Undesirables and worthies, John O’Leary

The Girl Who Stole Stockings: The True Story of Susannah Noon and the Women of the Convict Ship Friends
Elsbeth Hardie
Australian Teachers of Media, $40.00,
ISBN 9781876467241

May Your Shadow Never Grow Less: The Life and Times of Henry and Jane Holland, Canterbury, New Zealand, 1863-1945
Helen Thomas
Fraser Books, $49.50, ISBN 9780992247683

What makes a good biography? For Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the life of Charlotte Brontë, it was all about anecdotes: “Get as many anecdotes as possible. If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes!” For Hermione Lee, the British literary critic and biographer of Virginia Woolf, anecdotes are good, but what’s most important is that the writer give their reader a real sense of what their subject was like. As Lee wrote in her 2005 study Body Parts:

whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want is a vivid sense of the person. The reader’s first question of the biographer is always going to be … what was she, or he, like? Other questions may follow … but likeness must be there.

Anecdotes, sometimes of a rather grim variety, abound in Elsbeth Hardie’s book The Girl Who Stole Stockings, which is a biography of her maternal ancestor Susannah Noon. Poor Susannah – in 1810, aged only about 12, she made the mistake of attempting to steal some cotton stockings from a Colchester shop. Treated with the customary savagery of the period, she was arrested, tried, convicted and thrown into prison, from where she was transported to New South Wales in the prison ship Friends to begin her seven-year sentence.

Susannah, of course, was not alone on the ship. Accompanying her to the other side of the world was a motley collection of a 100 or so other female convicts, some with children. Their stories were, in general, as pathetic as Susannah’s. Many, such as sisters Mary Shearman and Sarah Fussell, had taken money or small items from employers who, to them, must have seemed inconceivably wealthy; one, Hannah Whitelock, had been so desperate that she had stolen lead guttering from the roof of her lodgings (her husband, oblivious to what she had done, complained to the landlord when water came flooding into the room – now there’s an anecdote). An Irish woman named Rachel Wright had even made off with a child, which led to her being charged with the unusual crime of plagium (theft of an infant).

These other stories provide a backdrop to Susannah’s own perilous journey Downunder, and stand as a useful complement, and contrast, to the more familiar, male-dominated narratives of transportation such as Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. In some ways, Susannah and her comrades had it easier than the men; they were less likely to be flogged, for one thing, and their very rarity, in a penal colony where men vastly outnumbered women, gave them value as potential wives and mothers. Certainly, nearly all the Friends women found partners of one kind or another, many marrying within a few weeks of arriving in Sydney. Susannah herself wedded one William Dockerell, a fellow convict, and went to live in the Hawkesbury region, where William worked as a carpenter. Later, he and Susannah opened a store in Sydney, which was apparently quite successful. Alas, William did not long enjoy his prosperity, for he died in 1824, leaving Susannah once again alone in the world.

Susannah found a new man quickly enough: a year later she married one Samuel Cave, a bigamist, confidence trickster and general all-round colourful character. Unfortunately, he lacked William’s steady work ethic and before long the store business had collapsed, leading to poor Susannah spending time in the debtors’ goal. Seeking a new beginning, Samuel (who by now had served his sentence) decided to become a whaler, and took Susannah off to New Zealand in 1837, settling at the Port Underwood whaling station in the Marlborough Sounds. Now doubly transported, Susannah made the best of her new existence, keeping house for Samuel and her children, but it was a rough-and-ready, lonely life, especially when the men of the settlement were away during the winter whaling season.

Sadly, whale numbers were declining, and Samuel and Susannah were unable to make a go of it at Port Underwood. They moved to the new city of Nelson in the late 1840s and drifted into obscurity, Susannah dying in 1852 of what was probably tuberculosis. She was buried in an anonymous grave in Fairfield Park cemetery. The lack of even a gravestone epitomises the absence of personal records relating to Susannah. As Hardie observes, she left no personal letters or diary; there are no family narratives that describe her. There is no portrait, nor even a photograph. Only once do we hear Susannah’s voice, in the shape of a brief deposition she made in 1843 after the Wairau Incident, in which she described, in plain, factual terms, how Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata had visited her home at Port Underwood on their way to the fatal encounter with the Nelson settlers.

This lack of a personal voice makes for a curious emptiness at the heart of Hardie’s book – we learn about Susannah indirectly, from official records of various kinds, but as to what she was like – whether she was beautiful or plain, tall or short, cheerful or sombre, clever or dull, angry about her life or just resigned to it – of that we know nothing. The vivid sense of the person which Lee believed so crucial in any biography is simply missing. This is, of course, no fault of Hardie’s, who has done her best to tell Susannah’s story with the records that she has, but it does limit the book’s impact. The plethora of anecdotes about other people and assorted historical facts that Hardie uses instead to fill up her book can’t, in the end, make up for this fundamental absence.

A lack of personal records was certainly not a problem for Helen Thomas, whose lengthy biography May Your Shadow Never Grow Less describes the lives of her mātua Henry and Jane Holland, whose families emigrated to the Canterbury colony in the 1860s (the book’s title refers to a birthday wish Henry sent Jane while he was away on business). If Susannah Noon was an “undesirable”, then Henry and Jane Holland were the very types of the worthy, deserving settler (Henry was a Primitive Methodist preacher and teetotaller, among other things). Already respectable, they diligently climbed the colonial ladder into local and then national prominence, Henry becoming mayor of Christchurch and later a minister of parliament (their son, Sid, was to become prime minister). They had in spades that Victorian commitment to improving their society that is so unfashionable these days; the number of committees they sat on and good causes they sponsored, was truly remarkable, and Thomas lists them all at the end of her book.

In particular, unlike Susannah, Henry and Jane were literate and, as a result, there is no shortage of records relating to their busy, worthy lives (Jane kept a diary for many years). Thomas – who spent nearly a decade, she tells us, researching and writing her biography – relays it all in vast detail: not a walk on the beach, not a family visit, not a committee meeting is left undescribed, or so it seems. Added to the text are innumerable maps, photographs, newspaper clippings and the like, illustrating the text. The cumulative result is a formidable pile of information about the lives of Henry and Jane and their whānau – if you want to know what they were doing, week by week, month by month, year by year, look no further. We certainly get a good sense of what Henry and Jane were like (Henry, it seems, was a bit of a wowser, lecturing departing troops about the evils of drinking beer – a proposition that was rejected by one Colonel Chaffey, to yells of applause from the listening soldiers).

It’s all transcendentally tedious, unless one wants to know, in very, very great detail, how one family lived in colonial and Dominion-era Canterbury in the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Occasionally, an interesting figure makes a brief appearance – Agatha Christie, for example, who visited the Canterbury Women’s Club in 1922 and who recorded that morning tea there was “rather alarming”. Such brief anecdotes can’t lighten the leaden load, however. This is a book for social historians (maybe), not the general reader.

John O’Leary’s biography of the polemical 19th-century historian George Rusden, A Peculiar Gentleman, was recently published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
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