In mid-19th century England, a small group of religious women called the Household of Hidden Stars follow Muley Moloch, an itinerant prophet, across the world to establish a life for themselves in New South Wales. Catherine, Moloch's wife, gives her account of their story many years later in 1898.

Moloch is an illiterate shoemaker-turned-prophet who claims to perform miracles. His goal is to prepare the way for the Second Coming of Christ. To accomplish this, he and his group of 8 or 9 women set out to lead exemplary lives in the wilderness, yet they do not attempt to make converts.

When Catherine becomes pregnant, she and the others think her pregnancy is a miracle. (In reality, Moloch has had sex with her while she was desperately ill and unaware of what was going on.) They name the child Immanuel and believe that he is the Second Coming of Christ.

Muloch considers the local Aboriginal people to be demons and treats them as such. One day he sees Immanuel talking to a "demon" and shoots the man dead. Immanuel, already fed up with all the craziness, runs away. At this point the women finally seize control of their own lives and tell Moloch that he must leave. As the years progress, the women remain together. One by one they die of consumption, until only Catherine and Louisa are left.


This novel is part of Rodney Hall's Yandilli trilogy, which includes The Second Bridegroom, The Grisly Wife, and Captivity Captive (see this database). The three novels reveal "glimpses of an Australian paradise, purgatory, and hell" during nearly 100 years from the early days of the convict colony to the end of the 19th century. The central action of all three takes place in a rural area of New South Wales (Yandilli).

The Grisly Wife is a remarkable novel about the power of faith to move mountains--or at least to transform the lives of a small group of young women who can see no future for themselves in Victorian England. As they cope with the hardships of the Australian wilderness, they mature and learn to depend on one another, eventually breaking free from their "prophet," who is actually a narrow-minded misogynist.

It is interesting that Catherine, the central character, survives for 30 years after being close to death from consumption. Her fellow Hidden Stars consider her recovery a miracle, although a doctor explains that her resistance stems from the fact that she first had consumption as a child. Is Catherine's illness really tuberculosis? It is difficult to say. But Hall does describe the symptoms and natural history of TB accurately, with the exception of her inexplicable recovery.


Pan Macmillan

Place Published

Sydney, Australia



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