I know by its nature that a lot of historical fiction is grounded in real facts and events, but Dangerous Women by Hope Adams (pseudonym of Adele Geras) really caught my attention as it has one of the most fascinating real-life stories I’ve come across in a while.
Opening sentence: I wish I didn’t know, she thought.
All aboard the Rajah
Dangerous Women is set in 1841, on the Rajah. A real ship that did travel from Woolwich, London to Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania after it was renamed in 1856). There were 180 female prisoners on board. All convicted of petty crimes, they were being sent to the other side of the world with the hope that they would be able to start a fresh. Being sent away from family, friends and life as they knew it being the punishment for their crimes.
The Rajah quilt
The particular journey that Dangerous Women focuses on is well-known as, during it, around 20 of the female convicts worked together to create the Rajah quilt. A beautiful tapestry that is still on display today in the National Gallery of Australia.
The days will pass more quickly if you are occupied, and I intend to teach you what little I have learned of sewing and the making of patchwork.
23-year-old Kezia Hayter really was was on board the Rajah (her cousin George Hayter was a painter and famously did a portrait of Queen Victoria) to act as a matron to the women and it is she who is credited for the organisation and execution of the quilt.
She appears as a character in Dangerous Women: a strong, clever, kind and wise woman who not only helps give the women a sense of purpose, but voices the frustrations of being a woman, generally, in 1841. Sexism was rife and and woman with an opinion were not favourably looked upon. She holds her own and gives a great feminist voice to this story.
Secrets on the ship
The story is told in two time blocks – the beginning and end of the voyage; shifting between April / May, at the beginning of the journey, and July – around 100 days at sea when an attack happens. This throws the balance of the ship into disarray and means Kezia has to work with Captain Charles Ferguson to find out who is the attacker.
The Rajah will not come into port with secrets festering and perhaps a murderer on board.
Author Hope Adams expertly handles having so many characters in the mix. As well as Kezia and the captain, there are about 18 convict women who are named. From Hattie, Joan, Emily, Sarah, Tabitha and Marion, you remember their stories and their personalities come through.
The scene is also set perfectly: I could practically feel the ship swaying and creaking around me as I read. The confined space naturally adds a claustrophobic air to enhance the mystery and suspense of the storyline.
The sea, its great weight and depth (to which Kezia had never quite grown accustomed), moved below them slowly and heavily, and it came to her that the Rajah was like an insect perched on the back of an enormous, constantly turning creature that lived and breathed as they did.
A celebration of hope
I enjoyed how all the chapters set in April / May began with a description of a piece of fabric that makes up the quilt the woman are sewing. This added detail pulls focus to the quilt and really helps you envision it.
The Rajah quilt is still revered today as a symbol of hope and optimism through times of adversity – themes that the book so wonderfully explores and carries through.
That’s what we, too, are like, us women. We’re a patchwork.
I was a little emotional when I finished reading Dangerous Women. A gentle burner of a whodunnit that pulls you into the heart of its story, while celebrating redemption, rehabilitation and the good in people. All set to the backdrop of a truly fascinating slice of history.