The remarkable resilience and tenacity of women is the focus of Christina Baker Kline’s latest novel, The Exiles, in which Kline delves into the historical reality of female convicts who were sent from England to Tasmania and Australia in the nineteenth century.
Three perspectives reveal the harsh environments and dangers awaiting women in Van Diemen’s Land, the name for Tasmania at the time. Evangeline, a governess, was seduced by her employer’s son and accused of stealing. She discovers her pregnancy in Newgate prison and is sentenced for transport to the penal colony. Hazel, a skilled midwife, was sentenced to seven years’ transport for stealing a silver spoon. The third point of view belongs to Mathinna, an orphan daughter of the Lowreenne tribe of Aborigines who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.
Kline brings these characters so vividly to life that I wanted to meet them, they seemed so real. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the women’s perspectives and their tenacity in the face of adversity. The violence toward and oppression of female convicts in England during the nineteenth century is reflected in the trials of each of the women featured in The Exiles. I had heard about the penal colonies of Australia, but I did not realize that around 25,000 women were sent there. To ensure historical accuracy, Kline vetted her novel with two professors, one descended from Australian convicts and one of Aboriginal descent.
In The Exiles, Kline highlights the history of ordinary people, those “who have historically been on the fringes of society, whose stories have been unnoticed or obscured.” Kline draws a contrast to the restrictive, classism of Victorian England and the freedom available to women convicts if they could survive the voyage, imprisonment and punishments in Tasmania. I thoroughly relished Kline’s meticulous research and inspiring characters.