In 1909, Sydney woman Rebecca Sinclair was convicted of manslaughter. A mother of three had sought an abortion from Sinclair, and died as a result. Sinclair, in her twenties, was sentenced to three years hard labour at the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory. Six months later she gave birth to a daughter.
The story begins with that birth.
Rebecca hears nurses’ heels, rustling skirts, the cut glass voice of the doctor. In this long room washed with daylight there are nine other women with her, each of them preparing to give birth. This is the Lady Renwick Ward, though there are few ladies here. The patients are all poor, for the hospital is run by the Benevolent Society. There are women on the ward who are married and many who are not. Some who are having their first and some who insist this will be their last. Still, she is the one they all speak of when they think she cannot hear. She is the only one chained to the bed.
From a sharp beginning we tumble back in time to discover how Rebecca Sinclair came to be there. What is likely a common enough story – the father dies, mother and children are reduced to the very edge of abject poverty – is, in Limprecht’s capable hands, brought vividly to life. Social issues are explored without didacticism but the beating heart of Long Bay is Rebecca, as she grows from young girl to young woman.
In the wake of her husband’s death, Rebecca’s dressmaker mother becomes an outworker – earning just enough through piecework to keep her family’s heads above water. Rebecca and her sisters must constantly stitch too although their mother insists they still attend school. As a result of their financial fall, the girls still have the manners their mother insists upon “…but not the right to hold them. At school they are teased for putting on airs.”
The sights, sounds and smells of inner-city Sydney at the dawn of the twentieth century are very much part of the tale but never overpower the story itself. The writing is evocative and Limprecht’s research is worn very lightly. Rebecca Sinclair is a fully realised and sympathetic character and it is with a strong sense of foreboding that we travel with her, as over and again she is brought up short by the limitations imposed by her sex, class and poverty.
An offer of marriage seems to be an offer of hope but Rebecca’s beau is not all he seems and his mother is a notorious but successful abortionist. From her Rebecca learns the family trade. When it all turns sour, Rebecca’s trials are rendered with particular insight.
…she is baffled by most of what is said. Instead of saying something clearly and simply the solicitors turn the language round, like a glove like a glove that is inside out, so to put it on takes more work than it ought to.
It is easy to forget how close we are to the grim poverty of even the most recent of our ancestors. My father grew up in a farmhouse without running water. His family had an orchard but no truck to carry the produce to the city, and the family survived the Depression on whatever the local factory deigned to pay for the fruit. But Dad remembers his country childhood with great fondness.
In contrast, Rebecca Sinclair’s urban existence holds precious few moments of fun or happiness. Any short-lived sparks of joy are quickly snuffed out by circumstance or belligerence. This does not, though, make for heavy reading. I devoured this book in two great gulps, sitting up into the wee small hours because I couldn’t bear to put Rebecca down.
Full disclosure: Eleanor Limprecht is a friend of mine – we met at Varuna, the Writers House – and I put off reading Long Bay for as long as I could. What if I didn’t enjoy it? I need not have worried. Long Bay is a terrific read and marks Limprecht out as a writer going places. Her first novel, What Was Left, is an examination of contemporary motherhood. I enjoyed What Was Left but Long Bay is even better. It defies all notions of the difficult second novel and showcases a writer really hitting her straps. Don’t hesitate to add it to your TBR pile.
Reviewed as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge