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Review: The Killing Of Louisa by Janet Lee

on September 17, 2018

The Killing Of Louisa
Janet Lee
UQP Books
2018, 272p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

To lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like murder.

Louisa Collins was hung in New South Wales in 1889. She was tried four times for the alleged murders of her two husbands. In three of those trials the juries could not agree that she was guilty. At her fourth trial the testimony of Louisa’s young daughter, May, contributed to Louisa’s conviction.

Intimately reimagined from Louisa’s perspective, with a story that just might fit the historical facts, this clever and compelling novel visits Louisa in her prison cell as she reflects on her life and the death and loss that have dictated her fate.

Will she confess? Or was an innocent woman brutally hanged?

For once, I’m kind of glad of my lack of historical knowledge. Because although I was kind of peripherally aware of this story before I picked up this book (only in the way that I knew it’d been the subject of a non-fiction book), I didn’t really know the full story. This is a fictionalised re-telling of the story of Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales, in 1889. Her story is perhaps not an unusual one, for most of her life. She was born into a family that were mostly poor, who moved around so that her father could work on properties and farms. A friendship with the son of her father’s boss when she was a teenager led to his mother, the lady of the house, securing her a job at a solicitor and his wife’s house in town, thereby separating them before any attachment should form. Louisa enjoyed her job cleaning and looking after the Missus, a woman bereaved. She was close to the Cook, close to the gardener and her life was disrupted when local butcher Charlie asked for her father’s permission to marry her. He was older, in his thirties to Louisa’s eighteen and she didn’t even know him. But in this time, it was not a woman’s choice for how she lived her life – and when her father granted permission, that was it.

For a time Louisa’s life went somewhat well – Charlie was quite successful, there were children, a home that she was able to make nice. But then came money issues, the losing of the business, many more children and all of a sudden it was many mouths to feed and not much money to do so. When Charles dies of a mysterious ailment, the marriage is all but over and it isn’t long until Louisa marries again, a man much younger than her. Their infant son dies and then so does Michael Collins, from yet another mysterious ailment that leads to Louisa’s arrest for his murder. She is tried four times – three times resulting in a hung jury before the fourth trial seems to finally grant the Crown the answer they want. She is sentenced to hang but Louisa never quite believes that it will happen, always believing she will be granted a reprieve.

For me, it was so telling that all of the key players were men. The judge, the lawyers, the jury, they were all men. A lot of the case seem to result on testimony from Louisa’s 10 year old daughter, about things that were mostly circumstantial. She wasn’t asked to speak herself and she was subjected to the indignity of having not only her ex-husband’s body exhumed but also that of her tiny infant son. She’s separated from her children (granted minimal access visits) and mostly spends her time attending yet another trial. After her guilty verdict, she’s separated from the rest of the prison population into isolation and is guarded at all times.

Louisa’s life is constantly shaped and defined by external factors. As a child, this is somewhat normal, we are all subject to the whims of our parents, who often have to move for work, etc. As a teenager she’s removed from her family to work, which assists her family but leaves her isolated and having to learn an entirely new role. No sooner does she find her footing there when she’s told she’ll be married and to a man she’s barely spoken to. From there her life is shaped by him, the decisions that he makes in which she has no input. She is tasked with caring for their growing brood of children and is frank about the times she escapes into social drinking, to be away from the tasks of cleaning, cooking and simply caring. Perhaps the only thing Louisa actually chooses to do for herself, is marry Michael Collins. And you can argue that she was manipulated into that too. She was not highly educated, she was tired and had been trapped in a marriage that wasn’t her choosing and wasn’t ever particularly happy, for many years. For a man such as Michael Collins, whose motives appear dubious even through the eyes of Louisa, she would’ve been easy pickings.

I really enjoyed the simple way in which this story was told – from Louisa’s perspective and very matter of fact. She seems resigned to the system, even as it betrays her and although she stays steadfast in her belief that she won’t actually be executed, due to the fact that she’s a woman, she seems to accept the inevitable with a stoicism. To be honest the last part of this is quite horrific and apparently mirrors the real life events and after reading so much about Louisa I actually felt quite connected to her and quite emotional about her fate. I spent quite a bit of time googling more about her after this and there’s a book that I’m definitely going to read that further explores the events.

Louisa Collins ended up with a band of women that fought for her right to live and protested the ways under which she was convicted. It would still be some time before women had more rights in Australian society but it seems that her treatment was the kickstart of something. And the end of hanging women in New South Wales at least.


Book #159 of 2018

2 responses to “Review: The Killing Of Louisa by Janet Lee

  1. I’ve had this novel beckoning me since the week before last. I am so keen to read it but had a few above it on the pile but I think I’m just going to let it skip the queue! Great review!!

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