Disturbing tales from the past
NIGHT FLOWER By Sarah Stovell Tindall Street Press, $ 27
NEVER again will I walk down Liverpool St in Hobart without dwelling on scenes in this novel. Assuredly, this story is fictitious, but rattling any complacency is that the characters and events are based on disturbing historical facts.
Doubtless I will wonder if an old building could be the vestige or the site of the institution where convict women and their babies were fed on a diet of gruel and ox- head soup.
And what about Ma Dwyer’s well- patronised bawdyhouse, which was supposed to have been situated opposite? Where, too, was the one- time part of the thoroughfare where drunks lurched around day and night, and morally superior free settlers felt obliged to insult serving women under sentence?
Intertwined is the tale of two young women from opposite ends of the 1840s social spectrum who are sent to penal servitude in Van Diemen’s Land.
There is Miriam, charged with petty stealing, but who’s real crime is being born a poor gypsy.
Rose has led a privileged life as the daughter of a trader who, unbeknown to her, has been a slave trader, which has been against the law in Britain since 1833. With bitter irony she first sees manacled slaves off the coast of Africa.
Although Miriam would have been used to the filth of the slums and the manure- ridden streets, she still recoils from the smells and appalling conditions on board the Marquess of Hastings. These are matched by the stench of sexual corruption, with a lucky few receiving protection by becoming concubines.
The two “night flowers” who are destined to have their blooms hidden and their dignity violated by their lowly status in Hobart both end up in the employment of the arch-hypocrite, embezzler, sexual predator and baby farmer, the Reverend William Sutton, whose undetected offences are infinitely greater than the hapless women in his charge.
The only overt inaccuracies are with references to a feather boa ( 50 years too early) being donned by a “hooker”, which is a 20th- century Americanism. Even though the characters are trapped in historical fiction like insects in amber, we still want some literary conventions observed so justice in an duplicitous system will somehow happen. Villains, it is hoped will be punished and almost as longed for is for the underdogs to triumph over adversity.