Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: HNSA

Notes on the assisted immigration system – for Elizabeth Lhuede

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Elizabeth Lhuede on Twitter about my recently released debut novel The Tides Between (I never tire of writing those words). One of her forbears, Elizabeth told me, had come to Australia in 1841. Her name was Anne Bowles.

Now if you have read The Tides Between (tsk,  tsk, if you haven’t), you will know it is set in 1841, on board an emigrant vessel and that one of the characters is called Annie Bowles. Elizabeth was interested in my research on the government assisted immigration system (hurray, all those hours have not gone completely unnoticed). She wondered whether I’d write a blog on the topic.

Would I considered writing a blog?!

Err… if you are a woman and Australian and have anything to do with publishing, you will know that Elizabeth Lhuede is the founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Who just happened to be reading my recently released debut novel (sorry, couldn’t resist writing it again), and wanted to know more about my research. Like, would I consider writing a blog, for someone who has done so much for Australian women writers?  I’d in fact consider it a Royal Command Performance. Or at the very least, a thank you note, from one grateful Aussie Woman Writer.

Let’s start with a brief summary of assisted immigration in the 1840s:

A colony desperately in need of labourers

When Major Mitchell described rich pastoral lands in Western Victoria as ‘Australia Felix’, men began flocking to the district. These wealthy young adventurers, paid a £10 license fee to ‘squat’ on their allocated runs and invested their capital in sheep. Ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land and other parts of New South Wales also travelled to Port Phillip in search of opportunities. Alarmed by this flood of illegal settlers, Governor Bourke officially recognised the Port Phillip District. In 1841, the year in which The Tides Between is set, Port Phillip was still officially part of the Colony of New South Wales – which then included present-day Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Transportation to New South Wales had ceased in 1840 (it’s not all about the convicts). Squatters were crying out for agricultural labourers. In the newly surveyed town of Melbourne, the ratio of European men to women was two to one. In the Geelong region, the ratio was four to one. Whereas in the Western District, Western Port, and Portland Bay the ration was eight, nine, and ten to one. As a consequence, there was also a desperate need for single female immigrants.

The migrants

During the early years of the nineteenth century, England and Wales experienced poverty and social unrest. The population doubled between 1800 and 1850. Agricultural labourers were some of the lowest paid in Britain. Employed seasonally, they earned between seven and ten shillings a week. Out of this they had to pay board and lodgings.

Many agricultural labourers moved to the burgeoning new industrial towns. They worked long hours toiling over dangerous machinery and lived in crowded tenements. In 1833, the government passed a factory act to improve the conditions of children working in mines and factories. Henceforth, no child under the age of nine age was to be employed. Those under the age of thirteen were only allowed to work nine hours a day.

The Merthyr Riots (as depicted in The Tides Between) occurred in 1831. The Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in 1833. In 1834, the New Poor Law brought in a harsh new regime of poverty relief. The Rebecca Riots commenced in 1839, the same year that the Chartists rose in Newport. Amidst these scenes of agitation and distress, circulars and newspapers advertised the benefits of emigration.

The immigration schemes

Although the Port Phillip squatters cried out for agricultural labourers, and the British newspapers waxed lyrical about the benefits of emigration to New South Wales, problems of distance and cost needed to be overcome. A passage to Australia cost five times as much as a the more popular passage to North America and the journey to Port Phillip was four times as long.

A government assisted immigration scheme commenced in 1831 and was expanded throughout the decade. From 1837, a separate bounty scheme was also run by shipping agents who were paid to select and transport labourers on behalf of the colonists. The government scheme was criticised for being too expensive and not selective enough. While the government accused shipping agents of not caring for the welfare of migrants.

In 1841, the British Government introduced reforms. These maintained the bounty concept but placed it under the control of the newly formed Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Over ninety-five percent of all assisted immigrants to Port Phillip prior to 1851 came under this more regulated scheme. Male labourers under thirty years – such as shepherds, bricklayers, wheelwrights, carpenters and masons – were sought as migrants. Single women under thirty were sought as domestic and agricultural servants. Married adults were to be under the age of forty years. Married or single, all migrants were expected to be sober, industrious and able to provide birth certificates and character references.

Migrants were housed in emigrant depots prior to departure. At the depot, they were given a thorough medical examination, divided into messes, and taught the routines of shipboard life. Every government assisted migrant vessel followed a standard victualling schedule and carried a surgeon-superintendent who followed a strict regime of hygiene. He and the ship’s officers were paid a gratuity for every migrant landed safely in the colony. Between 1839 and 1842 over 12, 000 assisted migrants arrived in Port Phillip. The influx slowed between 1843 and 1847 due to a colonial recession. After which, prior to 1851, a further 16,500 immigrants arrived prior.

The voyage

Despite being heavily regulated, the voyage to Port Phillip, was long and arduous. The mortality rate was around 3.7% with children being the most at risk. Some vessels escaped death and diseases. On others, the mortality rate exceeded 10%. The average duration of the voyage to Port Phillip was a hundred and eleven days.

There was little difference between a migrant vessel and a convict ship. The same ship might carry convicts to Western Australia, a wool cargo on the return run, and take migrants back to Port Phillip in the following year.  As a consequence, the fittings between decks were rough and purpose built for each individual ‘cargo.’

The ships’ hulls were rounded and their bows blunt which meant they were slow, leaky, and required a great deal of pumping. Prior to 1850, these ships followed the well-established Admiralty route which called at the Cape of Good Hope and used the brisk trade winds at around 39° S to carry them east towards Australia. By this route, they typically experienced seasickness in the Channel, storms in the Bay of Biscay, rising temperatures off the coast of Africa, and a windless inertia around the equator.

On-the-ground research

I read copiously in prior to writing The Tides Between (see below). I also did heaps of on-the-ground research. I visited Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Queenscliff Maritime Museum, The Immigration Museum, and the Museum of London Docklands in order to get a tactile sense of the journey. I also did a Thames River Cruise, walked the route from the emigrant depot to the Deptford watergate, spent a night on the sailing ship Enterprize (where I learned how to create a hatchway Rhys could open in a storm), spent time on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, crossed from Queenscliff to Sorento on the ferry, and visited Williamstown. I also spent hours poring over old maps in the State Library of Victoria.

This is only the research I did for the maritime aspects of the novel. The fairy tales, Welsh language and London theatre history, are in a catalogue of their own.

Here is brief bibliography of the maritime related books I found most helpful:

  • PESCOD, Keith, Good food bright fires and civility (a great book on British emigrant depots)
  • PESCOD, Keith, A place to lay my head (a follow up book on Australian immigrant depots)
  • BROOME, Richard, The Victorians: arriving (a great summary of the era, reasons for emigrating, and the voyage)
  • CHARLWOOD, Don, The long farewell (my Bible on this topic, it includes two published emigrant journals)
  • HAINES, Robin, Doctors at Sea: emigrant voyages to Australia
  • HAINES, Robin, Life and death in the age of sail: the passage to Australia
  • CANON, Michael, Perilous voyages to the new land
  • HOPE, Penelope, The voyage of the Africaine (an emigrant journal)
  • HOWITT, Richard, Australia: historical, descriptive and statistic, with an account on four years residence in that colony
  • DANA, Richard, Two years before the mast
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Instructions to surgeons superintendents of Government ships going to New South Wales, 1838 (later versions of this document are available)
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Colonization circular
  • KEMP, Peter, Oxford companion to ships and the sea
  • MCCRAE, Hugh, Georgiana’s journal

I’m not sure if that is what Elizabeth Lhuede had in mind. I am open to further questions. I am in fact happy to talk at length on the topic. So, please, ask away?

PS. An emigrant is an outgoing migrant, an immigrant an inbound one. Therefore, in my case, you could say I emigrated to Australia from the UK at the age of five. However, once here, I became an immigrant in the eyes of the Australian Government.

A review of Nicole Alexander’s An Uncommon Woman

I had never any of read Nicole Alexander’s work, despite that fact I’d heard her speak at the HNSA conference and had seen her books lining the library shelves. But when asked whether I’d like receive a reviewing copy, I readily agreed. I’m not sure why? Maybe just the offer of a free book? I don’t generally read rural romance (like where are the Welsh characters?) and I knew Alexander’s books were set in outback Queensland. The accompanying press release confirmed this knowledge. Adding that her latest novel, An Uncommon Woman, was inspired by Alexander’s own challenges as a grazier in a man’s world. I imagined a tough, fictionalised, version of a Sara-Henderson-like story with “romantic” elements.

As it turns out, I was wrong. On a number of counts.

An Uncommon Woman tells the story of Edwina, the nineteen-year-old daughter of money lender, social climber and small town outsider Hamilton Baker. Edwina works the land alongside her younger brother Aiden. The property is overrun by prickly pear. Edwina has ideas for its improvement but they are met with stony resistance, not only from her father, but also from the less-than-visionary heir to the property, Aiden. The siblings have lived in comparative isolation since their mother’s death years earlier. When the circus comes to the nearby town of Wywanna both are keen to attend. The circus is out of the question, according to Hamilton, who leads a secret double life in town. But his prohibition is met with opposition. As the siblings rebel in their unique ways, a train of events is set in motion from which there can be no easy escape.

So, what did I like about this book?

Characterisation

Edwina’s third person viewpoint is delightful. She is practical, entrepreneurial and yet delightfully naive and feminine. It is not easy setting an ambitious female protagonist in a time when women were not supposed to stand out but Alexander manages to pull it off. Under her careful pen, Edwina’s prank in Wywanna, her reactions to her two would be suitors, her tender memories of her mother, and her driving ambition are all eminently believable.

Hamilton Baker is a singularly unlikable character. At first I couldn’t work out why Alexander insisted on telling half the story from his viewpoint. But as the narrative unfolded, her purpose became clear. Although I can’t say I liked Hamilton by the end of the novel, I liked what Alexander did through him. His alternating viewpoint lifted the story above being a simple romance and gave it a complexity I hadn’t expected.

Relationships

There are “romantic” elements in An Uncommon Woman, from both Edwina and Hamilton’s points-of-view. Through snatches of quirky dialogue, Edwina’s two potential suitors spring to life, as does Gloria, Hamilton’s delightfully strong and no-nonsense mistress. Alexander develops these relationships in a way that emphasises choice and strong character without robbing them of their romance. Here is a segment in which the sheltered Edwina she is forced to cut Will’s hair:

“Keeping equal distance between hair and shirt-collar Edwina did her best to curtail the thoughts that came with each snip of the scissors. Novelty mixed with self-consciousness, as her fingers grazed sun-burnt skin. She cut slowly, and methodically, noticing the twirl of his ear, the thinness of the lobe, the fine ceases on a neck that for some inexplicable reason she wanted to touch, and all the while brown hair fell in clumps onto the towel about Will’s shoulders. She dusted away the thick locks, blowing softly on his neck, watching as the silky tufts fell to the ground.”

Playfulness

The blurb on my copy of the novel concluded with the words:

“And when the night ends in near disaster, this one act of rebellion strikes at the heart of the Bake family. Yet it also offers Edwina the rare chance to prove herself in a man’s world. The question is how far is she prepared to go, and how much is she prepared to risk?”

Blurbs are hideous to write, filled as they are with adjectives and obligatory melodrama. On the basis of the blurb, I expected death or significant impairment to follow the circus incident, with Edwina rising impressively to the occasion (think Sarah Henderson meets Places in the Heart). Yet, the near disaster Alexander gives us involves champagne, circus characters, a slow building scandal, and a missing lion cub whose reappearance at various points in the story give the narrative a playful air. Add to this, identity confusion, boundary disputes, and a mute station-hand, and there is barely room for stereotypes. Even the nasty overseer is not quite as he seems.

Descriptions

I like a novel with a strong sense of place and from it’s opening lines:

“The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine-covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten foot into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest.”

 To its nicely interspersed descriptions:

“Beneath the wooden bridge boys fished for yabbies in the yellow green swirl, a mother hollering at the group to come home and do their chores. The wind gusted hot and dry across the fringes of the town. Grasses bending. The sky a razor’s edge of blue steel.”

There is never any doubt that An Uncommon Woman is set in Queensland where the weather is hot and people’s lives shaped by their hardships. I could almost feel the dust settling on my skin as I turned the book’s pages.

Clearly, I enjoyed this novel. To the point that I will keep an eye out for Alexander’s future works. The only thing lacking was a Welsh character. But, hey, we can’t all have Welsh heritage. 🙂 What Alexander gives us, is a non-stereotypical, historical rural romance which is a quirky, easy read, that defies the blokey white, Aussie-male-battler myth. Which makes it a pretty close second in my opinion.

Another first time event – chairing an author panel

At the beginning of March, I sat on my first ever author panel. Mid-March, I did my first ‘real’ author talk. On April 9, I will chair my first panel. After which, I’m going to flee the country.

I won’t be idle in the U.K., of course. I have three days in London (for research). Followed by a week of Mam-gu duty with my son and his family (pushing swings, rocking my new baby grandson and playing trains with his older brother). After which, I will spend a Welsh-language-only week in Caernarfon with members of the SSiW community. Then I will be busy researching my next novel. But prior to all that fun, I have this one final author event to look forward to.

So far, I’ve read the three designated historical novels for young readers (yes, I’m putting my YA librarian’s hat back on), perused the websites of the participating authors, read the bios provided and have slept with Gabrielle Ryan’s helpful notes on how-to-prepare-for-an-author-panel under my pillow. It’s time to write up a riveting list of questions. However, I don’t know about you? But I never know what I think until I have written about it. Which gives me a perfect excuse to tell you about the three participating authors and their books.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose – by Pamela Rushby

Lizzie and Margaret Rose tells the story of ten-year old London girl who is orphaned by an enemy air raid and evacuated to the safety of her aunt’s family in Australia. As Margaret Rose makes the perilous sea journey to Townsville, her cousin Lizzie has mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of her cousin, especially one as needy as Margaret Rose. As Lizzie faces the displacement of sharing her life with a stranger and war makes its mark on the communities of northern Queensland, Margaret Rose wonders whether she will ever feel safe again. In the end, both girls must learn how to adjust and belong.

Lizzie and Margaret Rose begins with a prologue and is subsequently told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Lizzie and Margret Rose. Lizzie’s pique is drawn in a way that does not make her unlikeable. Margaret Rose’s character evokes sympathy without her being too perfect. The experience of war in northern Australia is portrayed with an age appropriate realism that is not too terrifying. The result—a heartwarming book, handling a difficult topic, that is perfectly pitched to its primary school aged readership. This is hardly surprising. Pamela Rushby is the author of over two hundred books for children. I am very much looking forward to meeting her on April 9th.

Within these walls – by Robyn Bavati

Miri and her family live in Warsaw. Her father, a hard working tailor, speaks Polish well enough for the family to live outside of the Jewish quarter. Their innocent lives are made up of food, family, riding bikes and coloured pencils. But when the Nazi’s invade Miri’s family are forced to move into a tiny apartment in the Warsaw ghetto. Group-by-group people are rounded up and secreted away to work camps. As starvation, desperation and separation tear this family asunder, Miri must find the will to survive. Even though, at times it would be easier to give up and die.

As part of the Melbourne Jewish community, Bavati felt a personal connection to the Holocaust, even though her ancestors had left for England long before WWII began. But Within these Walls is her first foray into historical fiction. Bavati was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. Told in Miri’s first person voice, the novel gives a realistic portrayal of the ugly, desperate reality of Nazi occupation and, although the subject is grim and most of Miri’s family are obliterated, she manages to enthuse the novel with a sense of hope and belonging. This novel will make a great springboard for classroom discussions about the evils of mindless prejudice.

That Stranger Next Door – by Goldie Alexander

The Stranger Next Door tells the story of Ruth, a 1950’s teenager who has won a scholarship to a private college and longs to study medicine at university rather than conform to her family’s expecatations that she will marry a nice Jewish boy and raise a family. In Eva, a mysterious Russian woman who has recently moved into their apartment block, Ruth finds a perfect alibi for her liaisons with the Catholic school boy, Patrick O’Sullivan. But Ruth’s father was once a member of the communist party and Patrick’s father is working for the anti-communist, B A Santamaria. As Ruth tests family boundaries in the strained political atmosphere of 1950’s Australia, even the helpful Eva is not who she seems.

Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Ruth and Eva, The Stranger Next Door is essentially a coming-of-age tale in which the political tensions of 1950’s Australia form an interesting backdrop to Ruth’s rebellion against the expectations of her family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how the two strands connected but the links became clear eventually making the ending of the novel quiet satisfying. I was intrigued to imagine how much of the author’s own journey was tied up in Ruth’s experience and will look forward to asking Goldie Alexander how much the novel reflected her own coming-of-age in Melbourne’s 1950’s Jewish community.

So, those are my three designated novels. Thanks for listening to my thoughts. If you want to hear more from these authors and their work, why not join us at the Mail Exchange Hotel on the 9th of April.

Bookings are essential.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

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