Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more interesting kinds of crime novels is what I have heard called ‘untrue crime.’ Those novels are fictionalised retellings of the histories of actual crimes. They combine the actual facts of a given case with the author’s vision of what the various people involved thought and did. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder.
This novel tells the story of Maggie Heffernan, born and raised in rural Victoria. In 1900, at the age of nineteen, she was arrested, tried and sentenced to be executed for the killing of her newborn son. But as James shows us, there is much, much more to this case than a mother deliberately killing her child.
The real action in the novel begins in 1898 when Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney visiting relatives. She’s quickly smitten with Hardy and the feeling seems to be mutual. Over a short while they get to know one another and arrange to spend as much private time as they can. Hardy eventually proposes marriage, but says that they’ll have to keep their engagement private until he can find steady work. He goes back to New South Wales to look for work, promising to be in touch when he’s successful.
In the meantime, Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant. She writes to Hardy several times to share the news with him, but gets no response. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, she travels to Melbourne where she finds work in a boarding house. She continues to hope she’ll hear from Hardy, but doesn’t. Still, she does what she can to try to find him.
When baby Jacky is born, Maggie thinks she’s found a place to go in the form of Mrs. Cameron’s home for unwed mothers and their babies. Then, she receives a letter from her sister, telling her that Hardy has moved to Melbourne and giving her the name of the lodging house where he is staying. Thinking that her life with Hardy can finally begin, Maggie goes to visit him only to be rejected. In fact, Jack’s got a wife now, and tells his wife that Maggie’s crazy. With nowhere to go and very little money, Maggie is turned away from six lodging places that night. And that’s when the tragedy with baby Jacky happens.
In the meantime, we also follow the life of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. After a slightly rocky start to her new life, she moves to Melbourne and stays with cousins. She gets a teaching job and begins to take an interest in life around her. One of the main topics of the day is women’s rights and women’s suffrage, about which there is heated debate. Elizabeth soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Goldstein is a champion of women’s suffrage and women’s rights. When the two find out about Maggie Heffernan’s case, they take a serious interest in it and determine to try to prevent her execution.
This novel tells the story behind actual events, and it’s clear that James has ‘done the homework’ as far as the facts of the case are concerned. James also conveys the atmosphere of the times. Readers who enjoy historical novels will appreciate the way that the Late Victorian/Early Edwardian Era is evoked.
Another important element in this novel is the set of issues that it raises. One of those is class. As a working-class woman, Maggie has few options in life as it is. And when Jack refuses to acknowledge her, there are even fewer. As a member of a ‘better’ class, Elizabeth Hamilton has more options and has a better education. But even her life is strictly circumscribed socially. And that brings up another important issue that this book addresses: women’s status.
There are some lively debates in the novel about women’s rights, whether women should get the vote, and what exactly the roles of the two sexes should be. There are also several discussions of what women should expect and aspire to in life. This all takes place through conversations between Elizabeth and other members of her family as well as input from Vida Goldstein, and the debate gives readers a look at the mindsets and expectations of the day. That said though, the issues of women’s roles, women’s rights and so on are also brought to a very human level as we see what happens both to Maggie and to Elizabeth. Their choices are deeply affected by social attitudes towards men and women, and so is the way each is treated. This approach has far more impact than ‘preaching’ would.
The story is told from two points of view: Maggie’s and Elizabeth’s. We learn what happens to Maggie through a journal she keeps, and we learn about Elizabeth’s experiences through her diary and through letters she writes. Readers who prefer a third-person narrative will be disappointed. But (in my opinion, at least) this way of telling the story makes the events more personal.
Maggie Heffernan’s story is a sad one. James shows that for a young woman in Maggie’s position and ‘station in life,’ there really were very few resources and limited options. What happens to Maggie and baby Jacky is tragic, but it’s arguably even more so as we learn how it all came about and how it might have been prevented.
Out of the Silence is the very personal story of a set of true events. In it we see in a fictionalised way how cultural attitudes and assumptions affect and sometimes determine our choices. And we see how Maggie Heffernan, who simply wanted a family life, became the focus of a much, much larger debate. It’s also the story of a personal tragedy and the way in which that tragedy changed Maggie. But what’s your view? Have you read Out of the Silence? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 7 October/Tuesday 8 October – The Marx Sisters – Barry Maitland
Monday 14 October/Tuesday 15 October – Split Second – Cath Staincliffe
Monday 21 October/Tuesday 22 October – The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler