Bella: First Lady Graduate

Other submissions by Lis Porter:
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Stars of Hope (Historical Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
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Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Bella Guérin is Australia's first 'lady graduate.' She graduated from Melbourne University in 1883, a real character.

Born on a ship to Irish parents, she lived on prison sites, educated by her mother before going to college and admitted to Melbourne University in 1881. Who marries an eighty-year-old man, then when he dies, marries someone thirty years younger? Bella does. She’s not in love with either but adores the son from her first husband, a poet.

Bella is a teacher, a women’s right advocate for the vote and equality, a peace activist and a trailblazer. Her story is lively. This novel draws on her speeches, writings and history to paint a picture of the sort of life she might have led. She ends her days in Adelaide.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

Early Days, 1858

Patrick suffered from the nasty pock marks left by the Great Famine. Only one ailing sister was alive, any place would have to be better than his old crumbling home. Julia, born into privilege, had never known hunger or hardship. One mild day, she watched Patrick gazing at some exotic goods in one of her father’s stores. Often as she went to sleep, she recalled their first look through the glass pane. Drawn by his piercing eyes pulling her, she went outside to chat. From that moment, a spark was lit.

Only when Patrick began to work for Julia’s father did his true worth become clear to her parents. A hard worker, he was honest, loyal, trustworthy. Julia’s parents gave their consent to an unexpected marriage, a man quite outside of their social standing. Newlyweds Patrick and Julia Guérin, excited by life’s possibilities, decide on the adventure of a lifetime, a move from Ireland to Australia.

Now, with a new life ahead, Julia hid her fears of the unknown. Patrick talked incessantly about the great expectations looming over the horizon, somewhere out there, waiting to be grabbed. With her previous certainty banished, she hoped he was right, there were niggling doubts eating away inside her core, tucked away from sight.

The sharp bow of the clipper ship they boarded seemed strong, reassuring Julia as the three tall masts flapped gently in a mild wind.

As if reading her mind, Patrick remarked, ‘doesn’t the vessel look impressive?’

‘I hope it’s strong enough to take us on our long journey across the waters.’

‘I’m sure it will be.’

‘I’m grateful for my parents’ parting gift of two cabin class tickets. You know I despise older women fussing over my expanding body.’ Patrick chuckled, amused at how private she was about her bulk.

‘You’re blossomin’ darlin’, you’d not cope well in steerage below deck.’ Patrick didn’t tell her he’d heard that travellers lay in the darkness with little fresh air, sharing a berth with people they didn’t know, breathing dank air and stale body odours.

During the long months of the trip, the dining saloon was wasted as the punishing sea wreaked havoc on Julia’s delicate condition. For hours on end, Julia clung onto the railing, emptying her stomach, as Patrick steadied her, gathering in her clothes while the wind howled angrily.

Fellow passengers, emigrants, chattered with excitement about their prospects in the new land. The same message kept being repeated. ‘Anything seems possible.’ This babble increased Patrick’s hopes and worried Julia more. She hid her anxiety, hoping her baby couldn’t sense the growing fear.

One stormy night, with the wind shrieking as if in agony, the sea raging, waves crashing onto the sides of the boat and earlier than expected, with Julia’s panicky urging, ‘Patrick, please find the ship’s doctor, and hurry.’ Patricks raced off in search of help.

There was little consolation as the doctor muttered, ‘I’ve only had a few whiskies,’ but he was skilled to assist Julia and soon announced, ‘you have a small, healthy boy.’

Labor pains thrust aside, Julia beamed her love for her son, holding him close to her exhausted body as Patrick peered inside the cabin door. ‘You clever lady. What shall we call him? All the planned Celtic names we talked about don’t seem right.’

‘I agree, toss them out of the cabin porthole.’

Laughingly, they bent their heads together to whisper as Patrick declared, ‘we shall call our son Marco Polo Guérin.’

The doctor shook his head in bemused disbelief. ‘I named my firstborn son Matthias after my father who had been named after his father.’

Julia adapted to motherhood as if she’d been born to it, cuddling the small baby to her body, breathing in his milky smell. She missed her mother with a deep longing, wondering what advice she would give if she was sitting there beside her on the swaying deck. Sometimes, she imagined her mother’s presence, willing her touch, so she asked questions about caring for a new-born and invented the possible answers. This way, she heard her mother’s pleasant voice somewhere in the vague distance. The air crackled with familiar sound, and she smiled. It was as though her mother was with her, a soft hand on her cheek, her words of comfort soothing her soul.

Marco was a placid baby, gaining chubby cheeks and gurgling when other women and children from steerage came to hold his little hand. He didn’t fear their uncleanness. Their smells and dirty hands frightened his mother, but not once did she push their hands away.

After months at sea, the Marco Polo sailed through the Bass Strait into a calm Port Phillip Bay.

‘Have you ever seen a sky that is brighter than any heaven above?’

‘Never Patrick, there is a fierceness to the rays.’ Julia’s hands went to her eyes to shield them from the dazzling rays, and she drew a thin blanket over her son’s head, whispering, ‘welcome baby Marco to your new country.’ Turning to the boy’s father, she said, ‘it doesn’t feel right that our firstborn child will never meet his grandparents.’ She choked away her homesick tears as she looked up into Patrick’s face, beaming with exhilaration, a land where he hoped he could make his mark.

Embarking, they passed through customs’ rigmarole, their papers in order. With some trepidation, Patrick found a small bench. ‘Now dear wife, you sit under this shady tree with our new-born son. My immediate task is crucial.’

‘I do hope my father’s letter of recommendation is useful.’

‘Darlin’ ya know my father-in-law is a man of wealth and influence, back home and abroad. I have full confidence.’

The rush of new immigrants standing in a long queue, some pushing a weaker person out of the way, all wanting jobs in this new land, left Patrick feeling grateful to have arrived with a personal reference and a name of an influential official to approach. He was aware of the privilege afforded to him by his family of marriage. The vehemence of the Australian sun beating down on their heads and backs, made the emigrants twitchy, they were already sweltering, sweaty and scratching their bodies. Strange insects buzzed about and bit any exposed skin.

After longer than expected, Patrick wandered back to his wife, her face flustered, bewildered with the new smells, the strange screeching bird sounds and the overwhelming humidity that left drops of moisture trickling down her face.

Patrick was unsure how to inform her sensitively of their next move. ‘Julia, me darlin’, I ’ave wonderful news for ya. Yer father has written ahead, my letter confirmed his message, and I ’ave been given a job. The pay sounds good, but I wouldn’t know yet.’

‘That’s wonderful news, I imagine there are few from our ship who are so fortunate. Where is it? What is it?’

‘Take a big breath, me lovely wife.’

‘Paddy, I don’t like the look in yer eyes. I’m hot and tired. Where is this new place? Do we have to travel further today? Marco needs to sleep.’

‘Darlin’, I’ve been offered a job as a prison warden. Their Pentridge jail is filled.’

‘Why is it full? Are there many criminals here? What sort of land have we come to? Should I be afraid?’

‘Since word spread that there’s gold for the pickin’ in Victoria, all sorts of people ’ave raced here and crime has increased. Don’t worry me love, I’ll keep ya safe.’

‘So where are we goin’? Please don’t tell me it’s to a prison.’ Baby Marco let out an irritated howl as if to echo his mother’s fear. ‘I don’t want to raise our son in a prison.’

‘Julia, give me yer hand. I’ve hired this horse and dray to take us a little further around the coast to Hobson’s Bay, to a place called Williamstown.’

‘Patrick, you still haven’t told me where we’re goin’. You’re bein’ shifty. I can see it in yer eyes. Where will we live? Surely not at a prison.’

Patrick looked up to the stunning blue sky, drew courage from its boldness and looked directly at his wife. ‘The prisons are full. They’re usin’ ships to house prisoners. We’ll be livin’ on one of the five prison hulks that sit moored in Hobson’s Bay.’

‘Oh Paddy, we’ve just come off the boat. I still have wobbly sea legs and a tiny baby at my breast. I’m pleased you have work, massively relieved, although Father did indicate his letter would do the trick. But the idea of walkin’ back onto a ship doesn’t feel me with any pleasure. I dreamt of livin’ in a little cottage with a garden where I could plant some flowers and grow healthy vegetables.’

‘Julia me love, that’ll come, ya ’ave ta trust me. This is just the first stage of our new life ’ere. I’m told there’s a small cabin on tha deck for us. It’s fenced off so that Marco can’t come to harm when he learns to walk, and he’ll only see the prisoners when the men leave the ship in the mornin’ and return late in tha afternoon.’

‘Why do they leave the ship?’

‘I was told they work for the colony. They’re breakin’ rocks to build new prisons. It’s hard work, so they say, it must help them sleep well on their return. It keeps ’em quiet, so they reckon.’

Julia barely said a word when they arrived at the bay and a small rocking rowing boat took them out to the ship. Never a swimmer, her heart fluttered with fear when a wave crashed onto the side of the small vessel. She had to clamber up a rope ladder clutching Marco, not glancing down even once. Words failed her when she saw how basic their cabin was, and her hand went to her heart as if to hold the pain in. There was not one attractive feature inside its four rough walls. Despondently, her eyes dropped to the deck, then gazed out at the sea where she gained courage from its rippling beauty, the astonishing shades of blues and greens merging to create vibrant colours. She took a big breath and vowed to accept the cabin as her new home. What other choice did she have?

Patrick never let on to Julia that he’d been informed that the ship held some of the worst offenders in the colonial penal system. The conditions on the prison hulk were harsh. The prisoners’ food was meagre, the sanitation lousy, and the skin-cutting chains were a constant reminder of their lowly status.

Patrick’s superiors kept telling him, ‘this bleak treatment is needed as a deterrent to crime.’

He doubted it. He remembered how starvation and desolate conditions could drive a man to desperate actions. ‘They are human,’ came his gentle reply, ‘they should be treated with dignity.’

Daily, Patrick shook his head with anger at his fellow wardens’ callousness. He recalled the way he’d been raised. ‘Punishment could be fair’, that’s what his folks had taught him as he recalled his father’s mantra. He abhorred the harsh metal irons that locked the men in cramped spaces, away from light and fresh air. The look of despondency in the men’s eyes saddened him. Most were convicts, but a few were men like him, seekers of freedom and independence, they had just got on the wrong side of the law.

When Patrick was instructed to take the prisoners below deck, he took a last gasp of refreshing air and tried hard to make each man’s life a little bit easier. He noted the look of gratitude in most men’s eyes as he left the chain one loop looser so that it didn’t cut into their ankles. The smell below deck was unbearable, he never told Julia how sickening it was. He kept asking his supervisors for a new post on land, using his frail wife and small child as the reason. He bided his time, impressing the bosses with his courtesy and hard work.

Shortly after arrival in this foreign land, Julia announced to Patrick, ‘I am expecting another babe.’

He grasped her slightly thickening waist and danced a jig with her, ‘that’s marvellous, me darlin’.

Julia joined in the jig and inwardly grimaced at the idea that her second child would also be born on a boat. The months passed tediously, there was little for her to do other than attend to the needs of her son. The imaginary conversations with her mother kept her sane. With each passing day, the comforting, familiar voice faded a little more, the murmurs lost in the wind. Her hands grasped the void as if she could catch words and hug her mother.

Every few days, Julia asked to be rowed to shore, where she walked to the stalls that sold basic supplies of flour, sugar and tea, and scrawny meat she couldn’t identify. She’d been told it was kangaroo or possum meat, but she couldn’t even imagine what these creatures looked like. She searched in vain for the fruit and vegetables she’d been accustomed to and grabbed any she could find. Everything looked, felt, smelt, sounded and tasted strange. Home seemed a long way away.

On her return to the ship, Julia walked around the deck, holding little Marco’s hand tightly, fearing that he’d break away and rush to the edge. Not once did he try, he simply bounced along merrily on his podgy legs, chattering away in his babyish language, making her chuckle, and never leaving her side.

As her pregnancy progressed, so did her longing for her mother’s kindly touch and words of wisdom. Most nights, she heard the maternal whispers, carried through the rush of wind across the sea, but with this pregnancy, she never felt the accompanying touch. On nights when the well-known sounds didn’t come, she barely slept. The maternal void left her gasping.

When her moment came, the labour pains burst through her body with intense stabs. She shivered and wriggled and could find no comfortable position for her body. She was relieved that Patrick was back on the ship, rubbing her back, letting her cry out, the sounds absorbed by the sea air.

When the crests of pain peaked, she cried out, ‘Paddy, my time has come, please hurry and get the ship doctor, tell him the baby is coming quickly.’

A kindly, cheery, sober doctor helped her in a short delivery, and announced, ‘you have a beautiful daughter.’

This time, there was no equivocation with the name. With a newborn screaming in the background, on the twenty-third day of April 1858, Julia announced ‘welcome my darlin’ Julia Marguerite Guérin.’

‘What a joy to deliver a healthy baby girl,’ the doctor said to Julia, and poking his head out the door, added to Patrick, ‘such a marvellous contrast to the pus, coughs, infections, boils, malnutrition, broken bones and utter despair that’s my daily lot.’

‘Aye, a safe arrival of a healthy baby calls for rejoicin’.’

‘Wait a moment.’ The doctor returned quickly, bringing Patrick a tumbler of rum and the men sat on deck, drinking a toast to the new life.

Julia lay alone in her hut, one hand on Marco who was restless, the other hand nudging her new baby onto her breast. She desperately craved her mother’s presence, whispering to her, ‘oh Mother, I wish you were here, holdin’ my hand, wiping my brow, smoothing my damp hair, cleaning my body and putting clean bedclothes on.’ No-one washed her. Her sheet was still bloody, and she moved onto a cleaner part of the cloth.

Agonising loneliness and a frantic longing for the familiarity of home threatened to overwhelm Julia. It was only the need to care for her two young children that kept her from collapsing inside. Patrick saw none of this as he came into the hut later that night, his breath warm from the rum. He was not an insensitive man. He simply thought that childbirth and everything associated with it was a woman’s affair.

From an early age, everyone said the baby was ‘beautiful.’ Julia, educated in France and Belgium, called her ‘Bella’ and the name stuck. Marco and Bella were inseparable. Even when Bella was a tiny baby, Marco sat beside her, chatting away in baby-talk, holding her tiny hand, marvelling at every new advancement she made, chuckling at her development from baby gurgling to words spoken, from crawling to toddling and walking.

A tiny cabin with a small, fenced playing area was all the children had known in life, but they amused themselves with uncomplicated happiness. Patrick sanded four wooden building blocks and found some paint to give them colour. The ship’s doctor brought them two soft balls for the children to roll to each other. On an excursion to the market, Julia acquired a small blackboard and chalk so she could begin to teach them the alphabet and numbers. The children grew up with a love for the outdoors and the bracing sea air, watching the seagulls perching on the rails, learning the unpredictable, varying moods of the ocean, and dancing with the effect of the wind as the ship swayed in blustery breezes. They giggled a lot.

To her immense surprise, Julia discovered there were gentleman prisoners on the boat, their crimes varied from business swindling to accusations of stealing a horse. On their return from their daily labour, she watched these men’s eyes drifting in the direction of happy, childish laughter and, looking intensely at them, she tried to discern which men she might consider for an idea building inside her. She called a greeting to those with a friendly face, testing their reactions.

She begged Patrick, ‘please let a few linger for a short while on deck so the children can meet more people.’

‘I can’t, this would set a precedent it would be hard to refuse to others.’

‘I want our children to learn from a variety of people others while they are young, much as I learnt through travel.’

She watched as Patrick deliberated. ‘It’s risky, me bosses would be angry if they find out.’

‘It’s now your responsibility to return the prisoners below deck, and usually, yer superiors aren’t to be seen at this time of day.’

‘I’ll give it a try.’ Julia hugged him.

The few men who Patrick hand-picked as trustworthy, were grateful for a change in routine. For a short time, they squatted outside of the Guérin’s cabin fence, but with enough space for them to teach the two bright children some new words and fresh ideas. They lapped up the novelty.

Childlike, Julia smiled as Marco and Bella told her, ‘these men are so kind.’ At this stage of their lives, their status as prisoners meant nothing to them. Julia was satisfied that her idea had worth.

Once Julia had agreed to come to a new land, she vowed to make the most of every intriguing opportunity. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. As a child, she had benefited from a European education, the privilege of being the only daughter of Mr Kearney, an Irish merchant trader who had taken her with him when he travelled from Ireland, and left her with diligent, French governesses while he operated abroad, his business making him a wealthy man with social influence.