One of the things that interests me about historical fiction, of which Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay is an example, is why the author in question chooses to write his/her story as fiction rather than non-fiction. As I’ve written before, this is an issue with which Kate Grenville grappled when she wrote The secret river. That book was initially going to be non-fiction about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman. However, for various reasons which she outlines in Searching for The secret river, the book ended up as fiction. Her reasons included gaps in the historical record, and finding the story – and particularly the voice – within the facts she had. I wondered, as I read Limprecht’s Long Bay, what her reasons were.
Long Bay, which draws its name from Sydney’s Long Bay Gaol, tells the story of Rebecca Sinclair, a young woman who in 1909, at the age of 23, was gaoled for manslaughter after a botched abortion. Limprecht describes on her website how she came to write the story: she was hunting for first person stories from the gaol when she came across two letters about Sinclair from the Prison Comptroller. Both those letters are reproduced in the book. Limprecht writes that she became obsessed with Rebecca Sinclair’s life, and started seeking out her story:
I found out everything I could and then began looking for living relatives in the hope they could tell me more. I joined an online genealogy site and made contact with a woman who had Rebecca on her family tree … she was Rebecca’s granddaughter.
Not only, it turned out, was she Rebecca’s grand-daughter, but the daughter of the baby Rebecca had had in goal. That baby, Freda, never did tell her daughter where she was born and why. Grand-daughter Christine
said that she wanted to honour her mother, who never felt she could share the story of her birth with anyone. She gave me permission to use her grandmother’s name and story for the novel, Long Bay.
Limprecht doesn’t specifically discuss why she chose to tell this story as fiction. Most likely it’s because she’s a fiction writer. Duh! (She does say on her site that Rebecca’s “story told me to look deeper, to understand bad choices, and to see beyond the razor wire, to the messy, real truth that fiction can reveal”.) But it may also be because, while there are several official records relating to Rebecca, there are major gaps in the record of her life. The lives of poor people, Limprecht implies, are not well documented. At the back of the novel, Limprecht notes the specific sources she quotes in the novel, but she does not, as some historical fiction authors do, discuss the historical basis of her story in any other detail – such as how much she has assumed, and how much she is confident of as “fact”. I’m interested in this, though it’s certainly not critical to analysis of the book as a piece of fiction.
So let’s get to the fiction! Limprecht tells the story straightforwardly. She starts with the letter – the one which inspired her story – from the Prison Comptroller to the Royal Hospital for Women advising of the arrangements for admitting Rebecca Sinclair. This is followed by a Prologue describing Rebecca’s admission and taking us to the beginning of labour. The novel then flashes back to her childhood (Chapter 1) and her story is told chronologically from this point.
Limprecht carefully sets up Rebecca’s character as a hard-working young woman who has a pretty good head and can be resourceful, but who in youthful naiveté let herself be taken in by Donald Sinclair, the only son of Nurse Sinclair, an abortionist, and a man who is, let us say, “an operator”. While there does seem to be love between them, Rebecca also slowly becomes aware that he is not to be trusted. Limprecht sets up a motive, to do with her sexuality, for Rebecca’s early willingness to accept Sinclair’s attentions. To modern minds, it could seem a little unrealistic but for the time it’s probably valid enough.
Rebecca is presented as responsible, and having integrity. As she imagines her trial, she realises that her
family will sit in that courtroom and watch her be led up into the cage. They will listen to all of the horrible things she has done. She did them with Don, for Don, but he did not force her hand.
I liked that self-awareness – though it’s true that her options if she did not go along with the plan, like those of poor women of her time, were few. I was intrigued to read in a contemporary newspaper report in Trove that she “caused a painful scene when she was sentenced. She sobbed and clung to her husband, the other prisoner, and appealed piteously to the court not to separate her from him.” Without giving too much away, this is not quite the Rebecca depicted by Limprecht, but perhaps her court-side Rebecca is drawn from what she knows was the trajectory of Rebecca’s life after her release.
Overall, while I enjoyed reading Rebecca’s story, she didn’t fully come alive for me – and I think back to Grenville’s challenge with her novel, that of finding the story, the voice, within the facts she had. I wonder whether having the permission of the family to tell this story hampered Limprecht in some way. Did she feel a little constrained to be sympathetic to Rebecca? Grenville decided to break free of her “real” subject and invent a character based on him. Not all historical fiction writers do this of course – Hilary Mantel didn’t for Wolf Hall (my review) and neither did Hannah Kent for Burial rites (my review) – but in this case, it may have freed Limprecht to fly a little more with the character, to have been, perhaps, a little less laboured about justifying her actions and decisions.
Nonetheless, the novel does make excellent reading. The plotting is confident and coherent, with the ground carefully laid for the “crisis” point. There’s some lovely imagery. Here, for example, is Rebecca feeling shame:
Like a hem on a dress that is too long, it drags behind her, gathering dirt, there for everyone to see.
And Limprecht’s description of turn of the century Sydney, and of the lives of poor women in particular, feels authentic. Rebecca’s mother, with six children, falls on hard times when her husband dies. She makes her money as a seamstress, which is a skill Rebecca learns. Her other daughters find different paths in life – one respectable, another not so. Limprecht is careful not to moralise on the abortion issue, preferring to show, rather than exhort. Nurse Sinclair is clear and unsentimental about why she does what she does – women need the service and they need it done safely, and she needs an income (“a trade that turns a pretty profit”). Rebecca sees the sorts of women coming through – servant women abused by their master, poor women with too many children, unmarried women. A prison guard shows rare kindness because she understands the issues.
Rebecca Sinclair’s story is a fascinating one. Notwithstanding my little equivocation, Limprecht has done it justice and brought to our modern times the story of a woman whose story is worth telling. A perfect one for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Collingwood: Sleepers, 2015
(Review copy supplied by Sleepers Publishing)
21 thoughts on “Eleanor Limprecht, Long Bay (Review)”
I’ve learned that I prefer to read non fiction if a book is about real people–otherwise I drive myself crazy wondering what was real and what the author imagined.
Haha, Guy, I’m not that bad, though I do love it, as I said, when historical fiction authors so one of those little author’s notes! I’m happy to accept that fiction is fiction, even if about a “real” person – but, notwithstanding that “history” also has limitations, you do have to be careful when you read this sort of fiction that you don’t go around thinking that what you’ve read is “factual” don’t you?
I just watched the film Woman in Gold about the Klimt paintings returned to the rightful owner. After watching the film, I wished I’d gone for the documentary instead.
Ah yes, Guy, I saw that film. It was an interesting story but not a great film. It made it all seem a little easier than it was – in that it told us what happened but I didn’t feel it conveyed the magnitude of the effort and the toll it had to have taken.
The woman’s husband’s role was minimized so that he was just this opera singer and didn’t mention the fact that he’d been held in Dachau until his brother (in sanctuary in England) signed over his textile factories to the Nazis.
Oh yes, there was too much glossing over the hardship at various steps. I agree. It’s an interesting story though and I loved how the Austrians’ refusal to negotiate left them with nothing. I hadn’t known the story before the film.
Another one I’ll have to put on my TBR. But while whether or not to have an abortion might be a moral issue for the woman concerned, the criminalisation of abortion by old white men in government (and the church) is as stupid as the criminalisation of drugs – it redirects ordinary people into criminalised behaviour, from which only criminals profit.
Agree absolutely Bill … And it is well worth reading. I think you’d enjoy it.
Another great review WG. I think your suggestions about Limprecht’s motivations for presenting the story as fiction are probably right. I do know she wrote it as part of her Creative Writing PhD. I really enjoyed the book too especially, as you say, the way she evokes turn of the century Sydney.
Ah, yes MST, that rather answers it. Is that why she was looking for those gaol stories I wonder? Did she decided she wanted to write historical fiction as her project? Nothing wrong with that of course. I bet there are many great stories to tell – that it would be great to see fiction and non-fiction writers unearth. Her description of Sydney is great.
Oh, and I did see your name mentioned in the acknowledgements.
Sounds really interesting and a good story. I was wondering too as I read your review whether knowing there were family members living and having been in contact with them would in any way hamper the telling of the story. I know it would certainly make me nervous!
It would me, Stefanie. But it’s a good book … A very interesting story, and one well worth telling.
I recently read Limprecht’s debut novel WHAT WAS LEFT, which I recommend. I intend to read LONG BAY in 2016. Thanks for the great review.
Thanks Angela. Having read this, I’d like to read her first now. Let me know what you think when you read Long Bay.
I just finished Long Bay and found the historical information very interesting. I was surprised that Rebecca was able to keep her child in gaol. However, I had a few problems with the characters, and there were too many gaps in the story line. I wanted to know more about the other characters, though I do realise this was Rebecca’s story. I think why Rebecca never fully come alive for me was because the story was written in such a straightforward manner without little emotion being expressed.
Thanks Meg. Yes, the historical information was excellent wasn’t it. I didn’t worry so much about the other characters because it was her story, but I agree that Rebecca doesn’t fully “fly”. You get glimmers, and she’s certainly interesting. The matter-of-factness of the telling is probably part of it as you say.
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IMO it takes a very skilled biographer to bring a person to life (Brenda Niall is the standard-bearer, many others fall short) but fiction allows exploration of the complexity of issues in a way that would be impertinent for a real person. In Limprecht’s Long Bay we see Rebecca’s dilemmas, and her self-awareness, which could not be ascribed to the real Rebecca unless she had recorded them in letters or diaries.
I found the book unputdownable – even though of course I knew that she ended up in the prison….
Agree that it’s a very readable book, and of course you’re right about fiction versus biography.
PS I’d throw the late Hazel Rowley into the excellent biographer mix.
Yes, so would I!