An enchanting atmosphere of tradition and antiquity has always seemed to reside within the Hunter Valley village of Wollombi. That it is a destination often described by tourists as picturesque and quaint somehow overlooks the strong and carefully preserved connection that the township and its residents still have with its colonial past.
It is this connection, and the passions of those who care to protect it, that Wollombi resident and novelist Tea Cooper explores in her new novel, The Naturalist’s Daughter. In a story whose mysteries subtly reflect the intriguing natures of the Wollombi residents themselves, Cooper is proud to acknowledge how much her surroundings helped shape the heart of her characters in the novel.
“One of the nicest things about living in Wollombi is that whenever you need inspiration for your writing you can just go for a walk,” she says. “Wollombi is like that. It allows me to borrow bits from here and there. The fact that it hasn’t changed very much from when the novel is set has always helped to remind me who the story belongs to. There are families here that have lived in the town for a long, long time.”
Which makes it all the more intriguing that in the beginning of Cooper’s novel, one of her key characters is arriving in Wollombi for the first time. When Tamsin Alleyn - an idealistic and fiercely independent young librarian - is sent to the village in 1908, it is in the interests of preserving a different kind of connection to the local past. Her spirited pursuit of the truth as she strives to establish the authenticity of a valuable sketchbook leads her to revelations beyond even her impressive intellect.
At the heart of the mystery that so intrigues the young Tamsin is a story that Cooper tells from the perspective of an equally determined young lady whose adventures commenced a century earlier. The author interweaves the story of the two women in a way that celebrates the courage of our earliest female settlers and the generation of women who succeeded them.
Another fascinating aspect to The Naturalist’s Daughter is the historical motif that the author uses to bridge the narratives between the two young Australian women. Scrawled across the cover of the novel, above a watercolour portrait of a platypus, is the Latin motto for The Royal Society – a 400-year-old, and perpetually chauvinistic, scientific society that comes to play a pivotal role as the story develops. Nullius in verba or “take no one’s word for it” is a motto that becomes more important as both women encounter their own controversies.
In reflecting on each of their journeys, Cooper is quick to distinguish the characters of our colonial women from those ladies that remained in England and Europe. “In the years after Australia was settled there were so many women here who ran businesses and who were able to become quite successful,” she says. “The women they left back in England were nothing like that. Over here the women had a mind of their own.”
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