Essay by Brian Matthews

In his essay ‘The Fiction Fields of Australia’ (1856), Frederick Sinnett conducts an inquiry ‘into the feasibility of writing Australian novels; or, to use other words, into the suitability of Australian life and scenery for the novel writers’ purpose and, secondly, into the right manner of their treatment’. The problem, as Sinnett identifies it – and he was not the first and certainly not the last to conjure with it – was that Australia had no lore, no tradition, no myths and legends, in short, no rich past for a writer to call upon. Apart from what he terms ‘the Aboriginal market’ and its ‘associations’, which he passes quickly over, there is ‘to be obtained in Australia not a single local reference [that is even] a century old’. With tongue firmly in cheek, Sinnett nails down the case.

No storied windows, richly dight, cast a dim, religious light over any Australian premises. There are no ruins for that rare old plant, the ivy green, to creep over and make his meal of. No Australian author can hope to extricate his hero or heroine, however pressing the emergency may be, by means of a spring panel and a subterranean passage, or such like relics of feudal barons …

Marcus Clarke was well aware of, if less catastrophic about, the lacunae in Australia’s past. In his second ‘Country Leisure’ essay (4 September 1875), which was centrally concerned with the possibility of a school of Australian poetry, Clarke gives his own version of the ‘No storied windows’ problem:

In historic Europe, where every rood of ground is hallowed in legend and in song, the least imaginative can find food for sad and sweet reflection. When strolling at noon down an English country lane, looking at sunset by some ruined chapel on the margin of an Irish lake, or watching the mists of morning unveil Ben Lomond, we feel all the charm which springs from association with the past. Soothed, saddened, and cheered by turns, we partake the varied moods which belong not so much to ourselves as to the dead men who in old days sung, suffered, or conquered in the scenes which we survey. But this our native or adopted land has no past, no story. No poet speaks to us. Do we need a poet to interpret Nature’s teachings, we must look into our own hearts, if perchance we may find a poet there.

It is in this same essay that he asks and famously answers, ‘What is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. Weird Melancholy.’

Perhaps Sinnett was more taken with his own ingenuity than with the logic of his imagery because the poem by Milton, ‘Il Penseroso’, from which the ‘richly dight’ quotation is adapted, is actually a salute to Melancholy – ‘But hail thou goddess, sage and holy / Hail divinest Melancholy’ – and the landscape which Clarke encountered when he visited Port Arthur might have seemed to lack long history, but it had melancholy in abundance. From his approaching boat he saw the settlement ‘beneath a leaden and sullen sky’ and ‘beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Isle of the Dead’. The dreary prospect convinced him ‘that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature … Everybody … begged that the loathly corpse of this dead wickedness called Transportation might be comfortably buried away and ignored of men and journalists.’

But transportation, the ‘Convict System’, had ended ten years before Clarke’s arrival in the colony in 1863 and the ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ of his novel had been officially ‘Tasmania’ since 1854. What was left – sombre shattered stone; dark, stained and empty buildings; the last few living convicts; an atmosphere of ruined and painful gloom – might not have been ‘richly dight’, but it was richly and powerfully melancholic. It was the grim past, the underpinning of story. For the Term of His Natural Life was written not to inveigh against a wrong already righted – what would have been the point? – but as a work of the imagination on crime and punishment, the vagaries of fate, the power of love and guilt, the depths of inhumanity and, as Michael Wilding has pointed out, the antipodean reversal of English social order. What Sinnett had seen as a fictional terra nullius, what Clarke himself saw as a land with ‘no past, no story’, became for him, through recognition of the profound melancholia of convict life and destiny, a terra plena. From this intricate human, geographical and spiritual plenitude he made what Brian Elliott justly described as ‘the one work of fiction produced in the whole first century of Australia’s history to justify description as monumental’.

Clarke was, however, a long time coming to this meeting with his imaginative destiny. Born in Kensington, London in 1846, Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke seemed assured of a congenial if rather dilettantish life until his father, William Hislop Clarke, suffered a mental, physical, and financial collapse. The ramifications for the family were severe and after the young Clarke, ‘spoilt, conceited and aimless’, had unsuccessfully tried his hand at several occupations, ‘he chose to go to Australia’, though it was probably less a matter of choice than of some stern persuasion by ‘relations who could see no solution for him in England’. He arrived in Melbourne on 6 June 1863 and for a while seemed likely to continue the feckless existence he had pursued in London. He proved inadequate and uninterested on the staff of a bank and, when he ‘went bush’, was involved in a doomed land venture in drought-stricken western New South Wales, an expedition misguidedly undertaken within two years of the Burke and Wills disaster which Victoria had so wholeheartedly supported. Back on more familiar ground in Melbourne, he joined the staff of the Argus newspaper and at last found his métier.

Clarke came to fiction through journalism. In the Dickensian manner, his first novel,Long Odds, was serialised in the Colonial Monthly, a journal of which Clarke was founder and editor. But Long Odds, with its one Australian character and English setting, was not the kind of fiction Clarke was most interested in, as his unconvincingly argued preface to that novel suggests:

In now presenting [Long Odds] to the public in a complete form, I will take the opportunity of saying a few prefatory words.
In reviewing ‘Long Odds’ from time to time … the press has frequently blamed the author for laying the scene in England instead of in Australia. It seems, at first sight, natural to expect that a story written by a person living in Australia, published in an Australian periodical, and offered to an Australian public, should contain description of nothing that was not purely Australian.

The best Australian novel that has been, and probably will be written, is [Henry Kingsley’s ‘The Recollections of] Geoffrey Hamlyn’, and any attempt to paint the ordinary squatting life of the colonies could not fail to challenge unfavourable comparison with that admirable story. But I have often thought, and I daresay other Australian readers have thought also – How would Sam Buckley [the hero of Geoffrey Hamlyn] get on in England?

My excuse, therefore, in offering to the Australian public a novel in which the plot, the sympathies, the interest, the moral, are all English, must be that I have endeavoured to depict, with such skill as is permitted me, the fortunes of a young Australian in that country which young Australians still call ‘Home’.

There is a certain routine quality to this salute to Geoffrey Hamlyn, as if Clarke is dutifully genuflecting to popular and overwhelming opinion. The writer who detected ‘the dominant note of Australian scenery’ as ‘weird melancholy’ must have been as exasperated as were Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy years later with Kingsley’s countryside of ‘glens’, ‘woods’, ‘downs’, ‘boskey uplands’, ‘not untuneful birds’, and other northern hemisphere literary landscape paraphernalia, even if he was unwilling to say so explicitly. Like Lawson and Furphy, Clarke needed a new vocabulary, different imagery, a muscular, strenuous mode to capture both the psychological and physical realities by which his antipodean protagonist Rufus Dawes would be continually tested. For all his admiration of Dickensian realism, Clarke was committed by the very nature of his subject – its oppressive, threatening locales and its enactment of horrific trials and suffering in a dark if relatively recent past – to a version of gothic romance, a story of love and human endurance beset and doomed by circumstance, malign fate, and evil.

His Natural Life, a vast and sprawling work, was serialised in the Australian Journalfrom 1870 to 1872. For the Term of His Natural Life – a revised, tighter and shorter version of Rufus Dawes’s story which, in this iteration, becomes a tragic one – was published in book form in 1874. A dense prologue sets the labyrinthine plot moving: the innocent Richard Devine, ‘enmeshed’ in ‘a web of circumstantial evidence’, becomes Rufus Dawes, and his ‘new life’ begins.

It is a life of nearly insupportable pain and hardship dogged by ominous coincidence, identity theft and confusion, ‘shape changing’ – as Sylvia, for example, metamorphoses from precocious child to young woman adrift in a fugue of memory loss – moral cowardice and savage, serial demonstrations of the emptiness of religious consolation. But above all there is pain, mental and physical:

Rufus Dawes took five-and-twenty lashes without a murmur, and then Gabbett ‘crossed the cuts’ … At the hundredth lash, the giant paused …

For twenty lashes more Dawes was mute, and then the agony forced from his labouring breast a hideous cry … He cursed all soldiers for tyrants, all parsons for hypocrites. He blasphemed his God and his Saviour. With a frightful outpouring of obscenity and blasphemy, he called on the earth to gape and swallow his persecutors, for heaven to open and rain fire upon them, for hell to yawn and engulf them … He seemed to have abandoned his humanity.

In the strange connection between his main characters – the grim, often silenced Rufus Dawes and the extroverted, manipulative John Rex – Clarke picks up the doppelgänger thread in nineteenth-century fiction, evocatively reminiscent of Pip and Orlick in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Dostoevsky’s Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin in The Double (1846), and anticipates aspects of both Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). But Clarke ramifies the relationship between the hero and John Rex, his ‘double’, with the figure of Maurice Frere, whose surname is, of course, the French word for ‘brother’ but which, as Michael Wilding has noted, was pronounced ‘freer’, the variant pronunciation suggesting another kind of double – Frere as ‘the free alternative to the captive Dawes’. Far from being imprisoned by the complexities of his plot and its turmoil of identities, Clarke brilliantly exploits and remains in assured control of the tangle of relationships, chance encounters, moments of good and bad luck, and the eerie fictional possibilities of the doppelgänger.

Like a classical tragedy, For the Term of His Natural Life begins in an atmosphere of deceptive calm – ‘In the breathless stillness of a tropical afternoon, when the air was hot and heavy, and the sky brazen and cloudless, the shadow of the Malabar lay solitary on the surface of the glittering sea’ – and concludes with tranquillity restored after the destructive storm of circumstance, but only at the expense of extreme human suffering and hideous ordeals that have radically altered individuals and changed or ended lives:

At day-dawn on the morning after the storm, the rays of the rising sun fell upon an object which floated on the surface of the water not far from where the schooner had foundered.

This object was a portion of the mainmast head of the Lady Franklin, and entangled in the rigging were two corpses – a man and a woman. The arms of the man were clasped round the body of the woman, and her head lay on his breast.

… The tempest was over. As the sun rose higher, the air grew balmy, the ocean placid; and golden in the rays of the new risen morning, the wreck and its burden drifted out to sea.



The text used throughout is Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, Penguin Books, 2009.

Cecil Hadgraft (edited with introduction), Frederick Sinnett, The Fiction Fields of Australia, Angus and Robertson 1966.

Michael Wilding, ‘Marcus Clarke: His Natural Life‘, in W. S. Ramson (ed.), The Australian Experience: Critical Essays on Australian Novels, ANU Press 1974.

Michael Wilding (edited with introduction.), Marcus Clarke, Portable Australian Authors, 1977

Brian Elliot, ‘Marcus Clarke’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

L. L. Robson, ‘The Historical Basis of For the Term of His Natural Life‘, Australian Literary Studies, Volume 1, 1963.

In his ‘Marcus Clarke, Gothic, Romance’ in Stephanie Trigg (ed.), Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture, MUP 2006, David Matthews discusses inter alia Frederick Sinnett’s The Fiction Fields of Australia and proposes the terra nullius/terra plena idea which I have referred to here.

© Copyright Brian Matthews 2015