With The Wreck, Meg Keneally has written another novel bristling with vividly drawn characters and adventure, with a good dollop of the kind of real-life historical stories that make her work so compelling. If you have read Fled, which was a fictionalised version of the incredible true story of the convict Mary Bryant, you’ll know how well this can work in the skilled hands of an assured writer.
In The Wreck, we meet Sarah, traumatised by the murder of her parents in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration by some of England’s working poor (loosely based on the real Peterloo massacre) and the treatment of her brother in its aftermath. Sarah joins a group which plans the violent overthrow of the British government.
Betrayed and frightened for her life, she escapes aboard a sailing ship headed to NSW. The convicts and crew on board are drowned in a terrible shipwreck just off Sydney Harbour. Sarah is the sole survivor: alone and penniless in a strange land, though still burning for justice for her family and for other oppressed and mistreated people.
So begins her life in the colony, where she tries to create a new identity and a new beginning. But Sarah finds that inequity, poverty and brutality have been brought to NSW along with the convicts and soldiers and that she must choose her friends and allies carefully, as she is still a wanted woman. She struggles to reconcile her desire to work towards a better world and her fear of British justice – or injustice.
She, too, was part of a faceless mass, toiling down in the basements of grand houses or begging on the streets. Yes, those on the upper levels knew people like her existed, but they didn’t have to see or speak to her, they could conveniently ignore her humanity, as they were doing with the original inhabitants of this place.The Wreck, p195
The novel is peopled with some wonderful characters: Sarah herself, and others such as Nell and her baby Amelia, who Sarah befriends. Mrs Thistle, who Sarah and Nell go to work for, is loosely based on the real life character of Mary Reibey, a remarkable woman who went from being a convict to an astute businesswoman and one of the wealthiest people in the early colony.
Sarah herself develops from the frightened and bewildered young woman who washed up from a shipwreck on the shores of the colony, to someone who has learnt that there is more than one way to change her part of the world.
The Wreck will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction well seasoned with convincing detail and believable characters, and themes that are as relevant today as to the period in which the novel is set.
The Wreck was published by Echo Publishing in 2020.
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.