6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorescence’ to ‘The Media and the Massacre’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

Because I’m in the throes of hosting Southern Cross Crime Month on this blog, I thought I’d try to stick to a theme… every book in my chain is true crime. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

This month, the starting book is…

Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird (2020)
I haven’t yet read this book about finding internal happiness and appreciating the wonder of life, even though I bought it not long after it was released based on the fact that it just looked gorgeous and was a rare hardcover (most books in Australia only ever get published in paperback format).

Another book I bought, albeit many years ago, because I liked its hardcover treatment was…

‘Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?’ by Richard Shears (2008)
This large-format hardcover, which features beautiful endpapers and sepia photographs, is about the mysterious disappearance in 1954 of Margaret Clement, an eccentric recluse living in rural South Gippsland (the part of the world where I was raised), who was better known as the “lady of the swamp”. She was once a beautiful, rich socialite who was well-educated and well-travelled, but in old age was living in abject poverty in the decrepit mansion built by her father, a Scottish immigrant, who had become one of Australia’s richest men.

Another book about a Scottish immigrant in Australia fallen on hard times is…

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
This is the true story of Sarah Boyd, an impoverished Scottish immigrant, convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923. The book looks at why Boyd did what she did and asks whether her trial and subsequent punishment was fair.

Another book that looks at the fair (or otherwise) treatment of a historical crime case is…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
Regular readers of this blog will know this isn’t the first time I’ve included this book in a Six Degrees chain, but it’s one of those true life stories that has stayed with me and often pops into mind. Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia in 1917 when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Another book about a female murderer is…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police. As well as looking at Dulcie’s complicated, shambolic and often impoverished life — from her first marriage to her third — and examining in great detail how she went about killing three men who simply got in her way, My Mother, A Serial Killer also charts how she was brought to justice. She was clearly a very troubled individual.

Another true crime book about a troubled individual is…

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Serial Killer’ by Robert Wainwright and Paolo Totaro (2010)
In the story of the world’s worst massacre (at the time) by a lone gunman, the authors of this controversial book try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the murder of 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996. This tragedy had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

Another book about the Port Arthur massacre is …

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard (2016)
This book explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of the Port Arthur massacre. Its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? (referenced above) and the ethical and legal dilemmas it posed to its authors, two respected broadsheet journalists, who were later sued by the murder’s mother, Carleen Bryant, after she withdrew her support for the book.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about finding happiness within ourselves to the complex relationship between journalists and their subjects, via a string of true crime books from Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Dry’ to ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI had so much fun doing last month’s Six Degrees of Separation book meme, that I’m back to do it again this month!

Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…

The Hands by Stephen Orr

1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…

2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…

3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…

4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Tedeschi, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Simon & Schuster Australia, true crime

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster Australia; 368 pages; 2012.

Issues around what it is to be transgender seem to be prominent in the media at the moment, not least because The Danish Girl, which is loosely based on the life of artist Einar Wegener who became the first man ever to be transformed surgically into a woman, has been nominated for several Oscars. Wegener, who changed her name to Lili Elbe, underwent the first of four sex reassignment operations in 1930, the news of which scandalised Germany, where the surgery was carried out, and her native Denmark.

But a decade earlier, on the other side of the planet, Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Mark Tedeschi’s Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage charts the life of Eugenia Falleni in forensic detail, including her troubled childhood in New Zealand, her new life in Australia (where she reinvented herself as a Scotsman called Harry Crawford), Harry’s first marriage in middle-age to Annie (whom he was later accused of murdering), his second marriage to Lizzie, and then the murder trial which scandalised the nation.

The book is divided into three parts: the first is a fictionalised account of Eugenia’s life — based on historical facts gleaned from newspaper reports, public records, court transcripts and interviews with relevant people — from childhood to arrest by the police more than 40 years later; the second is an in-depth account of her criminal trial and the reaction of the public and the world at large; and the third looks at Eugenia’s incarceration and subsequent release and the terrible price she paid for her crime.

An incredible life

In his introduction, the author, who is a QC and prominent crown prosecutor in Sydney, states:

Eugenia’s story can be a valuable lesson for us today: as an account of how the law can be misguided and unsympathetic; as an illustration of the dangerous agitation that can be whipped up in the public by the media with a salacious story to sell; and as a lesson in the persuasive power of fallacious science.

But it’s also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct.

From very early on it was clear that Eugenia did not fit in. She came from a large Italian family — they immigrated to New Zealand when she was two years old — and failed to live up to her conservative father’s expectations: that women should marry and have children. In her late teens, she would secretly dress as a man and go off to do “men’s work” (driving a horse and cart or working as a bricklayer), before coming home and dressing as a woman again. But while she managed to keep this secret from her father, he wasn’t happy about her tom boy ways at home, and when she was 19, he forced her into a marriage to an Italian man in a bid to make her “normal”. It didn’t work out — surprise, surprise — and only strengthened Eugenia’s resolve to live her life the way she wanted:

At this traumatic stage in her life, Eugenia decided that her true identity was as a male. All the years of struggle finally convinced her that she had been born into a body of the wrong gender. She only felt comfortable when she put on men’s clothing. She only felt normal and authentic when she adopted the walk and talk of a man. She was happiest when she was in men’s company and doing the kind of hard manual work that only they were permitted to do. She was most at home in a pub with the rough, working-class men of Wellington, drinking pints of beer and smoking cigarettes. Her irrepressible need to live life as a male was not something she chose, but was rather an imperative of her real, underlying self. Most of her life thus far had been spent resisting her inner voice, which had been crying out for recognition, and trying to conform to her family’s expectations, but eventually the emotional price of living a monstrous lie was too high and she bowed to the inevitable.

But life as a man was not as easy as she had hoped and within a short space of time her true identity was exposed and her family disowned her. She tried to secure employment as a male using various pseudonyms, but was charged with vagrancy — “the simplest charge that the police could bring against someone who was desperately trying to lead life as a member of the opposite sex” — several times.

Eventually, in 1896, at the age of 21, she got a job as a merchant seaman using the name Eugene. But just 18 months later, on a Norwegian ship bound for Australia, the captain discovered her secret and brutally raped her. She was forced to disembark at Newcastle, on the northern coast of NSW, where she had the captain’s baby — a daughter called Josephine— who was farmed out to an Italian couple known by her family back in Wellington. This left her free to resume life as a man, and “rebranding” herself as Scotsman Harry Crawford, she headed to Sydney, where she successfully maintained this identify for the next 22 years.

Trial of the century

The nub of this book is not so much Eugenia’s life as a transsexual but the deed which threw her whole life — and “masquerade” — into the public spotlight: the murder of her first wife, Annie, in a secluded picnic spot on the Eight-Hour Day long weekend of September 1917.  The couple had been happily married for four years and had led a satisfactory sex life (Annie did not know that Harry used a wooden dildo strapped to his body to penetrate her), but some eight months earlier Annie had discovered Harry’s true identity and was living with him only to save face. The planned picnic was supposedly a chance for both of them to discuss how to end their relationship without causing a scandal.

What ensued, however, wasn’t what either of them planned. Annie never came home, and Harry fled the scene, sold up all his belongings and moved out of town. He later remarried a middle-aged spinster called Lizzie, but his past soon came catching up with him and he was arrested and charged with Annie’s murder two-and-a-half years after the fact.

The second part of the book charts the ups and downs of the court case in all its soporific glory using court transcripts, newspaper reports and other public records. But Tedeschi is a kind and patient guide, often putting court proceedings into context and explaining how the law worked then compared with the way it does now.

He suggests that the bizarre facts of the case would have been well out of most juror’s comprehension, especially as “some of them would only have had two or three years of secondary schooling, so their scientific knowledge would be limited to basic facts like the boiling point of water or the names of the eight planets of the solar system”.

He shows how Eugenia Falleni was “sent to trial against a background of highly prejudicial press coverage” and was “represented by a barrister who was out of his depth in a trial for a murder that may never have happened”.

Gender issues

He is also very good at highlighting the way in which gender issues were not properly understood at the time and how “sexual inversion” was a relatively new concept formulated by British sexologist, physician, psychologist and social reformer Havelock Ellis:

Unusually for his day, Ellis did not characterise sexual inversion as a disease, or immoral, or a crime. He defined sexual inversion as ‘sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex’. He believed it to be an innate reversal of the normal gender traits, so that male inverts were, to some degree, inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress, and vice versa. With its emphasis on gender role reversal, the theory of sexual inversion incorporated some concepts of transgender sexuality. There was no separate concept of transsexualism.

And yet the press, which headlined Eugenia’s trial as the “man-woman case” and revelled in all the sordid details of her life as a “sexual fraud”, whipped up the idea that Eugenia was a threat to the moral fabric of society.

The trial of Eugenia Falleni in 1920 should be viewed as the single most important criminal case in those 175 years [since the first Crown Prosecutor was appointed]. Its prominence is not because of any lasting effect that the trial had on the law or the administration of criminal justice, but rather because of the multitude of legal and social issues that Eugenia Falleni’s life and trial throw up for us to consider, so that we can use them as a yardstick to ask ourselves what we have learned and how far we have progressed since then.

A compelling read

If you’ve made it this far into my review (possibly the longest one I’ve ever written), let me apologise for taking up so much of your time. But this book covers so many interesting issues — about gender identity, social and cultural history, criminality, the justice system, the press, family relationships and sex  — that it’s hard to cover it all adequately.

Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is a compelling read, but it’s not without its faults. There are too many passive sentences, for a start, and sometimes the narrative loses momentum as Tedeschi gets bogged down in detail. And the use of the term “Scotchman” grated — it should, of course, be Scotsman — though I’m told that’s the term that was used at the time.

But I guess this isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. As a piece of narrative non-fiction and true crime it is very good; as an exploration of transgender issues it is superb.

Finally, despite Eugenia Falleni’s tragic and harrowing tale, it somehow seems very fitting that St Eugenia “has been recognised by the modern-day LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities as an example of a transgender saint”.

This is my eighth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

UK and US readers can buy this book in ebook format only. But check second-hand sources, such as Abebooks, for paperback copies.