Thursday, January 06, 2005
Female convict’s story a tale for the ages
Tales of human bondage have long offered writers and readers a chance to plumb the depths of human interaction. Books such as Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer” and Jacobo Timerman’s “Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number” both explore the complex relationships between those imprisoned and their captors.
However, one of the finest examples of such stories of abuse and triumph is one few Americans know, the tale of Mary Bryant.
It’s to be hoped that Gerald and Loretta Hausman’s “Escape from Botany Bay: The True Story of Mary Bryant,” corrects that historic and historical omission. The husband and wife team, who co-authored several of sixty books for adults and children, will share their expertise in a workshop on "Writing for Children of All Ages," 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday at the Peace River Center for Writers, 501 Shreve St., Punta Gorda.
Bryant was a poor girl in 18th century England convicted of stealing a bonnet. For that crime, she and her accomplices were first sentenced to die. Then, the Crown extended relative mercy and the women, along with hundreds of other convicts, were shipped off to Australia to begin a new life.
Bryant was part of the First Fleet, a successful attempt by England to rid itself of its miscreants while at the same time populating a largely unexplored continent. Mary and her compatriots were landed in New South Wales, now a political subdivision of Australia. Years later, she, her family and several other convicts escaped, were recaptured, and became a cause celebre in their native Great Britain.
However, that’s the bare bones story. Any reader with a sense of decency would have paused early on, when the crime -- stealing a bonnet –- was compared to the consequences.
Back then, when people of property led and all others followed (have times really changed?), crimes of theft often brought with them the death sentence. Society was much more brutal than it is today, and the stories of life behind bars back then would curl a modern reader’s hair. Privilege determined who ate and who starved behind bars, and a lack of influence was often the same as a death sentence to those unfortunate enough to wind up facing the king’s justice.
But our modern sensibilities must be suspended when reading such history. Sure, it’s natural to compare that era to ours, but to do so robs the people of that period of their humanity. By this I mean that those people, be they jailers or the jailed, worked with what they had. It wasn’t much, but they should be judged within the context of their times, rather than compared to individuals of a more enlightened era.
That’s a long way to say that the Hausmans, who live in Bokeelia but are nationally known authors, exercised great discipline and patience in telling Bryant’s story.
Amanuensis, or automatic writing, is the practice of being dictated to by a ghost or spirit. In a sense, that is what the Hausmans did, using Mary’s voice (or did she use them?) to tell the young woman’s story.
Hence, what emerges is a slow and gentle journey to a realization of the depths and heights of the human spirit, told in an informative, entertaining and non-didactic manner.
Here’s an example:
“Time passed—infants were born and buried on the same day. One man was charged for neglecting work. Another for being drunk. Fifty lashes was the usual sentence. Will Bryant was reprimanded publicly for drunkenness, but he was not flogged. His work was too important for that. Some convicts, going to the woods for greens, were murdered and mutilated by natives. So the governor had put a ban on their visiting us.
By now, I dreamed of escape each night. In my dreams I saw us break free of human tyranny—only to fight against a stronger opponent: Nature. Yet I was willing to face the odds, whatever they were. Anything was better than slowly withering under the lash.”
In our era when amenities, from a good pair of shoes to an SUV, protect us from direct contact with the unpleasant elements, there’s less of an understanding of what literature professors call naturalism. However, in the passage above, one can easily see how Mary accepts her fate and tries to find a solution. She, like most 18th century folk, lumps human rapacity with nature’s fury, understanding the futility of asking “why me?”
People of that era, bereft of the cosseting effects of modern conveniences, understood completely that, just as the sparrow was struck down arbitrarily, so might they be.
That’s one of the great triumphs of the Hausmans. They are able to communicate that sentiment as modern authors through the eyes of an 18th century girl of less than average education (by today's standards) but exceeding intelligence.
Another high point of the book is their explanation of a sad fact: Many of the women in the First Fleet and subsequent flotillas to Australia left England alone but arrived either as mothers or enceinte. Remember, this is a juvenile book. The Hausmans’ telling of how Mary came to be with child, a sensitive account of what happens when women are at the mercy of men, can still be shared with young people.
“Escape” won for the Hausmans the 2003 Parents Choice Silver Medal, evidence of how well the literary couple managed to present an adult story in terms parents of young readers found acceptable.
“Escape” reminds us of what happens when might shoulders aside right, or when property is valued at a higher rate than are people. More important, it serves as yet another reminder that the human spirit cannot be confined.
Years ago another English prisoner, faced with similar odds, wrote a poem that perhaps best illustrates the spirit of Mary Bryant. In reading “Escape,” one hears echoes of Richard Lovelace, who wrote in part:
“Stone walls do not a prison make/ Nor iron bars a cage;/Minds innocent and quiet take/ That for an hermitage;/ If I have freedom in my love/ And in my soul am free,/ Angels alone, that soar above,/Enjoy such liberty.”
James M. Abraham is an independent book columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.