Title: The Opal Dragonfly
Author: Julian Leatherdale
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 21st Febraury 2018
Synopsis: A daughter sacrifices her reputation, two men bid for the love of a woman, freedom is found in the heart of a dust storm, a father’s legacy reveals past crimes.
Inspired by the glamour and beauty of Elizabeth Bay House and the other grand villas of Woolloomooloo Hill in the 1850s, The Opal Dragonfly tells the story of Isobel Macleod, a young woman born into wealth and privilege and yet destined to be cast out of both.
Miss Isobel Clara Macleod, youngest of the seven children of Major Sir Angus Hutton Macleod, Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, had the singular misfortune to know that at seven o’clock that morning her father was going to die.
September, 1851. Sydney, city of secrets and gossip. Seventeen-year-old Isobel Macleod is determined to save her father because she loves him. But when she dares to trespass in a forbidden male world, she will be plunged into social disgrace. A wave of ill fortune threatens to swallow up her family and their stately home, Rosemount Hall, ‘the finest house in the colony’ on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour.
Is Isobel to blame for her family’s fate or does the cause lie further in the past? When Isobel was four, Major Macleod returned from an expedition with two ‘souvenirs’: an Aboriginal girl who became her friend and two opals fashioned into a dragonfly brooch for her mother.
When Isobel inherits this ‘unlucky’ heirloom, she wonders if the terrible dreams it summons are a curse or a gift. Now Isobel’s hopes for her future depend on a charming bohemian who encourages her hidden passion to become an artist. Will she now be permanently exiled from her family home? Or will she be transformed into a new self, like a magnificent dragonfly emerging into the sunlight?
A daughter sacrifices her reputation, two men bid for the love of a woman, freedom is found in the heart of a dust storm, a father’s legacy reveals past crimes.
Inspired by Elizabeth Bay House and the other grand villas of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Hill, The Opal Dragonfly tells the bittersweet story of an ambitious family’s fall from grace and a brave young woman’s struggle to find her true self.
Isobel Macleod is the youngest of seven, and the favourite of her father, much to the chagrin of sisters, Anna and Grace, though she is adored by her oldest sister, Alice, and brothers, William, Joseph and Richard, who do their best to smooth things over with her, Grace and Anna – until a series of events and disasters befalls the family over a matter of months and years. Major Angus Hutton Macleod, their father, is the Surveyor-General of the Colony of NSW during the decades prior to Federation, and is often off exploring the country, and taking notes and sketches for the Colony. When home, he encourages Isobel’s artistic talents, allowing her into his office to sketch his finds. When she is four, he returns from one such expedition with ‘souvenirs’ – a brooch of opals, made into a dragonfly for Isobel’s mother, Winnie, and a young Aboriginal girl, Ballandella – a playmate for Isobel and who would become her friend.
In these happy early years, it feels to the reader as if nothing will go wrong, but the opal dragonfly’s presence is presented as a dark omen, a harbinger of doom and bad luck for the family – which presents a mystery throughout for Isobel, as she struggles to come to terms with the tragedies, her fall from grace and the hatred of her sisters, Grace and Anna, in the absence of her mother, and sister Alice. These are complex and diverse characters, whose actions, reactions and motivations are what keeps the story and the family dynamics interesting, especially when it comes to the opal dragonfly, coveted by Grace, but left to Isobel by their mother.
But the opals bring several rounds of bad luck: an exiled brother, death in the family, and disgrace for Isobel as she bravely prevents her father from participating in a duel, and unwittingly setting forth her own fall from grace, and tragedies that befall each of her siblings, and that threaten to engulf the family and destroy them. Exiled to her aunt’s home, Isobel finds solace in creating fancy work and art for charity, until a charming, bohemian artist comes into her life as her art teacher, and eventually her lover and husband, and becomes the man that Isobel must hope will save her and her family from the curse.
With many hidden secrets in the field diaries left to her by her father, Isobel must endure harsh times as she comes to terms with the destruction of her family, but a chance to rebuild her own life, and find her true self, without the trappings of society and those who have turned their backs on her. Through it all, Isobel shows great bravery in her quest to find out what happened to Ballandella, and the secrets that drove her family to destruction. It is these secrets that Isobel has been entrusted with that form the darker side to the novel, and the tragedies that Isobel endures before coming out the other side scathed, and alone, but alive and able to recreate a new life for herself.
Julian Leatherdale’s inspiration came from the old historic houses in Sydney, and the colonial history of New South Wales, and the way different groups interacted, and explores how individuals treated people based on their experiences – no singular mindset is the given for all the characters in the book. Isobel, who has lived a life of privilege, shares her young life with Ballandella and then strives to be charitable, whilst her suitor, Charles Probius, looks to help people down on their luck, regardless of who they are, based on his past experiences.
Throughout the novel, each character seems to present a facade, a mask, of who they want those in their lives to see, rather than the person they really are, and so, the burying of the truth is a theme that runs through the novel, culminating in Isobel carrying so many secrets, the burden almost crushes her.
The history is woven throughout, with Rosemount based on Elizabeth House, and Isobel’s father based on a real Surveyor-General from the 1830S and 1840S, as well as other figures, who played a role in the early colony and whose lives inspired the characters in The Opal Dragonfly. It is at times touching, and other times harrowing and despairing, it encapsulates the desires to uncover secrets, and the flaws and fragility of human life and society, against a backdrop of colonialism and the assumptions of class, race and gender that came with that society, to create a world where the colliding forces of what is expected, what is desired, and what is right ensure a complex novel where relationships and people are not always what they seem. The reality of people taking advantage of others is clear throughout this novel, and it is a reality that will never fade, nor will the complexity of relationships that Leatherdale explores with depth, shock and great emotion, so that there are some things that are unexpected, but work exquisitely to tell Isobel’s story.