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2023 - Winner
Drawing on 50 years of research, Alan Atkinson tells the story of a marriage that upends what we know about the Macarthurs, about early colonial history, and about how the Enlightenment shaped people in newly settled British Australia. To the well-known story of wool and wifedom, Elizabeth and John adds several layers of complexity, chiefly through its attention to the ways in which the Macarthurs reflected eighteenth-century obsessions with the self and innovation. Taking as his cue the idea that Elizabeth and John were true ‘natives of the Enlightenment’, Atkinson uses his immense knowledge of eighteenth-century intellectual history to reveal a pair formed by emerging modes of experiment and introspection.
Woven through this double portrait are also superbly drawn cameos of people who are too often roped off into separate fields of inquiry. We encounter abstemious Arthur Phillip and scornful William Bligh, as well as the enigmatic governess-companion Penelope Lucas and the intriguing orphaned Darug man Tjedboro. Atkinson’s lyrical style — a blend of sympathy, economy, and irony — encompasses them all in this convincing recreation of a world now past.
Atkinson understands the mass of relevant sources about the Macarthurs like no one else. He is also among the foremost scholars of Enlightenment thought and history in Australia. Together, his skills have produced a landmark book that will refresh early colonial studies and stand as a model for comparative biography, sensitive research and beautiful writing.