In 1809, on the harsh streets of London, England, a young girl named Maura Quell is caught stealing a shirt. Orphaned, homeless and desperately poor, she has also lost her younger brother, who has disappeared in the chaos of street life.
Despite her terrible circumstances, the unforgiving English justice system sentences her to seven years, and orders that she be placed on a convict ship named Canada that sets sail for Australia in 1810. Maura the “criminal” is only 13 when she sets sail.
Two centuries later, a woman in Canada named Aris Sandall searches through archives for a girl called Maura Quell. Unsure what she is looking for, her research is based on a name that her grandmother mentioned when Aris was herself a child. These two overlapping stories – Maura the convict girl; Aris the divorced middle-aged woman – form the basis of Rita Donovan’s moving new novel Maura Quell.
“The idea of writing a story about a young convict on her way to Australia materialized while I was doing genealogical research of my own, on my family names,” says Donovan in an email interview. “While I have yet to find convicts in my own family past, I was interested in the seeming random factor by which some people are remembered and others forgotten or erased.”
In regard to Aris, this character reflected what Donovan was herself doing while researching the book, namely, trying to create an individual through fragments found in archives.
Published by Ottawa-based BuschekBooks, Maura Quell describes a cruel part of English and Australian history. When asked about her research on the early 19th century, Donovan replied that British children in that era could be convicted of crimes and shipped to Australia, where many of them were taken as servants or mates. The ship Canada, meanwhile, was a real life warship that was converted into transport for convicts.
“The book involved a fair amount of research, both on the trials, the ships themselves and the conditions on arrival in Australia,” says Donovan about Maura Quell, which is her seventh novel. “I was looking for a ship that would have left England around the period I was writing about. I perused manifests and ships lists and when I saw the name, Canada, it seemed that I had found my ship.”
The story is captivating from a historical and stylistic perspective. Reading through this intriguing novel, one learns what it was like to be a child prisoner on a convict ship travelling to Australia. On arrival in the land down under, the search for “servants” feels eerily like the slave trade. For female convicts, meanwhile, including those who were mere girls, there was the added risk of being sent to a home where sexual abuse was rampant.
From a stylistic viewpoint, the combination of two completely different time periods into a single novel creates a timeless feel. For even though they are separated by 200 years, there are common characteristic between the two protagonists.
“There are similarities between the characters Aris and Maura,” says Donovan, who has won and been nominated for several writing awards. “Both are caught in their time and place and have expectations put on them. Both need to find their place, whatever it takes. And in a larger context, Aris is just this century’s Maura, a person who will someday be remembered by a few documents, a letter or two, maybe a video of herself doing something.”