Dangerous Women is a dangerous book in the sense that once you pick it up you won’t want to put it down. This historical mystery novel explores a murder on board a ship full of convict women being transported from England to Van Dieman’s Land (Australia). By switching between several first-person narrators, the book is able to explore the lives of underclass women in urban Victorian England and the choices they made to survive, while also solving a mystery and telling the story of a historical quilt.
In real life, a ship called The Rajah sailed from Woolwich, England in 1841, transporting 180 women from all across England to what is now called Australia. These women had been convicted of crimes, mostly theft. The women were accompanied by Kezia Hayter, a supporter of the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Hayter believed that sewing was a useful, marketable skill that would distract the women during the voyage and provide for them upon arrival. Using materials provided by the Society, Hayter and eighty of the convict women made the Rajah Quilt, which is now on view at the National Gallery of Australia.
Dangerous Women tells the story of the making of the quilt alongside a fictional murder. Three women narrate the story in alternating chapters: Kezia, Hattie, and Clara. Kezia is the compassionate campaigner who leads the effort to make the quilt. Hattie, the murder victim who tells her story in fashback chapters, was dedicated to the well-being of her young son, Bertie. Clara is a quiet woman who holds terrible secrets about her identity and her crimes. Other chapters in third-person narration tie the story together.
If you like books about ocean travel, then you’ll like this one. It’s not sensationalist – no great marvels and white whales – but it captures the mingled thrill and tedium of months on the ocean, along with the terror of knowing that someone on the boat is a killer. The characters are varied and interesting, and the quilt itself is an object of fascination as it very slowly takes shape from almost random scraps of cloth into a meticulously worked piece of art.
The mystery is compelling, although I did guess the killer early on. However, I felt that the real accomplishment of the book was in making me feel empathetic towards people who had done some truly terrible things. As I mentioned earlier, most of the women on the ship are guilty of nothing but petty theft. As Kezia ceaselessly points out to the ship’s patronizing and judgemental Reverend Davies, everything the women have done they have done in an effort to survive the poverty into which they were born. However, some of them, especially Clara, have committed crimes that are arguably indefensible.
TW regarding Clara and Hattie’s story
Clara killed a man who raped her and killed Clara’s lover. To avoid being hanged Clara drugged her cellmate and stole her identity as a minor thief so that she would be transported instead of killed. It is also revealed that in the past she was a baby farmer who murdered many of her charges.
Hattie used Bertie to lure rich children to her and then stole their clothes for resale and released the children into the street, assuming that their rich parents would find them again.
All of the characters are portrayed without sentimentality or judgement, leaving the reader to view their crimes in context of the circumstances of the women’s lives, and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The solving of the mystery demands that men listen to women, something that Kezia fights for with persistence and an utter refusal to be silenced. By the same token, the quilt, which will be presented (when completed) to Lady Jane Franklin, the Lt. Governor’s wife, gives the women a chance to be seen, to have the work of their minds and hands treated with value instead of ignored or discarded. In both ventures, women have the opportunity to tell their stories in different settings and in different ways, and to form new connections and narratives about their lives.
The making of the quilt serves to tie the women together into a shaky and dysfunctional but very definite found family. It is touching without being cloying. It’s not that anyone is ‘saved,’ but more that the women have some comfort, dignity, and pride restored to them before their arrival to a life in exile:
We’re a patchwork. One person next to another, then her next to a third, and on and on, different people pushed together. Some neatly beside our neighbors, some out of shape and awkwardly sense into a botched close-ness. We’ve arranged ourselves into this shape: fair ones and dark ones, older, younger, thin, fat, ugly, pretty and everything in between, and near on two hundred of us on this ship and taken far away, existing side by side, sleeping together, eating together. Here are friends and enemies. We’ve turned ourselves into something. We’re many small pieces, each of us different but now stitched together. A patchwork of souls.
There is some romance in this book, but it’s at the margins of the story. I wouldn’t suggest this as a romance read, but I do think that the focus on women who have been largely erased by history will make it of interest to fans of the Kickass Women in History column. I found this book to be mesmerizing and empowering, and I enjoyed how it spurred me to learn something new (in this case, I read up on the real quilt, which is an amazing piece of art). Feminist historians and seamstresses and other crafty people should definitely try this out.
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