Books and reading

Different worlds: ‘The Sea Captain’s Wife’ by Jackie French

Possibly one of Jackie French’s more unusual historical fiction creations, The Sea Captain’s Wife takes us into a vivid world of her own imagination, informed by folklore and research.

The protagonist is Mair, a young woman who lives on a remote fictional island. It is 1870. Her tiny community is made up almost entirely of women, after a tsunami hit a nearby island, sweeping away many of the men who’d gone there to collect bird’s eggs. It’s a matriarchal society where women make the decisions. They wait for those men who’d survived The Wave to return from sailing ventures, or search the beaches in case a shipwreck washes a man onto their shore.

‘Wait’ and ‘search’ are perhaps misleading verbs here. These are not passive women, pining for a man, or immobilized by grief. They build gardens on the poor rocky soil of their volcanic island, birth babies and raise children, fish, prepare meals and create beautiful, functional garments. It’s essentially a subsistence life, where what they grow and produce is supplemented by occasional visits from a ship with goods to trade. They are busy and, largely, content.

They wait for, or seek out husbands for companionship, support, procreation. Potential husbands must be approved by the council of women. The community has their own way of dealing with any man who poses a threat to their way of life or to the peace and safety of the island. There are strong expectations and rules; however the individuals who live here enjoy freedoms only dreamt about by most women in western society at the time.

They named their island ‘Big Henry Island’ after the active volcano that rumbles beneath them, throwing out black boulders and sulphur-laden fumes. Islanders have lived with Big Henry for two centuries and know its moods. But they are mostly unaware of the danger it poses.

Into this world arrives Michael, a ship’s captain washed onto the beach. Mair takes him to her cottage and nurses him back to health, during which time he learns a little of the customs and ways of living. He can barely comprehend the enormous differences between the world of colonial-era Sydney, and the seemingly free and easy lifestyle on Big Henry, especially for women. However he admires Mair’s intelligence, kindness and skills. Admiration turns to love and when the next ship arrives, Michael takes Mair back to live in Sydney.

Here is where the different worlds of Michael and Mair collide. She is shocked and bewildered by the restrictions on women, in a society where wives are expected to be helpmeets to their husbands, and have little in the way of individual freedom or agency.

Michael tries to understand, but he is preoccupied by the challenge to find a ship laden with gold that he discovered on the voyage which ended in him washed up on Big Henry Island. His upbringing leads him to believe that once Mair experiences his wealthy family’s life in Sydney, she will be happy there:

But all across the world women left their childhood homes to follow their husbands. It might not be the island way, but it was the natural order of things, and surely Mair would find it so once she had the luxuries and comforts that awaited her in Australia, with three women to make her feel she had family and a home there. The most important criterion for a sea captain’s wife was a woman who was used to waiting in a household of women for her husband’s ship to sail to harbour.

The Sea Captain’s Wife, p83

There are several mysteries that wind through the narrative: the ‘ghost ship’ that haunts Michael’s dreams, and a series of accidents and deaths that take place within his family. Does the gold ship really exist? Were the accidents really mishaps or something more sinister? The conclusion brings these to a satisfying end.

But the novel has deeper themes. It asks questions about humans’ lack of perception of danger – all too relevant in today’s world, threatened by climate change and conflict. And it asks readers to reflect on our own lives. What makes a worthy life? What responsibilities do we have for others?

As always Jackie French has brought her setting to life, creating not one, but two very believable worlds.
Readers who enjoy her historical fiction will not be disappointed in The Sea Captain’s Wife, which is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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