In The Trader’s Sister, Anna Jacobs returns to the world of Irish immigrants in Australia, telling the story of Bram Deagan’s sister Ismay, left at home in Ireland with a brutal father and six other siblings to compete for attention. Barely seventeen, Ismay is glad of the opportunity to work at “the Big House”, the Largan family manor, as a housemaid, getting away from her father’s verbal and physical attacks and from his drunken behaviour.
The central theme is Ismay’s helplessness in choosing her own fate, when the housemaid role is taken from her by her father, who wishes her to marry Rory Flynn, just as brutal as her father. For Rory believes it is a woman’s place to bear children and cook meals, and Ismay is having none of that. Her dream is to sail across the ocean to join her favourite brother Bram, in the Swan River Colony (newly named Western Australia) and share in his prosperity and good fortune there. When Rory attempts to force Ismay to marry him, the Largans step in and with money that Bram has sent, they quickly ensure that Ismay can board a steamer to Australia from Southhampton as soon as is possible.
On the same ship is travelling Adam Tregear and his adopted Aunt Harriet, also en route to Western Australia. Adam is to take up an inheritance left by his estranged father, which consists of a half-share in a schooner, and three properties in the Swan River Colony. The descriptions of life on board ship, the necessities of travel for genteel ladies, or single ladies, are superb. And as is normal aboard ship, there is some mixing of the classes – though the very English stewards and Matron would have otherwise. When Ismay comes to Aunt Harriet’s aid, there is no denying the chemistry between Adam and herself, and she is despondent at the gulf between them, the gulf dictated by an accident of birth.
The tale is charmingly, sweetly told, and I lost myself in the atmosphere that Anna Jacobs created with the detail of how passage across Africa was managed in the days before the Suez Canal was opened to shipping. The travellers must disembark at Alexandria in Egypt, then take trains overland, staying in hotels along the way, across to Suez where they board another ship for the passage to Australia. En route they stop in Singapore and visit the marketplaces, and hopefully avoid being caught up in altercations between rival tongs in the streets. On reaching Australia, Anna Jacobs has really brought the time of the Swan River Colony to life, a time when everything was possible, such as Irish immigrants making a name for themselves, Chinese silk being traded off the backs of boats, and convicts earning a place in society.
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