I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/
Melissa Lucashenko has just been awarded the 2019’s Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s premier literary prizes, for Too Much Lip. It’s the first novel from this author that I’ve read and I’ll be looking to read more of her books, such is the quality of this one.
The story revolves around the Salters, a Bundjalung family from a fictional small town in northern NSW. I know this region as a holiday destination, with rolling green hills inland and beautiful beaches along the coast. So it was sobering to read about the other side – the darker side – of places like this.
Kerry Salter had escaped the hopelessness and despair of the area to live in Queensland. She’s back – briefly she hopes – to say goodbye to her proud grandfather, a respected elder of the family and community, whose own life has its darker corners. Pop dies and Kerry longs to get the hell out of there again, but family business and conflicts get in the way. Secrets are revealed, the long threads of inter-generational trauma untangled, and wounds are healed, made afresh and healed again, before the story concludes.
There is a plot by a local corrupt real estate agent and town mayor to sell off a piece of ancestral land to be thwarted, arrest warrants to be dodged, and a long lost sister to meet again. Not to mention sorting out her feelings for Steve – a school friend from long ago who is now the local gym manager and boxing trainer – and who is not only male, but white into the bargain. As someone who considers herself a lesbian and who has vowed to never get involved with a white fella, this all serves to confuse and unsettle Kerry.
The characters are all complex, not always especially likeable, but compelling. I cared a great deal about this family. And Lucashenko’s skillful revealing of their past and present traumas, their lives lived as outsiders even on the land of their ancestors, helped me to understand more of the experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I enjoyed the way the author wove in words from the Bundjalung language through the dialogue. This is especially timely as 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
(As an aside, anyone living on Dharug land or interested in learning more about Dharug culture and language might want to check out the online language lessons given by Dharug woman Jacinta Tobin through ABC Education)
To finish, here is a beautiful quote from the novel that spoke loudly to me, involved as I’ve been in researching family history and stories:
And that’s what graves are for, the realisation dawned on Kerry. They distilled your family history. They took what your ancestors did and who they were and gave it to you in one place, so you could go there and think about your lives and learn the lessons you needed to learn in order to keep on going.Too Much Lip, by Melissa Lucashenko, page 134
If you have read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a fan of historical fiction, especially fiction based on or inspired by real historical people and events. Mary-Anne O’Connor’s latest book, In a Great Southern Land, fits this bill nicely.
Set during the Goldrush times in Victoria and NSW (the mid nineteenth century) it follows the stories of two Irish newcomers to the colony: Eve (who arrives on a convict ship) and Keiran (who with his brother, sister and brother-in-law, arrive as free settlers.)
The book is a romance and we see the blossoming of love between the two main protagonists, with inevitable barriers placed in the way of them achieving their heart’s desires. Of course there is a happy conclusion. Because it is historical fiction, the plot complications arise from the times in which the story unfolds: the social, political and economic factors at play at this period of Australia’s history, including the poverty and hardship experienced by poor Irish farmers which drove many thousands to seek a better life elsewhere, the need for workers in the colonies due to the winding down of convict transportation to Australia, and especially, the feverish flocking to the goldfields of NSW and Victoria in search of the sought after ore.
I loved the fact that the characters and story were inspired by the author’s own Irish ancestors. It’s so important these stories of our forebears are told, not only to keep the stories themselves alive, but also to signal our beginnings as a modern nation. In these arguably much easier times, it is hard to imagine life before electricity, clean running water, accessible medicine, education, motorised transport, electronic communication devices and nearby grocery stories. The women and men who lived in the 1850’s had none of these things, yet still managed to love, laugh, establish families, argue, hold grudges, have fun, make music, learn, travel and earn a living. Just as we do today.
A big part of the plot of In a Great Southern Land centres on the story of the Eureka rebellion, when miners banded together against the injustices of the colonial authorities, ultimately facing off at the doomed Eureka Stockade. This battle is up there with Ned Kelly and Gallipoli in terms of iconic Australian history, but I sometimes wonder how many Australians know much about it or about the injustices that sparked the rebellion. Mary-Anne O’Connor has deftly woven these events in and around the stories of her characters and it makes an effective climax for her novel. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch credibility a little, but all in all this is a satisfying novel, firmly placed in a very Australian context, with deep Irish roots.
This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.
We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.
Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.
Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.
The French Photographer by Natasha Lester. Hachette, published 2019.
The French Photographer is this Perth-based author’s fourth work of historical fiction. Her books have been published in fairly quick succession from 2016-2019. I do marvel at such an output, as Lester’s novels are meaty with historical detail which would involve much research (although, as she pointed out at an author talk at Newtown’s ‘Better Read than Dead’ bookstore recently, research involving travel to Paris and a French chateau isn’t all hard slog.)
Her historical fiction works are also lush with settings like New York, Paris, and the French countryside, handsome heroes and beautiful protagonists. Now, if that sounds like a recipe for your classic ‘romance’, perhaps think again. Yes, her novels have a strong romance element with love and heartbreak often sharing the stage. The covers are lusciously beautiful, something I greatly enjoy. What I most enjoy about books like The French Photographer, though, is that they pay homage to those women from the past, who chose a path not normally available to women in their time.
In the case of The French Photographer, the heroine is Jessica May, fashion model turned war photographer and correspondent for Vogue magazine during the Second World War. Inspired by and based on the life of real-life model turned war correspondent Lee Miller, Jessica’s path takes her from posing for photographs to taking them, and from New York’s high life at the beginning of World War Two, to the blood, filth, butchery and despair of the war fronts in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany. On the way she meets and eventually falls in love with Dan Hallworth, the requisite handsome hero who becomes her loyal and honourable friend, then lover.
Amidst the political nonsense and misogynistic attitudes of the US Army, and concerted efforts to prevent women correspondents from getting anywhere near the war action in order to write about it, Jess has to fight her own battles, just to be allowed to do her job. The author has researched this aspect of the story particularly well and readers can trust that the more outlandish sounding reasons why women were not allowed the freedom to do this work properly, were actually trotted out at the time. Some of it is jaw dropping stuff.
Like her previous novel The Paris Seamstress (2018), this one has a dual timeline and involves complicated relationships between a modern day granddaughter, D’Arcy, her mother Victorine, and her grandmother. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who has not yet read the novel by saying more about that. But I will mention that the character Victorine is based on a little girl that the author saw, in a newsreel about the exodus from Paris as the German army approached.
Natasha Lester’s admiration for Miller, the woman who inspired this story, shines from every page. Miller did not have an easy life and after the war, her ground-breaking work, photographing and writing about what she saw and experienced in Europe, was virtually forgotten. Jessica May, similarly, faces heartbreak and loss. There is no ‘happy ever after’ ending in this story – perhaps another feature which distinguishes it from the conventional romance story arc.
As with all good historical fiction, while reading this book I was inspired to look up Miller, to learn more about her and to see examples of her astounding photographic work, as well as her pre-war work as a model.
So thank you, Natasha Lester, for opening another door in the hidden history of women.
What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.
Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.
Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.
We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’
Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.
Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.
And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!
I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.
Another branch of my research tree: a talk and tour at the NSW State Archives & Records at Kingswood in Western Sydney.
For my current work in progress I’ve made use of the many records that have been made available online and last year, I paid a visit to the Archives centre.
But during this visit on the weekend, I got to see ‘backstage’ – beyond the reading room, to the highly secure and atmosphere controlled spaces where the precious documents are stored.
The technical details of what is kept, and how, were interesting. But I admit to a particular thrill at being up close and personal with books such as the Parramatta Gaol description books from the 1800’s, and the registers of Conditional Pardons from that period. These books would almost certainly contain the names, descriptions and other details of some of my story’s characters, based as they are on real people.
The volumes – faded, torn covers and all – impart a tangible sense of the people named between their covers: the lives they lived, their mistakes and their second chances.
I’ll be back to find more details about my characters’ lives, so today was a good taster and a reminder that, while the ease of access to historic documents via digital sources is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like the original paper, book or map to create a link between now and then.
If you’d like to check out the NSW State Archives website, go here
How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.
Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.
On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/
Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.
She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.
She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.
This weekend I enjoyed a two day blitz of exploring local heritage. All in the name of research, of course. From a curated tour of the history of medical care in Parramatta, to an Open Day at Australia’s Pioneer Village at Wilberforce, one of the towns proclaimed by Governor Macquarie in 1810, I was able to absorb the sights and stories of colonial times.
While it’s hard to create completely authentic replicas of how settlements might have looked and felt in the nineteenth century, the Pioneer Village comes close, in part because most of the buildings there were not fabricated, but original cottages and businesses from around the historic Hawkesbury. They were brought to the site to create what looks and feels like a real nineteenth century village streetscape.
Adjacent to the Village is Rose Cottage, built in 1811 by Thomas Rose who, with his wife and family, emigrated to the colony. It still stands on its original site and was occupied by members of the family for 150 years.
For someone writing about people and places of our past, the Pioneer Village and heritage sites such as those preserved in Parramatta, are a real boon.
My husband and I have a little riff between us, where if one of us says a “mood” word in a sentence (such as ‘I’m feeling disgruntled / listless’, etc) the other will say something like ‘Yes, but what does it feel like to be gruntled? Or listful? (I know, you probably have to be there for it to be funny.)
Funny or not, these moments usually have me thinking about the word itself. Where on earth does a word like ‘listless’ come from, anyway?
So I did me some searching…
We all know what ‘listless’ means, right? The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as Feeling no inclination towards, or interest in, anything. After our spate of super-hot days in the NSW summer, I’m sure many of my fellow Australians will understand this feeling. Who wants to do anything remotely energetic on a 45 degree Celsius day?
OK, so that’s ‘listless’. But take off the suffix ‘less’ and it makes no sense, surely? No one says “I’m feeling listy (or listful) today.
No, they don’t. But if we understand the origins of the word ‘listless’, it starts to make more sense. The website for the podcast A Way with Words https://www.waywordradio.org/origin-of-listless/describes ‘listless’ as sharing a root with the English word ‘lust’. Ah! Now we get it. Back to the Macquarie: ‘lust’ means desire, passionate want for something, sexual desire…So to be without those, we can well be described as ‘listless’.
I love the way our English language is full of words that can appear to be nonsensical – until you dig down into their roots. Then they can have a magic of their own.