Mrs Cook: The real and imagined life of the captain's wife. Day, Marele. 2002

Mrs Cook: The real and imagined life of the captain's wife. Day, Marele. 2002

Day, Marele. 
Mrs Cook: The real and imagined life of the captain's wife.
Allen and Unwin.
ISBN 1 86508 802 1.

Little is known about Elizabeth Batts who became Mrs Cook. So to write 357 pages about her is brave. Marele Day tackles her subject by writing a novel rather than a biography. The publishers, I suspect, introduced the only glaring error of the book, when the Endeavour is described as a barque rather than a bark.

Marele Day does not restrict herself to writing about the birth, childhood, life and death of Elizabeth, but also includes the same for James Cook, thus allowing the reader to compare the upbringing of the pair before their lives became intertwined. The strength of her research is shown by her acknowledging of the contributions of CCS members, Ian Stubbs, Julia Rae and Cliff Thornton, whose own research and knowledge has featured so often in Cook's Log.

As a result the book has the ring of truth about it for anyone who believes they already know Elizabeth's story, though one can always differ over the way she might have reacted to the events around her. The conversion of passages from James' journal into speech can become somewhat laboured, for example in this piece about sauerkraut being provided for the Endeavour's voyage.

'They'll not take to it,' Elizabeth asserted. 'You know their ways – beef and bacon every meal if they could have it.'
They will eat it,' James said, 'one way or the other. A long voyage like this needs every man able-bodied, not dying of scurvy. I might try the method of serving it out to the officers, as a special dish, and leave it up to the men to take it or not. I warrant that once they see the officers set a value on it, the people will think sauerkraut the finest stuff in the world.'

I was particularly impressed by Day's inclusion in the narrative of several items that were once owned by Elizabeth that are now held in various museums around the world. The description of how, say, she came to embroider a damask serviette with her initials and the figure "9" is woven in to the story in a natural way.

But for me the best parts of the book concern her relationship with her children, most of whom were born whilst James was away and all of whom died whilst Elizabeth was alone. Though the descriptions of Elizabeth's reactions are all conjecture they seemed to me to be as good as anyone is likely to produce. Day also brought home to me that when James returned from his Second Voyage he probably saw his sons James and Nathaniel at Portsmouth where they were attending the Naval Academy.

Highly recommended.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 2000, volume 25, number 4 (2002).

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