Allen & Unwin, $32.99
As well as researching and writing history here at Way Back When, in our spare time, we also enjoy reading history - historical fiction especially. Katherine, Fiona and myself have been a part of PHA (Vic)’s historical fiction reading group since it first formed almost six years ago. The bar was set high when we started with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. I applauded Grenville’s imagination and historical research as she turned her family history into a gripping and nuanced account of colonisation and frontier conflict on the Hawkesbury River. A story that I enjoyed as much for the beautifully constructed prose as for the way it made us all feel uncomfortable with our own colonial past. The Secret River was almost the perfect historical fiction – but perhaps, for our group of historians, a little too much fiction and not enough history. If a historian successfully turned their hand at historical fiction, we thought, that could be the pinnacle of the genre.
Well, I don’t know if I should go so far as to call The Convict’s Daughter perfect – simply because is anything, should anything, ever be perfect? – but it is, in my opinion, the book that has come the closest to what I think historical fiction should be.
Kiera Lindsey takes her readers on a journey not only through the life of Mary Ann Gill, a young girl on the edge of adulthood, but a journey of research through the archives. She carefully weaves together court records, newspaper accounts and family law into a complex tapestry of life in colonial Sydney. Her historical knowledge is vast and you get a very real sense of the years of research that have gone into crafting this book into a portal to the past. And yet – and this has been one of the major failing points of historical fiction written by historians in our humble reading group’s opinion – at no point on this journey does the reader feel that the historical information supplied has been shoehorned into the prose, forced to fit into a paragraph where it hangs tenuously but has been so thoroughly investigated by its creator, that it simply cannot be let go.
Another thing Lindsey does exceptionally well, is to place Mary Ann Gill’s story into the wider social and political context of the time – not just colonial Sydney, but the wider world. Through Mary Ann’s eyes we witness the anti-transportation movement calling for an end to convict transport to Australia. We see a young Henry Parkes, toy shop owner, begin his political transformation. We’re taken to San Francisco and given a glimpse into the Californian gold rush and the notorious Sydney Ducks, then to the French penal colony of New Caledonia. With keen political, economic and social insights peppered throughout the book, the reader is left in no doubt that while separated by distance, colonial Sydney saw itself very much a player on the world’s stage. In her Afterword, Lindsey writes:
The Convict’s Daughter is concerned with this domestic drama and uses the political agitation of the 1840s as a backdrop. We see this world not through official documents and the eyes of the men who made them, but from the perspective of a young woman who was preoccupied with everyday as well as grander intimacies.
Mary Ann Gill had a long life and her story reflects that. Perhaps as a result of the available archives, or perhaps it was just the author’s preference, the main focus of the book is around the scandal and resulting trial of Mary Ann’s failed elopement with James Kinchela, a man twice her age. What is quite amazing, is how Lindsey manages to turn this relationship into something that is believable. What starts off as a young girl’s infatuation and a man who takes advantage of it, turns into a rescue of sorts for both parties. It is not the bodice-ripping romance often associated with historical fiction, but a very plausible interpretation of human action. It tells the story of a young girl’s bitter discovery that life is messy, complicated and filled with tough choices, and of a man born to privilege, facing the economic realities of failure, succumbing to the easy way out, and rebuilding himself. All of this is combined with the added complexities and restrictions of life in Sydney in the 1840s.
Mary Ann’s story is only just beginning after her marriage to James Kinchela, and the remainder of the book follows her journey across the sea to America, back to Sydney, to New Caledonia and finally ending up in the small town of Corowa. She provides important insight into the life of a class of people we are not often exposed to – first-generation Australia women born to ex-convict parents. Lindsey describes Mary Ann as ‘as much of a nation-builder’ as Henry Parkes. ‘Women’, writes Lindsey,
were a vibrant part of the colonial world and they often exercised astonishing influence as well as character and courage. ... [Mary Ann’s] story is one that reveals the complexities and contradictions of her age, and in so doing will, I hope, add depth and dimension not only to her world, but also to our own.
As professional historians this is something we all strive for in our own work.
A final delight can be found at the end of the book, where Lindsey has not only included an afterword – an explanation of her process, motivation and challenges in writing this account – but also a picture gallery, glossary, and notes for each chapter, explaining what primary sources were used and how, as well as a bibliography and index. If, like me, you always want to know what was real and what was made up when reading historical fiction, these additions are an absolute dream!
In short, I would say that Keira Lindsey has done what I have hoped to find since our reading group was established – she has taken her historian skills and created a piece of historical fiction that is historically plausible, creatively interpreted, expertly annotated and above all, enjoyable to read.
This review was first published in Pharos - the newsletter of Professional Historians Association (Vic), August-September 2016.