Fled is based on an extraordinary true story. Desperate to escape a life of gruelling poverty in Cornwall, Jenny Trelawney turns to highway robbery. When her luck runs out, her death sentence is commuted to seven years in Australia’s Botany Bay. The author vividly evokes the brutality and injustices of the late 18th-century British legal system, from the overcrowded, stinking prison hulks, to the grinding deprivation of many months at sea. It is hard for us to imagine today the hardships the convicts endured: wearing only the clothes they stood up in, forced to exist largely below decks in foetid conditions, with only meagre rations of dried ship’s biscuits for sustenance. Many did not survive the crossing, and those that did were often fatally weakened.
When the crops fail at the fledgling penal colony and the prisoners face starvation once again, Jenny is determined to do whatever it takes to ensure her loved ones survive. Escaping by boat with her new husband and her two small children, she sets sail on a hazardous journey around the coast of Australia to Indonesia.
The characters, largely based on historical figures, are finely drawn. Jenny is instantly engaging, strong and feisty. Determined to rise above the horrors of her situation, she strives to retain her dignity whatever the cost. Captain James Corbett, the sympathetic officer on the convict ship, is cleverly nuanced, struggling to balance his inherent compassion with his obligations to king and country.
Written with great sensitivity, Fled is a story of unimaginable suffering and loss, but also an elegy to the indefatigability of the human spirit. Highly recommended.