Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A is for Ambivalence . . .

I'm still struggling to understand these women who came as prisoners to Van Diemen's Land in mid-19th Century. The latest book I've read, Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory (Female Factory Research Group, 2009) came to me via interlibrary loan from the Library of Congress. This small paperback (only one copy in the entire United States) summarized the lives of 33 women out of 25,000 women transported to Australia between 1788 and 1853. About half were brought to Van Dieman's Land. As I settled to read in the library (can't check this book out or take this book home), I wondered again who these women were.

These women were caught up in pretty harsh English justice. Seven year sentence for stealing a silk handkerchief, something pretty and easy to sell. But I'm beginning to understand the handkerchief was perhaps a code for prostitution. So prostitutes were sent to VDL. Not necessarily working class women, but scrappy survivors. Quick to set up a flash mob and subvert the system. On their backs. There was no birth control. What happened to the children? Journals and letters describe the homeless of this time, gangs of children on the streets who found their own ways to survive.

But many of the women who were transported to Australia were not of the underclass. If the father, husband, or brother were unable to pay the rent or provide bread, what work could the women do? Dressmaker, laundress, cook, nanny?  Of course, some found such work in the houses of the aristocratic wealthy.

Imagine the work day in 1842 for such a servant. Sharing a bed with another house maid, perhaps in the attic. Up at dawn to answer a bell's ring. The day spent scrubbing, cleaning, washing. Able to see a life of comfort and elegance, as if the ladies were different creatures, but always observers, always a line separating "them" from "us" that was marked by language and aspiration. And if this servant were caught out pregnant or took something, a necklace or silk handkerchief perhaps, she would be out on the streets or the constable would be called. And perhaps she would be transported to Van Dieman's Land, sentenced to seven years, on the same four-month voyage with prostitutes and other thieves, sailing to an unknown land and an uncertain future.

Mama told me I would be a bad 'un but none of us were. Not Sarah or Paul or William or Baby or me, the oldest. I was to watch them all while she went away with Mrs. Rivers. "Mary," said Mama, "keep the door locked until I return." We had no bread from yester 'en, and the younger ones made a fearful racket. Bobby tapped, tapped, tapped at the door and we let him in. He brought hot beef pasties from the Lion's Head at the corner. The smell made us crazy and we all clustered close. His eyes burned on me and Sarah. We ate, our hands sticky with gravy. He gave Paul a coin and sent the little ones out to the close. Sarah was scared, but I wasn't. Bobby had been to sea. He knew stories and could tie fancy knots with rope.  Mama came home early, her face all twisty, and screamed at Bobby. I remember that was the beginning of the end. How I came here on this stinking ship that never stops rocking. We get gruel twice a day. We're locked below most days. Twice a week we go aboveboard to wash clothes or pick oakum. On Sundays we get a bit of boiled beef after a sermon, usually somethin' about sin. Half the words are blown away by the wind. Sometimes I see Bobby in the faces of the sailors who clamber down into the belly of this ship at night. I am twelve.