A colonial conversation with a notable Australian author - Luke Slattery does justice to 'Mrs M'
by Rossella Venturi
I can’t sleep well these nights. Can’t stop thinking of the house renovation which is going to trash my life soon. Some people enjoys renos; I don’t. Alain De Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness stares at me from my bedside table: I want to fool myself that in those new blue Moroccan bathroom tiles, which my architect suggested, I will find – besides financial bankrupcy – the answer to the coming winter of my discontent.
It reminds me of a few months ago, sleepless in bed with my iPad, coming across a debate in The Sydney Morning Herald: what’s the role of architecture in our lives, our cities, our societies? Can it, as John Ruskin thought, improve our moral powers?
Sydney is forever beautiful. It’s changing so much though: more jerry-built rubbish, developers devouring the waterfront, governments selling buildings that would be our Australian family jewels, even Philip Cox’s Moore Park football stadium has gone. Yes, we are all feeling threatened by house prices but also loss of beauty – and increasing ugliness can bring despair. Can architecture be truthful, or in some way morally good? asks Elizabeth Farrelly from her column in the Herald.
Lachlan Macquarie: he was a reformer
and a humanist. I think he was the most progressive colonial governor of Australia.
Her question resonates as I wander through Sydney, more sensual than ever on these balmy autumn days, content that Sydney has adopted me (I come from Milan and the Cinque Terre, Italy). As I walk along Hyde Park Barracks, in front of St James’ Church, I am completely taken by the idea that these buildings are here because this city was born as a penal colony, and in its very early days was beautified by a convict civic architect, Francis Greenway, appointed on purpose by the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie.
I talked about all this some time ago with Luke Slattery, a Sydney-based journalist, editor, author, and passionate and sophisticated traveller. To Slattery, the story of early colonial Sydney is a still-relevant social experiment, so much so he wrote two books about it. The first is an historical essay, The First Dismissal. (How Governor Macquarie invented an idea of Australia, a convict built it and Britain tried to tear it down) (Penguin 2014). The second, Slattery’s first novel, is Mrs M (Fourth Estate 2017), a fictionalised story of emancipist Macquarie, his wife Elizabeth (‘Mrs M’ of the famous stone seat cut in the Royal Botanical Gardens) and architect Greenway – three visionaries who imagined a new Sydney. There is a strong core of historical truth in Slattery’s novel but he totally invented a romantic triangle between the three of them. The story is told in Elizabeth’s voice, in the form of a long flashback after Governor Macquarie died and she was back in Scotland. Slattery explained that Governor Macquarie is a bit of a hero to him and told me why his enlightened social experiment is still worthy of thought today.
On the 22nd May this year, two hundred and ten years had passed since the governor and his wife sailed from Portsmouth to Sydney. Why is Lachlan a hero for you?
He was a reformer and a humanist. I think he was the most progressive colonial governor of Australia. His defining policy was the emancipation of convicts in that he showed the capacity to use the administration for the elevation of the convicts’ community. In a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening everywhere, his lesson remains relevant. At the very birth of this country there were a set of ideals which were essentially egalitarian. There was a strong popular ideal about social mobility and making a country where people could rise up. This emancipation idea was revolutionary at that time. In fact the British Tory administration sent a commissioner, John Thomas Bigge, to conduct a hostile inquiry into Macquarie’s governorship which covered the period 1809 to 1822. He appointed Francis Greenway government architect and his buildings made a striking contribution in shaping a new nation.
Macquarie created the position of Government Architect, an institution that still exists in New South Wales. Greenway arrived as a convict, found guilty as a forger, and was given the task of beautifying the city. What is the idea of the role of architecture behind this? Can it, as John Ruskin thought, improve our moral powers?
In some ways, yes. Macquarie and his wife wanted to beautify the city through fine architecture, through streetscape, parks and gardens. They wanted to use beauty and architectural skills to build a great city and help people to become their own best selves. Macquarie worked on more than 260 buildings or projects by the end of his term. Greenway died in poverty, and his remains can’t be found. I have searched for them so far without success.
How did you find moving from writing non-fiction to the novel form, and why did you decide to fictionalise the story?
It started as a non-fiction project. Honestly, I would never have thought I was going to write fiction; it has just happened. I woke up one day hearing this voice, what I felt was Elizabeth Macquarie, ‘Mrs M’. It has been much easier than I thought. I suppose because the story was already there, I had a structure, I didn’t have to invent it, although I did invent some things. I cut some people out, and added some. I have always had a pretty good narrative skill as a journalist. What I didn’t have, probably, was the confidence to write from imagination.
How long did it take you to write Mrs M?
Six months. The publisher decided that they wanted it on the basis of a draft, and then they said they wanted it finished quickly, so I found myself under pressure. I expanded and perfected it. I think that the first draft was more pure, being lighter. I thought it would have been just right at 20,000 words shorter, like a novella. But they wanted it longer
In your novel you never mention Francis Greenway’s name, you just call him ‘The Architect’, whereas you give everybody else their real historic name. Why?
I think that in writing an historical novel you need to take some liberties. But I personally also feel the need to be true to my reader. ‘The Architect’ in my book is definitely Francis Greeenway. I didn’t use his name because I wanted the freedom to invent and to signal to the reader that it is fantasy going on here. Greenway was not on board 'HMS Dromedary' with the Macquaries. They arrived in Sydney in December 1809, whereas Greenway was transported in 1814. The romance between him and Elizabeth is totally invented. I read her diaries, which are beautiful, and I made her the narrator of the story. She looked to me a modern woman, with an independent mind. She wanted adventure. I knew she was thirty-two when she came to Australia and I gave her a romantic sensibility. She had a son but I decided to cut him out.
What is your writing process as an author as opposed to writing as a journalist?
I write everything in the same way. I am not a routine writer, I don’t write from 8 am to 1 pm. And I am not a very organized writer either. I write very quickly. If something has to be done I sort of hammer hammer hammer through it, and it is probably not very good for me. It is a ‘very long hours’ job.
Finally, what is still to be learned from the story of early Sydney and Governor Macquarie?
For too long Australians have largely failed to appreciate the moral force of their society’s creation. I think we have to be especially proud of our convict beginnings rather than embarrassed. And to remember our successful egalitarian foundations.
TIPS FROM WRITING HISTORICAL NOVELS
Know history and then forget history. Do the research but don’t let it own and dominate you. Feel free to create.
Coffee in the morning and alcohol in the evening – but not too much of either. I have always felt that if I am working in the evening one and half glasses of wine helps. And avoid sex if you are writing about sex. I don’t mean not have sex at all, but it can be a struggle.
Read aloud what you have written, the next morning, to yourself, and you’ll notice some slight change in the way it engages the brain. Reading aloud slows you down and you notice akwardness, false notes, errors, and subtle things such as tone and music.
Historical Fiction Calls for Deep Historical Research
by Christine Williams
In bridging journalism, fiction writing and research into the Renaissance, Luke Slattery was considered the ‘go to’ journalist recently for a world exclusive story which had come out of the archives of Fisher Library at Sydney University. The story was that a 500-year-old red chalk drawing by an Italian Renaissance artist had been found in the library, inside a 1497 edition of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The sketch was by Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco (commonly known as Giorgione). The sketch was found by a Fisher librarian, Kim Wilson, and its value is estimated to be ‘in the millions’.
Slattery quoted University of Melbourne emeritus professor Jaynie Anderson, who’s an international expert on Giorgione, as saying the drawing, ‘transforms our understanding of Giorgione’s life and his relation to other artists’. Slattery has a special interest in the Renaissance, and is currently following the debate among scholars over the mysterious death of the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in 1494. He is known for his exceptional brilliance, a polymath conversant in at least seven languages, who is believed to have died of arsenic poisoning. Slattery had an article, ‘A Renaissance Murder Mystery’, published in The New Yorker in 2015 on the philosopher. When it came to finding who would write the Sydney University world exclusive, Professor Anderson considered Slattery, with his knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, experience in the arts and trustworthy journalistic ethics, the best person in the country to handle the story.
Slattery has just gained a research Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, and is proud to have a foot in both camps – ‘old-fashioned’ journalism based on truth-seeking and trust in reliable sources, as well as deep and disciplined academic research, which can enlighten many mysteries from the past.