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Authors: Judy Corbalis

A Crooked Rib

BOOK: A Crooked Rib
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A compelling novel based on the disastrous and scandalous marriage of New Zealand’s Governor Sir George Grey and his lively young wife, Eliza Lucy.

Trapped in an increasingly loveless union, each sought affection elsewhere. Lady Grey’s indiscretion caused her to be cast off by her husband and vilified throughout Victorian high society. Her fall from grace was broadcast by
The Times
of London, eventually reaching even the ears of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Meanwhile the nature of Sir George’s liaison with his young Maori protégé was to remain only the subject of speculation.

Eliza’s life is revealed through the perspective of the fictitious English orphan, Fanny Thompson, who offers an intriguing interpretation of Sir George’s behaviour. But Fanny, too, finds herself drawn by the lure of an exotic culture and is forced to question the nature of love and to confront her own values.


‘A vivid intelligent novel’ —
Sunday Telegraph

‘A brave and serious novel’ —
Times Literary Supplement

‘Alive with historical detail and drama,
invites us to re-examine our own definition of civilization. It is a remarkably successful first novel’ —
The Times

‘Corbalis’s most remarkable achievement is in supplying a voice that has been missing from our literature’ —
NZ Listener

‘In richly evocative prose, Corbalis conjures a picture of the tiny confines of lost colonial society, its introspective snobberies, dusty inelegancies, rivalries, jealousies and acrid prejudices … Corbalis’s skill is as a prose stylist and a writer who, gentle in her touch, invests with wider significance the apparently small scale. Even at its most self-consciously lyrical, her prose is both insightful and illuminating.’ —

For Penelope
& Phillip King

With fondest love

  1. Title Page
  2. Dedication
  3. Epigraph
  4. I
  6. NEW ZEALAND, 1845
  7. LYME REGIS, 1832
  8. AUCKLAND, 1845
  9. LYME REGIS, 1832
  10. AUCKLAND, 1846
  11. LYME REGIS, 1832
  12. AUCKLAND, 1846
  13. LYME REGIS, 1833
  14. AUCKLAND, 1846
  15. LYME REGIS, 1833
  16. AUCKLAND, 1846
  17. LYME REGIS, 1834
  18. II
  20. THE HIGH SEAS, 1835
  21. RIO DE JANEIRO, 1835
  23. AUCKLAND, 1846
  24. ALBANY, 1835
  25. AUCKLAND, 1847
  26. ALBANY, 1837
  27. III
  28. ALBANY, 1839
  29. AUCKLAND, 1847
  30. ALBANY, 1845
  31. IV
  33. AUCKLAND, 1847
  35. AUCKLAND, 1847
  37. AUCKLAND, 1847
  39. AUCKLAND, 1848
  40. V
  42. AUCKLAND, 1848
  44. AUCKLAND, 1848
  46. AUCKLAND, 1848
  48. AUCKLAND, 1848
  50. AUCKLAND, 1848–49
  52. AUCKLAND, 1849
  54. AUCKLAND, 1850
  56. AUCKLAND, 1851
  58. AUCKLAND, 1851
  60. AUCKLAND, 1852
  62. AUCKLAND, 1852
  64. AUCKLAND, 1852
  66. AUCKLAND, 1853
  68. AUCKLAND, 1853
  69. VI
  70. LYME REGIS, 1858
  71. VII
  73. LONDON, 1860
  74. LYME REGIS, 1864
  75. VIII
  76. LONDON, 1867
  77. LYME REGIS, 1869
  79. LYME REGIS, 1872
  81. LYME REGIS, 1872
  83. LYME REGIS, 1872
  84. NEW ZEALAND, 1875
  86. Author’s Note
  87. Acknowledgements
  88. About the Author
  89. Copyright

Fool’d and beguil’d, by him thou, I by thee,

To trust thee from my side, imagin’d wise,

Constant, mature, proof against all assaults,

And understood not all was but a shew

Rather then solid vertu, all but a Rib

Crooked by nature, bent, as now appears,

More to the part sinister from me drawn.

— Adam to Eve: John Milton,
Paradise Lost
, Book 10

Tihe mauri ora.

The breath of life.

Tihe mauri ora.

All life is breath.

The wind, the breath of the sky; the tides, the breath of the sea. I saw the pulse in his tiny chest rise and fall with his first gulp of air.

Tihe mauri ora.

Listen to my words. I was there. I saw it all. How quickly a man is made a hero; how easily a woman is reviled and cast out. Only I know the truth of what took place. Listen to my story. Listen to my breath.

The figures on the jetty blurred and dwindled. The coast of Western Australia swam slowly away. It had been ten years since I had first seen that shoreline, its sands gleaming white and unwelcoming as tombstone marble, the barren little settlement huddled above them.

I heard again Lucy’s angry voice: ‘How
you have brought us to this horrid place?’ And, abruptly, I had an unbidden image of the convict women, released from the hold and manacled two by two, herded together at the far end of the
, their faces turned towards the fresh sea breeze. The same wind blew around me now. I shuddered a little, seeing once more the stronger of the women in one of the pairs suddenly hauling at her companion and attempting to fling them both from the
into the swirling waters. And I remembered how, restrained by the guards, she had shrieked and cursed like a madwoman as she and her companion were dragged back below.

High on the hillside in the distance I glimpsed the flutter of the White Ensign above Uncle’s grave, a final signal of farewell. Beneath my genuine sorrow at parting was euphoria: I was twenty-one years old, in possession of a comfortable income and answerable to no one but myself. Throughout our stormy passage across the Tasman Sea, I experienced neither fear nor regret; instead, the nearer we approached New Zealand, the more I felt a rising sense of elation. Very soon, I was going to see Lucy again.

Many souls stray almost nowhere from their birthplace, spending their entire lives in the serenity and security of a landscape in which every pathway and corner, each wall and stone is known as intimately as a loved friend. Some, like my own dear papa and Uncle Spencer, travel far from home to fulfil their duty to Sovereign and Country; thousands of these lie buried in foreign soil or rest only as bleached
bones scattered across the floors of the world’s great oceans. Others, condemned by circumstances and fortune, go where their fathers and husbands choose to transport them. Educated women without income or protectors may become governesses, but the poor are obliged to go into service to earn their bread and lodging. I was startled to discover that on our ship are five women, two with a child each, who have engaged themselves in binding contracts to be married in New Zealand to men whom they have never seen, and of whom their only knowledge is that they are in want of wives. It seems there is such a dearth of marriageable women in the colony that any woman, no matter how ill-formed or impecunious, may secure for herself a tolerable husband.

One of these women has a daughter, seven years old, whom she has brought with her from Scotland in search of a new life. Already she wears a wedding ring, which was placed on her finger by a proxy bridegroom in a ceremony in a chapel in Fife. Her unknown husband is a carpenter, devout, and a steady earner, who has agreed to adopt her daughter as his own and has already built a small house in preparation for their arrival. She says she was widowed while carrying the child, but I suspect she was betrayed and abandoned, and that even this course of uniting her future with an unknown man, thousands of miles from her native land, seems less bleak than her former life. She is not so pleasing in appearance, having a rather stern countenance and a manner with her child neither tender nor gentle. For the little girl’s sake, I hope that the new father will love her as he has promised. I asked the mother if her husband would be in Auckland to meet them from the ship but, no, she replied, they must take another boat to Wellington and, from thence, yet another to Dunedin in the far south.

Something in her demeanour recalled to me the sad resignation of a woman I saw as a child when Papa, Mama and I made a rare visit to Dorchester. The streets of the town were thronged with people, and as we stood in the clamour and confusion we heard the rattle of a cart on the cobbled road. In it stood a woman in chains, clad only in a shift, her hair shorn, her head bent in misery or shame.

‘What is it, Papa?’ I asked, puzzled by such a sight.

‘The hangman’s cart,’ he said. ‘She is being taken through the
streets to the gallows and the public spectacle of her miserable end.’

I shrank against him. ‘How cruel. Everyone is jeering at her.’

‘It is but simple justice,’ said Papa. ‘She smothered her infant and afterwards savagely murdered her husband with a butcher’s knife. She knows her own guilty heart. See how calmly she awaits her fate?’

Child though I was, it seemed to me that the murderess was already half-dead to the living world and its savagery, that she bowed her head like an ox to the weight of her yoke, and that all that was left to her was to move slowly forward to whatever unknowable thing awaited her.


The nearer we drew to New Zealand, the more difficult I found it to contain my exhilaration. Six years earlier, Lucy had sailed as a bride from Australia; I had not seen her since. At first, there had been regular letters, though often, in true Lucy fashion, written in breathless haste. She had met her husband’s large family and
loved them all
, London was
a delight
and though she had not yet returned to Lyme she had
great hopes of doing so in the near future
. Then came the letter that contained the news that her husband had been posted to Adelaide as Governor and they would be sailing very soon,
before my confinement, which it seems will now be at sea
. For months following, there had been silence. At the arrival in Western Australia of the rare ships carrying mail, Aunt poured out letters from the oilskin bag onto the table, searching for any bearing the familiar hand. Though she said nothing, I knew she feared that Lucy had perished in childbirth, that there had been an accident, that they had been lost at sea. And then, when the long-awaited correspondence did arrive, it was a terse formal communiqué from Captain Grey, apprising Aunt of the birth at sea and death in Adelaide of their only child, Baby George. From Lucy, there had come not a word until, unexpectedly, she had sent two letters, both of which I had by heart.

To Aunt she wrote:

South Australia 1844

My Dearest Mama,

Such news! My husband has been appointed Governor of New Zealand, the youngest Governor yet appointed by the Colonial Office. It is a young country and his orders are that he must endeavour to rescue it from the bankruptcy into which it has fallen, to mediate between the Maori tribes and the European settlers, to regulate land sales and to restore order to the lawless Northern settlement of Kororareka where the rebel chief, John Heke, has been engaged in skirmishes against the Crown. He has, on several occasions, cut down the British flagpole … and, in his last skirmish, he murdered six of our gallant soldiers … But Captain Grey is confident that, with God’s help, he is equal to the task ahead of him. I hope you will agree that it is a signal honour.

We leave very soon …

My letter was brief and desperate:

My dearest, dearest Fanny,

The most dreadful, dismal news imaginable.

We are to leave Adelaide within the month. George has been posted to that frightful cannibal country, New Zealand … I beg you, Dearest Sister, to come to me …

And now, at last, we were to be reunited. Would she be greatly changed? Would we slip back again into our old sisterly relationship or be distanced from each other? While she had travelled so far, I had remained fixed at Albany, ignorant of the ways of the world outside Western Australia. Perhaps she would find me tediously narrow-minded. But could she be so much altered? She was, after all, only twenty-two years old … I pictured Lucy as I had last seen her, waving from the rail of the ship, her bonnet flung back, her dark ringlets blowing as she tossed kisses to us … Had I changed greatly since that time? Would she recognise

I was diverted from these thoughts by the arrival on deck of a
number of other passengers, all eager to be among the first to catch sight of Auckland. Already it was possible to discern mountain-tops protruding from the long white cloud that obscured the coastline, and several hours later we passed into an enormous harbour scattered with small islands, one of which was crowned with three tall peaks. Far off, to the left of our ship, was a distant range of hazy blue-grey mountains, but ahead of us the land rose directly from the water’s edge to a high plateau riven with deep gullies, atop and on the sides of which was laid out the settlement of Auckland, larger and more populated than I had anticipated. The horizon above the town was dominated by a windmill, its sails dipping in salute as we approached, and on a lower slope stood a church with a tall English spire. Beyond this were several perfectly conical hills, seemingly fortified with wooden ramparts made of stakes.

‘Those are former Maori war settlements,’ said Lieutenant Cowan, appearing suddenly beside me. He saw my involuntary look of alarm. ‘I assure you we’re in no danger. Here in Auckland, the natives are entirely subdued.’

‘By our gallant British forces?’

‘No, by Hongi Hika, one of the Northern chiefs. About twenty-five years ago, Mr Kendall, the missionary, took him to England, where he acquired great quantities of muskets. When they returned, Hongi armed his kinsmen and set about destroying his Southern enemies.’

‘But surely, if the chief was with a missionary …?’

‘The missionaries have long been the greatest gun-runners here … and, if the Governor is to be believed, land-grabbers, too.’

‘Is there still much fighting in the rest of New Zealand?’

‘There’s still trouble in the south of the island, but since the signing of the Treaty, I believe the worst of it is over.’

‘The Treaty?’

‘It’s a document, drawn up by Captain Hobson, in which the Maori chiefs swear their allegiance to the Queen.’ He paused. ‘The Maoris are an extraordinary race. They have no equal in bloodthirsty warfare, but in their battles they abide by a code of conduct which wouldn’t disgrace an English gentleman. Since the arrival of the missionaries, they never fight on Sundays, and if one tribe is not ready to deploy
themselves in a battle, the other side refuses to engage against them.’

‘That sounds most honourable.’

‘Yes. And they greatly revere the dead. After the battle of Puketutu, at Heke’s pa …’

‘My sister has written of Heke …’

‘A murdering renegade who gives no quarter in battle and is greatly feared by our men for his ferocity. Yet, after our troops had been defeated, he invited the missionaries to perform burial services over our dead, and guaranteed their safety himself.’ He glanced at me. ‘I hope I’m not alarming you, Miss Thompson?’

‘Not at all. I prefer to have some knowledge of my new home.’

He had the soldier’s military bearing and unconsciously straightened his back. ‘Ah, where was I? Yes, the terrain here is very difficult. Our soldiers are unused to fighting under such conditions and many are raw recruits. The chiefs retreat into their strongholds in the bush and we’re powerless to pursue them. And we’re woefully ill-equipped. But doubtless you’ll hear all this from the Governor himself.’

We had drawn closer to land and were contained entirely within the shelter of the great harbour. The sunshine was tempered by a cool breeze and I reminded myself that it was November and still springtime. I could hear the whirring of the windmill’s sails quite distinctly now, and also discern a wide area of flattened ground, apparently a road, ending in a long jetty beside a flour mill. I tried to make out which building might be Government House but the number of flags flying on the hillsides made it impossible to distinguish. At the far end of the jetty, on a narrow strip of shore, a crowd had gathered to meet us.

‘Miss Thompson,’ said Lieutenant Cowan, ‘I have no wish appear too forward but … at some later date, I have a meeting with the Governor and I wondered … would you, perhaps, consider … allow me to present my compliments to you at that time? I should very much like to have the chance to converse with you again.’

I attempted to conceal my surprise. ‘Why, yes. I shall be very pleased to renew acquaintance with you.’

‘Thank you. But look … There, I’ll wager, is your sister.’

I followed his pointing finger. While the rest of the welcoming group waited on shore behind a restraining rope, a solitary figure had
broached the barrier and, bonnet flying, was racing along the jetty towards our vessel.


Lucy flung herself upon me, half-exclaiming, half-weeping. In her exuberance and eagerness to embrace me, she seemed not one jot altered from her former self.

‘Fanny! My dearest, dearest Fanny. Oh, you can’t imagine how much I’ve longed for your arrival. I told myself a thousand times a day that you’d change your mind and return Home with Mama, that you wouldn’t be able to bear the thought of that frightful sea crossing, that—’

‘Oh, Lucy, what a goose you are! Here I am, as you see, so all your fears were groundless.’

She wound her arm through mine. ‘Imagine, after so long, you look just the same as ever. But your lovely hair is all out of sight under your bonnet. Take it off and shake out your ringlets for me, Fanny, then I’ll know for certain it’s you.’

‘Not here, Lucy! We’re in a public place. And hush a little. People are beginning to stare at us.’


It was true. Lucy, I could see, had been recognised by most of the citizens gathered there, and she and I had become the focus of much unwanted interest. Unwanted, that is, by me but not, I saw, by Lucy, who nodded and smiled in various directions in what I felt to be an unnecessarily queenly manner.

‘This is such a small society,’ she whispered. ‘Stultifying in the extreme. I do hope you won’t be too bored here, Fanny. It really is the dullest place on earth. You must promise me you won’t take the next boat out.’

‘Well, Albany is scarcely the liveliest of societies.’ I looked up at the hillsides. ‘Which one is Government House?’

‘Ah, the House,’ she said. ‘I must warn you, it’s so very uncomfortable and bleak. It cost upwards of ten thousand pounds, so one might expect it to be an imposing residence, with pillars or perhaps even a portico, but it’s the most draughty dwelling you can possibly conceive of.’

BOOK: A Crooked Rib
3.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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