Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2012

(For the Term of) His Natural Life (1874), by Marcus Clarke#2

It was good fun reading this Aussie Classic with a bunch of mostly American readers in the Yahoo 19th century reading group.  As I was leading the discussion, I had to start by clearing up some assumptions about this strange land of ours downunder.  People overseas usually think of Australia as blue skies and sunshine, but for the purposes of this book, the hot and arid landscapes of Australia are irrelevant.  Our smallest and most southerly island state is nothing like that.  On the contrary, it’s the perfect setting for what has come to be known as Tasmanian Gothic.

Tasmania still has one of the great wilderness areas left on earth, and at the time that (For the Term of) His Natural Life was set in the early C19th, was a densely forested and hostile landscape except for the pasture lands where settlers were.   It was, as far as the authorities were concerned, the perfect place for a penal colony because with its rugged coastline, impenetrable bush and paucity of edible flora and fauna[1], escape was virtually impossible.  Macquarie Island where the action of Book 2 takes place in the southwest is often very cold, very wet, and very gloomy. When The Spouse and I once visited the area hoping for a joy-flight over the Gordon River (one of many places in Tasmania that were/are the subject of conservation battles) the weather was so bad we couldn’t even take a boat trip up the river. We couldn’t see much past our noses in the fog, and this was high summer!

Port Arthur not far from Hobart in the southeast where Book 3 is set has its own melancholy moods too, apart from its awful history, and it can also have foul weather at any time of the year.   While there may be very hot days in Summer and there is always the threat of bushfire,  Mt Wellington – which glowers forbiddingly above Hobart – always gets snow in Winter but sometimes also as late as November when a cold front blows in from the Antarctic.  It’s not uncommon for bushwalkers in wilderness areas to die of exposure if they get lost, and their bodies aren’t found until snow melt.  So although Tassie today is one of my favourite places for a holiday, its weather may demand some stoicism.  My advice to anyone reading this book is, don’t assume bright skies and sunshine: think cold fingers and toes, wet feet and clothing, dripping leaves down the back of your neck, and fog!

Tasmania was first settled as a penal colony by the British, off-loading their villains as far away as they could and establishing a claim to this part of the world for their empire at the same time.  As you will know if you have read Dr Lurline Stuart’s introduction to this significant Australian classic here on the ANZ LitLovers blog, Marcus Clarke’s story features a man wrongly convicted and the duplicity of the men who wrong him, set in the penal colonies of Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur in Tasmania, and also at Norfolk Island off the mainland coast, half way between New Caledonia and New Zealand. It’s a riveting story.

Richard Devine is the profligate son of Sir Richard Devine, and heir to his considerable estate.  But Sir Richard, a war profiteer and a ‘gentleman’ only by marriage is just looking for an opportunity to prefer his nephew Maurice Frere as his heir, and the book begins with his wife providing him with a reason to do just that.  To protect her name, Richard assumes a new identity as Rufus Dawes and takes the blame for a crime he didn’t commit.  Unrecognisable in his new identity, he is convicted and transported to Tasmania, then known as Van Dieman’s Land.   Events conspire, and Rufus Dawes travels aboard the same ship as his rival Lieutenant Frere, frustrated in his ambition to join the leisured classes because of those same events and already on the path to brutal despotism.

Things go from bad to worse for Rufus: Clarke juggles the plot so that there are possibilities for relief from his misery but everything seems to conspire against him.  Part of the interest in the novel is whether or not his spirit or his integrity will be broken by the ghastly life he is forced to endure, and whether there will or – as events progress – can ever be any redemption.  But while using the novel as a vehicle for exposing the brutality of transportation, Clark also manages to create a real page-turner, with mutiny, conspiracy, escapes both successful and not, a love interest, harrowingly gruesome events and a compelling mystery.  The characterisation is excellent, especially of the stoic Dawes and his nemesis Frere; of the complex chaplain North and his counterpart the comic Meekin; and of a grand cast of villainous convicts and brutal guards.  Even the stock C19th representation of woman as whore and woman as Madonna works too.  Sarah Purfoy is a wonderful creation.

It would spoil the book to reveal much more than this and I entreat you not to read the Wikipedia summary beforehand – but it is safe to whet your appetite with this delightful clip of the 1927 film directed by Norman Dawn which pioneers some special effects to the ruins at Port Arthur!

[1] There was, of course, edible flora and fauna in Tasmania, which had sustained a plentiful diet for the indigenous people for 35,000 years or more.  Estimates of the population of the Parlevar people prior to the arrival of the British in 1803, range from 3,000–15,000.  But introduced diseases and warfare had decimated the indigenous population so that by the time of Clarke’s writing his novel in the 1870s, he could have known very little about them or how they lived.  In 1833 the last 200 or so survivors had been persuaded with false promises to surrender to ‘protection’ and had been removed to Flinders Island; and in 1847 the remnant 47 survivors were brought back to the Oyster Cove near Hobart on the mainland.  Truganner (often thought to be the last ‘full-blooded’ Palevar) died in 1876 and Fanny Cochrane Smith (recognised by Parliament in 1889 as the last survivor) died in 1905. See Wikipedia.


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.  It is well worth getting hold of this if you can because not only does it include a useful introduction and some essays about the historical background of the novel, there are also maps and extensive endnotes.


  1. Ah, I read a couple of books with that group years ago … a good group. Great intro to it Lisa … did the group like it?

    As for Wikipedia, it’s important I think for people to remember that it’s an encyclopaedia and therefore providing a full plot summary is appropriate.


    • I’ve read some really good stuff with the C19th group and they are a beaut bunch of readers to chat with too. Next up is The Prisoner of Zenda which I have wanted to read for a long time so I’m hoping to get my life in order in time to read it with them.
      Yes, that’s right about Wikipedia, it wasn’t meant to be a criticism. Have you heard about their 24 hour blackout in protest against the US anti-piracy laws? Apparently the laws enable a website to be shut down if piracy is alleged, and the concern lies with the potential for censorship.


      • I’m sure you have … it is such a great era and there’s so much to explore. I discovered Gissing in this group as I recollect, and joined in a discussion of an Austen but it was quite a few years ago now.

        Yes, I did hear about the SOPA blackout … there’s always such an overreaction to the possible negative impacts of technology. Piracy is an issue but use the strong arm of the law in such a heavy-handed way is not likely to be the answer I think.


  2. I am also reading this book along with Lisa at the 19th Century group. It is an interesting read. Though some of the actual facts may be distorted, the brutal conditions and injustice of the penal system in Tasmania and Norfolk Island are relevant to Australian history and should be known.



  3. I haven’t read this one, but it’s certainly on the radar – as is a long-awaited visit to the Apple Isle ;)


    • I wonder if any enterprising Taswegian has hit upon the idea of doing a Tasmanian Gothic Lit Tour???


  4. I love the idea of Tasmanian Gothic. Wonderful!

    This story sounds very familiar, as do the characters’ names. I wonder if there was a BBC adaptation of it which I watched? (I definitely haven’t seen the film you mention.) Either way, sounds like a good read. I don’t believe I have ever read an Australian 19th century classic.


  5. Sarah, it’s terrific, I hope it’s on your TBR now!


  6. I ve had this as a download on my ipad ,since I heard it mention on the abc national book show as a australian clasic ,all the best stu


  7. […] in its depiction of the horrors of convict life, reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life (see my review) but it satirises the redemption that brings Clarke’s novel to its conclusion.  There are […]


  8. […] is transported after a shambolic trial.  His trials and tribulations are vaguely reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life except that with plot and characterisation Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of […]


  9. […] we know from Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, Australia was a Hell not of mind but of reality for many convicts, but both McDonald and Reid cast […]


  10. […] – which has always been a great source for fiction, starting with Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874).  His Natural Life paints a sorry picture of convict life in Van Dieman’s Land, but […]


  11. […] – only four novels reviewed on this blog and the earliest of those was from 1874.   That was For the Term of His Natural Life, the most famous of novels about the convict system.  But His Natural Life was predated by books […]


  12. […] For the Term of his Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke […]


  13. […] afford an assisted passage, and far from the lurid depiction of convict travails in novels such as For the Term of his Natural Life, many of them served out their sentences without offending further and did make a new life for […]


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