My dad was, like, totally radical
THIS well- researched and briskly written historical novel is only available online. It is, in effect, self- published, Trafford being a service of that kind, although the term is carefully avoided on the company’s website. Like many books of this sort, Bligh’s Daughter is plainly but professionally produced in terms of cover, binding, typeface and layout.
William Bligh is an enticing character for fiction writers. Bligh’s life and times — spanning the Napoleonic Wars and exploration of the Pacific Ocean — are compelling. Five films have depicted him as a lash- obsessed sadist who brought the mutiny on the Bounty, the Rum Rebellion and other professional calamities on himself. This is exciting but unfair. Bligh was not an overly harsh commander or a tyrant, but he was rigid, completely unable to see another’s point of view, and foul- mouthed and abusive when crossed.
Through the years, Bligh has had his defenders and rehabilitators. A recent, inept, example is Irish novelist John Boyne’s Mutiny on the Bounty . Penelope Nelson’s effort in this vein is more successful. The story is cast as a memoir by Mary, Bligh’s eldest daughter, who accompanied him to NSW as a sort of stand- in first lady, Bligh’s wife being occupied at home with a brood of younger children. It’s perfectly natural that a loyal daughter should defend her father and overlook or minimise some of his shortcomings.
Bligh’s Daughter By Penelope Nelson Trafford, 240pp, $ US19.50 ($ 20.90)
In almost all respects, Nelson has got the voice right, and Mary’s account of the voyage out, her marriage, the struggles of her father with the Rum Corps and John Macarthur has a ring of truth as the character would have seen it, and is nicely dramatised. Mary, a devoted daughter, nevertheless has a mind and life of her own and is not uncritical of her father’s excesses when they bring the Bligh enterprise to disaster. Widowed soon after her arrival in Sydney, she later falls in love and remarries.
Nelson has done detailed research but it sits lightly, as it should. Her picture of the infant settlement sprawling untidily around the harbour, with farms established in areas we now consider inner suburbs, is convincing and atmospheric. Life was cheap among the convicts; infant mortality was high; childbirth was no picnic; tuberculosis and various fevers were fatal.
Class divisions broke down, despite the efforts of many to uphold them. Religion consoled some but by no means all. With this, her deft capturing of the texture of colonial life, Nelson does the essential job of the historical novelist: to transport
the reader to the scene and the time. It’s not widely known that Bligh was kept under house arrest for a year by the rebellious soldiers, nor that on his release and in violation of a pledge, he hung around Van Diemen’s Land until Lachlan Macquarie arrived to replace him. Following that, Bligh and his daughter lived in a modest, rented house near the Tank Stream while the former governor manoeuvred for a passage home befitting his rank. This is a good story, with personality clashes, conspiracies and love interest all well, if mildly, portrayed.
So far so good, but this intelligent and amiable book is severely disfigured by anachronisms and poor proofing. The words teenage, wisecrack, stoush, standover man and showdown could not have figured in the vocabulary of a gentlewoman of the period. Nor would a woman of that time think that her mother — having given birth to eight children — had died prematurely at age 56. The writer’s ear and historical grasp are at fault here, but a competent editor would have picked up these mistakes and saved her from embarrassment. No professional proofreader could have missed the line where eight words are run together. Self- publishing has its pitfalls. Peter Corris has written about William Bligh in his novel The Journal of Fletcher Christian ( 2005). His most recent book is Open File, the 33rd in the Cliff Hardy detective series.