Jim Davidson reviews 'An Unconventional Wife: The life of Julia Sorell Arnold' by Mary Hoban

Jim Davidson reviews 'An Unconventional Wife: The life of Julia Sorell Arnold' by Mary Hoban

An Unconventional Wife: The life of Julia Sorell Arnold

by Mary Hoban

Scribe, $39.99 hb, 320 pp, 9781925713442

The name of Julia Sorell – the granddaughter of an early governor – never quite died in Tasmania. A faint memory survived of a high-spirited young woman who was the belle of Hobart, a woman who broke hearts and engagements, including one with the current governor’s son. (It was also rumoured – with political intent – that she seduced his father, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot.) An element of scandal arose all the more readily because her own mother had deserted her father for a military man, and had run off with him when he returned to his regiment in India.

Indeed, Mrs Sorell had taken Julia and her younger siblings specially to Brussels, where she foisted them on their gubernatorial grandfather. Thrown on her own resources, the girl became self-reliant and extroverted, the life of every party – she knew how to work the room long before the concept existed. Julia returned to Tasmania, and there lived a charmed life, at the peak of colonial society, occupying her mother’s place in her father’s household. She had, as Hoban points out, all the independence and privileges of a married woman; at the same time, young and beautiful and of marriageable age, she also had the attention of every man who entered her circle. She was not disposed to marry, at least not hastily.


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Published in May 2019, no. 411
Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson is an historian and biographer, and a former editor of Meanjin. He is the author of A Three-Cornered Life: The historian WK Hancock (2010) and the memoir A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (2017). His biographies Lyrebird Rising (of the musical patron Louise Hanson-Dyer) and A Three-Cornered Life (of the historian Keith Hancock) have won major awards. His most recent books are Moments in Time: A Book of Australian Postcards (2016) and A Fuhrer for a Father (2017). He is currently writing a double biography of two literary magazine editors, Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland.

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