There is a Scottish pop band called Texas. Scotland and Texas again combine in the story of ‘Abandoned Woman’ the new book from professor Lucy Frost. The Texas part of the combination comes from Professor Frost, originally from the lone star state and settled in Tasmania via Melbourne’s Latrobe University. So how did this Texas lady get interested in the plight of Scottish convict women in Tasmania? I had a chat to Lucy about the origin of her book.
In the 70’s Lucy left the US for a position at Latrobe University and in 1997 became Professor of English at the University of Tasmania. Lucy’s interest in women in literature goes back to the time she was studying American contemporary fiction, a task which became increasingly difficult since so much of the research material was from censored books. With a lack of access to research documents Lucy looked in another direction. Lucy discovered Barbara Bacon, an author who wrote about the 19th century Australian bush and women’s place in that environment. This discovery saw Lucy write her own book ‘No Place for a Nervous Lady’ which was a study of middle class women making their home in the early days of settlement in Australia. Lucy realised that there was no literature about women convicts who, unlike the literate middle class women of her ‘No place for a nervous lady’, had left no documentation themselves. This is where Lucy’s detective skills came in to use, as although there was no words written by themselves, the court documentation rounded out their stories. There had been much material written about English and Irish convict women so Lucy decided to explore the story of the Scottish women who also came out here as convicts.
Lucy’s book ‘Abandoned Women’ is a many layered title about woman abandoned in many different ways, by a court system, by a country and by the husbands or the men in their life. It’s also a book about resilient women who faced the unknown with bravery and the will to survive. With our knowledge of the world as we have it today it is hard to put ourselves in the minds and hearts of women who were being transported to the ends of the earth and some foreboding catch phrases associated with transportation and which Lucy includes in the book give us an idea of the unknown future these women faced with great bravery.
Phrases like being transported ‘beyond seas’ with the connotation the convict women were being taken somewhere past the known limit of the world, beyond places where human life existed and even beyond any ocean marked on a map, most probably off the end of the earth or at least what today we would call the radar and so out of contact with humanity.
Another phrase used was saying the women were ripe for transportation as if they were a fruit to be consumed by the process and maybe those great uncharted waters before, like a waterfall dropping them off the end of the world.
The name of their ship was the Atwick and once the woman of the Atwick got to Tasmania they were housed in the female factory, called a factory so as to seemingly distinguish and disguise it from the prison it was. The children that sailed with their mothers had an even sparser existence, locked away in an area of the prison with no stimulation whatever or as Lucy says ‘with not a blade of grass’, there is something sad in reading about a woman that covered the stones with a blanket for the children to cushion the children’s play. Later these same children would be old enough to attend the orphan schools, a chance to escape from the prison but in some cases a worst existence was played out in those educational establishments. Ironically these establishments live on today and comprise the social welfare buildings in New Town. The cruelty of the irony makes one pause to think of where the justice was then.
The crimes the desperate women committed at times seem surreal and bizarre. As well as the monetary, there were other things the ingenious women ‘collected’. Grace Logan stole a Greek Testament, for a woman deprived of education, an article that would have no resonance for her except for it’s monetary worth.
The Scottish system in those days did not send a woman on her first offence and this fact is what made Lucy’s detective work really shine by allowing her to determine the ladies status.
A parallel might be drawn between the resilience of these women struggling for survival in a harsh homeland to today’s refugees uprooted from their homelands and set off ‘beyond the seas’ to a new home.
Another irony in this story is that the women on the ship were a lot healthier than women at home and this may have been a reason why they were resilient, at least from sickness. The ships regular meals including a diet with lime juice to prevent scurvy and regular exercise and dancing on deck kept them fit and strong.
Not all was gloom, although even success was tinged with sadness. Jane who came as a convict and won her freedom, became prosperous with her husband, also an ex convict, and they built a hotel where the Dunalley hotel now stands. Yet even in her photos Jane still has an element of sadness about her.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories Lucy relates in the book is that of Agnes who was involved in the crime of ‘child stripping’ . Agnes would lure children away strip them of their clothes which she would later sell for money. The strange thing was children trusted Agnes and would go along with her without force. Lucy believes Agnes has a pathological problem which caused her to repeat this crime. Perhaps in a way it could be seen as a woman who had lost her own childhood (or innocence that childhood imparts) and maybe access to her own children, continually having the need to strip children of their playful innocence.
Abandoned women teaches us about the desperation and ingenuity of women who displayed a strength of spirit that gives true meaning to the phrase ‘Scotland the Brave’.
Lucy Frost will be launching her book at Fullers bookshop at 6pm on Thursday 16th February.