Thursday, June 18, 2015

Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 June 2015.

Did the Earl Grey Female Orphan Emigration Scheme of 1848 deposit hordes of marauding Irish trollops on the streets of Australian cities as nationalist newspapers and government reports of the time suggest? Or did a benign and orderly group of Irish girls settle into their new life of service, marriage and child-bearing with barely a disruptive ripple, as Evelyn Conlon infers in her novel about this little-known episode in Irish history.

The book is a fictionalised account of events arising from the Earl Grey scheme which transported young Irish female orphans from workhouses around the country to Australia to alleviate the eight to one male to female disparity there. The British authorities would thus ease the overcrowding in its Famine filled institutions and at the same time provide breeding stock and servant girls for its young colony. The novel centres on the lengthy journey of these hapless girls to Australia on the Thomas Arbuthnot and their subsequent lives in Australia.

Those familiar with Robert Hughes classic The Fatal Shore may be expecting the worst on the voyage but the most eventful thing that happens is one of the younger girls has her first period to the consternation of her and her companions. There was also some sea sickness. But these were minor events on this transoceanic idyll where the girls enjoyed classes every day and occasional dancing on deck. They expressed their gratitude by making a quilt for the Surgeon-Superintendent. There's talk of "substantial pies" and at the end of the voyage the Surgeon-Superintendent proudly notes of his charges that "They are fatter now." How could such a Edenic state prevail on a four-month voyage in a ship crammed with nubile girls and lusty sailors? Only perhaps in a novel aimed at those who prefer bland escapism to brute reality.

A lot of the inaction is viewed through the eyes of the ship's Surgeon-Superintendent Charles Strutt - an historical figure. One of Conlon's source documents was Strutt's diary of the voyage and his subsequent encounters with the girls over the years. He was a kind and thoughtful man and practised the Victorian virtues by ensuring that his charges received decent sanitary facilities, rudimentary education and even the occasional diversion through dances.

Although focusing on the lives of four of the girls, the only character that really comes alive is Strutt, thanks perhaps to the material gleaned from his diaries. We get a detailed account of his courtship and marriage and are told of his "wistful libido". One of the girls, Julia, is a free spirit who escapes the system and makes her own way. She doesn't discount prostitution: "There was always one thing she could do if she ever became hungry" but there's no indication that she took that route. Eventually she becomes a dancer and meets Lola Montez on her travels.

And herein lies the worm at the heart of this confection. Unlettered orphans do not keep diaries and so we have no knowledge of the interior lives of these girls. A Victorian gentleman's perspective is the dominant one and Conlon's imagination does not adequately fill the gap. The descriptions of life after the voyage are superficial and her very brief attempts to get inside their heads in the form of diaries discovered for Honora and Julia seem like afterthoughts. Honora quoting Aeschylus seems downright unlikely. Conlon has spent time in Australia and there are dabs of local colour (she knows her lorikeets) but these do not make a convincing recreation of the kind of lives these unfortunate women must have lived. We hear only one indirect account of any violence - where it's reported that an Eliza Horgan was struck by her master: "Her master!. Molly shrieked. Don't be silly. Why would a master hit you?"

Nor does the quality of the prose compensate for the pallid escapism of the content. The term shtum has no place outside an episode of Only Fools and Horses and the flat and anachronistic nature of the writing fails to engender any period atmosphere. And what can this phrase mean: "Honora knocked him off his heart with her look"?

Back in the real world the story did not have a happy ending. "Hordes of useless trollops, thrust upon an unwilling community" screamed the Melbourne Argus. A more measured report to the Children's Apprenticeship Board claimed that in Adelaide in 1849 "there are 21 of the Irish Orphans upon the Streets". This led to protests against the "dregs" of the Irish workhouses being dumped on Australian society. As complaints grew more vocal, and as the famine in Ireland appeared to have abated, the British Government agreed to the scheme being terminated.

Wakefield Press

251 pp