by Catherine Clarke
Fiction based on a real person, informed by research, often leads to an intriguing story. And so it is with this one.
In this fictionalized story the main character is Australian-born Lillian, with sister Ruby a close second. But then there’s a troupe of other names till we wonder, who is she really? As she does herself. In fact, the very title becomes in doubt – is there, indeed, only one living lady parachutist?
“What is it about you that attracts trouble?” Lillian’s despairing mother asks of her daughter. What indeed? As the story proceeds it becomes more and more a perceptive question.
But, put those questions aside for the moment, step right up, pay your shilling, and enjoy the spectacle.
In a time before aeroplanes, Lillian first takes to the air as a trapeze artist, a most unladylike profession set in a carnival style atmosphere, clad in a chemise-style dress showing rather more than a young lady of the 1880s ought to.
It seems a reasonable progression, perhaps, that Lillian’s imagination should be captured by the idea of taking her trapeze further aloft by ascending in that most amazing contraption the hot-air balloon and, all things going to plan, descending by means of a parachute.
If Mama was shocked by the trapeze, imagine her horror when Lillian then has a turn at stage work, when everyone knew that actresses were no better than they should be! It’s a fitting interlude though, as her life to come is full of drama. When her partner Harry (and that is yet another part of the story) remonstrates with her she chides him “You have such old-fashioned ideas.”
1894 and the scene shifts from Australia to New Zealand when she sets out with hot-air balloon and parachute on a highly publicized tour. Though this country may just have voted to allow women to vote, such physical acts still seemed scandalous when performed by women, as well as risky as these attempts at “perilous navigation of the air” often proved.
Within the narration, there are occasional insertions that point to later revelations about Lillian – adding to the tangled web that we find her life has become, finally helping us, the reader, to sort out the truth from imagination, the fact from fiction.
The author has gone to considerable and admirable lengths to bring this time and such people back into present-day focus. Frequent references to, and quotes from, newspapers of the time, add reminders that this work of fiction is based firmly on fact. As such it informs as well as entertains, though there’s a slip where Hawaii rather than the Tongan islands is referred to as the Friendly Isles.
The book is well produced and designed, with chapter-heads suggestive of the period in which the story is set.
“A story of courage and ambition, and the consequences of secrets and lies” so the back cover blurb promises, and The Only Living Lady Parachutist fulfils the promise.
Author: Catherine Clarke
Publisher: Idle Fancy Press
Available: paper: bookshops