REVIEW – Female convict inspires story

“Far From Botany Bay”

By Rosa Jordan

Oolichan Books

431 pages

Stephen Harper must be a fan of the Georgian era, when a woman stealing a cloak to take the chill of her dying mother could be sentenced to hang, and then shown mercy in the form of seven years in an overseas penal colony.

That approach to crime and punishment didn’t create much law and order in England, but it does fuel the imagination of Rossland writer Rosa Jordan. Her latest book, “Far From Botany Bay,” is a novel inspired by the real-life exploits of Mary Bryant, a Cornish convict sent to Australia in 1787 as part of the first transport of European settlers and prisoners.

Some interpretations of the scant historical record have concluded the 21-year-old Bryant was more of a petty criminal than Daughter Theresa, but Jordan imagines her as a feminist saint – and sinner where need be – struggling to survive the social, sexual and economic repression of her time.

Mary is raped before the prison ship sets sail, and other prisoners and the guard who impregnated her die of fever before the voyage begins. When they reach the penal colony, Mary takes a feckless drunk for a husband to protect her from her marauding male inmates.

After years of starvation and brutality, Mary uses her brains and sex appeal to organize and lead an escape, involving a perilous 5,000-kilometre voyage in a small open boat through the uncharted waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

But their freedom in Dutch Indonesia is undone by Mary’s big-mouth husband, and even more dreadful dungeon time and the death of her two children follows. Transported back to England, she is finally set free when the famous writer James Boswell intervenes on her behalf, and she settles into a peaceful life with her true love and soul-mate, another survivor of the penal colony ordeal.

This could have been just another grass-skirt-ripping historical adventure romance. But Jordan takes us on a voyage that is horrifying at times, but always entertaining and often compelling.

Amid the well-paced, gripping storyline and lean descriptive passages (a Cornish winter morning is described as “like a painting done in charcoal; soft-edged, with no colour brighter than that of smoke and steely black water”), are reflections on Mary’s era and the human condition in general, and many wry aside aides on male-female relations and the plight of woman. Seeing her cocky future husband for the first time, she notices how assuredly he stands, with his legs splayed, and then tries to imitate his posture, to see how it feels.

“She considered how peculiar it was that men, whose private parts hang out, so often sit or stand like that, their crotch exposed to the world but for a covering bit of cloth, while women, with everything tucked neatly inside, conceal what little there is to see with layers upon flared-out layers.”

Trying out his stance, she find “was a cool, free feeling, yet a troubling one. It took, she deemed, more confidence than most women have to sit or stand in such a vulnerable way. Perhaps it was a matter of size. If she had six feet of hardened muscles like that man down by the boat, maybe she could stand with her legs apart without fearing molestation.”

During the long desperate struggle for survival that follows, Mary learns to preserve her humanity however she can. She takes pleasure in a dungeon song or tale shared among inmates, a glimpse of sunshine or the trill of a bird, escaping to a place, in her mind at least, that is “Far from Botany Bay.”