On November 3 1807, Elizabeth Henrietta Campbell married Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Macquarie at Holsworthy in Devon. The ceremony was conducted by the Reverend Owen Lewis Meyrick. Elizabeth had been caring for the minister’s grand-daughters, while impatiently waiting for Macquarie to return from army service in India. To mark the occasion, the Reverend. Meyrick presented the couple with a 1793 edition of James Boswell’s biography of the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson.
It was an appropriate wedding gift, particularly in relation to the groom. In 1773 Johnson and his friend Boswell had visited Macquarie’s birthplace: the tiny Hebridean Isle of Ulva. The travellers spent the night in the humble home of the last chief of the Macquarie clan, Lachlan Macquarie’s distant cousin. Describing the occasion Dr Johnson wrote, ’… I undressed myself and felt my feet in the mire. The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.’ According to Boswell the rain had entered through broken windows. Nevertheless, both men were impressed by the old laird’s hospitality.
In May 1809 Lachlan and Elizabeth sailed for Sydney, where Macquarie was to take up his appointment as Governor of New South Wales. No doubt the Rev. Meyrick’s gift provided diversion and intellectual stimulation throughout the long journey to the Antipodes. The fledgling colony was described by Johnson as a place where those; ‘living exactly on the opposite side of the globe, have their feet pointed against ours.’
The Macquaries returned to Scotland in 1822, but it was a disappointing homecoming. Macquarie discovered that his estate of Jarvisfield on the Isle of Mull was almost worthless, with the principal residence in terrible condition. Elizabeth would later write; ‘The rain and wind blew in at the doot, and sometimes the fire was blown out of the grates.’ Her description bears an uncanny resemblance to the old chief’s house on neighbouring Ulva. Several pages of the Samuel Johnson biography are badly stained, and it tempting to imagine Elizabeth retrieving the volumes after they had fallen onto a muddy floor.
Sadly, Macquarie’s retirement was short-lived. He died in London on July 1 1824. All Elizabeth’s love and attention now centred on her young son; Sydney born Lachlan Junior.
When the boy followed in his father’s footsteps by choosing a military career, Elizabeth retired to Jarvisfield. By 1834 her health was failing and the harsh climate of the Western Highlands often kept her indoors. There was ample opportunity for reflection, and it was in this mood that she began to re-read The Life of Samuel Johnson. The volumes were a comforting link with her dead husband; a reminder of their wedding day, and of their happy years together.
Elizabeth made a careful study of the Doctor’s views on life, marking passages of personal significance. Her annotations provide a unique insight into her own philosophy, influenced by her time in New South Wales. In Volume II, Boswell recorded the following observations by his friend Johnson; ‘Though many men are nominally entrusted with the administration of hospitals and other public institutions, almost all the good is done by one man, by whom the rest are driven on; owing to confidence in him, and indolence in them.’ Elizabeth noted, ‘This reminds me of Mr Redfern.’
William Redfern had been transported to New South Wales for his part in a mutiny while employed as a ship’s surgeon. Once pardoned, he contributed a great deal to the community. However, Commissioner John Bigge did not share the Governor’s view that ex-convicts were worthy of pubic office, or that New South Wales should become anything more than a squalid penal colony. He was incensed when Macquarie appointed Redfern as a magistrate. Bigge compiled a highly critical report on Macquarie, whose sojourn as governor subsequently ended in disappointment and bitterness Significantly, Elizabeth had highlighted the following comment made by Johnson, ‘It is to be lamented that moral right should give way to political convenience’. She was no doubt thinking of her husband’s moral courage in supporting Redfern and his fellow emancipists.
There was one subject on which Elizabeth disagreed with Dr Johnson. Pride in her Scottish homeland prompted her to contradict his most famous quotation; ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ Loyal to the core, Elizabeth’s adjacent margin note reads , ‘It [London] wants the the pure air of the ocean & the stillness of a Highland life.’
Governor Macquarie was universally respected as a man of personal honour and virtue, but the same could not be said of his spoiled namesake, Lachlan Junior. By 1834 the twenty year old was drinking heavily and running up gambling debts. His behaviour may have been the reason why Elizabeth constantly marked passages in the biography relating to morality. Dr Johnson had advised the younger Boswell, ‘My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy and be a good Christian.’ In a similar vein, Johnson had commented that study led to ‘…security from those troublesome and wearisome discontents which are always obtruding themselves upon a mind vacant, unemployed, and undetermined’. Elizabeth clearly agreed, adding the note, ‘Without this hope all energy is at an end – life becomes like stagnant water.’
It was her greatest wish that Lachlan Junior would settle at Jarvisfield as a responsible highland laird. She duly marked a paragraph on the subject by the Scottish born Boswell; ‘When I talked to him [Johnson] of the paternal estate to which I was heir, he said, “Sir, let me tell you, that to be a Scotch landlord, where you have a number of families dependent upon you, and attached to you, is perhaps as high a situation as humanity can arrive at…’
Having reached the final page of the biography Elizabeth wrote the following inscription, carefully signed and dated for posterity;
JARVISFIELD APRIL 1834
This book has now been my companion for 27 years. I consider it so valuable that I like to have it in whatever room I occupy. I have this evening finished reading it thro – my opinion of its rare merit is the same now as when I first saw it.
PRESERVED FOR THE NATION
Elizabeth Macquarie died at Jarvisfield on March 11th 1835 aged fifty six. In 1845 Lachlan Junior’s life ended in a drunken fall down a flight of stairs. He was just thirty one. Although married, he died without issue. For many years the Johnson biography remained in the possession of his widow, Isabella Macquarie. In 1963 it was acquired by Sydney’s Mitchell Library, from Isabella’s great-nephew, Colin Campbell.
It was a great privilege to be allowed access to the three volumes, and to read Mrs Macquarie’s private thoughts, written in her own hand.