Bibliophile | ‘The Wreck’ tells the story of the women of our past

The Wreck
by Meg Keneally
Echo Publishing

Meg Keneally is fascinated by marine history and the title of her second historical novel gives an indication as to what historical aspects have influenced her writing of The Wreck. In the nineteenth century, the sailing ship Dunbar was forced into the cliff face a little south of Sydney Harbour in heavy seas and thick rain. Of the 121 people aboard only one survived, found two days later and winched off rocks to safety.

Of course there are probably metaphorical wrecks in her story as well because the setting of 1820 Sydney was a penal colony that was only thirty years old. It was a growing free society with many of the convicts having served out their sentences but it still had a military government. Surviving a ship wreck, Sarah McCaffrey is a free settler but she has no way of supporting herself and her gender and class count against her.

Escaping from appalling poverty in England, Sarah had also left behind a troubled past. When protesting in Manchester in 1819 for food and rights as part of the Female Reform Society, unarmed protesters were set upon by armed cavalry and both her parents were killed. This is based on the Peterloo Massacre.

Sarah and her brother then joined a small group of men who planned to murder members of parliament. Based on the Cato Street Conspiracy, the plot got no further than the planning stage. Sarah escaped but her brother was hanged and beheaded for his involvement.

Escaping to a ship bound for New South Wales to avoid the constant threat of capture, Sarah changed her last name. But instead of arriving in Sydney and blending in with the crowd of new arrivals, Sarah became one of the most recognisable women in the town after being the only survivor when the ship went down during a severe storm.

The cover hints at the bones of the story – Rebel, Radical, Stowaway, Survivor – but Keneally has fleshed out her story with vivid descriptions that take the reader back to share the lives of women trying to survive in the new colony. Having frequented The Rock in Sydney, I found Keneally’s informed speculations about women who had trod the same pathways two hundred years previously absolutely fascinating.

Befriended by business woman and former convict Molly Thistle, Sarah learns that there is more than one way to start a revolution. The inspiration for Sarah’s mentor is the successful business woman and early philanthropist Mary Reibey who is depicted on Australia’s twenty-dollar bill. The Wreck inspires me to find out more about the inspirational women left their marks on our early history.

Lezly Herbert

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