The Planter's Daughter
It's 1848. And Sara, aged fourteen, must leave her family in the stinking potato fields of Ireland to seek a better life with her wealthy aunt in Liverpool. But her uncle has different ideas.
Will she find solace among the dockers? She finds love, but becomes embroiled in the unrest of the Irish men and women who live in squalor in the Liverpool slums. Yet her efforts to help them only enrage her uncle further.
Her escape takes her to the other side of the world. But there is no comfort in the dusty outback of Australia nor the gold fields of New Zealand. For she has left behind something more precious to her than life itself.
I didn't set out to write a novel. But I've been driven to write THIS novel - because I couldn't let go of the story of Barbara Weldon. Here is how I first met her:
I came across the story of Barbara Weldon when I visited New Zealand in 2005. I was in Hokitika with the wind howling through empty streets – streets lined with banks and jewellers and an echo of what it must have been like during the gold rush. I went into the museum to get out of the wind. It is small, and quiet, and smells of old wood and paper. One corner is devoted to brief biographies of people who lived here. Among the tales of miners and bankers, I found the life of Barbara Weldon.
She was born in Ireland, probably in Limerick, around 1830. Little is known about her early life, but records indicate a wealthy family of Weldons living there at around that time. She next appears in Liverpool, buying her passage to Australia. It is not clear why she left Ireland, nor what she hoped to find in Australia.
She appears in countless Court records in Australia, mainly for theft, drunkenness and vagrancy. Prostitution was not illegal, but – reading between the lines – it’s clear that’s how she survived. She was fined, imprisoned, and as each town ran out of ways to manage her, she was given a one-way ticket to the next. By 1861 she was in Melbourne, and described as a ‘notorious character’. Having exhausted all other means of punishing her, she was given her passage to New Zealand for an offence of ‘obscene language in a public place.’
She made no changes to her lifestyle in New Zealand, and the methods of managing her remained the same. The magistracy of Dunedin finally sent her to Hokitika. Her offences there included several attempts to take her own life: she walked into the freezing sea and a policeman swam after her to pull her out. (I find it interesting that she was fined for trying to kill herself but not for prostitution.) Her body was found in her burnt-out hut in 1882; the coroner decided that she was ‘accidentally burnt to death, casually and by misfortune, and not otherwise.‘
Her story saddened me. I’d chosen to travel across the world, to this bleak town. But what choices had she had? She may have been ill, and her behaviour simply the florid symptoms of her illness. Nevertheless, I wanted to give her a different life. I wanted her to have lovers, and children, to embrace her travelling and not be defeated by it.
That was the plan when I began this book. I’m not sure it’s turned out like that. But without Barbara Weldon there would be no story at all.
It has been a long, fascinating and sometimes tortuous process taking the snippets I knew about her into a novel.
I had two fundamental decisions to make: how much of her sad life could I fictionalise? And, if I kept the bones of it, how would I begin to research all those nineteenth century settings?
Plus I couldn't stop travelling - so I've had to weave work on this novel with sundry trips around the world and the ebooks that have grown out of them.
But now - my Planter's Daughter is almost ready for take-off.
And, for those of you curious about the title, it comes from this poem:
The Planter’s Daughter, by Austen Clarke
When the night stirred at sea
And the fire brought a crowd in,
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her to proud,
For the house of the planter
Is known by the trees
The men that had seen her
Drank deep and were silent,
The women were speaking
Wherever she went -
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly,
And O she was the Sunday
In every week.