Review: local author's vivid tale of a woman's unequal struggle for independence in Victorian Britain and its violent Empire

Written by Tony Millett on .

Do not go down to your local bookshop to buy The Planter's Daughter by Jo Carroll - known locally as a writer through her widely-read columns for Marlborough.News.  This is her first novel and it is only available to download from Amazon to a Kindle (a bargain at £3.50) - or you can download a sample of the opening chapter as text.

Previous books by Jo Carroll have been her travel series of Over the Hill titles - about her adventures in Nepal and Ecuador.  The Planter's Daughter was born from a story she heard on her travels in New Zealand in 2005.  

It is a novel full of absorbing characters that stretches across the world of Britain's Victorian-era Empire and is as serious as it is entertaining.  In each section of the book the story is told through a different person's eyes.

We first meet Irish-born Sara Weldon in Liverpool.  We see her through the eyes of her Aunt's maid, Kitty.  It is 1847 and she has come to England escaping the potato famine and eventually she leaves Liverpool having become tangentially involved in working class politics - she leaves as a criminal transported to Australia having fallen foul of her scheming Uncle.  But before she leaves she provides her Aunt with a purpose in life - we will not spoil that surprise.

In Australia we see Sara through the eyes of a religious zealot Grace, who saves her from the slave market and takes her in as maid to her troubled family.  Life near Melbourne on a barely viable small-holding - with a side-line in making tools for the country's many thousand gold prospectors - is vividly drawn and based on sound research.

Grace is not an easy character to read about and you can tell quite early on that her relationship with Sara is based more on Grace's pious views of what people should be like (with the Lord's help) than on any realistic view of Sara's character and how she might make her way in the world.

One of Grace's stepsons takes Sara with him when he leaves home to join life among the rough and tough prospectors. They are mostly men and almost all of them are deprived of female company.  Sara's escape and her attempts to support herself financially take her several rungs down the ladder of despair.

Jo Carroll first heard about the 'notorious character' Barbara Weldon when she was in Hokitika (on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island) in 2005 and the book, she says, has been 'simmering' ever since.

The novel turns Barbara into Sara Weldon and it is from Australia that she is sent to New Zealand for using 'obscene language in a public place' - she is transported again.  The British Empire's rough and ready legal system could not send its unwanted any further away than antipodean New Zealand.

In New Zealand a magistrate named Grenville, who has been shipped from Scotland to work for the Empire, falls for her undoubted charms and lures her - with promises we know he cannot keep - to Hokitika where he is the local magistrate and where he lives with his starched-pinny of a wife and their two sons, Rupert and Alistair.  

He sets Sara up as his mistress in a cabin by the sea - just far enough from the town to keep her from prying eyes.  But can she keep away from the men from whom she can make money by selling the only thing that is by now her own - her body?  Will she ever save enough to get home to Ireland or to Liverpool?  Can Grenville fulfil his promises?

Throughout this section of the novel the magistrate is only referred to by his surname - he is just 'Grenville'.  As his relationship with Sara unravels, she refers to him with increasing sarcasm as 'Mr Magistrate'.  He ends up abandoned by his wife: "And you - you can walk into the sea for all I care.  You might as well.  There's not much left for you here, Mr High-and-Mighty Magistrate."

Each historical and geographical part this book has been carefully researched, yet the research is not obtrusive.  That it is true of this section.  But of all the stages in Sara's story, it is this one that really comes to life both in terms of the characters and the descriptions - especially the descriptions Grenville's state of continual panic as he realises his duplicity will be discovered.

It also lives strongly with Jo Carroll's descriptions of the bleak scenery of the sea shore blasted with winds from the Antarctic, of the little town with its disreputable cast of seekers after gold and of Sara's prisoner-like existence.  Some of the scenes reminded me of those desperate beach scenes in the 1993 film The Piano - also set on New Zealand's west coast.

Sara's attempt (in Jo Carroll's words) to 'steer an independent path' in the male dominated nineteenth century, ends badly.  Barbara Weldon's life also ended badly - in the words of the real life New Zealand magistrate, it ended "casually and by misfortune".   

Jo Carroll could not leave us with Sara simply being "swept along by a tide of events".  So she gives us one last chapter that helps explain how Sara ended up on this one-way ladder.  

The author takes us back in time to the potato famine that led to Sara's initial move from Ireland to the unpleasant rule of her Aunt and Uncle and to the mayhem and inequalities of Liverpool's burgeoning capitalism.   

The descriptions of the Antrim countryside and its inhabitants destroyed by the potato blight are grim.  And overlaid onto the disaster of starvation is Ireland's all to blatant religious divide.  Sara was, after all, a planter's daughter - and the incoming, colonising Presbyterian planters held out strongly against the native Irish Catholics.  So the book ends by taking us into the divides that still blight that part of Ireland to this day.

One of the major accomplishments of this novel is that the story flows so clearly. There are no unlikely coincidences to perplex the reader and undermine the veracity of the tale.  This is as close to the real story of such women as Barbara Weldon as we are likely to get.

However, coincidences do happen.  No sooner had I finished The Planter's Daughter and put away the Kindle, than I spotted a report in my morning newspaper datelined Hokitika and headlined "Miners pile in for latest gold rush in New Zealand".  

In the 1860s gold rush, Hokitika, this report says, had 72 hotels and few women: "Just as today, the original miners were secretive about their claims, often laying false trails and misinformation to lure their competitors away from prosperous sites."

Magistrate Grenville's pot of gold was Sara herself - and his false trails and misinformation led to his downfall and to Sara's death.  His was 'fool's gold' and she paid the price for his folly.

We can look forward to Jo Carroll's next novel - whether it is available between hard or soft covers or online.