By Misha Sivakumar
As a fan of historical fiction, I was incredibly keen to read this novel. Based on the true events of the life of Mary Bryant, “Fled” is an unflinchingly unromantic take on an incredible woman’s life story. The main character, Jenny Trelawney, is a woman whom circumstance and society has condemned to a life as a dependant, relying on the men in her life for sustenance. Upon those men’s death and faced with her family’s starvation, she is forced to morph into a criminal and finally, inevitably, falls into the hands of the law.
Her crime? Becoming a “highway woman”; one of the women who stalk the main roads robbing the stores of the more privileged masses.
The hardness of the women she shares her life with, the cruelty of the man whom she finds herself working under, and the seeming hopelessness permeating the village home she left, slowly waters the seeds of bitterness inside Jenny. One fateful day on the streets, whilst robbing a rich, naïve lady, dripping in elegance and excess, who has had the audacity to travel unaccompanied on the road, , Jenny finds her bitterness burst. Amidst the contrasting backdrop of this woman who has never wanted for anything, with Jenny who has wanted for everything, Jenny finds herself violently striking the woman, again and again, in a blind rage..
This proves a fatal mistake, and for this crime Jenny is caught and sentenced to the colony, the newly-discovered Australia. A raw and unfamiliar country where she is meant to spend the next decades of her life. That is, if the derelict and dehumanising conditions of the ship that is to take her there does not kill her first.
Meg Keneally does not hold back in her visualisation of the morally-degrading circumstances of the ship. The penned up criminals, shackled away in cages that both imprison and yet protect the women (from the more vicious inclinations of the men). In exchange for a minuscule extra ration of food, Jenny finally submits to the attentions of one of the officers on board, and later gives birth to a daughter.
Throughout all of the forthcoming calamities; the attacks on the women on the very first night of their setting foot on land; the later upheavals of the tender political authority in their settlement; the epidemics of disease and malnutrition and starvation that permeate the community, Keneally’s Jenny displays a single dominant trait: determination. Determination to survive, to save her children, to live. Her resourcefulness finds her slowly forming for herself more stable and humane living conditions in comparison to the rest of the settlement, which inevitably earns her the jealousy of other, more cantankerous members; yet it also wins her the admiration of the few admirable people peppering the novel: a greying officer with unexpectedly humanitarian leanings, a native mother who wordlessly connects with Jenny, and a governor of another British settlement who shelters Jenny and a few convicts as they manage an unbelievable escape.
Left to her own devices, one gets the sense that Jenny could have organised and run a community to greater effect than most of the others featured in the novel. The fact that circumstance and the pettiness of others interfere constantly with her careful plans is a gut-wrenching sensation, and as a reader I got such a strong sense of her frustrations, even when she leaves them unsaid.
The horrific scenes of hardship and intolerance in the world of the novel make the character, though not “likable” in a traditional sense, not entirely blameless in her actions and attitudes, a character a reader roots for nonetheless. Jenny is no saint by any means, but the grit of a woman who refuses to be broken, who fights to live, and for the lives of the innocent and helpless show startling glimpses of gentle empathy and a just conscience, wrapped in a hard shell that the world forces those within it to wear in order to survive.
And survive she does; yet her end is a bitter and hollow victory. Jenny returns to England, to stand trial before a judge and the public, and her unfathomable story is told. She returns to her home and her family, and in the epilogue we see that she has indeed become all that the novel had hinted she could be; having brought life and prosperity to the desolate village she once left in disgrace. A reversal of the journey of her youth, which in many stories might seem too much of wish-fulfilment; yet here, as the end of a woman whose youth was spent in refusing to break under the heaviest hammers life thought to offer, it seemed triumphantly just.