Eighteen women become quilters on the Rajah convict ship sailing for Australia from England in the spring of 1841. The group is among nearly 200 women who are being sent to Van Diemen’s Land to serve out sentences for petty crimes, including Hattie Matthews and her son Bertie, and Clara Shaw, the woman who has taken another’s identity. The quilt is the project planned by the matron for the voyage, Kezia Hayter, who seeks to teach the women skills they may use to support themselves on their release.
The Rajah Quilt is a 128 x 133-inch coverlet bearing diamond-shapes bits of cloth in a series of squares surrounding a series of embroidered birds in flight and flowers. The quilt was originally presented to Jane Franklin, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and later sent to Elizabeth Fry, leader of the British Ladies Society. It is currently housed in the National Gallery of Australia.
Part mystery, part inquiry, Dangerous Women is a compelling read, tracking Kezia and ship’s officers as they piece together the details surrounding the knife attack that left Hattie bleeding and unconscious on deck and gradually revealing the story that Clara has been hiding. The narrative is also deeply personal in its descriptions of the convict women, their past histories, their adjustments to living onboard a sailing ship, and their connections with one another as they piece together fabric into a unified whole. A stunning debut for author Adams.