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.
(Review copy supplied by Sleepers Publishing)