Prolific biographer Erickson (Alexandra, 2001, etc.) skillfully renders the extraordinary life of Mary Broad, who survived a voyage to and from a penal colony to become James Boswell’s protégée.
Born in 1769 and raised in Cornwall, Mary grew up amid filth, violence, and privation in a period of especially hard times: harvests had failed, the fish were not running, the Cornish were starving. Arrested for robbery and sentenced to be hung, the 20-year-old girl was instead sent to the recently established penal colony of New South Wales in Australia, because the British government needed people, women in particular, to settle there. In the fetid prison hulks that dotted Plymouth harbor, imprisoned with prostitutes and habitual criminals, Mary became pregnant before she finally set sail. The 15,000-mile voyage was grueling: space, food, and water were limited, diseases rampant, and sexual abuse common. But Mary survived, giving birth to a daughter en route. When they reached Australia, she married fellow convict William Bryant in order that they could acquire their own land. But crops failed, famine was rife, the natives were hostile, and mortality was high; realizing that their lives were even worse than they’d been in England, the Bryants decided to escape. Bringing along Mary’s daughter and newborn son, they stole a boat and sailed with seven other adults up the east coast to Dutch-ruled Batavia, some 4,000 miles away. It was an epic feat, but Mary wasn’t yet safe. Discovered and sent back to England, with both her children dead, she was once more imprisoned. Luckily, her amazing story garnered public sympathy and the support of Boswell, who determined to secure her freedom.
Compelling tale with a gritty heroine: Broad’s hardscrabble adventures forcefully remind readers that 18th-century life bore very little resemblance to an episode of Masterpiece Theater.