Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Eleanor Limprecht: Unknotting history and fact

HerCanberra Team

Novelist Eleanor Limprecht is a writer keen to explore the tricky and taboo.

Eleanor’s latest novel is a fictionalised account of an abortionist jailed in Long Bay Women’s Reformatory in Edwardian-era Sydney and her first book, What Was Left, dealt with a new mother abandoning her child, so she’s not shy of tackling difficult literary topics.

Eleanor will be in Canberra on Sunday 3 April to discuss historical fiction and women’s lives and their representation in fiction at Muse in Kingston. Joining her will be David Dyer, celebrated author of The Midnight Watch, a historical novel based on the plight of the SS Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic‘s distress rockets and for some reason refused to act. David and Eleanor will be “unraveling the knotty relationship between fiction and historical fact” at Muse, so we sat down with Eleanor to chat about unknotting women’s historical fact from fiction.

HerCanberra: Where did the inspiration for Long Bay come from?

Eleanor: “The inspiration came from a book in the NSW State Archives of letters sent and received from Long Bay Women’s Reformatory in 1909. It mentioned a prisoner who was being sent to the Royal Hospital for Women to give birth, and who returned to prison a month later with a fourteen day old child. The woman’s name was Rebecca Sinclair, and when I looked up her crime I found it was manslaughter. She had been charged after a woman died in her care from the results of what was termed an “illegal operation” – code for an abortion.

Rebecca was only twenty-three and pregnant when she was sent to gaol, and her husband, Donald Sinclair, was also convicted and sent to a separate gaol. I was compelled to find out how they became involved in the illegal abortion trade, what happened on the day a woman died at their house and how Rebecca became involved with her husband, a known criminal. I set out to find every detail I could about them.”

Have you always been interested in historical fiction?

“I haven’t always, but I have always been compelled by the past and by a sense of nostalgia. I was one of those children whose nose was always in a book, and some of my favourite books were the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. At university I studied contemporary fiction but recently I have loved books by writers like Geraldine Brooks, Hilary Mantel and Joan London because of how they evoke a different world, how they bring the past alive.”

Was it easier to write your first book, What Was Left, a ‘straight’ fiction, or this weaving of history and fiction?

“I thought it would be easier to write Long Bay because I had a structure when I began, a road map of sorts, while the structure of What Was Left evolved as I wrote it, so I constantly felt as though I was fumbling around in the dark.

But it was actually more difficult to write Long Bay, because even though I knew what was going to happen, I had to find the voices and the essence of these characters, which can be difficult when all you have of them is dry court records, newspaper articles, and government documents. They had to come alive for me, which took several drafts, lots of research and contemplation.”

Image: supplied

Image: supplied

Was the research for Long Bay a pleasure or a chore – or a mix of both?

“A pleasure – always. The writing was at times more challenging, but the research is a special form of digging and dreaming for me. I love to dive headfirst down rabbit holes into forgotten or neglected corners of the past. I could spend months reading obscure documents and visiting old dusty, museums – the kinds staffed completely by volunteers and only open one day a week.

I don’t really structure my research but I go by instinct, which seems to lead me where I need to go. It was harder to put the research aside and begin to write.”

What responsibility did you feel to Rebecca’s descendants – those living today?

“I felt a great responsibility because I would not want someone to write fiction based on my grandmother without my permission. With this in mind, I did find Rebecca’s granddaughter and show her the manuscript and share my research with her, and she gave me her permission for me to use Rebecca’s name and story.

It was not a simple decision for her because she is the wife of the former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen. Christine Jensen grew up not knowing her mother’s or grandmother’s past and only when her mother died did she request her birth certificate and discover that her mother was born in Long Bay. She told me that her mother had been a distant and frequently unhappy woman and that keeping this secret had probably burdened her greatly – but it was a time when shame was far more prevalent and it was not uncommon to never speak of unpleasant events.

She said she wished she had been able to talk to her mother about her past. Long Bay isn’t the real story of the real Rebecca Sinclair, but it is what I imagine the past to be. What it might have been like, for a woman from a working class family, with so few opportunities and some ambition to change her life.”

Author Eleanor

Author Eleanor Limprecht

What’s on your bedside table right now?

“A teetering tower of books and copies of The New Yorker, which my mother gives me a subscription to every year. Some of the books are:

  • A novel which I’m reviewing: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa, set during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
  • Debra Adelaide’s novel The Women’s Pages, which is a novel set in Sydney but inspired by Wuthering Heights. It is sparely written, thought-provoking and evocative.
  • Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I am dipping in and out of, enjoying. 
  • Kylie Tennant’s novel of Sydney in the 1940s: Tell Morning This.
  • And then two anthologies which I have yet to read: Best Australian Stories 2015 which I have a short story in, and Best Australian Science Writing 2015 which my friend Bianca Nogrady edited and which I know will be excellent.”

the essentials

What: Eleanor Limprecht and David Dyer in conversation with moderator Gia Metherill
When: Sunday April 3 from 3.30pm-4.30pm
Where: Muse, inside the East Hotel. 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston.
Tickets: $10 including a glass of wine or soft drink. Purchase them here now:


For a chance to win one of two double passes to the event, be the first to email [email protected] with the subject line Long Bay/HerCanberra

Please note, only winners will be notified.


Her Canberra

Sometimes a story is bigger than one person...that's when the HerCanberra Team puts its collective head together to come up with the goods. Enjoy! More about the Author