Fact and fiction are woven together in Dangerous Women, the tale of a group of wretched female convicts who stitch and embroider as they sail to exile in Van Diemen’s Land.
The Rajah quilt is real. Named after the vessel in which the women sailed, it’s a national treasure in Australia, an artefact considered so fragile and precious it’s allowed out of storage only once every year.
Hope Adams uses the creation of this quilt as a backdrop to a locked room kind of murder mystery in which the ship’s captain, doctor, matron and clergyman must identify the guilty party before the vessel docks at Hobart.
The narrative ebbs and flows between two timeframes: ”Then” (the days leading up to the murder of one convict) and ”Now” (the period of the investigation). Together they reveal the past lives of the women whose crimes often amounted to little more than petty theft and their hopes and fears for what lies ahead of them in their new country.
Adams further divides the novel by using three distinctly separate narrative voices. One belongs to the only free woman on board, the matron Miss Kezia Hayter, a kindly, gentle woman associated with the prison reform activities of Elizabeth Fry who firmly believes in the possibility of redemption.
The quilt project is Kezia’s idea, a daily task with a practical purpose: to help calm the women and occupy their minds on the long journey. As a Quaker she believes the project serves a higher purpose; giving them a sense of purpose and self-respect so they can put aside their former lives.
Voices Of the Wretched
The other voices are those of the stabbed woman Hattie Matthews, and ‘Clara’, a woman whose crime is the most heinous amongst the 180 convicts, She’s assumed the name, the identity and the place of another convict in an attempt to escape the gallows and “leave behind the person I was.” The more we learn of her past, the more we’re led to believe she’s the likely murderer.
Dangerous Women is a tale that unfolds via snippets of information pieced together just as the quit itself is assembled. Stories emerge of abuse, betrayal, infanticide; of women driven to desperate measures to keep themselves alive. Love flourishes and bonds are formed even in the darkest dingiest corners of the ship.
At the end of the voyage, when Kezia looks at the finished quilt, she realises the significance of what has been achieved goes far beyond the physical object:
… the very act of coming together every single day, of sitting quietly, sewing, one next to another, of knowing what they were achieving was something of beauty: that had made them more than a gathering of individual souls; that was what transformed them into a sisterhood [and] each one would remember this spread of flowers and leaves, colours and stripes, dots, lozenges and her own broderie perse in the middle, with its bright birds and posies. They’d remember their contribution to its making.
Hope Adams wisely chose to focus on just a few of the 180 women on the ship. Through them we experience the reality of life on board a convict ship. The cramped conditions below decks with women “packed like apples in a pantry” on narrow hard bunks. The absence of light and fresh air. And the stench of unwashed bodies. In such close proximity jealousies and .rivalries invariably bubble to the surface and it takes all of Kezia’s calm manner and sympathetic ear to prevent tensions spilling out of control.
Dangerous Women gives a very real sense that the women on the ship are victims of a harsh society. Treated as the dregs of society, cast out from their homeland and separated from their families often for committing little more than petty crimes. Some became thieves because they fell into the wrong company, others were put to work by brutal husbands or fathers or turfed out of their jobs when they fell pregnant by the master’s son.
Intrusive Murder Plot
I wish Hope Adams had focused more on this aspect of the story instead of the murder mystery. The “investigation” sections felt an intrusion; a distraction from the more engrossing story of the women; their differing attitudes to the project and to the future; the relationships that form below decks and with the crew and how they view their prospects once in Van Diemen’s Land.
I’d love to know too whether the quilting project did achieve Kezia’s aim. Life in their new country wouldn’t have been easy. Did any of them revert to their previous life of criminality; did they find happiness and a new family? Surprisingly I can’t find any evidence that the real story of the quilting women has ever been the subject of a book. Seems like this would be a project ideally suited to Hallie Rubenhold given her success in bringing to light the untold story of the victims of Jack The Ripper.
Did I enjoy Dangerous Women? I’ll give it a qualified yes. The raw historical information was skilfully used — I especially enjoyed the short descriptions of pieces of the patchwork — and in Kezia Hayter we had a beautifully crafted character. It began strongly and ended poignantly but I thought the novel lost ground in the middle sections, particularly when it dealt with the murder mystery plot. I wouldn’t class it as compelling but I was definitely interested in the background to this piece of history, often turning away from the book to look at the quilt itself, thinking about the individuals who made it and who left their marks upon the fabric.
Dangerous Women by Hope Adams: Footnotes
Dangerous Women, published by Michael Joseph in 2021, is the first novel published under the name of Hope Adams, a pseudonym of the well-established author Adele Geras. Incidentally, (and mother of bestselling crime writer Sophie Hannah. Geras was inspired to write the novel after she saw the quilt at the Quilts: 1700-2010 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009.
The book is largely founded on facts. The Rajah sailed from London in April 1841 carrying 180 convicts drawn from different prisons around England, Scotland and Wales. The convict women are fictional but the crew members were not.
Miss Kezia Hayter was indeed the matron on board and she did lead the project to create what is known as the Rajah Quilt. She bought the materials, designed the pattern and began work on the central portion before the ship sailed. The relationship depicted in the novel between her and the ship’s Captain, Charles Ferguson, was also true — I found a newspaper announcement of their marriage two years after the ship arrived in Van Dieman’s Land (now of course known as Tasmania.
The quilt was presented to the Governor when the Rajah arrived at Hobart, was then sent to England to be presented to Elizabeth Fry. It was discovered in an attic in Scotland and returned to Australia in 1989 where today it can be viewed at the National Gallery.
This is book number 23 in my #21 in 21 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.