For someone struggling with reading anything more extended than my iMessage stream in the past 24 months, the fact that I’ve sat down over the weekend and read a book – a whole book! – is somewhat of an amazement to me.
The book in question is Eugenia by Australian author/legal professional Mark Tedeschi QC (as you will see from his website, he is also an accomplished photographer). It tells the story of Eugenia Falleni, who achieved some level of fame and indeed notoriety in 1920 when it was very publicly discovered that she had lived her life as Harry Crawford, a man, for something like 20 years. In this time Harry worked in a series of physically demanding jobs and managed to marry – twice. With the support of almost noone, but the cautious loyalty of a very few family connections, including his daughter, Harry was able to maintain the charade.
Eventually, a series of events led to the discovery of his secret by his first wife. Such a discovery would (understandably) irreversibly alter their marriage and Harry’s wife Annie eventually came up with a scenario that would allow for the annullment of the marriage without having to reveal Harry’s secret to anyone who did not already know. Whether life could ever return to some version of normal for Harry or Annie is unknown – her death on a picnic, and the subsequent arrest of Harry (after he had re-married) destroyed whatever normal either of them might find.
Tedeschi’s book offers a detailed and informed exploration of Harry’s childhood, his detachment from the body he was born in and his desperation to escape life as a woman. His is a sensitive, narrative account of a troubled life, and a tumultuous legal scenario. Even from our 21st Century perspective as readers, issues of sexuality and gender identity are complex, but as a society now we are undoubtedly more sympathetic and more likely to try and understand the predicament of someone like Harry. Tedeschi realises this and his narrative is sympathetic. He offers insight into what might have animated and motivated Harry, his likely emotions and desires as well as the daily frustration he must have felt. After all, in his life as Harry he had achieved almost all the freedom he craved, except for the freedom from the fear of discovery, not to mention the isolation and loneliness that must surely come from the knowledge that even in living the life that is most natural to you, where you very genuinely love the other person in your life, that there is at its basis a deception.
The public discovery of this deception is difficult for Harry, but it arises largely as a complication of the legal situation surrounding his wife’s death. The book covers Harry’s trial for the murder of Annie, and at this point – his identify revealed, he is forced to once again be Eugenia. At no point is she charged with the sexual deception or the fraudulent marriage (though these things undoubtedly plague public perceptions of her sanity and integrity). Instead, the issue is one of whether or not she is guilty of murder. Tedeschi explores the legal scenario, the shortcomings in aspects of the trial as well as providing important contrast between the legal system today and that of 1920.
The complex legal, moral, emotional and social questions which coexist in a case such as this, do just that in this book – they co-exist. Sympathy for someone living the difficult life of Harry is doesn’t dismiss the possibility of some legal case being answerable. Equally important, however, is that we never get bogged down in the issue of well, did he do it, or didn’t he? This is a case much more complicated than that. What this book does do tremendously well is demonstrate the many ways in which anyone is possibly vulnerable when involved in the legal system – particularly when it comes to equity and procedural fairness.
I must confess that by the end of this book I had become a little teary. It’s a tale of great personal courage. Had Eugenia Falleni been born today perhaps the complicated life she found herself living might have been more broadly accepted, and perhaps the need for a series of deceptions may not have been present. This certainly would have curtailed much tragedy and heartache for many people – herself, her family, her wife. Reading this book I am both grateful for the progress we have made as a society in issues of understanding, but aware of the distance still to go in achieving acceptance and fairness for all people in life.