JESSICA NORTH Esther. Reviewed by Ann Skea
This biography recounts how Esther went from being convicted in London’s Old Bailey and transported to Botany Bay with the First Fleet, to becoming First Lady of the colony.
Do not be misled, as I was, by the cover of this book, which shows a young woman in a long, fashionably elegant green gown gazing out from a hillside over the fledgling British settlement of Sydney, Australia. This image, and the large, single-word title, Esther, scrawled in flowing script across it, suggests that the book is romantic fiction. It is not.
Instead, it is a carefully researched, largely true account of the life of a remarkable woman who, in 1786, at the age of 16, was sentenced to transportation to Australia and who, once here, rose through society to become the most prominent woman in the colony.
Jessica North documents the known facts of Esther’s life relying on ‘personal journals, letters, family and historical records, transcribed conversations’ and the published work of other historians, but she has, as she says, ‘woven together the tapestry of Esther’s life’ from these sources and has imagined, invented and supposed ‘possible sets of events’, situations and conversations in order to make this more than a dry history. In case North’s mixture of fact and fiction is not obvious, she provides notes to each chapter at the end of the book, making clear what is historical fact and what is her own invention.
Little is known of Esther’s origins and her maiden name is uncertain. When she stood in the dock at the Old Bailey in London she was ‘Esther Abrahams’ but later in life she chose to be known as ‘Esther Julian’. During her trial she was, unusually for that time, represented by a barrister, which suggests that someone close to her was reasonably affluent. Three people appeared in court on her behalf to declare that she was of very good character and, after her sentencing, someone also paid for her to be accommodated in the Master’s Side of Newgate Prison. Yet all we know for certain is that she was Jewish, that she was convicted of ‘stealing 24 yards of black silk lace worth 50 shillings’, that she was sentenced to be ‘transported beyond the seas for seven years’, and that she was pregnant.
A note to Chapter One, for example, tells us that ‘Nelly Kerwin (also known as Eleanor Kirvein)’ was, in fact, Esther’s cellmate in the Master’s Side of Newgate Prison, and that North has ‘supposed the friendship’ between Nelly and Esther. She supposes, too, a rather questionable scenario at the birth of Esther’s daughter, Rosanna:
As the hours pass, Esther’s contractions became stronger and more frequent until Nelly judged it was time to take her to the prison infirmary, where there were clean rags and fresh water … Not long afterwards [Esther] was squatting upon the birthing stool. Nelly supported her young friend’s straining body and offered encouragement, assuring her that her work was nearly done. At last, with a mighty effort, Esther pushed her child into the world.
Transported on the Lady Penrhyn, it was eight harrowing months before Esther and the other convicts on board the First Fleet reached landfall in Botany Bay on the coast of Australia. During that voyage, North imagines that Esther became responsible for the care of a goat belonging to 22-year-old Lieutenant George Johnston, a seasoned officer in the British Marines and one of the small corps of soldiers who would be in charge of the convicts in the new colony. Johnston’s ‘purchase of a she- goat is recorded’, North tells us, ‘but I have supposed that Esther asked to milk it’ and ‘I have imagined how Esther’s relationship with Johnston may initially have developed’. In whatever way that relationship first came about, 26 years later, after bearing Johnston eight children, Esther became his wife.
In such a small community, and in spite of being a convict, Esther inevitably knew and mixed with those in positions of power and those they governed and controlled. North uses this to bring to life those early years, the colonists, and the Aboriginals with whom they established contact, and she does this well. Esther, like everyone from the First Fleet in this unfamiliar land with its strange vegetation and harsh climate, helped with the first clearing of trees and the pitching of tents. She, like the others, struggled through primitive conditions, near starvation, isolation, fire, devastating floods and rebellion until, eventually, a stable, ordered society emerged.
Esther’s own sudden and unexpected elevation to what North chooses to call ‘First Lady’ status was the result of the dramatic events surrounding the arrest in 1808 of the Governor of the colony, Captain William Bligh. Bligh’s experiences as captain of the Bounty and his subsequent navigation of a small boat across 3618 nautical miles of the South Pacific to Timor, were well known. So, too, was his reputation for being able to withstand intimidation. It was for this reputation that he was sent by the British Government to govern the colony and deal with the corrupt and widespread trading of rum by officers of the New South Wales Corps (as the marines had become known) and by other prominent figures in the colony. But as North points out:
Bligh was yet another naval-officer turned governor, who was used to a crew trained to obey his every command, not a community of seven thousand, largely free, people. The colonists came from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, and now included many entrepreneurial ex-convicts. The colony needed a governor with strong diplomatic skills who could foster its growing economy. Bligh had many good qualities, but diplomacy wasn’t one of them – instead, he had an explosive temper and a knack of upsetting people
Bligh, as governor, became more and more dictatorial until even Lord Castlereagh in the Colonial Office in England heard of his behaviour and wrote to castigate him for ‘actions not reconcilable with the principles of British Justice’. Eventually public unrest became so bad that Johnston, who was now a major in charge of the New South Wales Corps, was persuaded by prominent citizens in the colony to arrest him. Because this was a treasonable action, Johnston was given a written petition, signed by 150 people, stating that:
The present alarming state of this colony, in which every man’s property, liberty and life are endangered, induces us most earnestly to implore you instantly to place Governor Bligh under an arrest, and to assume the command of the colony. We pledge ourselves, at a moment of less agitation, to come forward to support the measures with our fortunes and our lives.
North quotes from historical documents to support all she writes about this arrest.
With Bligh under house arrest, Major Johnston became acting lieutenant-governor of the colony and Esther was thus ‘thrust into the role of First Lady, the highest female rank in the land’. For seven months, until a superior officer arrived in the colony to take over command from George Johnston, Esther fulfilled that role.
As an ex-convict and not yet Johnston’s wife, North imagines that when Esther became aware of her new position in society:
It filled her with dread. How would the townsfolk respond? Would she be able to conduct herself to their satisfaction?
However, Esther was a strong and capable woman. She and Johnston now lived in a large house with extensive gardens and they were owners of a substantial agricultural estate which, earlier, Esther had managed for many years whilst Johnston had been away in England, and which she later managed when Johnston returned to England to be tried for treason (he was cashiered and some of his property was confiscated). One of the first things Esther did in her new position was to organise a very successful dinner and ball in celebration of the 70th birthday of King George III.
But Esther’s marriage to Johnston did not take place until after the arrival of the new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, in 1810.
Amongst other reforms, Macquarie announced that he wanted to remove:
… the scandalous and pernicious custom so generally and shamelessly adopted throughout this territory, of persons of different sexes cohabiting and living together, unsanctioned by the legal ties of matrimony.
So Esther and Johnston married, and Esther’s social position was formalised. North briefly describes the wedding and this, essentially, is where she ends Esther’s story. The book concludes with Esther’s observations that:
… her own life reflected that of the colony itself: a remarkable transformation from an inferior convict beginning, through drama and hardship, to finally achieving a position of respect.
In an epilogue, North provides notes about some of the prominent figures in the book and gives a brief outline of Esther’s final years, when her son, Robert, attempted to have her declared insane and sought to take over the Johnston estate. Esther successfully contested this.
Esther was clearly an intelligent, resourceful, independent and determined woman. Her remarkable life is well worth telling and North tells it well, but her strength is in weaving historical facts into a depiction of life in general, rather than in the development of the characters of those involved. I was never fully convinced by the thoughts and actions that North invented for Esther and, for me, her Esther remained a shadow of the strong woman she certainly must have been. Nevertheless, I found this an interesting and enjoyable book.
Jessica North Esther Allen & Unwin PB 288pp $29.99
Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (//ann.skea.com/THHome.htm) are archived by the British Library.
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