Dis­turb­ing tales from the past

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - CLYDE SELBY

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.

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