Review: Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant

Reviewed by Jessie Neilson

Historical fiction writer Cristina Sanders is in her element regaling us with these imaginative tales. For adults and young adults alike, Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant is superb and poignant reading.

With a trove of gold and a load of passengers, the General Grant collided into the craggy Auckland Islands on 13 May 1866. On its way to England, the three-masted bark had left Melbourne as winter approached and was making its way toward Cape Horn.

While it was one of several ships to be wrecked in the area, the General Grant stood apart for the substantial number of survivors – 14 men and one woman - and their lengthy time living as "savages.” One woman among the survivors altered group dynamics inestimably.

Wellington writer and sailor Cristina Sanders, now Hawke's Bay-based, was intrigued by this historical incident. The factual character list, including occupations, ages and birthplaces, is extremely helpful as we read of daily interactions and personalities. Sanders has the information around the narrative events and setting; it is the characterisations and finer details which she embroiders.

Though facts mostly come from the testimonies of three of the men, there was an ample springboard from which to craft an imaginative story. She gives the lone female survivor a voice, one in contrast to the men's frequent harshness and silences.

Of our main protagonist, Sanders knew that 22-year-old Mary Jewell was newly married and with husband Joseph was going to his home in Devonshire to become the "Jewells of Clovelly." Both made it through the ordeal and the evidence graces this book's last pages, with a striking photographic studio portrait of the couple. Taken shortly after their rescue, they are adorned in their sealskin finery. This was but one example of the group's entrepreneurship and initiative which sustained them through 18 long, frequently rain- and wind-whipped months.

Sanders' novel reads as Mary's retrospective account, perhaps written down as a private memoir for her own healing. It is in first-person and contains not only the facts of the disaster and aftermath but also both her emotional states and observations of the well-being of those men around her. With its intimacy, revelations, confessions and prose style, it is reminiscent of other contemporary women's novels and diaries, their language and what they share.

Mary is a fully rounded character, struggling with feelings of despair and hopelessness. She speaks thoughtfully of each of her fellow castaways, recognising their personalities and how they respond to extreme stress. Therefore, through her account, we have 15 three-dimensional characters displayed, ironic in that most of the men prefer brooding and silence.

Mary is deeply aware of male difference and their threat. She knows that, "if you drop your modesty, the devil takes it away.” In typically eloquent language, she observed while in service how the men would "come into our dining room and leave their dirty shadows outside, stepping clean as their laundered shirts through the door.” The importance of boundaries is crucial now; Sanders speckles her narrative with sexual threat, always empathising with our female protagonist. However, most of her male characters are sympathetic figures too.

The drama is stirred up by her villains, whether this be in their laziness and apathy, or in their aggression and doublehandedness. Much is made of the elusive presence of gold nearby and this motivation drives some of them. Mary quietly judges those, "draining energy they didn't have fighting over sunken gold they couldn't eat.”

The story is full of fine detail, perfectly pictured, which stays with the reader. Previously, Mary had been in awe the "painted sunrises.” During the disaster, she witnessed a man being skewered. When she was at her lowest, while also thinking she was pregnant, she imagined, "cradled inside my bones...another smaller cluster of collapsed bones.”

While some of this bedraggled group survives, they have been through hellish experiences which, thanks to Mrs Jewell, the reader can picture from a safe distance. Historical fiction writer Sanders is in her element regaling us with these imaginative tales. For adults and young adults alike, this is superb and poignant reading.

Reviewed by Jessie Neilson