Belinda Murrell discusses writing new book Searching for Charlotte, The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author with her sister Kate Forsyth, and their family connection to this pioneer.
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A Family of Storytellers
I first fell in love with Charlotte as a child. My maternal grandparents, Nonnie and Papa, would tell us enthralling stories about our great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte de Waring Atkinson and her family. In my memory, Charlotte always shines as being clever, beautiful, rebellious and fiercely independent. Like a Jane Austen heroine. Even her name was romantic—de Waring, a reminder of her French aristocratic forebears. It was only later that we discovered that the ‘de’ in de Waring hadn’t actually been used in centuries, but family stories are like that: romanticised, exaggerated and embellished.
My sister Kate Forsyth and I grew up in a family of storytellers and book lovers.
Both my parents would tell fascinating, colourful anecdotes about their lives, their adventures and the people they met. My grandparents also told tantalising tales of long ago.
Perhaps it was these early stories of our writing ancestors that inspired both of us, and our brother Nick Humphrey, to become authors ourselves. Writing is definitely in our blood! Between the three siblings, we have written over 90 books.
Our grandparents often took us on a journey down to Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands, to show us our family history and where we came from. On the long drive down, they would tell us romantic stories about our ancestors, the Atkinson family, who had once farmed great swathes of this beautiful rolling countryside. They were fascinating stories of adventure, bravery, tragedy, determination and defiance.
In hindsight, there was a theme that ran through many of my grandmother’s stories, and it was about the strong and clever women from whom we were descended.
Women who faced almost impossible difficulties but who tackled them with courage, strength and dignity, and managed to live rich and meaningful lives. These stories were truly inspirational.
When at last we arrived at Sutton Forest, we bumped along a rough dirt road until we came to an ancient line of elm trees and the locked gates of Oldbury. We would peer through the prickly hawthorn hedges at the grand old house that had been built by our great-great-great-great-grandparents Charlotte and James Atkinson in 1828. During our childhood, the golden sandstone house was surrounded by overgrown gardens and looked neglected and forlorn. It seemed like something out of a fairytale—romantic, forgotten by time.
Charlotte Waring was a remarkable woman.
She was a child prodigy; a fiercely independent, well-educated teacher; an early feminist; a loving mother with progressive views on girls’ education, who brought her daughters up to be some of the finest scholars, artists and writers in the colony; a pioneer in the fight for women’s legal rights; and a naturalist— as well as being the first Australian children’s author.
A Mother’s Offering to Her Children was published anonymously in 1841 and is written as a dialogue between a mother and her four children. It was the first time that an author wrote stories set in Australia featuring Australian children and adventures, historic events, natural science and Aboriginal culture. The book gives a rare insight into colonial domestic life and the unique role played by mothers in educating their children.
Charlotte Waring led an extraordinary life. Yet there were so many mysteries.
What inspired her to leave England and seek her fortune as a governess on the other side of the world? Why did she marry George Barton, a violent alcoholic? What happened that fateful day in the bush when Charlotte was accosted by one of Australia’s most notorious bushrangers?
Our journey together as sisters will take us from trawling dusty archive boxes to drinking tea with far-flung relatives, four-wheel-driving through remote forests and river crossings, and discussing nineteenth-century etiquette with historians.
It will consume our lives, taking more than two years of intense research and writing. It will be incredibly frustrating and incredibly rewarding. As two strong-willed sisters we will disagree and debate and argue, but most of all we will be ecstatic with our discoveries.
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 available from Booktopia(AU).
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Searching for Charlotte Synopsis
The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author
For almost 140 years, the author of Australia’s first children’s book was a mystery. Known only by the description ‘a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’, she was the subject of much speculation until 1980 when, after a decade of sleuthing, legendary bibliographer Marcie Muir discovered her name: Charlotte Waring Atkinson. And not only her name, but an extensive creative family history, connecting her to two of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary writers, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell.
In Searching for Charlotte authors and sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell unite to uncover the long-buried story of their great-great-great-great grandmother and pioneer female writer, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, whose life was a tale of love, grief, violence and triumph against the odds.
To Forsyth and Murrell, Atkinson is the subject of many stories they grew up on—part of a thread of creative women that runs through the history of their family. 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.
Searching for Charlotte is the extraordinary story of Australia’s earliest published children’s author and a heartwarming journey into the history of a family with writing in its blood.
(NLA Publishing, 1st November 2020)
About the Authors, Belinda Murrell & Kate Forsyth
Belinda Murrell and Kate Forsyth are both award-winning and internationally bestselling authors, and sisters, descended from a family of writers, going back more than 200 years. Together they have written Searching for Charlotte – the biography of their great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia in 1841. From the age of seven or eight, both sisters wrote stories, novels, plays and poems in hand-illustrated exercise books, and began to be published in their 20s, working as journalists, editors and later novelists. Between the two of them, they have written 80 books. Their brother Nick Humphrey is also a best-selling author of more than 10 books.