Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – 2022

The General Grant was sailing to Britain from Melbourne in 1866, carrying a large quantity of gold, and miners who had had enough of the fields. Among them was a young newly married couple: Joseph from the gold fields, working as an able seaman, and Mary, who had been working as a hotel maid in Melbourne when they met. Everything was new and exciting for Mary, and she was full of hope. And then the General Grant wrecked on the cliffs of the Auckland Islands far to the South of Aotearoa / New Zealand. The vessel was crushed into a cave and eventually sank – all but a “collection of fifteen wrecked souls to be counted” were lost.

Mary and Joseph are two of the fifteen. Mary, the only surviving woman, is the narrator of the story. One of my favourite novels is The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall, based on an historical incident where four escaped convicts were left on one of the Snares Islands. Such stories are told in a crucible of extreme hardship. Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant has the same intense character presentation as Randall’s novel, and it has the added elements of a woman amongst the survivors, and the gold that weighs them down – gold that has value “not for what it could buy, but for what it had cost”.

Mary and Joseph’s relationship on the islands is fraught with suspicion and guilt, and eventually “My husband had lost the habit of talking to me.” Could Joseph have done more to save others? If Mary had acted differently would more have survived? She had been working as a ship stewardess, helping some of the passengers with child-care during the voyage, and she was beginning to think she would soon have a child of her own. Why had she not held onto the child she had become particularly fond of? If she had, might the child have been saved?

Mary is, as are many of the others, haunted by those she saw drown. There are two candidates for who should lead the group and keep them occupied. The obvious choice is Mr Brown, the first mate, but he is not coping well with the situation, particularly tragic for him. James Teer is a strong Irishman, a natural leader. Teer and the others vow to protect Mary, and he gets all the men to introduce themselves. It is a civilised beginning, but there is a woman and there is gold, and among them are those who had swum passed drowning children to get to the lifeboat.

The reader gets to know the individuals in the group (there is a handy list of names and occupations at the beginning of the book). There are the charming, the pathetic, the hideous, the heart-rending, the noble. Mary must balance keeping the men distant with keeping them loyal to her, and there is always a hand creeping on to her leg at night. She is excluded from any decision making or storytelling, she is viewed as different, women are bad luck at sea, women should be able to sew and heal, women are a temptation, however “We aren’t nearly such good men without a woman’s company.”

Mary is not without agency, she exerts herself when necessary, breaking up fights, staring down charging seals. And she puzzles that she is drawn to another in whom “There was appeal in the sheer bulk of him.” She copes with the hunger, the cold, the disgusting food, the loose teeth, the loose bowels, the bad breath. It is a nightmare and within it is the significance of objects, a bottle, a box made for her, a whistle, her handkerchief that causes a fight. She is almost lost. She holds onto the hope that a ship will find them and carry them away.

Most of the fighting is over gold. “They were draining energy they didn’t have over sunken gold they couldn’t eat.” Many wanted to go back to try and recover what had been lost to the sea, for some it was gold, for others dead bodies. But they had no bearing to point to “where the ship lay in a cave with her bones and gold”. Some of the fifteen don’t make it, and those that do have a way to go to ease back into the world. The survivors must adjust to the company of others “I think, … now that we are back in the world again, that you should call me ‘Mrs Jewell’”.

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is an imagining of what might have happened on the islands based on the reports of three of the shipwrecked men. It is vivid and visceral, with the best and worst of the human character on display. Mary Jewell is a wonderful rendering of a woman in extraordinary circumstances. And somewhere under the water in one of the hundreds of caves in the cliffs along the coast of the Auckland Islands, the bodies and the gold still lie …  

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