I started reading Janet Lee’s historical fiction The killing of Louisa straight after reading Amor Towles’ A gentleman in Moscow (my review), which is also a work of historical fiction. They couldn’t be more different. Not only is one about a real historical figure in late 19th century Australia, while the other is about a fictional one in 20th century Bolshevik Russia, but one is told first person present tense, while the other is third person past tense.
Now, when first person present tense started appearing on the contemporary literary scene as the style-du-jour, I rather liked it. I liked its freshness, and the sense it gave of speaking directly to me. But then it started to wear a bit thin. This is not to say that I don’t like it – ever – just that it can be overused and not necessarily add to the experience. I loved the measured, sometimes wry, third person voice in Towles’ novel. It suited a book that seemed to be critiquing both human nature and an historical period. Did the first person voice suit Lee’s novel?
Well, let’s see. The novel is about Louisa Collins who, in 1889, was the last woman to be hanged in New South Wales. Her story is a horrifying one: she was tried four times for murder, with the fourth trial convicting her after the three previous ones failed to come to a decision. There’s more to it though, in that the first two were for the murder, by poison, of her second husband. When the juries could not agree, she was charged with the murder, also by poison, of her first husband. When that too failed, they returned to the first husband, and finally a guilty verdict was achieved, largely using the testimony of Louisa’s 11-year-old daughter May who admitted to seeing a box of “Rough on Rats” in the kitchen. The novel tells this story from Louisa’s point of view.
Formally, the story takes place over six weeks, from 26 November 1888, when she is in gaol waiting for her fourth trail, to 8 January 1889, when she is executed. However, of course, we want to know the full story of Louisa’s life and how she got to be where she was. Lee does this by having her tell her story to the prison chaplain, Canon Rich, while she awaits her execution.
It’s a moving story – of course. Born to a poor family in a country town, Louisa, when still a young teen, is found a job in the home of a lawyer by, it seems, the mother of a wealthy young man who fears her son is becoming too close to the girl. Louisa’s employer is good to her, and she’s happy, but at the age of 18, she is married her off to a man around 15 years her senior whom she barely knows. Charles is a butcher with his own business, and they both work hard, but, more through bad luck than bad management, the family, which seemed to be making a go of it, ends up living in Sydney, and poor. They take in boarders to supplement their income. It’s a world, of course, where women had no rights and little power, though Louisa does stand up for herself within her marriage, exerting a right to wrest some enjoyment out of her life. Things, however, become complicated when the flashy, confident Michael appears on the scene.
All, or most of, this Louisa tells Rich, with a fair degree of self-knowledge about her own failings but also with some insights into human nature (such as how recollections can change!) and how the world works. On her mistress spending years in mourning for a dead baby, Louisa says to Rich:
But the Missus had become like this because she was allowed to dwell upon her sadness for so long. Sometimes folk who suffer a tragedy can pick themselves up and dust themselves off and keep going on through life, and it is often the poorer ones who do this because they don’t have the luxury to stop and mourn […]
Mourning and feeling feeble is a luxury, and it is my observation that only the rich have that luxury, sir.
Louisa is not speaking from theory here; she has learnt the truth through her own experiences of loss.
However, hers a tricky story to tell, because, ultimately, we don’t know whether she was guilty or not, and Lee is not about producing a work of romantic fiction. So, she needs to tread a fine line. Using the primary resources available to her which comprise some letters, court and parliamentary records, and newspaper reports, she tells Louisa’s story.
And Louisa’s story is worth telling for several reasons. First, there’s that reason why many of us enjoy historical fiction, which is to learn, to feel, the social history of a period. Louisa’s first person voice conveys perfectly the lives of poor working women of the time – the hard work, the dust and grime, the worry, the powerlessness. She also conveys her increasing awareness of the need for representation for women in parliament. Knowing where we’ve come from and why we should do all we can not to go back there is a good reason for reading books like this.
But, unfortunately, the book also reminds us of how far we still have to go. One of the features of Louisa’s case is that old story of women being tried by society and the media for not behaving with the propriety expected of them. Louisa likes to have a good time, so she would dance and drink when an opportunity arose, and she argues for her right to do so. Worse though, she appears “cold” after the deaths of her husbands. She doesn’t wear mourning and she doesn’t cry and wring her hands. Heard that before? (Australians will immediately recall the Lindy Chamberlain case.) Louisa’s awareness of this issue is supported in the text by well-placed excerpts from primary sources, such as the snide remark in Parliament, comprising all men of course, about her “method of procuring divorce by means of arsenic”. The problem is that, still, even after Lindy Chamberlain, things haven’t changed, or not changed enough … we still have trial-by-media and women are still excoriated for not behaving in a so-called “womanly” way.
Janet Lee’s is not the first book about Louisa Collins. In 2014, journalist Caroline Overington published her history, Last woman hanged, after researching the case for some years. I haven’t read that, but I understand that she too presents an “open” story, that is, one that leaves it to the reader to consider the rights and wrongs of the case. And that, I think, is the right way to handle this story. What is wrong, though, is capital punishment! It is wrong for so many reasons, but one of the greatest of these is the risk of executing innocent people.
But now back to my original question regarding voice. As I started The killing of Louisa, I felt I wanted a third person omniscient voice telling this story. I wanted a considered voice giving me the pros and cons of the case. However, as I read on, I became engaged by Louisa’s voice, particularly by the tone Lee achieves which, while containing an element of sorrow and self-pity, is neither pathetic nor whiny. By adding excerpts from the sources, Lee provides some of that overview I wanted.
The killing of Louisa, then, is not only an engrossing story about a shameful case from the past, but one that intelligently grapples with the challenges of presenting such a case through historical fiction.
(Review copy courtesy UQP)