The Washerwoman’s Dream by Hilarie Lindsay

‘One of the hardest punishments is to be thrown into the world with aspirations and dreams that cannot be fulfilled for want of education …

I received only a few weeks’ schooling. Ignorant and alone I lived in a world of make-believe.’ (Winifred Steger)

Jane Winifred Steger (15 November 1882 – 16 March 1981) lived an extraordinary life by any measure. She was born in Lambeth London, the daughter of Wilfred Oaten and Louisa Dennis. Around 1890, her father decided that his family had a better chance of success in Australia. He and Winifred made the journey: his wife walked off the ship before it sailed, and Winifred never saw her mother again.

Life in Australia was anything but easy. Winifred and her father tried to make a living on a prickly pear infested block on the Darling Downs in Queensland. Winifred had a succession of poorly paid jobs before becoming pregnant to Charles Steger, a shearer. The couple married in December 1899. The marriage was neither successful nor happy and Winifred left her husband and her four children in 1909.

Winifred was a survivor. After working as a barmaid for seven years, she met Ali Ackba Nuby, and Indian hawker at Mungallala. She converted to Islam, the couple had three children together and settled at Oodnadatta in South Australia. Using camels, they delivered goods to outback stations.

Sadly, Ali died. Steger supported herself and her children by working as a washerwoman. In 1925 she was married to Karum Bux, another Indian hawker. They undertook pilgrimage to Mecca.

There’s much more to Winifred’s life story: travel through India, an invitation to the governess to the royal family of Afghanistan. And through these travels and beyond, Winifred wrote. She wrote a series of articles about her pilgrimages as well as fourteen unpublished novels based on her life in the Australian outback.

Reading Ms Lindsay’s book took me on a heartbreaking (at times) adventure. Winifred Steger lived a long and extraordinary life. If it wasn’t for Ms Lindsay’s research (an extensive bibliography is included) this would read as an exotic work of fiction. I had never heard of Winifred Steger before reading this book, now I would like to read some of her works of fiction.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith