In 2009, Hope Adams was at a quilt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where she saw the Rajah Quilt. This quilt, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia, was created by a group of convict women while they were on their voyage from England to Van Diemens Land (aka Tasmania) in 1841. The story of the creation of the quilt became the basis of her debut novel Dangerous Women.
The book opens on 5 July 1841, the Rajah has been at sea for ninety-one days and Hattie, one of the female prisoners, is stabbed while on deck. The suspects are all members of the sewing circle of eighteen women (out of a complement of two hundred) who have been working on a quilt as a means of improving themselves. The matron, Kezia Hayter, in charge of the project and the women, is asked to work with the Captain, doctor and priest to interrogate the women and determine who is responsible. The narrative then jumps backward to the start of the voyage to explore the backgrounds of some of the women, one of whom at least is not who she says she is, and a growing attachment between Kezia and the Captain.
Adams uses the murder mystery to engage the reader and excuse delving into the women’s pasts and motives. None of the crew are investigators so the “interrogations” do not do much except to throw up the different approaches and attitudes of Kezia to her male colleagues. The histories of the women are of poverty, abuse and desperation, to the point where it comes to appear that transportation, no matter how hard the voyage or the work life at the end of that voyage, may be the best option. Certainly for Clara, one of the point of view characters, this was an escape from a certain, if unfair, fate.
Dangerous Women is fascinating historical fiction, driven when needed by its slow burn murder mystery plot. For those interested in the true story of the Raja Quilt, Adams provides a detailed historical note and bibliography. For everyone else, this reimagining of the quilt’s creation is likely to be sufficient.