'The Mother of All Crimes': Infanticide in the Antipodes

Author: Kathleen Clark

Clark, Kathleen, 2017 'The Mother of All Crimes': Infanticide in the Antipodes, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Our understanding of historical fiction as a genre has grown immeasurably since work of early theorists like Georg Lukacs and Avrom Fleishman, evolving with the late twentieth century innovations into novels that were not only historical but also post-modern, feminist and re-visionist. Such developments have increased the critical prestige of historical novels, affording them greater cultural value for literary analysis.

Feminist scholarship, in particular, has increasingly recognised the silencing and misrepresentation of women in history. The historical novel is often seen as a means of redressing this silencing. My research asks why historical fiction is so fruitful for writers addressing the misrepresentation or silencing of women’s voices from the past.

More specifically, my project deals with reclaiming a voice for one such silenced woman. Mary McLauchlan was transported from Scotland to Van Diemen’s Land. She became pregnant while on assignment as a domestic servant and was sent back to the female factory for that crime. She was tried and found guilty of infanticide after the death of her infant and became the first woman executed in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830.

This thesis consists of a creative work in the form of a novel, Precious Little, and an accompanying exegesis. The exegesis details the initial questions and concerns I had about writing a historical novel based on the life of a real woman from the past. My exegesis documents my creative journey from the initial topic selection to the completion of the novel. It deals with questions of how a historical novel, written to give a voice to a woman who has been silenced, should deal with the inherent tension between truth and fiction. I analyse the growing representation of women in Australian historical novels, as well as case studies dissecting three novels that deal with murderous women. This research reveals a wide range of methods for writing and representing women in historical novels and that the motivations for choosing these methods may differ widely. Finally, I dedicate a chapter to detailing the archival research on which my novel is based.

The issues identified in this critical work are then applied to the creative work in the form of the historical fiction novel Precious Little. My thesis identifies the different ways women are represented in historical fiction and what the genre can offer in regards to depicting women in more nuanced ways. With the increase in feminist scholarship and the deepening in understanding of history itself as a text rather than an unbiased record of how things happened, writers of historical novels have been able to reinsert strong female characters into their novels. Women are given the space to be complex and human in historical fiction in ways that traditional history has not always allowed. Exploring the methods and motives of writers who have similar aims to mine has helped me to make the narrative choices necessary to complete my novel and provide a more complex and nuanced exploration of the life and death of Mary McLauchlan.

Keywords: historical fiction, infanticide, feminism, historical novel, convicts

Subject: Creative Arts thesis, Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Danielle Clode