DiscoverHistorical Fiction

The Only Living Lady Parachutist


Loved it! 😍

The true tale of a woman reaching the heights (pun intended) of her profession, with some tall tales told to whip up the crowd

Lillian reminisces upon her entry into show business—the Music Hall world of acrobats, jugglers, trapezists, upon which she gazed with envy from her barmaid job at the pub next door.

Ted Faust gives her an audition, as a trapezist—and a stage name, Gladys Freitas—only to find that he proposes charging her, ‘for lessons’. Eventually, she becomes ‘the Aerial Queen’, lauded by the Sydney Herald, as trapeze artists say, ‘with the world at her feet’.

Her debut at Haymarket Music Hall, despite her mother’s disparaging that she had become ‘an actress’, is a success. Sister Ruby wants to form a double act. Despite a prickle of resentment, Lillian welcomes the second Freitas sister.

Finding their slot increasingly challenged by the new act, Negro minstrels from America, the Freitas Sisters are pressured to undertake something more dangerous in their act. A visiting American, Professor Park Van Tassel, invites them to a hot air balloon and parachute jump show. He gives them jobs as performers. The sisters change employers, as they get traded around like livestock.

Lillian tries a daring feat and is injured, and the ventriloquist Harry Rayward woos her. When she arrives, cured, in Adelaide, financial backers, Edwin Thorne and magicienne Miss Cora, are scrambling for their shares in the proceeds. As Lillian, now named Leila Adair, seeks daredevil fame, the troupe suffers from a series of failed balloon inflations.

Van Tassel’s dialogue sounds a bit awkward, but maybe that’s just a sign of a quirky personality. Some plot developments seem thrown away, although, granted, there’s a limit to how much one can embellish with biography. Lillian suffers from a dark pain from her childhood, her career tears her away from her children, and various frauds and mountebanks double-cross her, yet she doesn’t seem to suffer as much as you know someone would.

An interesting twist towards the end, a secret revealed—and then another—seems unfortunately thrown away, too. The true story finally makes its way through invented personas, lies and tall tales told to whip up a crowd and makes a fascinating concept for a novel.

The writing style is a little bit tongue-in-cheek in tone, without often reaching ‘funny ha-ha’.

The world of professional balloonists/parachutists is beautifully portrayed. The book captures the mood of the age, 1890 Australia/New Zealand, when science and new inventions seemed to make everything suddenly possible, and the public, newly blessed with free time for leisure pursuits, hungered for all things strange, exciting and dangerous.

This is based on the true story of a real woman parachutist, and each chapter is introduced by a real—and wonderfully illuminating—newspaper clipping from the time. The research necessary for this book must have been quite a challenge.

Reviewed by

Susie Helme is an American ex-pat living in London, after sojourns in Tokyo, Paris and Geneva, with a passion for ancient history and politics, and magic, mythology and religion. After a career in mobile communications journalism, she has retired to write historical novels and proofread/edit novels.

Chapter One

About the author

Catherine Clarke’s ancestral heritage replete with stories of adventure, scandal, and lunacy inspired her degree in English and History. The Only Living Lady Parachutist was shortlisted for the Lilian Ida Smith Award. Catherine lives in New Zealand and works as a medical laboratory scientist. view profile

Published on September 22, 2021

80000 words

Contains mild explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Historical Fiction

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