Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2011

(For the Term of) His Natural Life (1874), by Marcus Clarke, guest review by Lurline Stuart

 Over at the 19th Century Yahoo book-group, we’re just about to start spending the next four weeks reading the classic Australian novel, (For the Term of) His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke.  So I am delighted to be able to share a guest post by my dear friend and long-time member of the ANZ LitLovers online reading group, Dr Lurline Stuart, who edited the definitive edition of this ever popular Aussie example of Tasmanian Gothic.  I have already read this book twice some years ago, but for this read-along, I’ll be reading the Academy Edition (at left) edited and with an introduction by Lurline, (with her autograph inside it – of course!)

Lurline has generously agreed to share her expertise about this book not only here at ANZ LitLovers with a guest review, but also in the book group so it’s going to be a great discussion.

Marcus Clarke’s great convict novel has scarcely been out of print since its first publication as a serial story in the early 1870s.

The subject – that of a man wrongly accused of a crime that would see him transported and imprisoned for life – was hardly a popular one at the time of writing. Gold had been found in the Australian colonies, transportation to eastern Australia had ceased, and the colonists were more focused on building up a place in a civilised society where recollections of harshness and repression had no place.

Marcus Clarke 1874 (Wikipedia Commons)

Why then would Marcus Clarke have decided to write about the circumstances of events that had occurred in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) or even worse, the ultimate experience of convictism on Norfolk Island?  The answer lies in his eagerness to be recognised as a writer. He had arrived in Melbourne in 1863 and, after a few false starts in other occupations, was beginning to make his name as a journalist. But it was as an author that he was hoping to make his name in the colony.In 1868 he purchased the Australian Monthly Magazine with a group of friends, changing its name to the Colonial Monthly. The first requirement for a successful magazine at the time was a good serial story which would encourage more and constant subscribers.  Clarke wrote Long Odds for the Colonial Monthly, a story of horse-racing in England which was later published as a book. Then, as  editor of the Australian Journal, a somewhat similar but more lasting magazine, he felt he needed a stronger subject for a new story.

A trip to Tasmania gave him the incentive to write about the convict prison system. He was also at that time Sub-librarian at the Public library, with access to convict records, which helped with the authentic composition of the story.  It was much longer than the one with which we are now familiar, going on through the early colonial era until the miners’ uprising at the Eureka Stockade. Obviously there needed to be revision and condensation for book publication. This was a long and painstaking job involving many changes but worthwhile from Clarke’s point of view because it meant that his story might be taken up by an English publisher as well, giving him wider recognition.

The first Australian edition was published in 1874 and the first English one, with the title  For the Term of His Natural Life, in 1875. They are not the same, although the storyline remains intact.  Refinements in language are the major change and there are many of them, designed to rub off the colonial edges and make the book sound more English. Clarke may not have agreed, but the distance  between England and Australia with its consequent delays in mail made it impossible to correct the proofs to his satisfaction.

As it now stands, the work is a powerful indictment of the plight of the individual who is powerless to prevent the cruelty and abuse that are likely to follow the exercise of unlimited power, and its inevitable corruption.  Some of the work is journalistic in tone and style, although Clarke provides good descriptions of local scenery, for instance, about the entrance to Hobart:

It would seem as though Nature, jealous of the beauties of her silver Derwent, had made the approach to it as dangerous as possible, but once through the archipeligo of D’Entrecasteau’s Channel, or the less dangerous eastern passage of Storm Bay, the voyage up the river is delightful. From the sentinel solitude of the Iron Pot to the smiling banks of New Norfolk, the river winds in a succession of reaches, narrowing to a deep channel cleft between rugged and towering cliffs.

This is the vista that greeted the convicts as their ship moved slowly up the river, a place of frightening grandeur, with unfamiliar names and geographic features, beautiful in its own way, but hostile to the newcomers in its strangeness.

Clarke’s strength with words is more intense when he is writing about his unfortunate hero Rufus Dawes, chained to a rock in the Macquarie River to the west, believing himself to be abandoned and despairing to the point where he is ready to take his own life:

In that dismal hermitage, his mind, preying on itself, had become disordered. He saw visions and dreams.  He would lie for hours motionless, staring at the sun or the sea. He held converse with imaginary beings. He enacted the scene with his mother over again. He harangued the rocks, and called upon the stones about him to witness his innocence and his sacrifice. He was visited by the phantoms of his early friends, and sometimes thought his present life a dream. Whenever he awoke, however, he was commanded by a voice within himself to leap into the surges which washed the walls of his prison, and to dream these sad dreams no more.

Already the reader his suffered with Dawes, through his court trial and his wrongful imprisonment. Now Clarke builds up an  empathy that will last throughout the book.

The book has its faults. Like most Victorian novels, it has its share of unlikely coincidences and, even through revised and condensed from its original form, it is still a long and obviously at times a harrowing read. But that it has survived for so many years is testament to the ambition and the skill of a young colonial writer, who not only wanted to make his name but record a phase of Australian history that deserves to be remembered, no matter how far we wish to think we have come since then.

© Dr Lurline Stuart.

If that’s whetted your appetite for a jolly good story, join us at Yahoo and read along!  Thanks, Lurline:)


For the Term of His Natural LifeThe Angus and Robertson edition of For the Term of His Natural Life is available at Fishpond, but it’s also available as a ‘Popular Penguin’ almost everywhere, and you can find the Gutenberg edition for free, downloaded either from

Fishpond also has Lurline’s His Natural Life (Academy Editions of Australian Literature) in stock.


  1. I’ve never heard of this writer or of this book. How intriguing. There’s a French translation but it’s recent. I’m adding it to my ever-growing TBR. Thanks.

    Have you read or heard of Papillon by Henri Charrière? It’s the memoirs of a man who is in the French penal colony of Guyane. It could be a good companion to this one.


    • Hi, Emma, yes I have read Papillon – that scene where he’s chained up in an underground cave where the tide comes in daily right up to his neck was horrific! The things that penal authorities did in times past were ghastly, I don’t know how they ever managed to justify it to themselves. That was based on a true story too, I think?


      • More than a true story: it was HIS story. I read this years ago but yes, it was awful. We were lucky that Capitaine Dreyfus didn’t die there and that we could ship him back for his rehabilitation.

        I don’t know either how they could justify this. What is even more incomprehensible to me is why the churches agreed with that.


        • It would be interesting to know more about prison reform – maybe the Universal Charter of Human Rights had something to do with it…


          • Yes probably.
            In Europe we have the European Court of Human Rights and it condemns States if prisoners are ill-treated.


  2. I too have read this book a couple of times and many passages have lingered in my memory. Years later when I read ‘Papillon’, I couldn’t help but compare.


  3. […] For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, see my review and Lurline Stuart’s guest review. […]


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