Books and reading,  History

Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French

Some girls are born to be loved,
Some are born to be useful,
And some are born to be bad…

No Hearts of Gold

The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.

No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.

What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.

The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.

Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.

Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.

Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.

The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.

… the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…

No Hearts of Gold p177

Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.

An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.

The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.

Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.

No Hearts of Gold p171

No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.

No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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