Book Review: Wild Island by Jennifer Livett

Wild Island, influenced by Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, asks the reader to forget the outcome of Jane Eyre and to imagine another ending where Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester didn't marry, and his wife, Bertha, is still alive ...

Harriet Adair, a widow, artist and nurse, is accompanying Anna Rochester (Bertha), Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester to Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was known at the time the novel is set) in search of a lost relative.

The decline of Edward Rochester’s health part way into the voyage results in his and Jane Eyre’s transfer

from the Adastra to another ship returning to England, leaving Harriet and Anna to travel on to Tasmania to continue the search.

In Hobart, Anna also abandons Harriet by travelling with Captain Quiqley, the former master of the ship Adastra, to mainland Australia. They promise to return, collect Harriet and sail for England. Harriet spends many years in the colony awaiting Anna’s return, diligently following up any clues to the whereabouts of the person they are seeking.

During that time Harriet becomes friendly with Jane Franklin, the Governor’s wife, her family, and other colonists. T
he political details of the Franklins’ governorship, the various scientific expeditions, the further expansion of the colony, the treatment of convicts and aborigines, and the lives of the people in this small penal colony in the 1830s are all observed by Harriet.

When the famous British ornithologist visits the island with his wife, Harriet assists in his research by sketching birds. Harriet even forms a romantic attachment to a land surveyor, though this romance does not run smoothly. Misunderstandings arise, resulting in Harriet’s determination to return to England as soon as possible.

It was an interesting idea to continue Jane Eyre’s/Edward Rochester's story with links to colonial Tasmania. I’m not quite sure what the author intended by adding these iconic characters to her novel, though I admit this is one of the reasons Wild Island was in my TBR pile, only to have them fade from the scene early on, as did Anna Rochester. This was not detrimental to the story, just a little perplexing. Likewise, when Captain Charles Booth, the Commandant of Port Arthur, who appeared to be the focus early on, was also relegated to the background.

Wild Island was not what I expected and I can understand why other readers may be disappointed this was more about the colonisation of Tasmania than the continuation of Jane Eyre’s and Edward Rochester’s relationship. Bewildered by the many sub-plots and characters introduced at the start and not quite sure where the novel was heading after Jane Eyre and the Rochesters left the story, I'm pleased to say that in the end it didn't matter. 
In Wild Island Jennifer Livett successfully brings to life the difficult years of Sir John Franklin’s governorship of Tasmania, exacerbated by the unorthodox behaviour of his wife, Jane, who many thought had too much influence in the running of the colony. Livett shares an abundance of historical facts about Tasmania and mixes historical and fictional characters in a very believable way though the cast list could have been pared-down. Whether it be the political scene or the daily lives of the colonists, her attention to detail is phenomenal. 

While a long novel, it was quick to read, and despite the initial confusion of the many sub-plots and characters, there is no doubt this is a great piece of historical fiction, educational as well as entertaining.


  1. To me the focus on those years in Tasmania sounds fascinating.

    1. Tasmania is featuring more in Australian historical fiction these days. It makes a nice change from New South Wales and Victoria. There is so much to learn about Tasmania.