Other letters, less discomforting, move me to sadness. In search of Thompsons, I also find glimpses of the successive tragedies that marked John Fairfax’s family. His daughter Emily, who married Grafton Ross, writes long, gossipy letters to her ‘very dear Janey’. One, dated 29 May 1864, tells of the grief and isolation of her widowed sister-in-law, following the tragic death of her brother Charles. Seven years later, a black-bordered letter from Grafton Ross expresses heartfelt thanks for the sympathy of James and Jane Thompson after Emily’s own death in a carriage accident. The ‘sense of dislocation is more — almost — than I can bear’, he writes.
Did Emily ever know, I wonder, that her older brother had once hoped to marry her best friend? Some time before his marriage, Charles Fairfax wrote earnestly to ask the young Jane Jones if he might accompany her home after church one Sunday evening. Both parties knew that marriage was on his mind: the request caused Jane some heartburning and the bottom of Charles’s letter contains her carefully worded pencilled draft of rejection. He had begged her to return his letter if her answer was not positive. Instead, she kept it among her private papers until her death. It seems just possible that I may be the first person to have read it since, or to realise its significance.
Someone, I know, should sort and catalogue these letters, sifting the complex family networks and personal histories that would give sense and coherence to these scattered fragments. There is matter enough here to fill out our picture of early Sydney, and of more than one significant family. But for the moment, I am content to let my imagination roam through the glorious clutter. I am glad that someone — perhaps without appreciating the significance of these letters — chose ‘Mitchell’ rather than ‘burn’.