MORE than 231 years after Cornish highwaywoman and thief Mary Bryant arrived in Sydney Cove with the First Fleet, only the barest details of her life are known. In an age when full literacy was relatively rare, Bryant’s own words, thoughts and feelings were certainly not written down and nothing beyond the sketchiest facts of her crimes and sentence were documented officially.
In choosing to use Bryant as inspiration for the fictitious Jenny Trelawney-Gwyn, the heroine of her first solo novel, however, Meg Keneally has reprised one of early Australia’s most remarkable characters, fleshing out the skeleton of Trelawney’s experiences and achievements with exhaustive research into the circumstances of female transportees in the late 1700s.
When the death of her fisherman father leaves the teenaged Trelawney desperate to support a grief-stricken household, she takes up robbing lone travellers near her coastal village in Cornwall. Her work, though successful, is predictably short-lived; within months Trelawney is arrested, convicted and incarcerated on a rotting convict hulk, Dunkirk, in Plymouth harbour, where unscrupulous guards are ever-willing to take advantage of an attractive young woman’s desperation.
Pregnant and severely malnourished, she is transferred to the tall ship Charlotte and despatched to an as-yet-unestablished British colony on the far side of the world.
While Trelawney and her fellow convicts at first think conditions on board are unbearable, worse looms. Their disembarkation in Sydney is truly hellish as, back on dry land for the first time in years, they encounter a subsistence infinitely more foul than anything imagined in England, with starvation, brutality and abuse commonplace and the chances of a small child surviving to adulthood almost nil.
With only street cunning and grim determination in her favour, Trelawney must find a way to feed and defend not only herself but a daughter born at sea and, later, a tiny son.