01 February 2007

Book Review: The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees

The Floating Brothel Once the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay, it didn’t take long for the fledgling colony to become desperate for women. Not just for their civilising influence and use as breeding stock, but also to prevent the men committing what Governor Phillip called ‘gross irregularities’. An urgent message was sent to London, and London seized the opportunity to clear out the overcrowded female cells of Newgate. And so in 1789, more than 200 prostitutes, thieves, counterfeiters and other criminals left England on board the Lady Julian. Between scurvy, becalming, and several stops for repairs to the ageing hull, it took a year for them to reach their new home on the other side of the world. By the time the Lady Julian arrived at Sydney Cove, she had become notorious; for at many of her stops en route, a number of the women on board had turned her into a floating brothel.

This book tells the story not only of the voyage itself, but of life in the lower and criminal classes in the 1780s, and glimpses into the history of some of the women on board (my favourite: the prostitute who, while her client was sleeping, locked him in her room and made off with every last stitch of his clothing). And threaded through the whole is the tale of the star-crossed love of the ship’s cooper, John Nicol, for convict Sarah Whitelam.

I have to confess that I’m not much interested in Australian history; most of it’s too recent for my taste. So the most interesting part of this book, for me, was that describing life for the impoverished in eighteenth-century England, and the voyage out to the colony. After reading about existence in the overcrowded cells of Newgate, exile to the other side of the world didn’t look quite so terrible, particularly on a ship as well-run as the Lady Julian. Because of their value as breeding stock, and their luck in getting an honest agent in charge of supplies, life on board was better than it had been on dry land. Unlike many other convict ships (and especially the three floating hell-holes that followed her in the Second Fleet), there were very few shipboard deaths, and the health of many of the women actually improved during the journey. One passenger in particular was fortunate to be exiled - she was originally to have been burned at the stake for counterfeiting, a punishment that was still being handed out (but only to women) in the 1780s.

There wasn’t a lot written about their lives after arrival, which saved me getting bored; but it was somewhat disappointing to see that the wealth of information about the crimes of specific convicts wasn’t evenly balanced by as much detail about their later lives. Perhaps the information just isn’t there; there’s quite a bit of hypothesising in this book, but I’d rather that than gaps. The bare facts alone would make for a fascinating tale; and after reading the descriptions of Sydney Cove, it’s remarkable to think how quickly such a miserable outpost developed into one of the best places on earth.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little biased in that last statement....

Rating: A-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776