For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke“We convicts have the advantage over you gentlemen. You are afraid of death; we pray for it. It is the best thing that can happen to us. Die! They were going to hang me once. I wish they had. My God, I wish they had!”
For The Term Of His Natural Life is the best-known novel by Australian author, Marcus Clarke. It was first published in 1874, although it began as a serialised novel titled His Natural Life, published in the Australian Journal. Text Publishing have produced a handsome volume under their Text Classics banner.
There are significant differences in the plot between the original (unabridged) edition and later editions of this novel; the first book has been reduced to a prologue; the text has been condensed into a much more readable form, and much of the (frankly, boring and often unimportant) detail has been omitted; and the ending is completely different. Thus, for example, in excess of 150 pages of book 2 of the original edition are reduced to a much more manageable 75 pages in this edition.
Clarke managed to pack a lot into his novel: perhaps as it began in serialised form, each episode needed some drama: a parental estrangement, a very rich will, a secret identity, a wrongful conviction, transport on a convict ship, a mutiny, another wrongful conviction, flogging, suicide attempts, multiple escape attempts (at least one involving cannibalism), another mutiny, abandonment on a deserted shore, the construction of a coracle, yet another wrongful conviction, many years of penal servitude, the claiming of an inheritance by an imposter, quite a few confessions and a shipwreck.
This novel has been described as the Australian Count of Monte Cristo and while it is considered an Australian Classic, as historical fiction, it is not really up to the standard of Dumas’s writing. The most exciting chapters, by far, are those detailing the escape from Port of Arthur of convict, John Rex. It is filled with improbable coincidences, and while he draws on many real occurrences in Tasmania’s history, Clarke’s emphasis is on the cruelty of convict life. Rufus Dawes is one very unlucky man!
This book will appeal to those who enjoy Australian historical fiction written from the closer perspective of fifty years as opposed to almost one hundred and fifty. A map of the relevant parts would have been helpful, but Wikipedia serves equally, these days. Text Classics include an introduction by author, Rohan Wilson and an evocative cover by the talented WH Chong. A beautiful edition of an Aussie Classic.
Escape from Australia: a convict's tale
For the Term of His Natural Life
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My Dear Sir Charles , I take leave to dedicate this work to you, not merely because your nineteen years of political and literary life in Australia render it very fitting that any work written by a resident in the colonies, and having to do with the history of past colonial days, should bear your name upon its dedicatory page; but because the publication of my book is due to your advice and encouragement. The convict of fiction has been hitherto shown only at the beginning or at the end of his career. Either his exile has been the mysterious end to his misdeeds, or he has appeared upon the scene to claim interest by reason of an equally unintelligible love of crime acquired during his experience in a penal settlement. Charles Reade has drawn the interior of a house of correction in England, and Victor Hugo has shown how a French convict fares after the fulfilment of his sentence. But no writer—so far as I am aware—has attempted to depict the dismal condition of a felon during his term of transportation.
The classic novel of convict Australia, For the Term of His Natural Life is a novel of tremendous power, and also of suffering and inhumanity. Relating the intricate and savage interplay between the gaolers and the gaoled, Marcus Clarke weaves the tragic tale of his wrongfully convicted hero Rufus Dawes. This unforgettable account of the barbarous days of early white settlement has at its heart the enduring belief in the strength of the human spirit and the capacity for love to overcome adversity. Marcus Clarke is best known for his classic novel of the convict system, For the Term of His Natural Life , although he also wrote numerous essays, stories and plays and edited literary journals. After experiencing both city and country life, he returned to Melbourne to try to succeed as a writer.
It was published as a novel in and is the best known novelisation of life as a convict in early Australian history. At times relying on seemingly implausible coincidences, the story follows the fortunes of Rufus Dawes, a young man transported for a murder that he did not commit. The book clearly conveys the harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to the convicts, some of whom were transported for relatively minor crimes, and graphically describes the conditions the convicts experienced. The novel was based on research by the author as well as a visit to the penal settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania. Structurally, For the Term of His Natural Life is made up of a series of semi-fictionalised accounts of actual events during the convict era, loosely bound together with the tragic story of its hero. Most of the incidents and many of the individual characters are easily identifiable from historical sources including Marcus Clarke's own non-fiction work Old Tales of a Young Country. Typically of Victorian-era convict novels, Rufus Dawes is a wrongfully convicted gentleman.