Bettina Bradbury, Caroline’s Dilemma: A colonial inheritance saga

NewSouth, November 2019, 352pp, p/bk, ISBN: 9781742236605, RRP: AUD$34.99

If you hold a romanticised appreciation of living a middle-class life on the land in the Victorian era, then this non-fiction book will challenge that ideal. The story unfolds chronologically and takes the reader around the world to places such as a country village in 1840s England, the remote Mosquito Plains in eastern South Australia, the vast sheep stations of the Wimmera in western Victoria, the port of Robe in its prime (1865), Melbourne, Port Jackson, Ireland and London. Bettina Bradbury’s historical characters are tried and tested by well-known themes in Australian colonial history: isolation, drought, geographical distance, religious sectarianism and conflict with the Indigenous population. To this potent mix, Bradbury adds 19th century gender relations.

The pivotal dilemma of the book’s title is the last will of Caroline’s husband of 12 years, Edward Kearney, which requires her to move to Ireland with their five remaining children (then aged one to nine years) to live under the ‘care’ of his Catholic family, else forfeit any rights to a share of the inheritance. From the perspective of the 21st century, this is shocking, and possibly abusive. All of Caroline’s family emigrated to Australia with her in 1851. She had never been to Ireland and was raised a Protestant. Since marrying Edward as a 19 year old in 1853, she has borne him six children and supported his desire to become part of the landed gentry – a status he could never hope to attain as a Catholic in Ireland. Although Caroline hires lawyers and travels to Melbourne to contest the will, she is unsuccessful, as the laws require judges to uphold the wishes of the testator. What is she to do?

While the book’s prose is not always scintillating, the research is astounding. I am in awe of Bradbury’s thorough, meticulous research. Bradbury’s dilemma is that her main characters, Edward and Caroline Kearney (nee Bax), left no personal letters, diaries or records that provide an insight into their thoughts, emotions and motivations. There is not even a portrait of them. Instead, Bradbury has had to construct their story from official sources such as shipping records, birth, death and marriage registers, newspaper accounts (which provided far more local news than today’s syndicated press), gazettes, law reports, government archives and a plethora of secondary sources which provided context but not content. At times she is forced to speculate – who was the ‘Mrs Kearney’ who shared a cabin with Edward and Edward junior (Caroline and Edward’s third child) on their trip to Ireland in 1864? It certainly wasn’t his wife, who spent 11 months trying to raise four young children, giving birth to her final child and trying to run a homestead on a vast sheep station in her husband’s absence. Was Edward having an affair or was this the name given to a governess for the three year old Edward junior? One of Bradbury’s strengths as a writer of history is that she makes it very clear to the reader when she is working with documented evidence and when she is inferring and surmising what might have happened, based on the facts available.

Edward junior does write a personal memoir when he is about 20 years old, which he dedicates to Anna Cooke, his future wife. Bradbury approaches this vital source with due caution. It is written from the perspective of a jaundiced son who is hoping to win the heart and sympathy of its main reader. Added to these competing prejudices, is the fickle and selective nature of memory. While Bradbury does well to weave a story from these primary sources, I did wonder what an historian and author like the late Inga Clendinnen would make of this material. One of Clendinnen’s distinctions as an historian was her ability to glean insights by understanding the historical and cultural context and how these influence personal motivations.

Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand historian who has spent most of her career writing women’s and family history at York University in Canada. This is her seventh book of history but her first foray into Australian history. She relays accounts of frontier conflict with sensitivity and an understanding of the broader issues impacting on Indigenous inhabitants and colonial invaders/settlers alike. As she explains in her introduction (p.4), she set out to write a different book but Caroline Kearney’s ‘predicament seduced me’. Bradbury dives down the rabbit hole and emerges from the warren with a story worth telling.

Visit the publisher’s website here.

Reviewed by Alison Wishart, December 2019

 

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