Review - The Amazing Mrs Livesey: The remarkable story of Australia's greatest imposter, Freda Marnie Nicholls

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Facts wrapped up in fictional narrative, THE AMAZING MRS LIVESEY tells quite the tale of the life and times of Miss Ethel Swindells (aka Mrs Carter, Mrs Taylor, Mrs Smith, Mrs Ward, Mrs Lee, Mrs Spurgess, Mrs Giblett, Mrs Hourn, Mrs Anderson, Mrs Baker, Mrs Thompson, Gloria Grey, Mrs Gardiner, Nurse Florence Anderson, Miss Hordern, Mrs Ann Derson, Miss Turner, Lady Betty Balfour, Miss Harvey, Mrs Coradine, Mrs Livesey and a lot more to boot). 

In a combination of fake and real marriages and a truly breathtaking amount of front, Mrs Livesey (let's settle on that one as does the author of this novel) had quite a life as you can tell from the book blurb. Whether or not you agree with the assertion there that she was "quite a gal" will depend totally on how you feel about the way that she conducted that life.

Told in a style that takes the facts known about Ethel Livesey wrapping them in a fictional tale for storytelling purposes, author Freda Marnie Nicholls sets out the tale of a most extraordinary life - itself such a combination of fact and fiction it's hard to keep the elements straight in your own head. Certainly what seems to be true is that Mrs Livesey was a confidence trickster of highest ability. She lied, scammed, cheated and faked her way through life clawing money, goods, influence and people along the way. There's little that can be said necessarily about her motives as there's very little that was said by Livesey herself. Except in some vague attempts later in life to defend herself or redraw her reputation - bizarrely as some sort of victim herself.

The style of the book is conversational, chatty and because of the level of fictional imagining around Livesey's activities, almost light-hearted in places. It certainly feels like Livesey is getting a sympathetic telling of her story here, which is going to either engage or enrage readers. All of which predicated by your own reactions to Mrs Ethel Livesey. Was she just a bit of a rogue, pressing on with her life in the only way she felt open to her? Or was she an unrepentant crook, charlatan and dare we suggest an absolute spoilt brat with a sense of entitlement that is positively breathtaking? You'd have to think that the multitude of her victims weren't enamoured of her in the end - the trail of theft, fraud, scamming and chaos she left in her wake must have been devastating for many people already living on the edge of survival. She certainly seemed able to pick her victims - from the easily manipulated, through to the easily flattered, to some sad and lonely individuals who fell under her influence.

THE AMAZING MRS LIVESEY is one of those books that's likely to engender very visceral reactions - partially due to the storytelling method as opposed to an exploration of just the facts. It's also going to come down to reader's reactions to the central character. For the very little it's worth - this reader ended up with a healthy dislike of the damn woman. Spoilt, entitled, vicious and grasping, no matter how lightly you wrap the package, she seems like an all round nasty piece of work.

Year of Publication

Ethel Livesey was quite a gal.

An attractive young woman from a respectable middle-class family in Manchester, she had over 40 aliases, eight official marriages, four children and five divorces. Her story stretches from industrial England to the French Riviera, from Ireland to New York, Shanghai, New Zealand, the Isle of Man and across Australia. Ethel claimed she was a cotton heiress, wartime nurse, casino hostess, stowaway, artist, opera singer, gambler, spy, close friend of the King, air raid warden, charity queen and even wife of Australian test cricketer Jack Fingleton.

When her career imploded (with the abandonment of her glittering society marriage in post-war Sydney just two hours before the guests were due to arrive), the story of the Amazing Mrs Livesey was blazoned across newspapers around the world. But what was fact and what was fiction?

With a prologue by Ethel Livesey's granddaughter, this extraordinary and constantly surprising story of the woman who was possibly Australia's greatest fraudster is told for the first time in rich and fascinating detail.

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