Thomas Keneally, using historical documents from the period as source material, presents a rollicking novel about life in early Australia shown from the viewpoints of both the prisoners who were transported there from Britain and their guards. Among the latter is Ralph Baker, who proposes having the prisoners perform George Farquhar’s bawdy farce, THE RECRUITING OFFICER.
Keneally uses the play’s casting and rehearsals as a framework for depicting early Australian history, which is revealed through the antics of the motley group of criminals presenting the play, a cast composed largely of people sentenced to be hanged for crimes ranging from petty theft to assault but transported instead to Australia. Only two copies of Farquhar’s play are available in Sydney, but that matters little because most of the convict actors are illiterates who must have the play read to them so that they can memorize their parts.
Keneally reveals much about the British system of criminal justice and presents as well a highly readable depiction of life in the prison colony. Baker, having left his wife behind in Plymouth, has vowed fidelity to her. His resolve falters, however, when he loses his heart to Mary Brenham, a woman transported for seven years for petty theft. The circumstances of confinement in Australia blur the distinctions between convicts and keepers, as various relationships in this complex novel illustrate.
Farquhar’s play is successfully staged on the birthday of the British monarch. Baker, convincing himself that it is proper to have a wife in each hemisphere, impregnates Mary Brenham and is soon shipped to Britain, leaving Mary, with their daughter, in Sydney.