotte’s story, though one of resilience and strength, has at its core awful events whose effects rippled across the rest of her life. To write about these must have been incredibly difficult for Kate and Belinda. Escaping from domestic violence, Charlotte had to fight for her children at a time when women had no rights and no voice. She was put down by the men around her, and by the system within which she lived. The book contextualises the position of women at the time, both legally and practically. In doing so, it demonstrates how extraordinary Charlotte’s achievements were, both individually and for Australian women’s rights. Despite living through trauma and facing what must have seemed like impossible bureaucratic walls, Charlotte Waring Atkinson prevailed.

Charlotte’s legacy

In the midst of her extraordinary personal travails, in 1841, Charlotte wrote a children’s book – the first produced by an Australian author in Australia: A Mother’s Offering to her Children. Structured as a dialogue between a mother and her children, it was uniquely Australian in flavour, with detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. The author was not named, and for 140 years her identity was a mystery. Only after significant research did Marcie Muir unveil her as Charlotte in 1980. However, for Kate and Belinda’s family, her identity as the author had never been a secret.

The growing interest in Charlotte did, however, lead to new information coming to light, particularly through Muir’s research. It was through this information that Kate and Belinda made some of their own important discoveries about the true scope of Charlotte’s work. They discuss their theories in the book, and also include examples of Charlotte’s exquisite artwork.

Recovering a remarkable woman

Charlotte Waring Atkinson

Returning to counter-transference, when you are writing about historical figures, you begin to feel you really know and understand your character. Kate and Belinda draw parallels between Charlotte’s life and their own. They use not only their own experiences, but their vast writerly empathy, to reach into the past. They write about Charlotte with love, understanding and deep admiration. Reading this, it is impossible not to admire this woman from so long ago as well – and be glad this book has brought her remarkable story to light once more.

This is a book of depth and insight. It explores the realities of early Colonial Australia, particularly for women, opens the curtain on the writing and research process around historical fiction and offers intriguing and delightful insights into the lives, thoughts of imaginations of Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell. And ultimately, it tells two wonderful stories: of the restoration of an extraordinary woman to her rightful place in Australian history, and of Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s own story of creativity, tragedy, survival and resilience.

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