‘Caroline’s Dilemma’ by Bettina Bradbury

2019, 352 p.

‘Ruling from the grave’ seems a particularly insidious form of personal power, as Caroline Kearney found out as a 31 year old widow with six children. She had immigrated to Australia with her family from England as a 17 year old, and married Edward Kearney, a Catholic Irishman who had left his family back in Ireland when he settled in Australia. After farming in South Australia and then the Wimmera in Victoria, Caroline expected that her sons would inherit the family property. It was only when her husband died in October 1865 that she learned that the inheritance, for both herself and her children, depended on her shifting to Ireland and raising the children there as a widow, under the guidance and oversight of her very Catholic -inlaws. She was English: she had never been to Ireland, and all her children had been born in Australia. A dilemma indeed.

It says much for this book that I’m not going to tell you any more. The decisions made and tactics deployed by both Caroline and the Kearney family lie at the heart of this narrative, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment by telling you what happened.

Bettina Bradbury is a New Zealand-born historian, who spends much of her time in Australia. She has spent much of her academic life in Canada, writing women’s and family history and her most recent book Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal won multiple awards. It was in widening her lens to look at marriage, property and inheritance in the British Empire more generally that she encountered Caroline Kearney. She found the reports of Caroline’s contest against the will in the Victorian Law Reports, and scrawled “Wow, draconian patriarch” and “controlling father too” across her copy. Fascinated by the case, and the ways in which it embodied the themes she wanted to explore, she put aside the broader book she planned, and concentrated on Caroline instead.

Although she acknowledges the assistance she received from two great-great-grandchildren of Caroline and Edward, this is not your usual family-history search narrative, freighted with family identity and identification. That is not to say that Bradbury was not emotionally invested: her loyalties clearly lie with Caroline and other women whose financial rights were circumscribed by property and inheritance law until Married Women’s Property Acts were legislated across the British Empire. But she brings to this case study her historian’s eye, conscious of context and the norm, and alert to the anomalous and unusual. Her extensive bibliography (how lucky she is to have footnotes AND index AND separate bibliography!) reveals the breadth of her sources: newspapers, genealogical information, legal documentation, secondary sources and an unpublished family history, written by one of Caroline’s sons explaining his family upbringing. These sources enable her to focus in closely on Caroline’s case, but then step back to take a wider perspective. In this way, we roam across emigration history, pastoral history, 19th century legal principles, sectarianism, social history, women’s rights, paternalism and history of the family more generally.

Bradbury is present throughout the narrative, interjecting “I” observations at various places. She is open in admitting where the sources fail her, and where she has had to turn to imagination and empathy instead. While her sympathies clearly lie with Caroline, she is not unaware of her foibles. From the perspective of more than a century later, mis-steps and wrong turns become clearer, but not more explicable. In some of the twists and turns of the story, Bradbury is incredulous – wondering whether the person named in a document really is ‘her’ person because their actions seem so discordant. I guess that it’s the difference between a life lived, with all its contradictions and compromises, and a life documented in the flat and abbreviated historical record.

Bradbury has hit the sweet spot between an engaging narrative history and insightful analysis with this book. Because the two are interwoven so seamlessly throughout the text, I was a little disappointed in the ending, which was a ‘what happened next’ follow-through with the members of the family. While I did want to know what became of the children, this section was necessarily more cursory in its treatment, and became rather too much of a genealogical run-through. There was a short, more analytic summary in the closing pages, but I would have preferred that it was longer, with a wider scope.

This book was shortlisted for the 2020 Ernest Scott History Prize, which is awarded to “the book judged to be the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonisation published in the previous year.” Its span and its strong tethering in the carefully-documented sources give it historical “chops” but it’s a very human, sensitive story as well, told with discernment and compassion.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy from New South books. Also available from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria bookshop

I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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