The Shape of Water by Anne Blythe-Cooper

This book found its way onto my reading list in one of those serendipitous events that is (obviously) just meant to happen.  It caught my attention because it is (mostly) set in 19th century Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). It held my attention because of the beautifully crafted imagined life of Sophia Degraves.

The Shape of Water by Anne Blythe-Cooper

‘I wake and I know the hour is early.’

In this novel, Ms Blythe-Cooper sets out to imagine the life of Sophia Degraves, the wife of Peter Degraves, co-founder of the Cascade Brewery in Hobart and designer of Hobart’s Theatre Royal.  While a lot is known about Peter Degraves, his various business interests and runs-in with the law, very little is known about his wife.

But Sophia Degraves, who died on 30 May 1842, is documented only in child bearing and death.  What would her life have been like?  How did she deal with frequent child-bearing, with the death of some of her children?  How did she survive during Peter Degraves’s periods of imprisonment?

Ms Blythe-Cooper draws Sophia from the shadows.  Her research may not have provided her with historical detail about Sophia Degraves, but it has certainly provided her with a wealth of information about the period in which she lived.  And so, for me, an entirely plausible Sophia comes to life, especially in Hobarton from 1824 until her death.

In the earlier part of the novel, Ms Blythe-Cooper focusses on Sophia’s early life in London, on her marriage to Peter Degraves, on his optimism and opportunism.  While I was less interested in this part of the novel, it’s important to the depiction of Sophia once the family travels to Van Diemen’s Land.  She has chosen to stay with her husband (although, in reality she probably had no other choice) but it’s the imagined detail of how she lived her life that has me entranced.

As her daughter Deborah says to Peter after Sophia’s death:

‘Our mother was invisible to you unless she was useful.’

Such a sad comment.  And yet, it feels accurate.

When I finished this novel, I felt that I had some sense of Sophia Degraves.  It has me wondering about the other women who dwell in the shadows of history, as though they are simply some invisible adjunct to a better-known husband. The shape of water indeed.

I recommend this novel to anyone interested in well-written historical fiction crafted around life in the first half of the 19th century in Van Diemen’s Land.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith