That Bligh Girl by Sue Williams

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

It is always good to receive a book by Sue Williams. I recall Elizabeth & Elizabeth and now before my eyes is Williams’ latest, the fabulous That Bligh Girl. I must hasten to add that Williams is a tough writer. The hours she would have devoted to meticulous research must be phenomenal, for rarely can she be caught out. Fascinating and gripping are her images, and astuteness and cunning wax in support of her fine work.

The current story is a combined biography of Governor William Bligh, newly appointed to the position of Chief Executive of the colony of New South Wales and his forward-thinking daughter Mary. Recognizing that the six month sea voyage would remain horrible in most respects and would improve only as the fruit of the labours of those present, Mary attempts to organise the convicts and gain privileges from the soldiery who lie attached as guards. Tough as she is Mary offers no real opposition to her father who instils discipline through the administration of the lash. There is no give and take in William Bligh.

Three hundred armed soldiers form a major opposing force. Bligh’s answer to their demands is trickery and falsehood. In these responses lie the tricks played upon his own daughter. Driven by a need to dominate, the Governor attempts to order Mary into obedience and, when that fails, he relies on humiliation and trickery.

We learn that Mary was twice-married – once to a serving officer John Putland (who died of tuberculosis) and second, to Sir Maurice Connell, who rose in rank to Acting Governor of NSW. The book reveals numerous occasions when Mary Bligh was required to support her husbands while receiving abuse from her unstable father.

Because of the need to trim the numbers of personnel to a group that we as a species can grasp, a common practice is to group together into one character the actions of several. This occurs in That Bligh Girl with the character Meg. This important stalwart, sturdy supporter of Mary, was a multilevel personality.

The richest source of information for us who live so long after this information was current was the idiosyncratic nature of what the eighteenth century celebrity considered important enough to be recorded. Of what importance really was it that Bligh be given his full marching status in a standard trooping of the colours ceremony. By contrast, Mary was concerned with a replacement for a common parlour maid. The point to be taken is that both were of great importance to those who perceived the lack. The unfortunate case of Mr Mackey and his peregrinating hands was as real to Meg and the cook as the battering Meg’s breasts took during the period of crisis.

Mary Bligh has recorded (via the magic of Sue Williams’s pen) those aspects of eighteenth century life in a raw colony with a man who held extreme power but was unblessed with common sense. She has made an honest attempt to reveal what was important to Mary Bligh’s life and that of her minor fellows. What results is a powerful social record.

That Bligh Girl


by Sue Williams

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-76106-588-0

$32.99; 400pp

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