Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

C is for Convict . . .

Three women of three different classes interact throughout my current work in progress, Years of Stone. Deidre, a schoolteacher, has followed the man she loves to Van Diemen's Land. Deidre was quickly befriended by Lady Jane Franklin, an actual historical person, the wife of ill-fated and quite famous Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin, who later died on his quest to find a Northwest Passage.

At first I thought my story would be about these two women, Deidre, fictional, and Lady Jane, this fascinating, quirky woman of the 19th Century, who was villified by the press in Van Dieman's Land as the 'petticoat' behind the scenes who unduly influenced government decisions. This intrepid woman actually lobbied local leaders on policy, wrote correspondence to the London Home Office, climbed mountains, and in many ways would have been more comfortable in modern times.

But then along came Mary Dallow, what I call 'blue collar scrappy,' a conduit between prison life and the very small middle class and the elite class of Van Diemen's Land. Mary, like other transported women, moves in and out of the Cascades Female Factory, a euphemism for a woman's prison, shaped by the Victorian passion for reform through work.

I am comfortable with Deidre, the middle class schoolteacher. for I did teach. Lady Franklin is the least accessible for me, but letters and diaries are available, as well as histories that track the accomplishments of the elite. Mary Dallow is the most fun for she takes me in unexpected places.

My father was a bartender, and and one of my stepfathers was a steelworker. As a kid, I knew about neighborhood taverns and how to 'make do' with my baby sister when no one was home. We moved often, as one joke goes, when the rent was due, and I found solace in books, working my way through college and into the middle class at a time when college tuition was much lower than it is today.

At first I wanted to be a social worker, but a field trip for a criminal justice class to a local prison changed my goals immediately. As we entered the prison, each of us were taken -- one at a time -- through a double locked door. For just a moment, as I stood there alone, locked in a sort of cage with bars on both sides, I knew I was totally dependent on whoever held the key. Later, the young women in our group were taken to an all female facility. I watched the girls fawn on the guards, saying what 'the man' wanted. But when the guard turned away, sneers and asides showed me what those young women really felt and how they survived. As Mary Dallow would say, "An' who wants to know, ya pig sticker."

I'm still working on Mary Dallow and whether she will have a happy ending. Is happiness a middle class invention?