'A MOTHER'S OFFERING': Australia's first children's book
The 170th Anniversary of Australia's First Children's Book ... an extraordinary tale of love, grief, scandal and an intriguing literary mystery.
All Australian children know of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson. Most will have heard of Heidi, Pinocchio, and the Wizard of Oz. And the name of the first English children's writer has been immortalised in one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes, the John Newbery Award.
Yet few people in Australia – let alone the world - have heard of Charlotte Waring.
This is a great shame, as her book - A Mother's Offering to Her Children - was the first novel to draw upon Australian history. It was the first to feature Eliza Fraser's famous shipwreck. It was the first to describe Australian flora and fauna. It was the first to describe the experiences of early settlers. It was the first to try and engage with the impact of colonisation upon the Australian Aborigines.
Until 1980, no-one even knew Charlotte Waring was the author of Australia's first children's book. A Mother's Offering to Her Children was published anonymously, 'By A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales.'
It took years of dogged detective work before the identity of the mysterious 'Lady' was discovered. Thousands of hours poring over old diaries, reading old letters, rummaging through libraries and second-hand bookstores, writing hundreds of letters, and scrolling awkwardly through microfiche screens of old yellowing newspapers, by a woman who loved Australian children's literature and could not understand how we could let our heritage be forgotten.
Her name was Marcie Muir. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she set out to compile a bibliography of all Australian children's books, not at first realising what a difficult and time-consuming task it would be. A Bibliography of Australian Children's Books was not published until 1970, fifteen years after she began. In that time Marcie Muir built up a library of over 7000 books, many of them rare and precious. The Marcie Muir collection was last year bought by the National Library of Australia, a testament to its national worth.
One book which Marcie Muir always sought but was never able to find was a copy of A Mother's Offering to Her Children. It is still fiendishly rare – a copy sold only a few months ago for $60,000.
A second edition was printed by Jacaranda Press in 1978, 137 years after its first edition, with a foreword by Rosemary Wighton, the author of 'Early Australian Children's Literature'. She says, 'For many years it was believed, because of a hand-written note in one of the surviving copies, that the author was Lady Gordon Bremer ... This attribution now seems increasingly dubious ... a letter from one of Lady Gordon Bremer's descendants to the bibliographer of Australian children's books, Marcie Muir, states that, as far as family records show, she never visited Australia at all.'
In 1978, when the second edition was published, Marcie Muir had already spent almost a decade trying to ascertain exactly who wrote Australia's first children's book. It was not easy or pleasant work – these were the days before the internet and email, before even fax machines were widely available. And Marcie Muir was not being paid for her investigation. All of her years of laborious research were motivated by an unswerving belief that such things mattered. She believed that Australians should cherish and celebrate the lives and works of the writers of the past, those literary pioneers who helped create our history and our culture.
One day, her persistence was rewarded. In December 1978, Marcie Muir flew to Sydney from her home town of Adelaide to look through the newspaper collections at the Mitchell Library. She knew A Mother's Offering to Her Children had been published in 1841, and so doggedly she read through the entirety of each newspaper of the year, hoping against all odds for a clue, a lead she could follow. In The Sydney Gazette, on the very last newspaper of the year – 23 December 1841 – she found a small review of the book tucked away at the back. '(A Mother's Offering to Her Children), which embraces a variety of useful and entertaining matter, is got up under the form of dialogues between a mother and her children. It is to be hoped that others will follow the noble example set up Mrs Barton ... nothing sooner gives young persons a taste for refined literature than books ... which while ... interesting, are also instructive.'
A name! 'Mrs Barton.' Yet who was Mrs Barton?
In trying to answer this question, Marcie Muir stumbled upon an extraordinary tale of love, grief, courage, scandal, and violence. It took her another eighteen months of stubborn research, and many false leads, before she at last uncovered this story and once again it was through an extraordinary coincidence that the mystery was at last solved.
Marcie Muir had also been trying to identify the author of the first illustrated children's book, Peter Possum's Portfolio, and had found an advertisement for it in the back of Louisa Atkinson's novel Cowanda, the Veteran's Grant, published in 1859.
Louisa Atkinson was widely celebrated as the first Australian-born female novelist and journalist. She was also well-known as a naturalist, artist and early conservationist. Tragically she had died at the age of thirty-eight, eighteen days after the birth of her daughter. Her husband's horse had thrown him and returned home riderless, and she had suffered a heart attack. Her husband, limping home after his horse, found her dead body next to the baby's cradle.
Wondering if Louisa Atkinson could possibly have written and illustrated Peter Possum's Portfolio, Marcie Muir began to research her life and work. To her astonishment and delight, she discovered that Louisa Atkinson's mother – born Charlotte Waring – had remarried a man named George Barton when Louisa had been only four.
Could the mother of Australia's first native-born female novelist also be the author of Australia's first published children's book? The idea fascinated Marcie Muir. She read everything she could find on the Atkinson family and eventually made contact with the descendants of Louisa Atkinson's daughter, Louisa Calvert, who had many drawings and papers which were able to conclusively prove that it was indeed Louisa Atkinson's mother who was the mysterious 'Lady' Marcie Muir had been searching for so long.
Charlotte Waring was born in 1797, the third of four daughters, and was brought up in a world of luxury and privilege. Her mother had died at the birth of Charlotte's little sister, but her father Albert was a man of fortune who amused himself collecting art and exotic animals – he had a menagerie built in the grounds of his grand house on the banks of the river Thames. When Charlotte was in her teens, he married again and his new wife soon bore him a son. Not long afterwards, Albert Waring died, leaving his estate and his fortune in trust for his little boy. Like the heroines of a Bronte novel, Charlotte and her sisters were forced into servitude as governesses.
It was a position particularly ill-suited to Charlotte, who was proud and passionate and headstrong. One day, she saw an advertisement in The Times offering a salary of 100 pounds a year. This was an extraordinarily high amount for a governess in the 1820s. Charlotte applied at once. To her dismay, when she arrived at the hotel for her interview, it was to find twenty-four other women also waiting. Yet one by one those twenty-four other hopefuls walked out, declaring there was no chance they'd take such a job. When it was finally her turn to be interviewed, Charlotte discovered why. The job was as a governess to the Macarthur family, in the far distant wilds of New South Wales, Australia. At that time, Sydney was only just beginning to develop from a penal colony into a pioneer settlement. London newspapers of the day were full of accounts of escaped convicts, bushrangers, native attacks, smallpox epidemics, drought, floods and bushfires.
I'll take the job, Charlotte declared, but only if I travel first-class.
It proved to be a wise decision. Within two hours of The Cumberland steaming out of Portsmouth, Charlotte was seen "flirting" with one of the colony's most eligible young bachelors. James Atkinson was the owner of one of the largest land grants in NSW, at Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands. He had written a book, An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales, one of the first publications about life in the colonies, and was returning to Australia after overseeing its publication in England. Within ten days Charlotte and James were engaged to be married. Their romance caused a great deal of scandal, and James's good friends, Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft, counselled him against marrying a mere governess. James was not be swayed, however, and he and Charlotte were married within the year.
They built a grand home at Sutton Forest and named it Oldbury after James's home in Kent. Within seven years they had had four children, Charlotte Elizabeth, Emily, James John, and Louisa. The farm thrived under James's care and the Atkinsons were wealthy and influential.
Then tragedy struck. James died after a brief illness, leaving Charlotte a widow with four children under the age of eight. Oldbury Farm was left in trust for little James John, only two years old, with Alexander Berry acting as one of the trustees. Charlotte struggled on alone, trying to run a farm of close on 1120 hectares, raise and educate her children, manage the convict labour, and deal with the trustees, who had never liked her.
In early 1836, Charlotte and her overseer, George Barton, were attacked by bushrangers while riding out together to visit a sheep station to the north-west. George Barton was cruelly flogged, the bushranger saying he considered it his duty to 'flog all the Gentlemen so that they might know what punishment was'. The incident caused a great deal of comment and innuendo and, as a result, Charlotte married George Barton a month later.
It was a terrible mistake. George Barton was a violent drunk who was eventually convicted for manslaughter. His behaviour became increasingly dangerous, and three years later, Charlotte packed up her four children and fled Oldbury, travelling through wild and rugged countryside to a primitive shack on the edge of wild, unexplored bushland. She was only able to take the barest necessities, including her travelling writing desk and the children's pet koala. She was desperately poor. When her children fell ill, she could not pay the doctor who came to visit them, and all her appeals to the trustees failed to move them.
When Charlotte took the trustees to court, to try and force them to pay her the allowance owed her, Alexander Berry retaliated by initiating an enquiry into her fitness to be the children's guardian. The court battle dragged on for six long years, during which time Charlotte only managed to live by selling all her furniture and running up debts. It was during this time that she began to write down the stories she had been telling her children, in a desperate attempt to earn herself some money.
In July 1841, the Chief Justice, Sir James Dowling, found in favour of Charlotte, in a landmark case for women's rights in Australia. He declared, 'it would require a state of urgent circumstances to induce the Court to deprive them (all of whom are under thirteen years of age) of that maternal care and tenderness, which none but a mother can bestow.'
On 18 December 1841, A Mother's Offering to Her Children was published by G.W. Evans in time for the Christmas trade. It was an instant bestseller, saving Charlotte and her four young children from penury, for, despite the court order, she continued having to fight for any income from the estate.
The book is framed as a dialogue between a mother and her three children, named Clara, Emma, Julius and Lucy (obvious pseudonyms for her own three children Charlotte, Emily, James and Louisa). It is a stiff and stilted way to tell a story, and rings oddly to modern sensibilities, but was a very popular format in the early 1800s. It's important to remember that Charlotte Waring wrote her book for children when Queen Victoria had been on the throne only four years. English children were reading books like Maria Elizabeth Budden's 'Claudine, or Humility the Basis of All Virtues'. The Bronte sisters were still scribbling away in their kitchen. George Eliot was twenty years away from publishing her first novel. Robert Louis Stevenson had not even been born.
Marcie Muir wrote 'There is a charming feeling of a warm, loving family in A Mother's Offering, and the dialogue, though formal, was that of cultivated people of the time ... (it) breathes the very atmosphere of the time in which it was written.'
Most biographies give Charlotte Waring the surname of her drunk and violent husband, George Barton, but her descendants reject this fervently. At the time A Mother's Offering was published, Charlotte had been living separately for her husband for more than two years, she had gained a legal separation from him, and she had applied to magistrates at the Sydney Police Office for protection from him. He was later to be charged with murder, found guilty of manslaughter, and sent to gaol. It seems appalling to me that poor Charlotte should be saddled with the name of a man she hated and feared, and so I – like all the rest of her descendants – call her by her maiden name.
Charlotte Waring was my great-great-great-great-grandmother. I'm descended from her eldest daughter, Charlotte Atkinson, who eloped with a groom at the age of eighteen. Like both her mother and her younger sister Louisa, Charlotte Atkinson loved to write and paint, though it was difficult for her to produce much work in between giving birth to eleven children. She was a passionate and headstrong woman who passed her writing gene down to her descendants – both my sister Belinda Murrell and my brother Nick Humphrey are published authors as well. We always knew that we were descended from a long line of writers; the love story of Charlotte and James, and her battle to save her family, were told to me many times as a little girl. When Marcie Muir published the story of her long search to discover the identity of the author of A Mother's Offering, I was fourteen years old. I remember my mother – who is a wonderful writer herself – saying, 'what a shame she never thought to ask us!'
In the 170 years since Charlotte Waring wrote A Mother's Offering to Her Children, the world has changed enormously. We forget how much courage it would take for a young woman to set sail to the other side of the world, and how much strength she would need to fight to keep her family at a time when women had few legal rights. We forget how difficult it was for a woman to use her own talents and intelligence to forge her own life. We should not forget. Charlotte Waring should be remembered, and celebrated, for the extraordinary woman she was.
Kate Forsyth is an award-winning novelist for both adults and children, whose 24th book The Starkin Crown has just been published. Her books have been published in 13 countries, including Russia, Italy, Turkey, Slovenia and Japan.