The Grisly Wife

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Young Catherine Byrne believed that she had married a prophet, a bootmaker turned preacher. The preacher renamed himself Muley Moloch, after a violent Irish convict. He gathered around him in England a small band of female disciples whom he led to Australia to found a mission based on their identity as the Chosen Few.

Each of the women in the group lacks a body part, from Catherine’s missing toe to less visible absences. This seems to reflect a lack of spiritual facility. Except for Catherine, they are all spinsters.

Finding even the most primitive town of colonial Australia filled with prying eyes, they relocate to an isolated farm. There, savage beatings serve as corrections for the least transgressions of the prophet’s rules.

Long after the mission has been disbanded, the narrator, a much older Catherine, relates the tale to a police constable sent to investigate a crime. She continually alludes to a “tragedy” they suffered long ago, but insists that the constable must hear every detail of their history before he can understand what happened.

Catherine speaks of her husband suddenly refusing to share her bed, and her concern when she becomes pregnant, apparently miraculously. The child is reared as a messiah. Not until after he runs away during a dedication ceremony does Catherine learn that Muley Moloch impregnated her while she was unconscious in a feverish illness.

They find the boy in the wilderness and Muley Moloch mistakenly shoots the “wild man” accompanying him, who is actually an Englishman “gone native.” After she begs for mercy for Muley Moloch, it is revealed that Catherine’s tragedy is not even the murder her listener was sent to investigate.