When author and journalist Sue Williams found herself reading about a lone woman fending off hundreds of soldiers threatening her father, the loathed NSW Governor – she knew she had found the subject for her next book.
The result is historic novel That Bligh Girl,about the brave and feisty daughter of Governor, William Bligh.
Sue chats to The Starfish:
Congrats on this, your 29thbook! Why did you pick Mary Bligh to write about this time?
While I was doing my research for my first historical novel, Elizabeth and Elizabeth, (about Elizabeth Macquarieand Elizabeth MacArthur) I found myself reading about this woman Mary Bligh – who became Mary Putland who became Mary O’Connell – who sounded like a real firebrand. And she divided the colony!
Half the people really liked her and half the people absolutely hated her. So I just thought she’d be really worthy of getting to know a bit more.
And when the Rum Rebellion happened in 1808, 300 armed soldiers marched up to Government House and Mary Bligh’s father, William Bligh the governor, was allegedly hiding upstairs under his bed. And who did the soldier’s meet at the gates of Government House? Mary was standing there, with her parasol!
They were all armed, they had their muskets, she was just there with her parasol, trying to beat them back because she thought they were there to kill her father. It was incredible heroism really.
Did she get hurt?
She just got pushed aside. But I thought that was amazing. She was only young, only about 25 when that happened. Her father was inside watching through the windows. She was dressed in black because her husband had just died three weeks before. What incredible courage. So I just thought, I’d really like to get to know her. And as well, being the daughter of William Bligh. One of the most irascible, notoriously bad-tempered, horrible men in history really.
I meant there were no fewer than four mutinies against him in his lifetime. I thought, how would you live like that, with a man like that as your father?
But was there any good in him, in the sense that he was trying to crush a slimy rum economy?
Absolutely. And he was a fantastic mariner – after the Mutiny On The Bounty he got all those men back to Timor in a tiny boat, something like 12, 800 km they travelled. That was an incredible feat of navigation. And he was a hero in battle – Napoleon paid tribute to him.
And he faced a really difficult time in New South Wales, because as you say, the Rum Corps was just running the place, they were just screwing everybody really. He really had a tough time on his hands..
Was he morally ambiguous?
He was very very upright, to a fault. He was so acerbic, he never actually brought people with him. He just decided who he liked and who were his enemies, and he just rode roughshod over all of them.
So that was a real problem. And I can imagine Mary tried to douse his temper a little bit and try to make him a bit more likeable – as his wife had tried to do in Britain. She was dedicated to trying to make him more palatable.
So what kind of character was Mary?
It’s hard to say whether women were clever in those days because they weren’t given much of an education, if at all, and they weren’t really talked about or written about. But we know she was quite pretty, that she was tiny, really small.
How many of the siblings were out here?
Just her. Bligh brought Mary out to Australia to be his consort. Because his wife didn’t want to come, because she got seasick and she didn’t want to be on a boat for six months. Whereas Mary got seasick as well but she had to do what her father told her to.
But does it tell you something about the wife maybe looking for an out?
Absolutely. You wouldn’t want to be in a cabin with someone like Bligh for six months. It would drive you mad.
Where did you do most of your research?
At the Mitchell Library. And there’s an enormous number of books about William Bligh. A couple of really old books that mention Mary – sort of papers on Mary.
Did you stumble on a few gems?
There was a fantastic story I didn’t know about. Mary was really into fashion and her mother would send her the latest gowns from London. One of the dresses was almost translucent. And it was high-waisted. Underneath the gown she wore pantaloons. That was all the fashion in London. But in London light you couldn’t really see through them. But in the Sydney light you could actually see the outline of the pantaloon.
Mary wore the new dress to church one day with pantaloons and when she stood up in church all the soldiers could see her pantaloons and they just started laughing and shouting and mocking her!
She turned around and suddenly realised what they were doing and fainted, she was so embarrassed. And Bligh got really really angry with them. And that was one of the reasons that contributed to his hostility to the Rum Corps and their hostility back. So you could say, a pair of pantaloons was a huge feature of Australian history. Maybe the Rum Rebellion might not have happened without those pantaloons. I thought that was an amazing story!
Are there any relics of her life anywhere?
In the Mitchell Library, there are some miniature portraits of her and there’s a portrait of her in the National Gallery as well. I had to apply for permission to look at them because they’re not for general display. They’d bring them out in gloves etc.
So would you say, for your second attempt at historical fiction, you found find your groove more easily in tackling this genre?
Absolutely. After Elizabeth And Elizabeth, I thought, I’m never going to write one of those again, but then, it proved a best-seller, which was a surprise, but really fantastic. Then I kept thinking about Mary Bligh and what an amazing person she was and I thought, ‘oh hell, I’ll go and do another one.’ And the publisher was really keen.
I must say, writing this book was so much easier than the last. Because I actually understood what I was doing.
You mean understanding when is the right time to weave in facts and when to add some artistic embellishment?
Absolutely. And also putting in lots of dialogue, which I hadn’t done so much the first time.
Can’t wait to read it. Thanks Sue!
That Bligh Girl, by Sue Williams, (Allen & Unwin) is out now.
Top feature photograph by Lorrie Graham