The brutality of convict life, the desperation of those transported to Australia, and wild tales of bushrangers: when Tasmanian author Rachel Leary turned her attention to the history of Van Diemen’s Land, there was plenty to be told.
Leary’s debut novel Bridget Crack delves into the horrors of a convict woman’s life of exile and escape in an alien land, far from the comforts of green Britain. Bushrangers and masters, the brooding presence of the Tasmanian landscape, all fill the pages.
Her book joins the ranks of classic Tasmanian gothic convict novels as a contemporary addition to the genre.
Tackling the complicated balance of creating accurate and realistic historical fiction was helped by Leary’s scientific background: she was used to research, and enjoyed the forensic hunting of information.
Creating a female protagonist, Bridget Crack, gave Leary space to investigate the realities of Tasmanian convict life in 1826, from the perspective of those most vulnerable to the predations of their legal owners.
“I did heaps of research and [women] didn’t have much recourse if things went badly,” she said.
“There were lot of instances, legend or not, where women wound up pregnant by their masters.”
In her research, Leary discovered plenty of tales of bushrangers who were far from the romanticised gentleman-bushranger: rather, the criminal escapees living lives of desperation.
“I ended up trying to bring all of that into the characters I created,” Leary said.
Leary’s studies in environmental science and cultural geography at the University of Tasmania helped inform her understanding of the landscapes she was writing about.
Despite her scientific tertiary studies and career, literature was always a deep love for Leary.
“I think I always harboured a desire to write, but it never sort of registered in my mind that it was something you were allowed to take seriously,” Leary said.
“It just sort of crept up on me more and more to the point where after I’d done my degree and did a few different jobs … it was just sitting there and it became clearer that it wasn’t going to go away.”
Tasmania’s landscape, its wilderness and complexity, has frequently inspired authors: Leary found she was no different.
“The characters’ relationships with the landscapes started to become quite strong, that was something I was interested in exploring,” she said.
The “broodiness” of the Tasmanian bush pervaded every page of Leary’s manuscript, becoming an increasing presence in the story of Bridget Crack and her relentless search for survival against the British law.
“Tasmania is small and mountainous and green, it’s so different to a lot of Australia,” Leary said.
“Islands are really interesting places, there’s something about being on an island … that gives it a real uniqueness and individual feel.”