A WEDDING GIFT
On November 3 1807, 29 year old Elizabeth Henrietta Campbell married 46 year old Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Macquarie at Holsworthy, in the English county of Devon. Their wedding marked the end of a long separation. Macquarie had just returned from military service in India, having proposed to Elizabeth while on leave in 1805. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. Owen Lewis Meyrick, who presented the couple with a three volume, 1793 edition of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.
The relationship between Meyrick and Miss Campbell was far closer than that of minister and parishioner. Elizabeth had been employed as governess to Meyrick’s grandchildren while Macquarie was in India. Conscious of the couple’s Scottish heritage, the rector chose a gift that was both personal and appropriate, particularly in relation to the bridegroom.
In 1773 Samuel Johnson and his friend Boswell had visited Macquarie’s birthplace, the Hebridean Isle of Ulva. The travellers spent the night in the humble home of the 16th and last chief of the Macquarie clan, Lachlan Macquarie’s distant cousin. Describing the occasion Dr Johnson wrote,
We were driven once, by missing a passage, to the hut of a gentleman, where after a very liberal supper, when I was conducted to my chamber, I found an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets. The accommodation was flattering; 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 puddle was the result of rain driving in through broken windows. Nevertheless, both men were impressed by the laird’s hospitality under difficult circumstances; ‘…we were agreeably surprised with the appearance of the master, whom we found to be intelligent, polite, and much a man of the world…He told us his family had possessed Ulva for nine hundred years…‘
A LONG VOYAGE TO NEW SOUTH WALES
Less than two years after their marriage the Macquaries sailed for Sydney, where Lachlan was to replace the deposed William Bligh. In a diary entry written mid voyage while their ship was anchored off the Cape, Elizabeth confessed that life afloat had its advantages. For once, her husband was not distracted by matters of business; ‘I have spent my time in the manner which entirely suits my inclination, having the comfort of my Husband’s company uninterrupted all the morning when we read or write in a social manner…’ No doubt the Rev. Meyrick’s gift provided diversion and intellectual stimulus throughout the long journey to the Antipodes, described in Johnson’s celebrated dictionary as a place where those, ‘living exactly on the opposite side of the globe, have their feet pointed against ours.’
The three volumes were carefully stowed in the Macquaries’ baggage when they eventually returned to Scotland in 1822 aboard the Surry. After such a long absence, it was a disappointing homecoming. Macquarie discovered that his estate of Jarvisfield was almost worthless, and the residence, Gruline House, in terrible condition. Elizabeth opened her heart in a long letter to her friends in New South Wales written in 1825;
‘At last on the 19th. January, we went home to our truly uncomfortable house, wch. did not afford one dry room, and of so small dimensions, that it did not admit of a room, wch. could be appropriated to the General’s exclusive use. He sat in the dining room, where he was constantly disturbed by us all…The rain and wind blew in at the door, and sometimes the fire was blown out of the Grates.’ The description bears an uncanny resemblance to the old chief’s house on Ulva.
Several pages in the Johnson biography are badly smeared and it is tempting to imagine a distraught Elizabeth retrieving the volumes after they had fallen onto a muddy floor.
Macquarie’s retirement was short-lived. He died in London on July 1st 1824 in the presence of a heartbroken Elizabeth. All her love and attention now centred on the couple’s only son, twelve year old Lachlan Junior. Lachlan was born in Sydney in 1814 and his safe arrival had been a particularly joyous event. The Macquaries’ first child, a daughter, died in infancy in 1808. Subsequently, Elizabeth had suffered six miscarriages. It is not surprising that the boy was indulged and cosseted. Looking on, Elizabeth Macarthur (a more relaxed mother with a large brood) questioned whether a child surrounded by attendants and so rarely permitted out of his mother’s sight would prove a blessing.
Following Macquarie’s death Elizabeth remained in London, where Lachlan Junior attended school. In 1831 the boy followed in his father’s footsteps by choosing a military career. Elizabeth was unhappy with this decision, realizing it would lead to long periods of separation. After her son joined his regiment she retired to the family estate of Jarvisfield on the Isle of Mull.
By 1834 her health was failing and the harsh climate of the Western Highlands often kept her indoors. Long, lonely days provided an opportunity for deep 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 their long and happy union. I suspect it was at this point rather than in 1807 that she inscribed each book, L.E. Macquarie. It was as though she had come to think of herself and Lachlan as a single entity.
Elizabeth made a careful study of the Doctor’s views on life, marking passages which were of personal significance, and making occasional margin notes. The annotations provide a unique insight into her own philosophy, influenced to a large extent by her time in New South Wales.
Mrs Macquarie was a strong minded woman, who became her husband’s confidante and helpmate. She contributed to the colony through her own interests in agriculture, architecture, and landscape gardening. She also supported Macquarie’s enlightened views regarding ex-convicts, despite bitter opposition from ‘exclusionist’ free settlers. Significantly, she marked the following passage in Vol. I of the biography; ‘He (Johnson) observed, that a man of sense and education should meet a suitable companion in a wife. It was a miserable thing when the conversation could only be such as whether the mutton should be boiled or roasted, and probably a dispute about that.’
Elizabeth later made specific reference to New South Wales in a margin note regarding Dr William Redfern. In Volume II, Boswell recorded the following observations by his friend; ‘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 made the note, This reminds me of Mr Redfern.
William Redfern had been transported to New South Wales for his part in a mutiny while he was employed as a ship’s surgeon. Once pardoned, he contributed a great deal to the colony in the field of public health. He was also the Macquaries’ family physician and had attended the birth of Lachlan Junior. Commissioner John Bigge did not share the Governor’s view that ex-convicts were worthy of pubic office and was incensed when Macquarie appointed Redfern as a magistrate. Earlier, Elizabeth had highlighted Johnson’s comment, ‘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, which had caused great damage to the Governor’s reputation.
AT ODDS WITH DR JOHNSON
Mrs Macquarie may have concurred with many of Dr Johnson’s views, but his chauvinist comments on infidelity provoked a remarkable reaction from her. Johnson had expressed the opinion that, ‘…between a man and his wife, a husband’s infidelity is nothing. They are connected by children, by fortune, by serious considerations of community. Wise married women don’t trouble themselves about the infidelity in their husbands.’ Elizabeth responded in the following margin note, ‘If a woman cares not for her Husband she may perhaps bear his infidelity with apathy & indifference; but if she is bound to him with true love and affection, she cannot bear it but with the most dreadful & alarming paroxysms of despair, & desperation, to which the human mind is liable.’ The strength of feeling expressed suggests personal experience with infidelity and yet there has never been the slightest hint that Lachlan Macquarie was unfaithful. I can only assume Elizabeth was speaking on behalf of ‘the sisterhood’. Perhaps she also intended the words as testament to her absolute love for her late husband.
There were other subjects on which Elizabeth disagreed with Dr Johnson. Like Macquarie, she was Scottish born, and pride in her homeland prompted her to contradict what is arguably Johnson’s 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 pure air of the ocean & the stillness of a Highland life.’ Mrs Macquarie had a keen sense of humour and I suspect she smiled when she read some of Johnson’s jests at the expense of her kinsmen; Seeing Scotland Madam, is only seeing a worse England. And, Sir, let me tell you the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England!
Mrs Macquarie highlighted the Doctor’s thoughts on travel in a more general sense, although she would have been justified in considering herself the greater authority on the subject. His sage advice, ‘Cast away all anxiety, and keep your mind easy’ was all very well, but difficult to adhere to during a stomach churning, voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, or when she had almost been shipwrecked on rocks below Sydney’s George’s Head.
Lachlan Macquarie was universally respected as a man of honour and virtue, but the same could not be said of his spoiled namesake, Lachlan Junior. By 1834 the twenty year old was leading a dissolute lifestyle within his regiment; gambling, drinking, and running up debts. His mother marked passages in the biography relating to morality, the value of truth, the importance of character over wealth and position, and the evils of debt and idleness. On one occasion Johnson had advised the younger Boswell, ‘..our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good. 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 eventually settle at Jarvisfield and prove to be a responsible Highland laird. Accordingly, she marked the following paragraph 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 dependant upon you, and attached to you,, is perhaps as high a situation as humanity can arrive at. A merchant upon the ‘Change of London’, with a hundred thousand pounds, is nothing: an English duke with an immense fortune, is nothing – he has no tenants under his patriarchal care, and who will follow him to the field upon an emergency.’ It would be interesting to know whether Elizabeth managed to sit her wayward son down and to quote this passage in a Johnson inspired maternal sermon.
Unfortunately, no words of wisdom halted Lachlan Junior’s decline and in 1845 he died from alcohol abuse, aged just thirty one. Although married, he died without issue, bequeathing the entire Macquarie estate to his friend and creditor William Drummond. The British author Gretta Curran Browne has documented young Lachlan’s life in her historical fiction series about the Macquarie family.
Lachlan Macquarie Snr, had been sentimental to a fault. It was a blessing that both he and Elizabeth went to their graves believing that their treasured possessions would be handed down through generations of the Macquarie family.
When she reached the final page of the Johnson biography Elizabeth wrote the following inscription, carefully signed and dated for posterity. Perhaps she fondly imagined a great-grandchild coming across it many years in the future;
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.
Elizabeth Macquarie died at Jarvisfield eleven months later, on March 11 1835. She was 56. Following Lachlan Junior’s death the biography remained in the possession of his widow, Isabella. Did she read it I wonder? If so, it would be interesting to know what she made of her mother-in-law’s comments on infidelity. In 1842 Lachlan Junior was forced to defend himself against allegations that he had slept with Isabella’s younger sister Mary, while Mary was on an extended visit to Jarvisfield. Isabella never remarried and she died in 1884. In 1963 the three volumes were acquired by Sydney’s Mitchell Library from Colin Campbell of the Isle of Jura, Isabella’s great nephew.
Well done if you have read all of this blog, because I know it’s a bit long, and not everyone is as mad on history as me. I have been lucky enough to spend several weeks on Mull researching the Macquarie family. On one occasion my partner and I had the privilege of staying on one of the old Macquarie estates.
Oh yes, and here is a really strange story about Lachlan Jnr.
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