Readers’ reviews are sometimes surprising

The Convict’s Wife was published a couple of weeks ago and the reviews are rolling in. They make interesting reading, especially where the character of Thomas Holden is concerned.

The story in the novel is based on the letters that the real life Thomas Holden sent home to his family after he was arrested, imprisoned and transported to New South Wales. In them, his character shines through, so Thomas in the book is not entirely my own creation, more my re-creation of the person who wrote those letters back in the early 1800s.

When I first read the letters, my heart broke for Thomas and I cried over one of them because I felt so sorry for him and the situation he’d found himself in. And although I’ve written some chapters from Thomas’s point of view, it is his letters, transcribed almost word for word in the novel, that I’ve used to form his character.

I expected readers to feel the same way about Thomas that I did when I first discovered his letters. I think some do. One reviewer commented ‘Thomas pulled at my heartstrings’, but many of the other reviews have expressed a dislike for him. One reader said she wanted him to ‘man up’, another said she was irritated by him asking for money and one even commented that she wanted to punch him!

I have to admit to being surprised, and even a little shocked at these reactions. It was never my intention that people should dislike Thomas. I expected them to sympathise with him, but now I’m forced to take a step back from my own feelings and try to work out what it is about him that these readers find so objectionable.

My first thought is that maybe they didn’t quite grasp the predicament he was in. I’ve tried to explain some of it in the book, but I try to avoid great dumps of historical information. Thomas did write home asking for money. He needed it! These were the days when you had to pay to stay in prison. He actually writes home concerning some men who have been found not guilty at the Lancaster Assizes but can’t be released until they have paid their gaol fees. He would also have needed to buy food. Prisons in those days didn’t provide three square meals a day. And when he was held on board the hulks, he writes to say that the food provided is not enough to live on and prisoners are expected to buy extra to supplement their rations. So, maybe he can be forgiven for writing home to ask for money when the alternative would have been starvation.

I also wonder if there is an expectation that the characters in stories like The Convict’s Wife should meet certain stereotypes. Of course readers expect the main character to be a strong woman and that is how the character of Molly Holden is written. All the reviews are supportive of her and her struggles. There is also room for an anti-hero and Isaac Crompton has stepped up to that role very convincingly. Yet Thomas appears to be divisive and I’m wondering why. Do female readers find it difficult to empathise with a man who isn’t an alpha male but who is vulnerable? Certainly the comment about ‘manning up’ would seem to suggest that.

Have you read The Convict’s Wife yet? What did you think of Thomas?

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