I am forever grateful to the softly spoken, American professor who introduced me to the study of ordinary people (as opposed to that of kings and generals and politicians which had previously been my lot) during my second year at University. If someone hadn’t done it I suspect I’d have stopped being interested in the subject all together. One of the first books he had us read was Edward Shorter’s A HISTORY OF WOMEN’S BODIES and if it didn’t change my life it is certainly one of the few books that has fundamentally changed the way I view the world. Having plucked my copy from its latest home I see that the first of many passages I underlined (with two exclamation marks in the margin) was from the first page of the preface
If we ask why it was that women weren’t demanding the vote in the seventeenth century, one of the answers is their own acceptance of [their] inferior status. Because they were sicklier, more at risk of dying, and generally more enervated by things like anemia than men, they accepted their subordination as part of the natural order.
Little wonder it got 18 year-old me all fired up.
The reason I have taken you on this jaunt down memory lane is that I could not help but be reminded of this favourite book when I started reading Wendy James’ OUT OF THE SILENCE. For, although it is ostensibly a novel about a crime, it is, at least for me, more a novel about how inhabiting a woman’s body has, for the vast bulk of history, been something considerably less than a barrel of laughs.
The book was, reportedly, the only début novel published by Random House Australia in 2005 which, having now read it, I can at least conjecture was due to the fact that other submissions paled in comparison. Even if the reason for it being the publisher’s sole risky investment that year was more prosaic it was certainly a good choice, offering something for fans of history and mystery and having a good few facts – in the form of real people and events – interspersed with the fiction that James has created.
It is the story of two women living in Victoria at the turn of the last century. Our country’s six separate colonies were still a year or so away from federating as the Commonwealth of Australia and only two of those six colonies allowed women to vote. At the outset of the story Maggie Heffernan is a teenager living in the country. She is happy enough with her lot, although the lack of any genuine affection from her mother puts a strain on her young shoulders, but becomes radiant when she falls in love with the nephew of one of her neighbours. Elizabeth Hamilton is a thirty(ish) English woman who has moved to the colony on her own, following a personal tragedy that has demanded she be more independent than she had ever thought she would need to be. She is engaged to be a governess for a local family but when that situation proves unsuitable she heads to Melbourne to stay with some cousins, one of whom ultimately provides the mechanism for the paths of these two women to cross.
It wasn’t until that cousin, Vida Goldstein, cropped up that I realised this book was based on real-world events (I never read blurbs before reading the book and picked this one to read simply because I enjoyed James’ most recent novel and wondered what her first, which won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction, might be like). In the novel, as in real life, Goldstein was one of Australia’s leading campaigners for women’s suffrage and the general improvement of women’s lives which is how she became involved in the story of the real Maggie Heffernan who was convicted of a very real, and truly awful, crime. Elizabeth, who is an entirely fictional character, provides an interesting counter-balance to Maggie in terms of the roles women of different classes are expected (and themselves expect) to play in society as well as allowing the author to tease out some of the fictionalised details of the events which might have led to Maggie’s fate. Most reviews and discussions of the book provide a lot more detail than this but in case, like me, you want to come to the novel with fresh eyes, I shall say no more about the plot.
Maggie’s story is told with a straight-forward, first-person narrative while Elizabeth’s unfolds via a mixture of extracts from her diary and letters to her journalist brother as he travels the world. There are also, towards the end, a few extracts from newspaper articles (I’m unsure if these are actual reproductions or a product of James’ imagination but it doesn’t matter – they add a nice detail either way). Differentiating the storytelling in this way helps the reader quickly and easily adjust to each switch from one woman’s narrative to the other’s as well as allowing the widest possible scope for the novel to have a personal aspect about the main characters and a wider, more public one about the role of women in the society being depicted. I thought the novel worked well on both levels and James achieved the right balance between these two elements. For example from what little I know of her I suspect an entire book devoted to good works of Vida Goldstein might make for somewhat…earnest… reading but her strategic placement at key parts of this story adds a necessary layer of social context and some fascinating glimpses into the local movement for women’s suffrage.
The characters here are highly nuanced and do not always behave as the reader expects. Both of the two central women are presented with options that, if chosen, would have changed their ultimate fate. For Maggie in particular this would have been hugely significant and I really liked the way neither she nor the author took the easy route. Of course James was driven in part by the facts of the case but if she’d wanted to present a less thoughtful but perhaps more socially acceptable storyline for Maggie she could have neglected to create such forks in the road for her fictional version of the woman.
As you can probably tell I thoroughly enjoyed OUT OF THE SILENCE. The historical detail provided via a mixture of fact and fiction, the thoughtful consideration of the roles women were given or, in some cases, made for themselves, at this time in history and the thoroughly engaging story are all equally strong elements to recommend the novel. And although it is not the classic whodunnit beloved of crime fiction fans, it is a very good example of the far more thought-provoking, and ultimately more satisfying whydunnit.
I suppose it is fitting that I read this book as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge as it embodies everything the challenge represents for me. Of course it’s a book written by an Australian woman but it is also a good example of the kind of under-recognition of great work that seems to happen to writing by Australian women. The fact that its subject matter is itself concerned with the role and place of women in an Australian society that isn’t so very long ago is a further element to recommend the novel to challenge participants looking to ponder this issue as part of their reading experience.
I decided that as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I would highlight some older novels of the crime genre that are notable for some reason or other, having won an award or contributed to the genre’s development in some way. It’ll be an eclectic mix, largely based on what I can get hold of via my library but if you have any suggestions for books that might make good features please leave a comment.
OUT OF THE SILENCE is the fourth book I’ve read for this year’s challenge.
Publisher: Random House Australia 
Length: 351 pages
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