To lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like murder.
It’s 1888 and, in New South Wales, Louisa Collins has been sentenced to hang for the murder of her husband. Two previous juries could not convict her, but the (all male) authorities kept trying until they found a jury that would allow them to execute her.
In the tradition of Burial Rites, Louisa recounts her life to Canon Rich, the Darlinghurst prison chaplain, while awaiting execution. With a Micawber-esque optimism, she believes – until the very end – that the governor will have mercy. After all, the state hasn’t hanged a woman in many years.
Based on the true story of the last woman hanged in NSW, The Killing of Louisa gives a compelling voice to a woman who had none.
Author Janet Lee has researched the event and the period in great detail, peppering the story with excerpts from court records and newspaper articles. Of course, most of Louisa’s life story itself is pure imagination on Lee’s part, though it makes for compelling and vivid reading.
Lee wrote the novel to try to find the story of the woman behind the ‘Botany Murderess’ sensationalism. She says:
Louisa Collins was more than just a convicted murderess. She was a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a child. She was a person in her own right, a woman living at a time when women in colonial Australia had little social standing and no vote and that was the character I imagined.
Louisa Collins: a clear voice from nineteenth-century Australia
Lee draws Louisa Collins as an average woman of average intelligence who lives in typical nineteenth-century poverty. Her language is plain and convincing. I could hear Louisa speak, I felt like I could reach into the book and smell her rancid prison cell with the ‘slops’ bucket full of piss and excrement in the corner. I felt sorrow for the way life had buffeted her from disappointment to disaster and, finally, landed her in prison awaiting execution.
In some ways being in prison is more restful for Louisa than going about her normal life with a tiny house full of babies, children, boarders and endless work. Of prison, she says:
… I have grown to like the meal times best of all. Until I came to prison, it had been a long time since I had sat and had a meal placed before me that was not one I had needed to prepare myself, so I like the experience of it, even if the meal is only prison food. There is something of a companionship among us, for we are a world of women all locked up together away from the men. And it is time out of our cells.
The back-breaking labour of housework in colonial Australia is clear. However, one thing that struck me was that even the servants were able to buy in extra help. Nowadays we’re sometimes made to feel guilty for paying someone else to mow the lawn or come and do a couple of hours of cleaning once a fortnight. And yet, in the ‘grand house’ at Merriwa in which Louisa was a maid before she was married, there were three servants and still ‘Mrs Rainer’ came to wash the heavy linen every Monday:
And she was a strong woman who could wash a full set of sheets and wring them and hang them herself. She had some sixteen children, and she always looked tired, sir, but then, well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Wealthy women enjoyed not only physical idleness, but emotional space not afforded to the lower classes. ‘The Missus’ at Merriwa was in deep mourning for a child she had lost years ago. I loved Louisa’s observations about the luxury of emotion that wealth can buy:
But the Missus had become like this because she was allowed to dwell on her sadness for so long. Sometimes folk who suffer a tragedy can pick themselves up and dust themselves off and keep going on through life, and it is often the poorer ones who do this because they don’t have the luxury to stop and mourn or to sit by a grave and spend the day weeping and saying nothing. It is just as well too, for many a woman has lost a child and if they all stopped and mourned over it, no meals would be cooked and no clothes would be washed.
Mourning and feeling feeble is a luxury, and it is my observation that only the rich have that luxury, sir.
Louisa is a wonderful narrator. I really enjoyed ‘hearing’ her tell even the most mundane of stories with understated, often humorous, observations. Here she recalls her friend, Mary, calling in to visit after going to the fish market:
Mary still had the fish wrapped and on the ground in her basket and nodded to the basket by means of showing me the fish. She need not have bothered, for fish from the market have a way of letting you know they are there without you having to see them.
The evidence used to convict Louisa was entirely circumstantial and we are left to wonder – will they be hanging an innocent woman? Or will Louisa confess at the final hour?
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