Set on board the Rajah, which set sail from London in April 1841, Dangerous Women is inspired by a true story of a quilt, sewn by some of the women on board the ship and involves a (fictional) stabbing. The ship took 180 women, who were convicted of various crimes, from London to Austria – it was a transport ship – all but one of the women were convicts.
Written by Hope Adams, Dangerous Women is told from the perspective of three women: Kezia, Clara and Hattie. Kezia, the “matron” aboard the ship is there to care for the women aboard, she is a young and kind woman who falls for the strong and gentlemanly captain. Hattie is the victim, the woman who is stabbed. She is aboard with her son, Bertie. Clara, who poses as another woman called Sarah, isn’t meant to be on the ship and tricked her way on to avoid the gallows – but is she really capable of stabbing another woman?
The story flits between “Then” times before the stabbing, and “Now” July 1831, the month of the crime. Through the varied voices you hear about the women’s crimes and lives before the ship and you get to know the 18 women who are sewing the quilt. One of the women is guilty of stabbing Hattie – but who?
There is also an element of mystery – who stabbed Hattie and will they be caught before the ship reaches Australia? And lets not forget the romance between Kezia and the Captain and can Clara hide her true identity for the duration?
The history is fascinating. The Rajah is an actual ship which actually transported 180 women (and a crew, along with Kezia who was a volunteer, not a convict) to Australia. Adams has changed most of the names, partly to protect people’s ancestors, some of whom will still be alive in Australia today.
The story of the quilt is also true (see left) it was made by 20 (not 18) women on board for the British Ladies Society for promoting the reformation of female prisoners convict ship sub-committee and presented to Jane Franklin when they landed. It was then sent back to the UK to live with Elizabeth Fry. We are unsure of where it was after that, but it re-emerged in 1989 and is now in the National Gallery of Australia. During the 25 years that Fry was involved with the organisation, 12,000 women were transported on 106 ships.
The stabbing is fictional. Adams says that even though a woman did die aboard it isn’t clear how, but it is a great plot device, nonetheless.
One sweet aspect is that the love story between Kezia and the Captain is said to be real too.
The perfect time to read Dangerous Women is when you want to be fully immersed in a book that you don’t want to put down. This is partly because it’s a very readable novel, written with emotion and excellently researched. It’s also partly because, with the three voices, you do have to remember where (and when) you are and who is speaking. Personally, I love multiple narrators (the more the better!) but you can’t really put a book like that down half way through a chapter.
The characters really drive the book. It was great hearing the “flashbacks” to their lives and their crimes, as well as Kezia’s life as a free woman. There are a lot of characters, as 18 were working on the quilt, and all of them are suspects in the stabbing, so I did find some of them blended together, but not so much that it put me off, a lot of them had distinct aspects too.
I have to say, I’m not a big fan of whodunnits, in fact, I haven’t found one that has made me go “ohhh” yet. However, the point here really isn’t the stabbing, it’s about redemption, innocence and guilt. At what point do you grant freedom and to who? There is conversation about poverty and how that effects who commits crime and the lengths people go to to survive – true then and true now.
I think you’d really enjoy this novel if you are interested in British or Australian history, as well as the history of the prison system and feminism. I would also totally recommend this as a book club book, it’s a quick read but it’s emotional and has a lot of depth.
4 / 5 stars from me.