‘My name is Harriet Adair, and forty years ago on that ship I was Jane Eyre’s companion. That voyage also brought me friendship with another intrepid Jane: Lady Franklin. Her husband, Sir John, the Arctic Lion, was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land during the six turbulent years when Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester had good reason to be closely interested in the island.’
Harriet Adair has come to Van Diemen’s Land with Mrs Anna Rochester, who is recovering from years of imprisonment in the attic of ‘Thornfield Hall’. Sent to the colony by Jane and Rochester, they are searching for the truth about Anna’s past, trying to unearth long-buried secrets.
Captain Charles O’Hara Booth, Commandant of Port Arthur Penal Settlement, fears some secrets of his own will be discovered when Sir John Franklin replaces Colonel Arthur as Governor. Franklin and his wife Jane arrive in Hobart Town to find the colony is run by a clique of Arthur’s former army officers who have no intention of relinquishing their power.
This dazzling modern recreation of a nineteenth century novel ingeniously entwines Jane Eyre’s iconic love story with Sir John Franklin’s great tale of exploration and empire. A brilliant and historically accurate depiction of Van Demonian society in the 1800s, as well as a vivid portrayal of the human cost of colonisation, Wild Island shows us that fiction and history are not so different after all. Each story, whether it be truth or fiction, is shaped by its teller.
From the moment I first heard of this novel, I wanted to read it. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy from Allen & Unwin, much to my literary excitement. Jane Eyre meets colonial Van Diemen’s land – an intriguing concept, yet this novel was so much more than that.
In short, it was sublime. Perfect historical fiction. That magic blend of factual history and well developed fiction. I truly felt, each time I got lost in the pages, that I had stepped back in time.
The balance between fact and fiction was so well done, and this is no small task for an author, ensuring one is not sacrificed to the other. The characters, both real and imagined, were brought to life in such an engaging manner. Jennifer Livett has a wonderful way of telling a story. Her style is intimate, conversational, humorous, and involving. I felt by the end of this novel that I had learnt so much about the colony of Van Diemen’s land and the politics of the era, but I never once felt like I was reading an historical tome. The amount of research that must have gone into this novel; I am so impressed.
As to the main character, Harriet Adair. It was such a pleasure to see the story through her eyes. She was a worthy heroine and her own journey, from beginning to end, proved highly satisfactory. Likewise, I enjoyed the viewpoint of Captain Booth; he was a man trying to do his job under both straightened circumstances and moral challenges. Both of these characters were finely brought to life.
The relationship of this story to Jane Eyre was quite imaginative and entirely plausible. I liked how Jennifer took a piece of Jane Eyre and reshaped it to suit her own vision for this story. It was by no means supposed to be a sequel, or even a spin off, but rather an inspirational spring board for her own character, Harriet Adair. I thought this was a fantastic literary device, and as a fan of Jane Eyre, this initially drew me to this novel, but Jennifer’s own marvellous story ensured my interest was held.
Colonial Australia is an era I have not had much opportunity to read about, particularly stories set in Tasmania. Jennifer Livett’s novel has been a fantastic introduction for me and I sincerely hope she has more waiting in the wings for us.
Wild Island was read and reviewed as part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. The original review appeared on Goodreads and Facebook but has been rewritten and published here to this blog for the first time now. Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with an advanced copy of Wild Island for review.