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Kiera Lindsey, The Convict’s Daughter: The scandal that shocked a colony
Kiera Lindsey, The Convict’s Daughter: The scandal that shocked a colony,
Allen & Unwin, 2016, pp 1-322Sydney in the 1840s was a complex and volatile city, a colourful social melting pot of convicts, ex-convicts, ex-convicts made rich, imposters, gentlemen of questionable repute and many others determined to refrain from having anything to do with any of them. During this decade, calls for representative government were being made by self-made men, often from dubious backgrounds. Those in the upper reaches of polite society were incredulous at the possibility of ex-convicts becoming gentlemen and shuddered at the legacy of the convict stain. Sydney was also a society where one’s reputation really mattered. For men, reputation centred on their professional lives and their family lives and involved notions of honour, honesty and manliness; for women, it involved obedience, chastity and moral integrity. And because the mere whiff of scandal might easily destroy one’s position within society, many colonists defended their honourable reputations with a fierce determination. So in 1848 Sydney was utterly enthralled by the scandal of an attempted under aged elopement in the dead of night, an enraged father chasing after the pair with loaded pistols, and a subsequent trial for abduction which sensationalised the colony. The love birds involved were fifteen year old Mary Ann Gill, a spirited and audacious colonial born lass, the daughter of Irish convict parents and the gentleman James Butler Kinchela who was of a very different class and more than twice her age. The Gill’s had risen from their lowly origins to become the proud and respectable proprietors of one of Sydney’s most prestigious hotels located in Pitt Street. Because Mary Ann’s midnight flit threatened to damage the family’s reputation and indeed her own, her father Martin Gill took Kinchela to court for the crime of abduction. He was found guilty and sentenced to nine months incarceration in Parramatta Gaol. Remarkably Mary Ann and James eventually did marry in San Francisco in 1852. But before they did, there were chance encounters and missed opportunities, betrayal by her father and family breakup, the economic depression of Sydney in the late 1840s, revolutions across Europe, the discovery of gold in California and surviving ship wreck en route to America. In The Convict’s Daughter historian Kiera Lindsey tells this thrilling and remarkable colonial melodrama of a family against the backdrop of the wider social history of Sydney and indeed the outside world. At times there are also dark and menacing allusions to the frontier violence which was occurring outside of Sydney during these years. Lindsey skilfully weaves these wider themes into the narrative with a passionate verve and a keen sense of historical accuracy; along the way she paints a vibrant and memorable portrait of colonial life at mid-century and indeed beyond. Based on the life of her feisty great, great, great aunt, The Convict’s Daughter is a meticulously researched, broad sweeping book, combining real events found in the records with the author's own brilliant imagination when the silences of the archive left gaps and omissions. In her hands, Sydney as a place truly comes alive. This is a marvellous, rip-roaring book with many unexpected twists and surprises. It would make a thoroughly compelling and utterly thrilling ABC mini-series. It is just gloriously unputdownable and the history of Sydney has been magnificently enriched by its recent publication. Dr Catie Gilchrist May 2016 Available here from Allen & Unwin or your favourite local bookseller.