This book is a bit of a milestone for me. It’s my first ever Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)! I got this ARC from publishers Allen & Unwin before it was released just this month. I was really excited to get the chance to read something before it was publicly available, but it is worth noting that the copy I have is not the final publication edition so there were some typos and notes that still needed fixing.
“Wild Island”, the debut novel of Jennifer Livett, is historical fiction about the newly colonised Tasmania with a twist. Picking up where “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë left off, “Wild Island” asks the question, what if the mad woman in the attic didn’t die in the fire? Destitute widow Harriet Adair accepts a position with the Rochester household to care for Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s mentally unwell wife who is locked in the attic. After the events of “Jane Eyre”, Bertha’s true identity is discovered, secrets are revealed and Harriet finds herself on a journey to Van Diemen’s Land to help discover what really happened to the Rochesters. Meanwhile, Commandant of the Port Arthur penal colony Captain Booth is apprehensive about the appointment of renowned explorer Sir John Franklin as the new Governor. When Harriet arrives at the island, the nature of her adventure changes drastically. Despite her plans to return to London to work as an artist, she finds more and more reasons to stay.
Livett is a lovely writer who has put together a whimsical historical novel about a time and place in Australia’s history not often written about. Colonial Tasmania has its own flavour of Victorianism, and the convict settlers in Hobarton find that with hard work, they are much less constrained by social strata than their counterparts back in England. Power struggles abound in a colony isolated from but still answerable to mother England. There is also a really nice feminist undertone about the role women play in history and how much work done by women was actually attributed to their husbands or other men. However, there are only two things about this book that bugged me.
Firstly, I actually think that this story would have been better without the “Jane Eyre” tie-in. Livett was more than capable of using historical figures and creating her own characters, and I think sold herself a little short using “Jane Eyre” as a springboard. Her research and creativity was more than enough to carry this novel, and the “Jane Eyre” elements were like a crutch for someone who has no trouble walking themselves. They were also a little confusing and asked the reader to accept a few too many what-ifs. What if Bertha didn’t die? What if her name was actually Anna and she has this whole backstory that only makes sense if you read “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys? What if Grace Poole actually quit and everyone kept accidentally calling the new carer Harriet the name Grace Poole by mistake? I think Livett should have had more confidence in her own characters and the history in Tasmania – I think that there was plenty of drama and things of interest to hold the story up on its own.
My second issue is that in this book, like with most of Australian history, Aboriginal people are only treated as a pitiable footnote. One character notes that at least Aboriginal people weren’t treated with the same amount of violence as they were on the mainland, which isn’t strictly true. Another character feels a pang of sadness at Tasmanian Aboriginal people dying from Western diseases but the ailing patients and the people are never mentioned again. There’s a half-page mention of the Aboriginal girl Mathinna “adopted” by Lady Franklin and her husband, describing how wild and uncivilised this little girl is, and a note about them leaving her in an orphanage when they return to England. There is nothing about how this little girl was actually stolen from her family and abandoned as soon as the Franklins tired of her, with no effort made to return her to her family who were still living. I really think that writers of Australian history and of Australian historical fiction have an obligation to at least be honest about the treatment of Aboriginal people during this time, even if that is not the focus of their books. The ugly and shameful history of the treatment of our Indigenous peoples has been minimised over the past 200 years, and I think that enough is enough.
Livett is a lovely writer who has taken an interesting and important part of Australia’s colonial history and turned it into an engaging novel. I think that it would have been just as good if not better without the “Jane Eyre” backdrop. Livett has great capacity for originality and I’m looking forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.