Mary Bryant was a Cornishwoman transported with the First Fleet for highway robbery. After three years in Sydney, she masterminded the first escape from the nascent colony. Her story was the subject of an ABC television drama in the 1960s and a telemovie in 2005, and she has appeared as a minor character in several books. Arguably none capture the extensive detail found in Meg Keneally’s latest, Fled, in which Bryant has been fictionalised as Jenny Trelawney.
Fled is Keneally’s debut solo novel, following on from The Monsarrat Series, which she is writing with her father, Tom. The minutiae of convict life portrayed in the entertaining Monsarrat books holds Keneally in good stead here, as does her sense of pacing. The era has rarely been so richly conveyed.
Trelawney’s story begins in Cornwall, where she is forced by impoverished circumstances into leaping out from the forest to surprise travellers on the road, the better to relieve them of their belongings – bonnets, jackets and small items of jewellery, mostly. Capture is inevitable, but Trelawney is spared the hangman’s noose by new laws under which criminals are transported to Australia instead. She spends months under guard in a hulk before enduring a horrific voyage that ends with her arrival in Sydney Cove.
Once there, we are treated to a vivid description of life in the open prison and, ultimately, the open seas once Trelawney makes good her escape in the governor’s pinched cutter. What follows hews closely to historical record, complete with the unlikely fame Bryant found back in Blighty, where she became a ward of James Boswell, no less, fictionalised here as Richard Aldred.
Fled is one of the most satisfying historical fiction accounts in recent memory, reminiscent of Peter Carey at the height of his powers. Bryant’s story, told by way of Trelawney, is a triumph of feminist determination. The privations and humiliations she must undergo in order to survive are gruesome, but Keneally does not revel in Trelawney’s misery. Instead, she presses on insistently towards the next challenge, much like Bryant herself. The result is a propulsive novel that will be read by most in one or two sittings. If this is the standard Keneally is setting, it will be no surprise to see that famed surname etched anew on the nation’s literary awards.
Echo, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 13, 2019 as "Meg Keneally, Fled".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.