Historical Fiction Womens Fiction

The Philosopher’s Daughters – Alison Booth

3 April 2020
The Philosopher's Daughters Book Cover The Philosopher's Daughters
Alison Booth
Womens Fiction
Red Door Press
April 15, 1920

A tale of two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into remote outback Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and savage dispossession. London in 1891: Harriet Cameron is a talented young artist whose mother died when she was barely five. She and her beloved sister Sarah were brought up by their father, radical thinker James Cameron. After adventurer Henry Vincent arrives on the scene, the sisters' lives are changed forever. Sarah, the beauty of the family, marries Henry and embarks on a voyage to Australia. Harriet, intensely missing Sarah, must decide whether to help her father with his life's work or devote herself to painting. When James Cameron dies unexpectedly, Harriet is overwhelmed by grief. Seeking distraction, she follows Sarah to Australia, and afterwards into the Northern Territory outback, where she is alienated by the casual violence and great injustices of outback life. Her rejuvenation begins with her friendship with an Aboriginal stockman and her growing love for the landscape. But this fragile happiness is soon threatened by murders at a nearby cattle station and by a menacing station hand seeking revenge.


A beautifully immersive story celebrating a journey into the wonderful landscape of Australia with intriguing characters that wrestle with its wildness and their own self-discovery. Alison Booth uniquely characterises the landscape giving it energy with features of beauty and harshness at the heart of the story. As two young female protagonists journey from a sheltered life in 1890s London to precarious hardships and dangers in Australia’s outback, the shift from comfort to labour and an awakening of real human issues and injustices becomes apparent.

Sarah and Harriet Cameron are two adult sisters living in the family home with their father James, who is a renowned moral philosopher. Harriet, as her father’s aid, is drawn more into politics and in particular women’s rights, while also espousing to be a painter. Both sisters have marriage suitors; Henry Vincent and Charles Barclay. In time Sarah and Henry get married and leave for Australia so Henry can take up a position as a stock and station agent in Sydney. Once there Henry gets an offer to take a cattle station manager role in the remote outpost of Dimbulah Downs, in the Northern Territory.

“Dimbulah Downs was such an evocative name. … The countryside had looked wild and exotic, the gorges dramatic, the Aboriginal faces full of character. At the prospect of seeing the place for herself, she felt a squirm of excitement in her stomach.”

Sarah and Henry relocate for a six-month contract full of ambition and excitement to manage the station. The realisation sets in that the Aboriginal work hands aren’t always treated humanely with many landowners and the law is slow if not indifferent to crimes carried out against them. Alison places an Aborigine, Mick, close to Henry’s daily work and his family, which creates an opportunity to play the fears, culture and prejudices in a very telling setting.

After Harriet’s father dies she suddenly feels the weight of an unfulfilled life and the possibility of a marriage to Charles, that she doesn’t really want. In a moment of a decision, she books a boat ticket to Australia leaving in in two weeks and urgently settles her things and leaves with the trepidation that a new beginning brings. The trip to Australia is eventful with a shocking moment and the onward journey to Dimbulah Downs is cautious but she is finally reunited with Sarah.

Over the next period, Harriet and Sarah grow in appreciation of nature and the ugliness and kindness of people. The interactions with the Aborigines and in particular Mick helps Harriet reignite her love of painting and she suddenly realises how channelling her emotions and feelings create art that stands above everything that went before. A harsh landscape also provides wonderful beauty, capturing the way the sun plays with colours at dusk and dawn.

There are moments of drama but the pace of the novel is more relaxed and sets out to captivate and enthral with an expressive narrative delivered with wonderful writing. It was great to see the involvement of the indigenous Australian people and exposing many of the horrible issues they faced with colonialism. The closeness of white and Aboriginal relationships at that time would have caused concern but when people are individuals, love knows no boundaries.

I would highly recommend this book of historical fiction and as a change of pace from my norm this was a happy and fulfilling read.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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