Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2022

Orphan Rock (2022), by Dominique Wilson

Orphan Rock is a multi-generational historical novel spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and, as with Dominique Wilson’s previous fiction, it explores Australia’s social history, its multicultural identity and the roles of women.

It is the story of Bessie, a child dumped in an orphanage by her mother, the ironically named Mercy, for reasons that become guessable later in the novel.  Bessie, however, is eventually rescued from this harsh existence and a likely future in domestic service by her mother’s new husband Cornelius. So Bessie gets a middle-class life and an education, but Mercy is clearly a troubled woman.  She is impulsive, erratic, and consistent only in her failure to love her daughter and to reveal her reasons for abandoning her.

So Bessie grows up knowing only the love of Lottie, a fellow orphan left behind at the Protestant Orphan School, and her stepfather.  But an attempt to make Cornelius aware of Mercy’s cruelties tests his affection too far, and in a fatal breach of the relationship, Bessie leaves. She takes up employment as a lady’s companion with the dowager Abigail Washington, and this gives her the opportunity for cultural education through her friendship with Josette, a companion to the visiting Frenchwoman Veronique Petillier.

The Dawn (1st issue) 1888 (Wikipedia*)

However, the bad luck which is destined to follow Bessie throughout her life is the catalyst for her to make an imprudent marriage, a choice made by so many women of the era, when faced with destitution as the only alternative.  And Bertram Griggs, who starts out with good intentions, soon succumbs to the kind of masculinity which was common.  The tragedy which befalls Bessie is bleak but historically authentic.

Though the novel wears its research lightly, details of the plot and characterisation bring in aspects of the historical record: the diseases common but not confined to poverty; the White Australia policy as it impacts on Bessie’s Chinese friends Bao and Quong Tart (based on a real person); and the campaign for female suffrage and the role of Louisa Lawson, Bessie’s eventual employer at a journal for women called ‘The Dawn’ and also the real-life mother of Henry Lawson. Wilson also makes reference to newspaper reports about emerging policies which gave rise to the Stolen Generations, and the novel is enlivened by all sorts of details of cultural events and technological innovations as the years pass.

Through the help of a re-established friendship with Lottie, Bessie gets back on her feet, marries again and bears a daughter called Kathleen, whose life forms Part II of the novel.  Via the long-established friendship with Josette, Kathleen makes her way to Paris, partly because she’s been disappointed in love, but also because she’s a strong-minded, independent young woman.  Which serves her well when WW1 engulfs Europe.  She refuses to come home to safety and works instead as a volunteer where she repels all suitors because she knows what happens to them on the slaughter fields.

Until one day she doesn’t.  And then she does have to come home to Australia, where she endures life as a ‘widow’, which becomes progressively more difficult as the Depression takes hold.  It’s not possible to read this novel without being aware of how vulnerable people were in an era when there were no ‘safety nets’, and it’s a reminder that it’s a social responsibility to ensure that welfare reforms are not compromised more than they already have been in the post Thatcher-Reagan era.   When Lottie takes Kathleen for a check-up at the Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, she warns her not to let slip that she’s not really a widow.

‘I’ve no intention to.’

‘Good,’ Lottie nodded, ‘and don’t you forget it.  Mary O’Grady down the road — her daughter went there, the poor thing.  She’s not married, and the way they treated her! Like she’s the worse [sic] sinner in the world, apparently.  Separate ward for those girls, their babies taken away the second they’re born.  They don’t even get to see their child, or be told if it’s a girl or a boy.’
‘She didn’t want to keep it?’
‘She wasn’t given a choice; none of them are. Forced to sign the adoption papers as soon as they’re admitted.’
‘Her mother didn’t help?’
‘She didn’t dare.  Her father threw her out when they found out she was pregnant.’ (p.381-2)

Barely two decades after the Armistice, the world was at war again, and Kathleen’s husband and son join the fight against fascism.  It was such a tumultuous era of human history, and the generation that was scarred by both wars, the Depression and the so-called Spanish flu had much to endure.  But it’s the extreme poverty that is so shocking.  People reduced to living in caves during the Depression; women evicted from the slums with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Dominique Wilson’s third novel follows her debut, The Yellow Papers (2014) and That Devil’s Madness (2016).  (Follow the links to my reviews).

Image credit:
Front cover of The Dawn, 1st issue, 1888: By Louisa Lawson – The Dawn, issue 1, 1888, Public Domain,

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: Orphan Rock
Cover design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760873, pbk.,484 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. I have a copy of this as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right about the poverty and the lack of safety nets – we seem to be at risk of losing so much of the social support which has been in place, and that makes my blood boil. We need to help everyone in society.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hist.Fic. not my cup of tea, however well researched and sympathetic. I saw you say somewhere else today that you’d rather read something written by someone of that time. That is certainly my preference. For Louisa Lawson there’s her own writing, her daughter in law’s My Henry Lawson and Brian Matthew’s inimitable biography, Louisa.


    • Ah yes, but that depends.
      Novels written during the interwar era (which is what I was talking about when I made that comment) shine a light on a different mindset which interests me because I have a personal connection to it through my parents. They were children in the interwar era.
      But apart from Catherine Helen Spence, there’s very little colonial Australian writing which interests me. I start getting interested in Australian writing with Henry Handel Richardson, Katherine Susannah Prichard and Christina Stead.


  4. Thanks for the review. I enjoy historical fiction so bought myself a copy yesterday.


    • That’s great, Cherie, I hope you enjoy it.


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