Nov 30 2013 1:30pm

First Look: Lena Dowling’s His Convict Wife (December 1, 2013)

His Convict Wife by Lena DowlingLena Dowling
His Convict Wife
Escape / December 1, 2013 / $.99 digital

For Irish convict Colleen Malone, being framed, transported to Australia and forced into prostitution seemed like the worst that life could throw at her. Then she fell pregnant to a client and was sent back to prison by her cruel owner. Now, her only hope of a decent life for her and her baby is to find someone to marry.

Widower and former London businessman Samuel Biggs arrived in Australia hoping to put his grief behind him. When James Hunter offers him a job on his Parramatta farm, he accepts eagerly. He’ll put his back into his new work, and bury any thoughts of new love and marriage in the rich earth of his new home. 

However, all plans are compromised when Samuel is manipulated into visiting a workhouse to choose a new housekeeper, and Colleen seizes her chance — literally grabbing Samuel and begging for her life. The only way Samuel can oblige is by marrying her, but on one thing he stands firm — there is no way he will fall in love...

A meaty angsty marriage of convenience historical is right up my alley but never have I written a First Look that cuts so close to the bone, because of my family of origin. Nor do I usually read historical romances that have so many strikes against an ultimate HEA from the git-go. My great-grandmother, Rebecca Alexander, was born in what is now Northern Ireland. She immigrated to the United States and became a nursery maid for the Von Stade household in New York City, the Von Stades being a “socially prominent New Jersey family which included generations of yachtsmen, bankers, polo players and other Establishmentarians” and in our generation, opera singer Frederica Von Stade (New York Observer, 2010). My mother said that try as she might to get her grandmother to speak of her past, she was never successful. People came to the New World to get a new life, better than the one they left behind.

In Lena Dowling's His Convict Wife, you can imagine that you are a young Irishwoman, an upstairs maid in an aristocratic Irish household, falsely convicted and sentenced to a long sentence in Australia. It gets worse—our heroine, Colleen and her cousin Nellie arrive in Australia after an endless sea voyage. A fellow Irishman says he’ll bring them to a boarding house but unfortunately, it’s a bawdy house, O’Shanes. The pain of her loss of freedom is stark.

That night they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. They clung to each other, half out of their wits … But it was the easiest night of their lives compared to what came after. They only had one customer each … Every night since, Colleen had seen five or six men …

In many historicals I have read working in a brothel is glossed over—prostitutes have lives more like than of courtesans, with a modicum of control over the men they choose to lay with and how they spend their days. Not so in His Convict Bride—Colleen is a sex slave, plain and simple, and it is only because she becomes pregnant that she is sent back to the prison known as The Factory. A horrific beginning to a story indeed.

Is there a hero to the rescue? Yes, there is, but more than a hero, Samuel Biggs, newly arrived in Australia, is a man with a complicated back story and issues. He’s a recent widower, and during the long sea voyage from England to Australia, he physically transforms himself from a pudgy businessman, a man of numbers, to a strong, capable man of many parts—as able to be a competent sailor as to add up a column of figures. Samuel, a man looking for a new way of life, accepts a job offer from James Hunter, an old friend and employer, to become his overseer. James’s wife, Lady Thea, the daughter of an English earl, is determined that Samuel will marry one of her convict women protégées and Samuel is equally resolved that he will only hire a housekeeper. Samuel’s loyalty to his dead wife Amelia makes him ambivalent about looking for romance again, but he had noticed and was “quite enjoying the attention” that he was receiving from women. Lady Hunter takes Samuel to The Factory where Colleen and Samuel have the very opposite of a “meet cute”—Colleen is inexpertly hitting stones and Samuel shows her the best way to hold her hammer. Colleen, realizing that Samuel is probably in the market for a convict bride, grasps his hand and begs him to choose her. This is an earthy book, the reader smells the sweat and fear pouring off the convict women laborers and hears the crack and crunch of the stones. Samuel’s mother, after she became a widow, ended up in an English workhouse and Samuel sees his mother’s fear and anguish for her children mirrored in Colleen’s soft brown eyes.

He saw it all again—his mother’s wild eyes, her mouth split in a gash of blood after taking a backhander to the face, fighting to keep him.

A little more exposition is necessary to illustrate just how difficult a marriage this is from its inception. The first lie Colleen does not tell Samuel that she is pregnant. The second is that, Samuel’s employer, James Hunter, is a former client of Colleen’s. True, he was unmarried at the time, but Colleen and James recognize each other at the wedding ceremony but say nothing, adding another layer of lies to the fledging union. Samuel Biggs’s morals have made him someone who would never frequent a brothel, under any circumstances, whereas the less judgmental James paid money to sleep with women that he knew, on some level, were sexual slaves, permitted absolutely no freedom at all. Colleen ponders,

James hadn’t just paid for her. He had paid to have a woman who he knew very well was as good as a slave. He might have been a convict himself but it didn’t make it right. Without money from men like James, Danny O’Shane wouldn’t have had a business.

This nuanced story has very few villains, but lines are definitely drawn between those who would judge others by their actions and circumstances and here the landed gentry come off rather badly. The tension between the owners, the overseer and his housekeeper wife, the servants and the convict laborers mounts as the story unfolds and is by no means resolved by the end.
Colleen is determined to try to pass off her unborn child as Samuel’s (by that I mean she wants him to believe he’s the father) so instead of being gratified that Samuel appears to have no sexual interest in her, she’s frantic to have him consummate their union. 

Colleen had seen plenty of men in her time in all shapes and sizes: blubbery whales who were so revoltingly fat they barely fitted through the narrow corridor to the upstairs rooms, and just as bad, the skinflints that slithered around on top of you like a wet herring, but Mr. Biggs was just right—broad and handsome…

It’s so awkward, she even asks him if he’s a Molly. I was impressed that Dowling doesn’t shy away from Colleen’s extensive knowledge of men as clients in a whorehouse but this graphic knowledge does not invade her soul. She is actually quite hurt that Samuel thinks of her, partially, as what she has been rather than take the time to even ask about her background. The book is full of blunt talk and sexually charged, almost salacious, situations. Lady Hunter takes Colleen swimming after the two couples have dinner together and the somewhat prudish Samuel is horrified at the sight of two practically nude women, frolicking in the moonlit water of the pond. As he says, hurtfully, to Colleen afterward,

What Lady Hunter does is up to her husband, but in my opinion it’s a vulgar recreation for a woman, only fitting a whore.

Colleen cannot understand why he doesn’t want to sleep with her, annoyed that he thinks of it as her having “to service you, given I’ve spent the last seven years with me legs in the air…” Is it because, she wonders, that Samuel is “ashamed to have wed a lowly convict prostitute?” Over time, however, Samuel’s respect and kindness—and the space he gives her—allow Colleen to see him very differently from other men.

At O’Shanes she had looked through the customers. She had taught herself to do it to preserve her soul … but with Samuel it had been different.
She has seen him from the very beginning—from the instant she had stared into those wonderful blue eyes that shimmered and sparkled like a mountain fed lake as the sun came up.

Colleen and Samuel forge a union based on lust and admiration and a deep set yearning for family and love. Fate had been cruel to both of them and for a time it seemed like they would not be able to put resentment and prejudice aside but eventually they did. There are no lies between them at the end, with Samuel saying to Colleen, after she confesses that he is not the father of her unborn child,

“Just hear me out. My mother remarried and her new husband, a widower, brought me up as if were his own, never making any distinction between me and his other children … I’m going to love this baby every bit as much as I love you.”

These warm loving loyal souls were kindred spirits and the reader believes in their bright future. One is left, however, pondering the meaning of loyalty and self-respect because at its core His Convict Wife chronicles the story of Australia’s convict class, the men and women whose blood, sweat, and indentured servitude provided the underpinnings of Australia’s growth. Their loyalty to each other, even and almost especially after they had served out the terms of their sentence, was a living thing. As James puts it to Samuel,

There’s a brotherhood that exists among the convicts that I promise is bigger than all of this. Mark my words, it’s an esprit de corps on which this country that they’re calling Australia is going to be built.

Men like James Hunter regretted some actions they took when they were convicts themselves and that guilt fuels their cause. Dowling examines the gap between wanting to help the convict class, as seen in the actions of Lady Hunter, and true acknowledgement of the humanity of former prisoners. Convicts lived for the day when Emancipists would rise up and be the equals in Australian eyes to the Exclusives. Colleen’s horrific journey to respect and ultimately love from her husband was aided by the admiration of the convict class who knew full well what she had endured for the opportunity to be a beloved wife and mother.


Learn more or order a copy of His Convict Wife by Lena Dowling, out now:

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3. Kareni
This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the review.
Janet Webb
4. JanetW
It was fascinating. I was particularly interested in the "grey*ness" of James Hunter and his wife, Lady Thea. By grey I mean that their motives were both powerfully sympathetic to the prisoner class and yet, somewhat, and understandably, out-of-sync.

I thought Colleen and Samuel made a wonderful couple because Samuel really knew what a knife-edge poverty was--how quickly in life all your choices can be removed.
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