Books & Literature

Book Review: Searching for Charlotte, by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

NON-FICTION: The true life story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson: a tale of love, grief, violence and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.

Charlotte Waring Atkinson would be proud of her family of Australian storytellers.

Award-winning and international best-selling authors, Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, are also sisters. In Searching for Charlotte, they unite to uncover the story of their ancestor, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, Australia’s first children’s author publishing A Mother’s Offering to Her Children in 1841. Charlotte’s is a fascinating and extraordinary life story filled with love, grief, and resilience, all expertly recounted by the sisters.

Born in Britain to a wealthy family, Charlotte’s family saw a reversal of fortunes when she turned fifteen years old. She was suddenly required to earn her keep, becoming a governess to a family based in London. Yet instead of bemoaning her fate, Charlotte embraced the opportunity for independence, further education, and discovering her vocation.

Indeed, this vocation provided Charlotte with ample opportunities. She obtained work at the age of 30 that would see her move to Australia, meet her husband on the journey there, and settle into colonial society on the banks of the Parramatta River in New South Wales to start and raise a family. However, Charlotte’s life in Australia was far from easy and she suffered hardship and many personal losses. But throughout it all, her resilience and spirit endured. 

Forsyth and Murrell are both established authors in their own right with storytelling in their blood. This is evident in the sisters’ skilful research, investigation, and sharing of Charlotte’s life. The sisters are clearly passionate about their heritage and this could have easily become a standard recounting of a family tale with limited interest for wider audience. It is a credit to Forsyth and Murrell that, instead, they capture and retain the reader’s interest throughout. Often, it feels like you are reading a particularly interesting episode of the SBS documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?

The voice differs slightly between the sisters, evident in the alternating chapters that each penned. This assists in retaining the reader’s interest. Both mothers themselves, Forsyth and Murrell provide personal anecdotes of parenting and of their breakthroughs in researching Charlotte’s life. The sights, sounds, and atmosphere of their travel experiences whilst undertaking research, especially those of central London and Kent, are successfully captured and brought to life on the page through the wonderful use of description. The personal anecdotes provide an added element of authenticity and vulnerability, enabling the reader to further connect the story being told.

This is a fascinating read that will appeal to a broad audience with universal themes of family, love, grief, and resilience. It will particularly appeal to those who have a love of Australian history or biographies. 

A perfect elevated summer read and an alternative to the many fictional stories on offer at present. 

Reviewed by Daniella Feltrin

Distributed by: National Library of Australia Publishing
Released: November 2020
RRP: $34.95

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