The Author of the first Children’s Book in Australia
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Perhaps this is because books have always been sunshine and solace for me, a magical portal that transports me away from my own world and into one that is infinitely more interesting.
Perhaps it’s because writing is in my blood. Poets, journalists, novelists, academics, obsessive letter writers – my family is littered with them.
Among the most famous of my ancestors is Louisa Atkinson, the first Australian-born female novelist and journalist. She has even had a number of flowering plants named after her, among them Erechtites atkinsoniae and Xanthosia atkinsoniana.
Yet the most remarkable of all those writers was for many years forgotten. She struggled against poverty, grief, and violence to write the first children’s book published in Australia.
Charlotte Atkinson was born two hundred and forty years ago in London, the third daughter of a rich and unconventional gentleman, Albert Waring, who spent his fortune collecting art and exotic animals. Charlotte was unusually well educated, having been a child prodigy who read by the age of two.
When her father died, all his money was left in trust for his young son. Charlotte, like the heroine of a Bronte novel, was forced to find work as a governess. Restless and unhappy, when Charlotte saw an advertisement for a governess offering a massive 100 pounds a year, she applied at once. The 24 other governesses who all applied withdrew once they were told the job was as governess to the Macarthur family, in the far-distant wilds of New South Wales. Charlotte took the job, though she insisted she must travel first class.
She had been engaged by Mrs King, the wife of Admiral Phillip King. A few weeks after they set sail, Mrs King wrote to her husband, “I am very much disappointed in Miss Waring, the Governess ... We had not been 2 hours on board before I saw she was flirting with Mr Atkinson, and ere 10 days were over she was engaged to him … I have spoken to her … but she (said) she must be mistress of her own actions.’
Charlotte Waring left Plymouth on 19th September 1826, a penniless governess, and arrived in Sydney on 22nd January 1827 engaged to James Atkinson, one of the richest young men in the colony. They married and built a grand manor, Oldbury Farm, at Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands. Four children were born in quick succession - Charlotte Elizabeth (my great-great-great- grandmother), Emily, James John and Louisa.
When Louisa was only a baby, James Atkinson died and Charlotte was left alone, trying to run a vast, isolated property and raise and educate four children under the age of six. One day she was out riding with her overseer, George Barton, when they were attacked by bushrangers. One proceeded to brutally whip Barton, saying he “considered it his duty to … flog all the gentlemen so they might know what punishment was.”
A month later she married George Barton – perhaps because she was afraid, perhaps because of the scandal, perhaps because he blackmailed her by threatening to tell what had really happened. It was a decision she was to regret bitterly.
George Barton was a violent drunk. In time he would be charged with murder and certified insane. Life with him was so intolerable that Charlotte packed up her four children and ran away. She had lost her husband, her home, her income … and soon she was to be threatened with losing her children too.
In Sydney, Charlotte applied to the courts for payment of the allowance she had been left in James Atkinson’s will. The trustees of Oldbury Farm retaliated by declaring her “not a fit and proper person to be the Guardian of the Infants.”
For the next six years, Charlotte battled the trustees through the courts. She sold her clothes and her jewellery, and ran up debts. Every night she drew her four young children about her and told them stories, creating for them an enchanted circle where they could feel safe and loved. At night, she wrote the stories down – tales of life in the new colony of Australia.
In July 1841, the NSW Supreme Court found in favour of Charlotte, allowing her to retain custody of her children. Although they ordered the trustees to pay Charlotte the allowance she was entitled to, they never did. Desperate to find a way to support herself, Charlotte sent the stories she had written to a publisher. To her great relief and pleasure, they agreed to publish her book.
Called ‘A Mother’s Offering To Her Children, By A Lady Long Resident In New South Wales’, it was the first children’s book to be published in Australia. Released in December 1841, it was an instant bestseller. Kate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of 25 books, translated into 10 languages. Her latest book for adults, Bitter Greens, interweaves a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale with the scandalous life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Her latest book for children is The Starkin’s Curse, a tale of high adventure and true love set in the same world as her bestselling novels The Starthorn Tree and The Wildkin’s Curse. Kate is currently studying a doctorate in fairytales at UTS. Her website is http://www.kateforsyth.com.au