Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force – Sarah Goldman

It felt weird when someone gave this book to me an a Christmas gift. I don’t read much history, particularly Australian history about people I don’t know much about. But that ended up being the reason I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

I’m sure I’d heard Caroline Chisholm’s name thrown about, and knew she was on a $5 note once. So she’s kind of a big deal for some reason, and reading this book helped me learn how.

Sarah Goldman pieces together Caroline’s life through historical letters and texts, as well as accounts from Caroline’s living descendants. She cleverly opens each chapter with a fictional account of real occurrences, adding depth and realism to what life was like for Caroline.

Reading this, I fell in love with learning about life in the Australian colonies in the 1800s. Hearing about Sydney and Melbourne, and streets I frequent everyday, and trying to imagine them in the small community of colonial Australia. I imagined the bustling Elizabeth Street as a strip of apartments and shops, on which Caroline and her family lived for a while.

Obviously, I learned all about what Caroline Chisholm did too, and why she’s kind of “a big deal”.

Her heart set on a life of philanthropy and giving back, she essentially set up one of Australia’s first recruitment agencies, pairing up lost and destitute emigrants with jobs, while providing struggling landowners with staff to help out. She was particularly concerned with immigrant women, ensuring they were looked after and didn’t fall into prostitution and alcoholism in the colonies.

She built up a remarkable reputation for herself in both Australia and England, but never earned much money and was often on the brink of poverty herself. In England she helped people learn what life was like in Australia, and she helped immigrant families who had been parted be reunited. She taught people how to make a life for themselves – not giving them free opportunities, but helping them save and afford the move to Australia themselves.

It was sad hearing of how Caroline and her husband Archibald sank into near-poverty, while trying to support their numerous children, and how little they were repaid for their enormous efforts in Australia. It was also sad hearing of Caroline’s slow decline into poor health.

However, she lived an amazing life and is still honoured today with a number of universities, tafes and institutions named after her.


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