Title: Searching for Charlotte
Author: Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
Published: November 1st 2020
Publisher: NLA Publishing
Genres: Non Fiction, History, Biography, True Stories
Rating: 4 stars
For almost 140 years, the author of Australia’s first book for children was a mystery. Known only by the descriptor ‘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.
‘We can feel Charlotte’s spirit touching us. We discover and learn so much about Charlotte, but also about ourselves and what it means to be sisters, mothers, daughters and writers. Our search for Charlotte becomes a family obsession and an inspirational journey.’
Searching for Charlotte is a composite historical biography fused with a family history investigation. Co-authored by two passionate Australian storytellers, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, Searching for Charlotte unveils the surprising details surrounding the birth of Australia’s first children’s book. In the process, the enthralling life of the woman who penned this title is revealed. Rich in history, family connections and careful observations, this collaboration title proved to be a fascinating sojourn back to Australia’s literary past.
Almost two centuries ago, Australia’s first children’s book was published. This was an amazing early achievement in our nation’s literary history. At the time little was known about the author behind this pinnacle release titled, A Mother’s Offering to Her Children. Much later, in the year 1981, the identity of the author of this key early text was finally revealed as Charlotte Waring Atkinson. With her ancestors enthralled by their rich literary family lineage and inspired to create a work of non fiction, Charlotte’s life is exposed through a process of over two years of dedicated research. Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell pooled their resources together as writers and keen-eyed researchers to unfurl the life of Charlotte, who was quite the trailblazer for her time. Despite the setbacks Charlotte experienced in her life through loss, abuse, violence and more, we learn that this independent spirit managed to rise above her circumstances. As a result Charlotte became a published author, artist and a leading figure in legal rights for women. Searching for Charlotte works to both celebrate Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s achievements and draw in the personal imprint of the authors of this compilation. We are privy to the family dramas, stresses, expectations and challenges faced by the two storytellers as Charlotte’s amazing life story comes to light.
I’m a big fan of Kate Forsyth’s work and I have also dabbled in a couple of titles penned by Belinda Murrell. I was really excited about this collaboration piece between the two sisters, who are both respected authors in their own right. I was also very intrigued by the prospect of learning about the general life story of Australia’s first children’s book author. I definitely went into Searching for Charlotte with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Aesthetically speaking, Searching for Charlotte is a book that is beautifully presented. An absolutely exquisite cover soon reels the reader in. On the inside and back covers there are a set of simply stunning illustrations from Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the principal subject focus of this book. Allotted between the main narrative body of Searching for Charlotte are two photo spreads of eight pages each, which include more personal illustrations from Charlotte Waring Atkinson, along with family photographs and portraits. These thoughtful inclusions add an extra layer to this speculative text. Over sixteen chapters, which have been composed in shared format approach by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, an interesting picture of this literary enigma forms. An Afterword, Acknowledgements, List of Illustrations, Notes, Select Biography and an Index all work as a wonderful supplementary guide for the reader.
I found Searching for Charlotte to be quite a unique historical biography, in that the Forsyth and Murrell inserted their own creative musings, imaginative creations, careful observations and strong feelings into this book. We gain an insight into the gruelling process of research, which took the sisters over two years to complete. Pouring over historical records, diaries, letters and more, Forsyth and Murrell also visited the locations inhabited by Charlotte Waring Atkinson to support their text. At times this felt a little like a walking tour, as the authors detailed key locations and settings pertinent to Charlotte’s life. We also receive a deep insight into the craftmanship of a writer in terms of balancing their research and writing commitments with personal demands. It was an interesting angle to attach to this historical composition.
Through the process of uncovering the reality of Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s life Forsyth and Murrell have provided the reader with a good understanding of the world in which Charlotte lived. From the strict moral codes, tight laws, gender roles, cultural practices, general customs, societal expectations and general colonial life, Searching for Charlotte explores a range of issues that clearly had an impact on this literary heroine’s life. While a great deal of grief, loss, challenges, setbacks, violence, abuse, suppression and indignity defined Charlotte’s life, she was able to rise above it all and accomplish a great deal. Charlotte Waring Atkinson’s legacy is felt passionately by her ancestors, now leading storytellers in today’s modern world.
An inspiring tale that will appeal to readers and writers alike, Searching for Charlotte is a charming publication that I enjoyed very much.
Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell was published on 1st November 2020 by NLA Publishing. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Searching for Charlotte, Kate Forsyth visit here.
To learn more about the author of Searching for Charlotte, Belinda Murrell visit here.
*Thanks is extended to Quikmark Media for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Searching for Charlotte is book #130 of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge