- Searching for Charlotte: The Fascinating Story of Australia's First Children's Author, by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell.
A Mother's Offering to Her Children, written in the 1840s, was the first children's book published in Australia. It dealt with distinctly Australian themes and was attributed to "A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales". In the late 1970s, children's literature bibliographer Marcie Muir identified its author as Charlotte Barton - also known as Charlotte Waring Atkinson.
Reflecting its times, Charlotte's story was a "catechism", aimed at imparting information and education to its young readers using a question-and-answer format. Subjects covered included the flora, fauna and Indigenous inhabitants of the young colony.
Searching for Charlotte charts the journey of Charlotte's great-great-great-great-granddaughters, sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, as they research the sometimes fraught history of their ancestor and the events that led her to write A Mother's Offering as a way to support herself and her children.
The writing genes obviously run deep in this family. Charlotte's daughter Louisa Atkinson was Australia's first woman novelist, and both Forsyth and Murrell are successful authors-- Forsyth in the genre of fairy-tale inspired historical fiction for adults, and Murrell in the children's literature field, with middle-grade books that also draw on historical events.
Their experience in the area of research is obvious in the way they undertake the detective work needed to uncover the details of both their family tree - which includes luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales - and the historical details of their ancestors' lives.
Murrell's charming prologue invites the reader into the lives of this remarkable family as the sisters unearth Charlotte's story with passion, persistence and pride. As Murrell says, "Our search for Charlotte becomes a family obsession and an inspirational story".
Each sister has a distinctive voice as they take turns, chapter by chapter, to reveal the lives of Charlotte and her husband James Atkinson - a complex tale steeped in romantic love, colonial intrigue and tragedy.
As a woman living in a harsh colonial environment, where the social rules were skewed firmly in favour of men, Charlotte had to be independent and strong. Among other traumas, she faced travelling to a new country, the death of her beloved husband, social ostracism for her "feminist" demeanour, loss of home and fortune, possible estrangement from her children, a horrific encounter with bushrangers and an abusive second marriage.
Murell's tone is intimate and friendly. She interweaves Charlotte's story with her own experiences as she recounts how the sisters and their daughters retraced Charlotte's life in England in an attempt to separate historical truth from family myth - not an easy thing to do some 180 years after the event.
Forsyth has a more academic and formal writing style. Her interests lie not only in the stories revealed but also the processes of finding historical information and weaving it into a narrative, including the intuitive use of speculation and educated guesses to fill in the historical details that have been buried by the effluxion of time.
Together, the sisters document the false leads, missed opportunities, frustrations and delights of being a "history detective" walking in the footsteps of their ancestors. Their highly approachable style will resonate with those writing memoirs, exploring their own family trees, or researching and writing creative nonfiction based on historical events.
However, Searching for Charlotte is more than just Charlotte's story. It's also the story of Kate and Belinda and the other women in their family. The dynamic between the two sisters is revealed as they discuss the implications of the information they have unearthed.
Forsyth and Murrell have created a compelling intertwining of personal memories and revelations, insights into how to undertake historical research and lyrical but un-glamorised re-creations of the past.
The text is peppered with quotes from Charlotte's children's book, A Mother's Offering, which provide interesting insights into her personality and the cultural and social mores of the time in which she wrote.
In Searching for Charlotte, Murrell and Forsyth bring Charlotte's voice to life through her journals, artwork and books, and through their admiration of their ancestor and their enthusiasm for sharing the story of this impressive woman who, like them, is strong, intrepid and clever.
- Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder is a Canberra author and reviewer. Her book Story Time Stars: Favourite Characters from Australian Picture Books explores one hundred years of Australian creative writing for children.