Life & Culture

From pain, poverty and guilt to harmony and a quilt

Hope Adams' Dangerous Women is a forgotten story that reminds us how far we have come, writes Jennifer Lipman


Dangerous Women
By Hope Adams
Michael Joseph, £14.99
Reviewed by Jennifer Lipman

Travel today might be off the cards but, in theory, we can get to the other side of the world in a day. In the Victorian era, reaching Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania) took a rather more arduous 100 days. The voyage of one ship that made that journey forms the backdrop of Dangerous Women, a historical thriller from Hope Adams (a pseudonym for the prolific novelist Adele Geras). Its passengers were not colonialists or merchants; they were women convicts, sentenced to transportation for theft and other petty crimes. 

The women who sailed on that ship, the Rajah, through freezing waters and extreme heat, are remembered today for completing a majestic quilt during the voyage. The project was the brainchild of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, and one of her devotees, Kezia Hayter, is believed to have overseen its creation by this disparate group of condemned women. 

Adams brings to life the story of that group and the quilt they made, identifying Kezia but fictionalising the other women (and a few children) on board in a series of stories of women trapped by poverty, circumstance and, often, the men in their lives. On its own, Dangerous Women is an enthralling story, reminiscent of the historical novels of Tracy Chevalier but Adams throws in a stabbing and a prisoner with a dark secret and false identity. It’s up to Kezia and the ship’s captain to solve the whodunnit. 

It’s not quite The Girl on the Ship, but it works, even if the mystery is less intriguing than the wider setting. In vivid detail, Hope Adams illuminates life in convict quarters on a stinking, storm-soaked ship, and delves into the lives of individual women and the small tragedies that have condemned them to be sent far away, with little hope of return. 
There is focus on the burden that fertility brought in the 19th century, and appalling masculine attitudes towards women struggling to escape the shackles of their lives. 

Some of the voices, especially Kezia’s, sound a little too modern at times, and I sometimes felt that life on the ship was implausibly serene, given that not all of the passengers were exactly angelic innocents. And I could have done with fewer same-sounding characters. But, overall, this is a well-paced page-turner illuminating a forgotten story that reminds us how far we have come. 

Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist

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