Remembering the forgotten women of Australia’s past

Sophia Degraves was the wife of one of Hobart’s early prominent citizens, yet nothing is known of her except the
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Sophia Degraves was the wife of one of Hobart’s early prominent citizens, yet nothing is known of her except the date of her death and the births of her many children.

Anne Blythe-Cooper, author of The Shape of Water, has imagined for us the life of this pioneering woman, married to the charismatic and difficult Peter Degraves who gave the colony both Cascade Brewery and Hobart’s Theatre Royal. He was also frequently in prison, often involved in lawsuits, usually because of his ambitious business schemes left him in debt. How his family managed in these circumstances is not known. The many business dealings of Peter Degraves are well documented, as are his dealings with the colonial government.

In a beautifully structured book, Anne Blythe-Cooper tells the story of Sophia MacIntosh, an intelligent young woman, interested in the liberal arts, who attracts the attention of Peter Degraves in London in the early nineteenth century. She has no family, except a cousin, Hugh MacIntosh, a friend of Peter Degraves. A proposal of marriage is accepted.

Sophia begins much of what will be the pattern of the rest of her life. Ignorant of Peter’s business interests, but bearing the consequences of their failure, giving birth and watching some of her children die, following Peter to the ends of the earth, first the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, then to Van Diemen’s Land.

the-shape-of-water

These really are the facts of Sophia Degraves life, but Anne-Blythe Cooper tells her story in the first person. Blythe-Cooper conjures up a woman of incredible physical and emotional endurance. She lives in physical hardship on the Isle of Lewis, endures the long voyage out from England (as did so many thousands), gives birth at sea, and heartbreakingly buries a five-year-old. At times, the family live in deprived circumstances, although, eventually, they are amongst the wealthiest of Hobart’s citizens.

Sophia feels the isolation of Hobart keenly when she is shunned by society. She develops a great love of the natural world and rejoices when the opportunity for cultural pursuits arise. She worries about her ever growing family and buries three girl babies. She feels sidelined by Peter but loves him passionately.

Anne Blythe-Cooper writes precisely with pointed descriptions of the fashions, the eating habits, the environment of Hobart both natural and man-made. Her research is meticulous.

Each chapter is dated, with, usually an apt biblical quote for its content. The sentiments and opinions seem to me to be consistent with the times.

Like The Shape of Water, Sophia Degraves was whatever her environment moulded her to be. Like water, she is invisible.

Anne Blythe-Cooper has drawn attention to all the invisible women of our past.

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