I’ve known about the prison reform work of Elizabeth Fry since I was about 9 – thanks to The Girl, a sister comic to The Eagle, which published from 1951 to 1964 and was a significant contributor to my education. Until now, however, I did not know that she also worked to improve the lot of women being transported. Each was given a pack which included sewing materials. In 1841 The Rajah, captained by Charles Ferguson sailed from London to Tasmania with 180 women and ten children on board along with Kezia Hayter, 23, a protégé of Fry’s. She was charged with the responsibility of looking after the women on board and developing their sewing skills. The result was the Rajah Quilt – on display today in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Those are the historical facts around which Hope Adams has woven a warm, humane, respectful story. It’s a pretty wonderful tribute to human nature because, on the whole, people on board all behave decently to each other – an interesting antidote to other accounts of this period such as Carmen Callil’s Oh Happy Day which I also read recently. If crewmen at fault are whipped aboard the Rajah, Adams doesn’t tell us about it – just the barest hint that there are good reasons for obeying orders. There is filth and squalor in the women’s quarters but there are also valiant attempts to manage it, keep it as clean as possible and to spend time elsewhere on the vessel. And perhaps it really was like that because – unusually – there was only one death aboard the Rajah in the three months it took to cross the world to Van Diemens Land, as Tasmania was then known.
And it’s a single death which forms the imaginative starting point for Adams’s novel. Why is Hattie, who fights for her life after being stabbed for weeks, targeted? It’s a tense whodunit because, of course, the perpetrator has to be someone on board. So we’re treated to a patchwork (quilt reference intended) of interwoven back stories and the gradual revelation that some of these women really do have things to hide. They’re not all just people who stole to feed their children or took to prostitution in order to live. And of course there’s lot of the messiness of human life here – some of these women are lesbian which is sneered at by some of the others, one is pregnant and they nearly all, unsurprisingly, have what we would now call mental health issues. The quilt, however, goes a long way towards unifying and reclaiming the 18 women who work on it. I was reminded several times of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good and its message about the redemptive power of art.
Many of the books I discuss here are rereads of titles I have known for decades. Published earlier this month, Dangerous Women is new and I wish Hope Adams (a pseudonym for Adèle Geras) well with it. It’s a satisfying, accessible account of something which could be – and probably often was – unthinkably appalling told from a sensitive perspective. I found the split time narrative a bit clumsy but it didn’t detract much from my enjoyment. And there’s a real life love story subplot with a happy ending which is always a bonus.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden