I read all of Catherine Gaskin’s books years and years ago. I can’t remember which one I read first, but I do remember that I loved it and that I sought out all of her other books. Some I liked more than others, but I grew to love the author and so I was always happy to find a new title and I was sorry when, one day, there were no more titles to find.
All of this came back to me when I was given the chance to read a new edition, published by Corazon Books, I had to say yes, and I am so glad that I did.
‘Sara Dane’ is a very fine historical romance. The kind that makes me think that its author grew up loving the great Victorian novelists and the other wonderful storytellers of the twentieth century who followed in their footsteps; that she loved and was interested in people, and in the world and its history; and that she loved the art of storytelling, and being a storyteller.
‘Sara Dane’ was Catherine Gaskin’s greatest success, selling in excess of 2 million copies since its first publication in the 1950s, and becoming a television mini-series in the 1980s.
This is a story built on fact: on the story of Mary Reibey, a woman convict who married an officer while travelling to Australia, went on to become a successful businesswoman in her own right. And its clear that Catherine Gaskin researched that story and the history of Australia meticulously, and used what she learned with the greatest of respect as she spun a wonderful fiction around those facts.
The story opens in 1792 on a ship transporting goods, livestock, and a convicts, who are to populate the colony and provide a workforce for the new colonial farmers. A couple who planned to become farmers were on board with their young family, looking for a new life and a stake in a new world. When their servant fell ill and died they told the captain that, before they left England, friends had told them of a former servant who was being transported. Might she be on board? Might she take the place of their servant?
Her name was Sara Dane, and of course she was on board. She was found in the prisoners’ hold, she was set to work, and the family – parents and children – came to love her, and she came to love them.
Sara had been destined for greater things, her widowed father was a tutor, but his fondness of drink, his unexpected death left her alone in the world; her love for one of his students made her vulnerable; and an impulsive action – made with no criminal intent – leads to a criminal conviction and transportation.
Her history made a wonderful story, and she became a wonderful character. I saw echoes of Becky Sharp, echoes of Bathsheba Everdene, but Sara was entirely her own woman, and the more I read that more I understood how she became the person that she was.
A young naval officer who fell in love with Sara during the voyage. He told her of his plans to settle in Australia and farm, and he asked her to be his wife. Sara had misgivings. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but she knew that as convict she would always carry a stigma, and she knew that might affect him and his future and, in time, his feelings about her. But he had an argument to match every one of hers, and it wasn’t long before he won her over.
Andrew Maclay was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was a shrewd businessman, and an excellent judge of character. He was ambitious, and he saw how much was possible. And Sarah matched him. They were so alike, they understood each other, and together they faced natural disasters, social approbation, convict rebellions, and more besides, as they raised a family and built formidable farming, shipping and trading businesses.
Sara plays her part, as a businesswoman, as a wife, as a mother; but she cannot escape the stigma of having been a convict. She is accepted by society only when her husband is by her side. And she knows she must keep that position, to assure her children’s futures.
Over the years she will cross paths with her childhood sweetheart, with an aristocratic French landowner, and with a principled Irish political prisoner. She is drawn to them all, for different reason, and they to her, and they will all influence a future.
Always her goal is to maintain the empire she and her husband built, and to maintain their position in society, because that will be her legacy to her children – and to the future.
But is that what they want? Is Sara blind to other possibilities?
So much happens over the years. Triumph and disaster. Joy and tragedy. Often I could see what was coming, but it was lovely to see events play out.
This is not a deep or complex story, but it rings true.
The historical details were fascinating, and they were woven into the story wonderfully well. And that story is so very well told.
I’d shelve Catherine Gaskin’s books alongside Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Three very different writers, but there is a thread that links them, and if you like one there is every chance you will like the others ….