Impossible the Next

Mrs Macquaries Chair

Mrs Macquarie's Chair is the point adjacent to Bennelong Point, home to the Sydney Opera House which we have already visited on our journeys. The points are separated by a beautiful bay but, assuming the reader is not of a mind to swim between the two lookouts, a promenade arcs around the bay, bordered on the other side by the magnificent Botanic Gardens. The Gardens offer a splendid view out to the Harbour. The sound of gentle waves soothes joggers as they sweat their way between the Opera House and Mrs Macquarie's Chair, darting their way through the lazier pace of ambling tourists. The Gardens also enclose Government House, the official residence of the Governor of New South Wales, which is how Mrs Macquarie's Chair got its name. Mrs Macquarie, the wife of an early Governor, was fond of reading at a chair at the end of the point. It was a fairly solitary pursuit; she was unaccompanied as she went through the Gardens; the most anybody saw was a doddery bonneted figure advancing slowly up the point in the distance towards the lovely vantage point at the end.

Now I know that whenever the colonial history of Sydney is brought up, many readers become especially sceptical of any account of events so far in the past. But I also know that you bought this guide specifically to avoid being misled by dodgy tour operators or because you are sick of the half-truths that litter our history books. Which is why, outlandish as it seems, I have to reveal the truth of the matter that, in fact, on many occasions the bonneted figure seen across the headland was not Mrs Macquarie at all, but rather Mr Macquarie in drag.

Mr and Mrs Macquarie, it turns out, were a very modern couple. Major-General Lachlan Macquarie was at the height of his career as an officer in the army when he received his commission to be Governor of New South Wales. He was intelligent, distinguished, and respected by everybody he commanded. But, unlike the fashion at the time, one person he did not command was his wife. Mr Macquarie, being secure in his own abilities and masculinity, had married a very capable woman that he considered his equal, and were it not for the sexist expectations of the time, could very easily have performed all his duties with equal distinction.

From that day on, the pair formed an equal partnership in everything they did. Mrs Macquarie was easily able to persuade her husband that, since it was sexism alone and not a difference in merit that prevented her holding a post such as Governor, that she should be allowed to exercise the functions of his office whenever she was able. So whenever Governor Macquarie was required in person, for example to deliver a stirring speech to the colonial army where the officers could see the whites of his eyes and stubble of his chin, it was Mr Macquarie that performed the duties. But whenever it was a matter of wielding power behind closed doors - reviewing zoning plans, making promotion decisions in the colonial administration, giving royal assent to bills of parliament - more often than not it was Mrs Macquarie wearing the breeches and fulfilling the role of Governor.

Now this arrangement worked very well, but in order to deflect attention the two had to go to great lengths to reinforce the stereotypes which the very fact of their relationship contradicted, lest anyone suspect the inversion of power roles that had occurred. In the presence of other officers, Mr Macquarie would frequently shout Mrs Macquarie down, she would cry easily and run to her parlour to be comforted by her maids. Mrs Macquarie made a point of never demonstrating her thorough understanding of the gold standard at formal dinners with the Governor's economic advisers - instead she steered conversation frequently on to kittens or the latest Jane Austen novel she had read at the end of the Garden's point.

Mr Macquarie also played his part. To allay suspicion that when he was locked up in his study it was secretly his wife whispering instructions to him, he often had to act the decoy and take on the guise of Mrs Macquarie at the end of the point. This he took to rather enthusiastically, making sure that his costume was perfect in every last detail - from the pink bonnet, tight corset and frilly skirt accentuating a wide hump of a bottom, right down to the lacy underwear, a detail which was surely superfluous under all that heavy period costume, but which he insisted on most strenuously anyway. With the work, both of Governor and Governatrix, shared in this way, the pair were able to maintain enthusiasm over many years for these roles, repetitive in their own way, and Mrs Macquarie was seen at the end of the point often enough for it to be named after her.

Now, eventually somebody in the Governor's household discovered this secret. It could've happened in any number of ways. Perhaps at one of these gala dinners the topic of Austen or the gold standard had been brought up by another guest, and Mr and Mrs Macquarie were unable to hide their true feelings, of boredom or enthusiasm, which were entirely misplaced by the standards of the time. Perhaps when Mr Macquarie added some gubernatorial padding to his previously svelte frame, the arrival of larger corsets, dresses and lingerie provided the tipoff, as Mrs Macquarie had maintained her figure and had no need to go up a size. There were certainly contexts where the couple let their guard down. In the privacy of their bedroom, they could be heard to argue about who "would play Governor" that night, and who precisely would be "giving assent" to who.

The news leaked, but, fortunately for Governor Macquarie, only as far as an inner circle of lieutenants. Now whenever he appeared in the feminine swank of his riding gear or ceremonial dress, there were little titters here and there about what he might have on underneath, and whether it would be even more sumptuous. But when these insiders considered how they had executed the office together, they found very little fault with the political power couple. As much as they might deride Mr 'feminine side, they certainly had newfound respect for his wife. They couldn't help but look at their own wives, and wonder what it must have been like to come home to a woman just as beautiful, but also able to understand the genius of their currency manipulations, legislative changes, or innovative zoning. They also slightly envied Mr Macquarie, who had a sense that his advisers were aware of the arrangement, and now had the liberty of really being able to camp up his office and suffer no additional disapproval. He could admit to having read Austen, didn't always have to play the big man and bully everyone, and could even pamper himself with beauty products to keep himself looking his best.

Mr and Mrs Macquarie continued to share the duties until they resigned their commission. It had been a bright patch in the colony's early history, the only downside of which was that it had required a deceit which deprived Mrs Macquarie of due credit. So as you pass Government House on your way to Mrs Macquarie's Chair remember that we owe the woman behind the power just as much as the man behind the bonnet.