Tag Archives: Van Diemen’s Land

Frankenstein, Convicts, and Wide-Awake Geniuses: The Life and Death of Charles Brentani

Frankenstein 1837

Originally published as

Douglas Wilkie, ‘Frankenstein, Convicts and Wide-Awake Geniuses: The life and death of Charles Brentani’, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 1, June 2016


In 1838 Alexander Maconochie, private secretary to the Van Diemen’s Land Governor, Sir John Franklin, wrote a damning report on the state of prison discipline in the colony. Maconochie’s report led Sir William Molesworth to describe to the British parliament a community where honest settlers were continually ‘surrounded by crime, and haunted by the spectacle of cruel and degrading punishment’; where ‘gangs of wretched beings in chains, displaying all the outward tokens of misery’; where shopkeepers in the main street had ‘probably been convicted of swindling’; where women were, ‘at best, drunken prostitutes’; and the men ‘hardened ruffians’.

In Van Diemen’s Land, although there was widespread criticism of Maconochie’s report, questions arose as to whether such a community of criminals, if it existed, was in fact the monstrous creation of misguided British government policy. The stage version of Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus had been performed at the Theatre Royal in Hobart in February 1837, and thus the analogy drawn between the creation of a local community of criminals and Shelley’s monster seemed appropriate and timely, and it had become common to refer to the creation of anything unpleasant or unintended as a Frankenstein monster. Indeed, as the Hobart Town Courier said:

 We do not blame Captain Maconochie that the condition of this colony should be looked upon at home with horror from the frightful iniquities, which are supposed to abound in it, and the fearful degree of vice, which it is imagined stalks abroad with impunity. Bent on the reformation of the present system of transportation, and with the best intentions for the welfare of mankind, he looked but to the worst side of the picture, until, like Frankenstein, he grew frighted at the monster of his own creation. This vision of his imagination has pursued, and will pursue him still.

But Victor Frankenstein’s monster, like many of the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land, though loathed by those who saw only the worst attributes, also had feelings.

I am content to suffer alone, while my sufferings shall endure; when I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment … But now vice has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No crime, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. … But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation: I am quite alone.

Mary Shelley’s description of how Frankenstein’s creature lamented his existence may well have reflected what some Vandemonian convicts felt about the way society vilified and punished them, even beyond the term of their sentences. But not all Vandemonian convicts suffered, or were vilified, in this way.

This is the story of one whose entrepreneurship freed him from his convict origins…

 This is an extract from the original article which can be downloaded here.


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The Deconstruction of a Convict Past

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Joseph Forrester, a silversmith, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828 after being caught stealing diamonds from a West End London jeweller.
Charles Brentani was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1834 after being caught stealing silver from a Sheffield clergyman.
Brentani was was assigned to various employers and eventually set up his own business in Launceston before marrying and moving to Melbourne in 1846 where he established a business as a retail jeweller and watchmaker.
Forrester, on a life sentence, worked as a silversmith in Hobart until he was granted a conditional pardon, set up his own business, then moved to Melbourne where his did work for Brentani.
This is the story of how they tried to put their convict past behind them and establish new and respectable lives.

This book is based upon a Master of Arts thesis successfully submitted to Monash University. The examiners of that thesis had this to say:

This study ‘represents an impressive research achievement … [and] … makes an important contribution to a growing body of work that has linked the experience of prisoners under sentence to their post emancipation lives’.
Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, The University of Tasmania

‘The pursuit of these two former convicts has been carried out with determination, insight and persistence. He has uncovered a fascinating sub-culture of metal smiths and artisans and the networks of support that operated in the colonial and post-penal environment … admirable life writing…’
Professor Janet McCalman, The University of Melbourne

A reader of the book subsequently read the article Frankenstein, Convicts and Wide-Awake Geniuses: The Life and Death of Charles Brentani, and commented:

‘My late husband was a great great grandson of Charles Brentani. One of my brothers-in-law bought numerous copies of Douglas Wilkie’s book last year as Christmas gifts for all the cousins. Thank you for researching and publishing the book.’ – Judith Toohey


1. Research Methods 5

Forgotten Gentlemen & Convicts 8

Rediscovered Convicts 10

The Deconstruction of a Convict Past 12

2. Crime, Punishment and Rehabilitation 22

The Crime 22

The Punishment 32

Joseph Forrester 34

Charles Brentani 44

Rehabilitation 48

3. Entrepreneurship 53

Joseph Forrester 54

Charles Brentani 60

4. Exodus to Port Phillip 68

Joseph Forrester 76

Charles Brentani 82

5. Settling Down – Moving On 94

Charles Brentani 100

Joseph Forrester 124

6. Conclusion 142

Select Bibliography 153

Purchase this book

The Historia Incognita version of the story will be longer and more detailed than the original thesis and has an expected publication date of late 2015 or early 2016, however the original thesis (ISBN: 9781320639064) can be purchased from the following link: The Deconstruction of a Convict Past

This book is available in several libraries including the State Library of Tasmania.


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The Journal of Madame Callegari

Madame Callegari Cover 13 August 2015 001

WHO WAS MADAME CALLEGARI? Was she one of these?

  • The Transported Convict
  • The Venetian Merchant’s Wife
  • The Heroine of the Californian Goldrushes
  • The Adventurer of the Mexican Jungles
  • The Celebrity of European Literary Circles
  • The Plantation Owner of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

No. Madame Callegari was not just one of these. In fact, she was all of these.

Early in 1855, a thirty-six-year-old French woman approached Alexandre Dumas in Paris, and asked him to edit, and publish, her account of ten years spent travelling in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, California and Mexico. Dumas agreed to her request, because her story was one of adventure and romance, and took this young lady, and her husband, to places seldom visited by young women. However, she insisted that, in publishing her story, her true identity should not be revealed. To achieve this they chose the pseudonym Madame Giovanni, and changed, or omitted, certain parts of the narrative which could have identified her. Since first publication, the true identity of Madame Giovanni was cause for speculation, and readers could not decide whether the story was true at all, or whether it was a mixture of fact and fiction. The Journal of Madame Callegari, researched over four years, and using archives from at least eight countries, reveals that Madame Marie Giovanni was in fact Madame Marie Callegari. Madame Callegari’s true adventures go far beyond those recorded by Alexandre Dumas in 1855. Yes, she visited all of the placed described by Dumas—Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, New Caledonia, Hawaii, California, and Mexico—but she also became involved in the Mexican civil war with President Santa Anna; she and her husband were granted a vast hacienda on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; they came under attack by rebel troops who destroyed their farm; she witnessed American corruption on the Isthmus and reported it to President Ulysses S Grant; she was witness to great battles during the American Civil War and witnessed the siege of New Orleans. Eventually, late in life she tried to have published a sequel to her 1855 journal, but negotiations failed and her goal was not achieved. Now, for the first time we can read the story of Madame Callegari — the true story behind Alexandre Dumas’s 1855 Journal of Madame Giovanni, in the Journal of Madame Callegari. (414 pages, maps and Illustrations)


‘The Governor of London’s Coldbath Fields House of Correction remembered his young French prisoner as ‘a treacherous, bad woman’. Though ‘by no means handsome’, she possessed a ‘very high talent, remarkable for eloquence and tears’. Three decades later the same woman, now with an Italian name, introduced herself by letter to the American president Ulysses S. Grant, saying she was returning to Europe as a ‘traveler who certainly will be believed’. When Alexandre Dumas published in Paris the journal of her earlier travels, he may or may not have ‘believed’ her, but as one of the most famous writers of his day, he had an eye for a good story and hers was a dramatic tale of adventure and romance across continents and overseas. Douglas Wilkie has followed the paper trail left behind by this shape-changing adventurer with a flair for language and a sense of herself as the heroine in her own romance. Having tracked the stylish swindler through the archives of eight countries, he weaves together a meticulously researched account of an unexpected and utterly fascinating woman.’

Emeritus Professor Lucy Frost, The University of Tasmania

“After four years of meticulous research during which he was able to trace her movements around the world, Wilkie was able to reveal that Madame Marie Giovanni was certainly Madame Marie Callegari, a real woman who had visited most of the places described in Dumas’ book.

Douglas Wilkie has chosen to tell this fascinating story in the first voice, that of Madame Callegari herself, so we find her writing posthumously, telling why she chose to publish under a pseudonym and introducing us to her former self, the young woman known as Louisa La Grange … intriguing and well-told, from the wretchedness of prison and transportation followed by a pardon in Australia and then marriage to fellow-convict, the Venetian merchant Pietro Callegari, to their remarkable travels and sojourns in parts of the world rarely visited by a nineteenth century woman. … The original Dumas journal is written in the first person but here we find the voice enhanced with detailed facts and insights, drawn from Wilkie’s meticulous research. This remarkable attention to detail successfully draws the reader deeper into Madame Giovanni’s story, thus dissipating any initial unease; the end-notes are crucial as evidence of Madame Callegari’s claims. Wilkie writes ‘The Journal of Madame Callegari is what I believe Madame Callegari would have told us if she had the opportunity.’ He is to be congratulated on his achievement.”

Elaine Lewis, Author Left Bank Waltz, (Vintage 2006); Co-editor The French Australian Review.

“… a fascinating story from start to finish: not only the very notion that the true identity of Madame Callegari has remained hidden until now, but also the incredible story of Madame Callegari’s life and travels. The journal is bookended by the equally interesting story of the author’s own four year journey to uncover the truth and his essay on The Voice of Madame Callegari. As one would expect, the author’s choice to write the journal in the first person adds greatly to the pace and personal nature of the story and draws the reader in from the very beginning. … Astute readers … will no doubt be delighted to now be able to read the full story of Madame Callegari and her incredible life. This complete account is meticulously researched and a valuable and important contribution to the literature in the area of French-Australian Studies, given the time that Madame Callegari spent here and in the surrounding region. Readers everywhere can be very grateful that Douglas Wilkie came across Madame Callegari’s true identity, that he has set the record straight, and that he has shared her fascinating story with us.”

Dr Kerry Mullan, Senior lecturer, Coordinator French Studies, RMIT University Melbourne

Review of The Journal of Madame Callegari by Mary McMichael Ritzlin in Terrae Incognitae, Vol 49, No 1, 2017

This book is unusual in that Wilkie presents his new research using the first person, as if Callegari were commenting from beyond the grave on the original publication, her later work, and his own additions. This device allows Marie to point out discrepancies between editions and the factual record as due to either creative editing by Dumas, lapses of memory on her part, or allowing for natural gaps in the record due to careless record-keepers.

Wilkie addresses the pros and cons of using the first person narrative, … and shares many other scholarly opinions on the subject. He argues his book conforms to what “Marie Callegari would have told us if she had the opportunity” (p. 335) and he has convinced this reader, for one.

The full review is available in Terrae Incognitae through Taylor & Francis with DOI 10.1080/00822884.2017.1295692

The Journal of Madame Callegari, The True Story Behind Alexandre Dumas’s 1855 Journal de madame Giovanni, Douglas Wilkie, Historia Incognita, 2015, pp.410. ISBN 9781320395878

Review in History News, Issue No.322, Feb-Mar 2016 (Newsletter of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria), p.10.

[Using]… soundly based historical method and not fictional imaginings … [the author]  … takes the reader on a fascinating trail of historical detection …”

“The author convincingly shows that Madame Giovanni, the author of Alexandre Dumas’s publication of her journal, was not a fictional character but Madame Callegari whose travels took her away from Paris in 1843 to 1853. Convicted in London, sent to Van Diemen’s Land, she briefly visited Melbourne in 1848 and 1849. the journal is mostly about Van Diemen’s Land, and then the South Pacific, California and Mexico where her ‘adventures’ took her after serving her sentence. Wilkie has reconstructed Callegari’s life and rewritten her journal in the first person in what he shows to be soundly based historical method and not fictional imaginings. The journal first translated in 1944 is not well-known and the author has not only revealed its content but also takes the reader on a fascinating trail of historical detection.”

The Journal of Madame Callegari is also reviewed by the Société des Amis d’Alexandre Dumas

“Ouvrage présenté comme « La véritable histoire derrière le livre d’Alexandre Dumas : Journal de voyage d’une parisienne – Marie Giovanni ».

Douglas Wilkie, professeur à Melbourne University, fait paraître son livre The Journal of Madame Callegari présenté comme « La véritable histoire derrière le livre d’Alexandre Dumas : Journal de voyage d’une parisienne – Marie Giovanni« .

Alexandre Dumas a publié en effet en 1855 un journal de voyage dont une première version lui aurait été confiée par une dame se dissimulant sous le nom de Marie Giovanni.

Cette dame est souvent identifiée à Gabrielle-Anne Cisterne de Courtiras, épouse du Poilloüe de Saint-Mars, dite la comtesse Dash. Est-ce là la vérité ?

Douglas Wilkie a mené l’enquête et nous révèle la personnalité de Madame Callegari qui se cache derrière le nom de Giovanni…”

    Who was Madame Callegari? 1
    The Journal of Madame Callegari 5
    To My Readers 7
    Prologue: The Departure 9
    Isle de France 11
    Part One : The Merchant of Venice 17
    Awaiting Exportation 19
    Pietro Callegari & John De Castaños 27
    A Ship of Desperate Mutineers 35
    Van Diemen’s Land 37
    Barlatier Demas 39
    The Governor & the Forty Thieves 42
    Part Two : A Treacherous, Bad Woman 45
    Louise Mirabello 47
    Coldbath Fields House of Correction 54
    Viscountess La Grange 59
    You Have Abandoned Me 63
    Louise Mirabello Becomes Louisa La Grange 71
    Faithful Wives & Good Servants 76
    A Ship of Hysterical Women 80
    A Ship of Troublesome Characters 83
    Hobart 86
    A Gracious & Kind Governor 88
    Part Three : Madame Callegari 99
    Madame Callegari 101
    Polyglot Academy 102
    Mauritius 107
    Mount Wellington 111
    Curious Madrigals 118
    Le berger et le l’ingot d’or 124
    Freedom, Bellini & Governor’s Balls 129
    Part Four : South Pacific Adventures 139
    Sailing Ships 141
    Part Five : California— Un fichu pays 157
    San Francisco 159
    Twist’s Flat 166
    Honolulu 178
    Part Six : Mexico 185
    Acapulco 187
    President Santa Anna 194
    Mexico City 199
    Part Seven : Madame Giovanni 205
    Paris 207
    New York 214
    Tehuantepec 220
    War 228
    An Outrage at La Puerta 232
    United States of America 243
    President Ulysses S Grant 246
    Part Eight : A Quiet & Simple Life 257
    San Antonio 259
    The Heart of a Woman 268
    The Women of Mexico 273
    Postscript Postmortem 283
    The End of My Journey 285
    Maps & Illustrations 291
    Annotations and Sources 307
    The Voice of Marie Callegari 309
    Acknowledgements 336
    Annotations and Sources 339

 Journal Articles

Douglas Wilkie, ‘Femina Incognita: Alexandre Dumas’s Madame Giovanni‘,  Terrae Incognitae, The Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries, Volume 48, 2016 – Issue 1

Purchase the Book


Purchase The Journal of Madame Callegari (ISBN: 9781320468312) from Blurb; or from Amazon (USA); Amazon (UK); The Book Depository; Fishpond (NZ); AbeBooks; Wheelers; Readings Books; or Search Google for ISBN: 9781320395878)

Madame Callegari in Libraries

Auckland City Library

San Antonio Public Library

State Library of Victoria

State Library of Tasmania

National Library of Australia

Hawaii State Public Libraries

Baillieu Library, (University of Melbourne).

Preview the book:

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