Charlotte Badger is a heroine of a type I’ve not encountered before. A strapping, self-reliant, and clever woman, Charlotte’s not above a little thievery or whoring if it’ll get her a few more drams of rum. She narrates her story beginning with her transportation from London to Port Jackson in faraway New South Wales in the year 1800. Sharing the harrowing voyage with Charlotte and her fellow convicts are Nathan Wesley, an idealistic missionary, and his distant wife, Elizabeth, whose viewpoints appear in alternating sections. Their paths come together when Charlotte convinces Nathan to make her their house servant.
To their dismay, the Wesleys discover their new home consists of little more than ramshackle huts with earthen floors, muddy roads, and a lumpy, deserted landscape. The social strata amongst the settlers mimic that of their English homeland, with rich landowners at the top of the scale and convict labor and the despised Irish at the very bottom. Charlotte finds a sort of freedom in her life outside prison, while Nathan follows his adventurous spirit to extremes, and Elizabeth hides her feelings under a mask of decorum in order to preserve her marriage. It’s only later, as each forms new relationships and undergoes difficult trials, that they make peace with their true selves.
The historical record provides the bare bones of Charlotte’s tale: the first white woman in New Zealand, she arrived there in 1806 after staging a mutiny. This leaves plenty of room for speculation on her background and motivations. Bell ably captures the difficulties of eeking out an existence on a new frontier, Sydney’s gradual development into a full-fledged town, and the way disillusionment can transform into opportunity, and vice versa, at a moment’s notice. Charlotte’s irreverent, good-humored voice and her ability to seize the best out of every meager prospect kept me reading. I enjoyed this novel immensely.