Allen & Unwin, 2017, ISBN 9781760294649, pp1-390.
During the winter of 1920, Sydney was gripped by the spectacularly scandalous story of Eugenia Falleni. Falleni had for many years pretended to be a man called Harry Crawford. Harry was small but strong and worked in typically male jobs. He knew how to ‘act like a bloke’ and could smoke and spit and drink as hard as his work mates. He had also married two women, one of whom had mysteriously disappeared in 1917. So when the ‘man-woman’ was later accused of having murdered his/her first ‘wife’ Annie Birkett, the city (and indeed the story reverberated around the country) was plunged into a gripping crime of murder and passion. But it was also much more than this too; a thrilling tale of a life on the run, illegitimacy, illegal marriage, dysfunctional motherhood, secret strap-on dildos and two fat fingers up to the stratified, stuffy conventions of hetero-normative gender roles.
Pip Smith’s first novel Half Wild recounts and recreates this extraordinary story, successfully blending an exhilarating mixture of historical fact with her own soaring imagination. The result is an unputdownable page turning triumph of a book. I read it over two long sessions quite simply because I could not wait to find out what unfolded next. And yet, as an historian, I already knew the story of Eugenia Falleni.
With a colourful cast of over thirty characters the novel is split into four uneven parts. Part one re-imagines Eugenia’s early life growing up in an Italian family in Wellington, New Zealand. This part of the book is the least evidence based. And yet it is here where the author shows her true strengths because Falleni’s early life is also the most imaginative and vividly written part of the book. A tomboy who refused to embrace the refined trappings of femininity and indeed schooling, young Eugenia could not be tamed. Even by seduction, rape, a forced marriage and the cruelties of nineteenth century institutionalisation. Eventually, dressed and disguised as a man – perhaps as a means of self-protection and probably to earn a better wage – she escaped the stifling nature of migrant Catholic Italian life in New Zealand and sailed to Sydney. Part two is told from Harry’s point of view and is a short account of Crawford’s life up to 1920 and the time of his arrest. It is based on Crawford’s initial statement to the Sydney police.
Part three comprises the main body of the book and it is here where we meet a motley crew of Sydney characters, neighbours, friends, and children. It is beautifully set against the backdrop of early twentieth century Sydney and the years of social volatility both during and immediately after the Great War. The ‘disappearance’ of Crawford’s wife Annie in October 1917, the later discovery of her burnt body by the Lane Cove River and Harry’s subsequent life is told from many different viewpoints – neighbours, friends, policemen, Eugenia’s daughter Josephine, Annie’s son Harry Birkett and Crawford’s second wife Lizzie. In less capable hands such to-ing and fro-ing and the thick layering of characters might threaten to become messy and complicated. However Smith’s writing, crafted with care, simply makes the busy drama even more intense and beguilingly captivating.
Eugenia’s daughter Josephine later played along with the charade of her ‘father’ Harry Crawford. Harry Birkett too seemed to know although the author leaves the reader on the knife-edge of speculatively guessing. To be sure, at the time, a few people knew about Harry’s real gender identity and some nosy neighbours suspected something was not quite right. Most however were completely in the dark and Smith skilfully uses the ‘who knew’ suspense to add a further mysterious layer of tension to the plot. The reader is actually left wondering if Harry’s second wife Lizzie in fact knew or not. Apparently the sex was utterly amazing (although it was always in the dark) and a few months into their marriage she announced that the couple were going to have a baby. Was she indeed utterly ignorant, woefully naïve and innocent or simply complicit in the duplicitous life they were living?
In August 1920 Eugenia Falleni was tried for the murder of Annie Birkett. She pleaded not guilty however the jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to death. This was later reprieved to life in Long Bay Gaol. Smith uses the trial reports of the Sydney press to convincingly recreate some of the court scenes. She also skilfully writes the court proceedings from the perspective of the middle class women who faithfully attended the theatre of the courtroom every day during the trial. This brilliantly captures the horror and yet fascination and utter titillation which this case generated in 1920s Sydney.
Part four swiftly charts Falleni’s time at Long Bay, her eventual release as ‘Jean Ford’ and her untimely death in Sydney in 1938. Prison had changed her, softened her, and perhaps even tamed the ‘half wild’ one. I was left wondering if she was indeed guilty of murdering her first wife Annie Birkett. The author does not make her feelings definitively known yet to be honest at this distance, in time, it perhaps no longer matters. Ultimately Falleni’s story is one of a restless life spent in search of identity and belonging, but also one of hardship and yet survival. She had a fierce desire to break down the restraints of gender stereotypes and prohibitive sexual norms, and to instead find acceptance and equality and meaning. And it is this, which makes the story of Eugenia Falleni such a universal and in so many ways relevant tale for today.
Available at all book sellers and online at Allen & Unwin here, where you can also read an excerpt from the book.