A Fringe of Leaves

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Returning to England in 1840, the “Bristol Maid” is shipwrecked on the Queensland Coast and Mrs Roxburgh is taken prisoner by a tribe of Aborigines. In the course of her escape, she is torn by loyalties – to her dead husband, to her rescuer, to her own and to her adoptive class.

A young Cornish woman, Mrs Ellen Roxburgh, travels to the Australian colonies in the early 1830s with her much older husband, Austin, to visit the “black sheep” of the family, Austin’s brother Garnet Roxburgh. After witnessing the brutalities of Van Diemens Land, the Roxburghs embark on their return trip to England on The Bristol Maid. However, the ship runs aground on the coral reef off Fraser Island on the coast of what is now Queensland.

Ellen is the only survivor from the leaky vessel in which the passengers and crew travel to the shore. She is rescued by the aboriginal people of the island, and she later meets Jack Chance, a convict who has escaped from Moreton Bay (now Brisbane), the brutal penal settlement to the south. It is Chance who escorts her through the dangerous coastal territory south to the outskirts of the settlement, but who refuses to accompany her further and returns to his exile. She returns to “civilisation” transformed and tormented by her experience with Garnet in Van Diemen’s Land, with the aboriginal people, and with Chance.

The novel sets in sharp relief the distinctions between men and women, whites and blacks, the convicts and the free, and English colonists and Australian settlers. The contrast between Ellen’s rural Cornish background and the English middle-class she has married into is also highlighted.

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