Title: The Widow of Ballarat
Author: Darry Fraser
Published: November 19th 2018
Publisher: Harlequin – Mira AU
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4.5 stars
A compulsively readable story of passion, adventure and a woman’s quest for independence set against the colourful backdrop of 19th century Bendigo and the goldfields of Ballarat.
1854, Ballarat, Victoria When Nell Amberton’s husband is shot dead by a bushranger, there are few who grieve his passing, and Nell least of all. How could she miss the monster who had abused her from the day they wed – the man who had already killed his innocent first wife? But his death triggers a chain of events that seem to revolve around the handsome bushranger who murdered him – a man to whom Nell, against her better judgement, is drawn.
But Nell has far more than a mysterious stranger to worry about. With a mess of complications around her late husband’s will, a vicious scoundrel of a father trying to sell her off in matrimony, and angry relatives pursuing her for her husband’s gold, she is more concerned with trying to ensure her safety and that of her friend, goldfields laundry woman Flora, than dealing with the kind of feelings that led her astray so catastrophically before.
After the violence on the goldfields, Nell’s fate also hangs in the balance. It seems that, after all, she might need to do the one thing she has avoided at all costs … ask for the help of a man.
Darry Fraser, who hails from Kangaroo Island, is fast carving a name out for herself in the Australian historical fiction world. Her latest and third novel, The Widow of Ballarat, takes the reader by the hand and places them in the heart of the goldfields of Ballarat, immediately after the famed Eureka Stockade. At the heart of this tale is Nell Amberton, a woman who finds herself in an impossible position following the shock murder of her cruel husband. The Widow of Ballarat is a sprawling Australian saga, reminding us of the trials faced by women in the 1800s in the midst of the gold rush.
Opening in the year 1854, in Ballarat, Victoria, Nell Atherton’s life is changed when she encounters a bushranger at the same time her husband is shot dead. Nell is not sorry her husband has been killed, for he was a cruel and abusive man. However, in a world where women had no rights to claim an inheritance, Nell is left out in the cold. But Nell is inexplicably drawn to the mysterious bushranger that she faced on the day of her husband’s death and she cannot stop thinking about him. Nell is soon distracted by a bevy of problems that have come to light since her husband’s unexpected passing. With her husband’s will defined by debts, relatives with their eye on her husband’s secret gold stash and her father’s cruel influence over her marriage to contend with, Nell is faced with plenty of problems and with little by the way of solutions. Nell is careful to protect her heart, but her livelihood and safety is at stake. As much as she would like to deny it, she needs to seek out the help of the man who stood with her on the day of her husband’s death.
Australian historical fiction definitely needs more writers like Darry Fraser. I am in awe of writers like Fraser, who are able to take snapshots of our nation’s history and magically transform these facts into a compelling novel. Darry Fraser deserves a gold star for her history homework, the content in this novel history wise is informative and fascinating. Fraser also delicately balances her history within an engaging narrative and genuine characters.
I fell in love with Nell from the moment she entered the novel. I admired her greatly. With traits of independence, determination, resilience and an enterprising nature, I felt every niggle of Nell’s constraint as a woman living in 1850s Victoria. Nell is an incredibly well drawn character, she vividly came to life before my eyes and I could envisage her actions, thoughts and feelings.
‘Amberton’s widow. Beaten, but not broken by him. A strong woman who would now find herself, indeed, in dire circumstances. A strong, beautiful woman. Someone ready to do whatever it took to ensure her survival.’
Fraser’s high level characterisation skills extend to her secondary cast list. I developed affection for bushranger Finn and Nell’s laundry woman friend Flora. A number of the periphery protagonists are unlikable, but Fraser does an excellent job of fleshing out these characters.
Time and place are depicted with a sense of ease and rich understanding by Darry Fraser. I have to admit that my primary school Australian history lessons barely touched the Eureka Stockade and the goldfields of Victoria. I am appreciative of the hard graft Darry Fraser has put into this novel. I felt like she planted me in the here and now of the goldfields. Fraser also explores the key events that occurred during this time and the feelings experienced by those who lived during this time of great adventure, greed and survival.
‘Noise from the streets was restrained; life after the killing fields of Eureka Land and the stockade remained quiet. As stillness had descended on the town shrouding the misery. The camp itself hummed with a low energy, like a grumbling dog not yet ready to rise again.’
The role of woman during in 1800s is put heavily in the spotlight by Darry Fraser and I am deeply grateful to Fraser for her approach to The Widow of Ballarat. Fraser goes above and beyond, highlighting the sense of worthlessness, despair, restrictions and longing placed on woman liked Nell, who wished to rise above the men that oppressed them during this era. We get an excellent feel for the early rumblings of women’s rights. I have come across the issues of inheritance laws during early Australian society before, but it still shocked and saddened me to see women like Nell struggle to survive. I liked how Fraser was able to make us see that women like Nell, rather than taking it lying down, came out fighting triumphantly.
‘My husband and my father must have come to some sort of arrangement because if I hadn’t agreed to marry Andrew, it was the streets for me. That much my father did tell me’. Nell shifted on the stump. ‘And fighting Andrew’s will. How? By complaining to a magistrate to get an order to stop the beatings, but it only made it worse. A letter to the governor instead, perhaps,’ she said, a twist in her mouth. Looking off to the distance, she said, ‘So I must work.’
Romance is on the cards in The Widow of Ballarat, I liked how Fraser chose not to make this aspect of the story the centrepiece. This is Nell’s story of survival, but it also her journey to discover true love. In bushranger Finn, Nell finds a man who is able to treat her with the respect, dignity and the genuine love she so deserves. I think readers will pleased Nell’s story as a whole and her parting moments in this novel.
The Widow of Ballarat is an exhilarating insight into yesteryear – a time of discovery, settlement, but also restriction for women like Nell Atherton, who wished to assert their independence. If you have a keen eye for Australian history, with a strong emphasis on women, The Widow of Ballarat will be sure to match your reading tastes.
‘We need out say heard, to have our lives made safe, in law. And the law upheld.’
The Widow of Ballarat was published on 19th November 2018 by Harlequin – Mira AU. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Widow of Ballarat, Darry Fraser, here.
*I wish to thank Harlequin – Mira AU for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Widow of Ballarat is book #29 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge