Mrs Hopkins by Shirley Barrett

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

‘It was extraordinary how almost attractive she could appear sometimes…yet at other times she looked like she had risen freshly from the grave’ (187). This is a description given to the woman who takes centre stage in Shirley Barrett’s novel Mrs Hopkins. It is the third novel by this writer who passed away in 2022 aged 61.

Shirley Barrett was a screenwriter, director, and novelist. Her previous novels were Rush Oh! (2014) and The Bus on Thursday (2018). Barrett’s films presented a unique perspective on love, desire, and the workings of life at the margins of Australian society.

From the notes provided by the author at the end of this novel, several incidents within the story are based on recorded information from the time of the Biloela Industrial School on Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour in the 1800s. A brief history is provided of the institution which housed girls aged from 3-18 when they were cast out onto the streets or abandoned. Originally the idea was to train these girls to help fill the gap for the desperate shortage of servants in Sydney at the time. The abandoned convict barracks on the island was ideal for this school as it was safely out of public view of the wild rioting, obscene language, and lewd behaviour that had become the norm for this institution.

The situation was so desperately sad and horrifying that Shiley Barrett felt compelled to write her story to give some account of what transpired there lest the horrors be forgotten. Past administrators on the island showed little compassion for those in their charge. Eventually after exhaustive enquiries, the industrial school was moved to Parramatta and Cockatoo Island became a women’s prison to which some of the girls would eventually return.

None of the key characters in this story is easy to like, though some like Mrs Hopkins, may have had good intentions but their behaviour was often spontaneously selfish or uncaring which later brought on feelings of remorse. This story provides a day-by-day routine for the residents in this place highlighting the lack of creature comforts for all but the superintendent.

The personalities of the key characters create an interesting read. Mrs Hopkins was a small thin hollow-eyed woman, who arrived at the island as the school mistress. Dressed in black with her white face she had the tendency to frighten as did her often strange behaviour. When looking for someone to blame, she is the one accused of being a witch casting a spell over the situation.

She hero-worshipped the superintendent, Mr Craddock, and wished to be his helpmate. He was clearly susceptible to flattery and, having sent his wife back to the mainland, he quickly promoted this newcomer to the post of matron which did not go down well with other staff.

When beginning to read this story I believed it might be in the vein of To Sir With Love or Sister Act. But Mrs Hopkins was definitely not a Whoopi Goldberg character. I found this book to be more in the style of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Although told in the third person, there was a lot of introspection on the part of the two main characters as they analysed their behaviour after events.

During Mrs Hopkins’ short time on the island, though determined to bring about change for the betterment of the young girls, she seemed to be responsible for one disaster after another. The back cover of the novel, Mrs Hopkins, tells the potential reader that this story is a witty, surreal and poignant novel about what destroys us, what sustains us, and what we carry with us from one world into the next. Mrs Hopkins did have a history which influenced her present behaviour. Though fiction, this is a sad story which highlights behaviours from Australia’s earlier history.

Mrs Hopkins


by Shirley Barrett

Allen & Unwin


$32.99; 448pp

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