For the JC by Jenni Frazer Nov 2020
The year is 1841 — coincidentally the same year as the JC was established — and we are on a ship bound for Tasmania, sailing from London. And the passengers? One hundred and eighty women, all convicted of a variety of petty crimes. It’s a long journey — but one woman doesn’t make it, stabbed to death.
That’s the intriguing premise of the new novel, Dangerous Women, by the prolific author Adele Geras, and the first to be published under her pseudonym of Hope Adams.
Originally best-known for her children’s books, the Jerusalem-born Geras decided to pick a pseudonym when she was looking for a new agent. “I didn’t want prospective agents to have preconceived ideas about me. And then, when the book was written, we wanted everyone to come to it fresh”.
It’s a departure for Geras, who reckons she must have written more than 100 books by now, because it’s her first to be based on a true story. She was inspired to write it as far back as 2009 when the V&A held an exhibition called “Quilts”.
“I’ve always been fascinated by quilts and patchwork”, Geras explains, “in fact one of my early children’s books, Apricots At Midnight, featured a woman with a quilt telling stories about each square of the quilt”.
The V&A show featured a stand-out exhibit, a patchwork quilt made on the 19th century convict transport ship, the Rajah, lent to the museum from Australia. “Next to the display was a little explanatory plaque, saying that the quilt had been made on board during the voyage from London to Tasmania. And then there was an amazing line: ‘By the time the ship reached Hobart, Kezia Hayter [the supervising “Matron” of the women] was engaged to be married to the captain”.
Geras was electrified. She thought, “I’ve absolutely got to write about this. It took me 11 years, but I got there”.
So the real-life love story of Kezia and Captain Ferguson, commander of the Rajah, is skilfully played out against a background of subtle feminism and the awful stories of why the women were being transported. The crimes are all too real: petty theft, prostitution, providing illegal abortions, vagrancy, forgery, and a nifty line by one woman of stealing expensive children’s clothes — with the children wearing them — and then re-selling the high-class garments. Execution by hanging was commonplace, not least in overcrowded cities where women’s lives, and opinions, counted for very little.
But if the crimes are real, the names of the convicts are not. Warm-hearted Geras has changed the names because, she says, these women’s descendants live today in Australia. Geras’s convicts, very believably, grumble mightily at the idea of putting together a quilt on board ship. They are a loud, often vulgar, lewd group, with respect for very few people except for Kezia Hayter, who has convened the sewing group as a way of occupying the women during the long voyage.
It comes as a slight shock to learn that Kezia was only 23 and the captain not yet 30 when the Rajah first sailed to Tasmania. Just as surprising is Geras’s own confession that she is “rubbish at sewing — I’m useless at it, I can just about sew on a button”.
She may not be able to sew, but she can stitch a great story.
Dangerous Women by Adele Geras, writing as Hope Adams, is published by Michael Joseph Books on March 4 2021 at £14.99