London Richard Bentley and Son Publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen 1896
[All rights reserved]
PAGE INTRODUCTION 1
MARCUS CLARKE 29
HENRY KINGSLEY 90
ADA CAMBRIDGE 131
ADAM LINDSAY GORDON 159
ROLF BOLDREWOOD 189
MRS. CAMPBELL PRAED 229
Any survey of the work done by Australian authors suggests a question as to what length of time ought to be allowed for the development of distinctive national characteristics in the literature of a young country self-governing to the extent of being a republic in all but name, isolated in position, highly civilised, enjoying all the modern luxuries available to the English-speaking race in older lands, and with a population fully two-thirds native. The common saying that a country cannot be expected to produce literature during the earlier state of its growth is too vague a generalisation. There are circumstances by which its application may be modified. It certainly does not apply with equal force to a country whose early difficulties included race conflicts, war with an external power and political labours of great magnitude, and to another whose commercial and social development, carried on under more modern conditions by a people almost entirely homogeneous, has been facile, unbroken and extraordinarily rapid.
Nor can paucity of literary product, where it exists, be satisfactorily explained by the unrest that continues in a new land long after it has attained material prosperity and the higher refinements of life. The Americans are a type of an extremely restless people. They have been so throughout the greater part of their history, and the characteristic is now more marked than ever. It is a fixed condition of their national being, an expression of the cumulative ambition that is the source of their varied progress. Yet from time to time men have arisen among them who not only have given intimate views of a new civilisation, but have added something to the permanent stock of what Matthew Arnold used to call 'the best that is known and thought in the world.' Even when the independent nationhood of the United States was still but an aspiration, Benjamin Franklin had familiarised Europe with much that has since been recognised as inherent in the modes of thought and manners of the Western race.
The bulk of the literature of America is, of course, still small in proportion to the culture and intellectual energy of the country; but it has been and is sufficient to interpret in a more or less distinctive way all the leading phases in the evolution of the national thought and sentiment. The subtle influence of the deeply-grounded religious feeling which, implanted by the Puritan pioneers, has survived generations of intense absorption in material progress and the distractions that modern life offers to the possessors of newly-acquired wealth; the pride of the people in their independence, and their natural tendency to overrate it in comparison; with the conditions of other countries; the contrasts furnished by a society fond of reproducing European habits, yet retaining a simplicity and freshness of its own: these and other features in the progress of the United States for over a century may be found expressed in its literature from the native standpoint, and not merely from that of the intelligent outside observer.
An American writer in discussing, a few years ago, the quality of the literature produced before the War of Secession, when wealth and leisure were abundant among the planters and in the principal New England towns, observed that 'there would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a hopeless provincialism.' If a comment so largely fanciful could be made respecting Australasia and Canada, it would practically mean—at all events from the American point of view—that as long as they remain dependencies of Great Britain, and therefore lack the stimulus of an active patriotism, so long will much of whatever is individual in their social development and national aspirations be without expression. In the case of the Australasian colonies it would further mean (apart from any consideration of their future independence) that a people far removed from other communities of the same race and already giving promise of being the greatest power south of the equator, must continue for an indefinite period to be wholly sustained and swayed in matters of thought and art by a country over twelve thousand miles distant that happens for the present to offer the most convenient markets in which to buy and sell. The point need hardly be discussed, but it suggests some facts in the intellectual life of Australia that it will be of interest to name. These may not be found to explain why there is yet no sign of the coming of an Antipodean Franklin or Irving, or Hawthorne or Emerson; but they will help to show why the literature of the country grows so unevenly, why it is chiefly of the objective order and leaves large tracts of the life of the people untouched.
Perhaps the paradox that a people may read a great deal and yet not be interested in literature could hardly be applied to the Australians, but it is a fact that they make no special effort to encourage the growth of a literature of their own. By no means unconscious of their achievements in other directions—in political innovations, in sport and athletics—they appear not to take any pride in or see the advantage of promoting creative intellectual work. Will this be considered natural and reasonable, as already they are supplied with books and plays and pictures from England and Europe, or as a proof of thoughtlessness and neglect? 'Why,' asked a critic in the Edinburgh Review in 1819, 'should the Americans write books when a six weeks' passage brings them, in their own tongue, our sense, science, and genius in bales and hogsheads?' Are the Australians of these days asking themselves a similar question? It would seem so. In 1894 they imported books, magazines and newspapers from the United Kingdom to the value of L363,741: this, too, at a time when most of the colonies were understood to be rigidly economising in consequence of a financial crisis. A decade before the amount was not far short of a hundred thousand pounds higher.
Foremost in his list of the salient intellectual tendencies of the native population of the United States Mr. Bryce places 'a desire to be abreast of the best thought and work of the world everywhere, and to have every form of literature and art adequately represented and excellent of its kind, so that America shall be felt to hold her own among the nations.' And he further attributes to them 'an admiration for literary or scientific eminence, an enthusiasm for anything that can be called genius, with an over-readiness to discover it.'
Artistic talent in America has from an early period in the history of the country enjoyed the stimulus of local respect and attention. Mr. Henry James has testified to the 'extreme honour' in which writers and artists have always been held there. Literature is now a subject of special systematic study in all the important schools; literary organisations are numerous, including no fewer than five thousand circles for the study of Shakespeare; authorship has become something like a craze in fashionable society; the intelligence of the criticism in the weekly press is on the whole equal to that in English journals; and several of the magazines are largely devoted to the more artistic kinds of writing. If the results of these incentives to production seem comparatively small, as they undoubtedly do, it must not be forgotten that the profession of letters in America long suffered, and is still suffering, from the absence of international copyright law. Before the year 1891 the markets were filled with cheap reprints of British and European works (often of an inferior class), and even now authors have to encounter competition with a vast quantity of foreign matter of which copyright, owing to the peculiar conditions of the law and of the publishing trade, is often obtained at prices much below its real value.
It is not, however, the native literary product of America that is noteworthy so much as the widespread and conscious taste for literature among the people, and the means which they adopt to promote it. The best friend of Australia could not credit it at present with any markedly active desire 'to have every form of literature and art adequately represented and excellent of its kind.' In this respect the results of the high standard of education attained in the Government schools and the subsidised Universities are disappointing. The Universities of Sydney and Melbourne will soon be fifty years old, but neither is yet represented with distinction in the higher forms of literature and art. The Governments, at least, do their duty. Having liberally provided for school education, they spend annually large sums in making additions to picture-galleries, in maintaining libraries (of which there are over eleven hundred), technological schools and museums, and in other ways adding to the comfort and enlightenment of the people. But large private contributions are rare, and the founding or endowment of public institutions still rarer.
Of societies or clubs devoted specially to the interests of literature there are very few—probably not half a dozen. Here and there among the upper classes there are little coteries whose members read the English and French reviews, and are well posted in all movements of interest in the world of letters, but there is no actual organisation among them, and they do not seek to extend their influence. Their ambition is confined to providing for their personal improvement and pleasure. The reading of the people, though extensive, is not serious nor in any way specialised, unless a recent notably high average of borrowing in the historical departments of a few of the free libraries be taken into account. The leading book exporters in London say that throughout the Antipodes the public demand is confined, as in England, mainly to the 'general' literature of the hour. 'Whatever has succeeded in London will usually succeed in Australia' is the invariable remark of the exporter and the first principle that guides his tentative selection in the case of all newly-published works. The circulation of the best British weekly and monthly reviews by some of the principal subscription libraries helps the reader to choose for himself, but if he should wish to buy a new book, however valuable, that has not become popular in the business sense, he will probably have to send to London for it.
The wealthy people seem to select their reading-matter chiefly with a view to entertainment. Not long ago the manager of one of the most fashionable of the Melbourne circulating libraries said that about ninety per cent. of the female and seventy-five per cent. of the male frequenters of such libraries in Australia read only novels. But this average is perhaps rather over-stated, being given at a time when there was an exceptional demand for certain novels that had obtained notoriety by an audacious treatment of sex questions and English society.
A glance at the fare which fourteen of the London publishers provide in their colonial editions is of interest. Excellent value, of its kind, is usually offered in these issues, but here again we find proclaimed an excessive preference for light prose literature. Of 264 volumes in one 'colonial library,' 238 are of fiction. Sketches, memoirs, reminiscences and a few essays make up most of the balance. The taste of the working classes, so far as it can be ascertained from the records of the principal free libraries, is, curious as it may seem, decidedly sounder than that attributed to the customers of the subscription libraries. It must be remembered, however, that the former are seldom tempted with new fiction, and never with fiction of the spicy or questionable kind. Some of the larger institutions are rigidly exclusive in regard to the light kinds of literature.
Authorship in Australia loses an important incentive in the absence of local magazines. All of the better kind have lacked sufficient public support. Several of them, including the Colonial Monthly (established by Marcus Clarke), the Melbourne Review, the Centennial Magazine, and the Australasian Critic (the latter conducted by the professors of the Melbourne University) promised so well that their want of support is not easily explainable. It has been attributed to an unreasoning prejudice, an assumption that being locally produced they must necessarily be inferior; but this probably does the reading public less than justice. Apparently from their contents, most of the magazines failed because they were made too Australian in character, too unlike the English periodicals to which readers had been so long accustomed. There are many fine magazines in the United States, but their conductors do not make the mistake of trying to do without British and European contributions. They know the value of names as well as of matter. Foreign writers supply about one-third of the contents of the monthlies. When great interest suddenly attaches to some national question, their enterprise, like that of the newspapers of the country, sometimes takes the special form of securing cabled summaries of the opinions of influential politicians in Great Britain and elsewhere for immediate publication.
A contributory cause of the failure of Australian magazines is the fact that the cost of their mechanical production has always been higher than that of any of their imported competitors. This promises to be a difficulty for some years to come. Book-publishing, as a separate business, is also practically impossible, for like reasons. The Australian reader attaches no special value to the possibilities of the local magazine, partly because its place as a literary and art record is considered to be fairly supplied by the weekly newspapers. Moreover, it is said he demands cheapness as well as high quality in his periodicals, and knows that both can be got in several English, American and European magazines. If this be so, the same predilection will no doubt account for the spectacle of leading London firms sending to the colonies tons of their popular modern books in paper covers, and offering them at about half the price charged in the United Kingdom, where they are obtainable only in cloth-bound editions.
That no one has yet lived by the production of literature in Australia is not a matter for surprise. No one, indeed, would seriously think of attempting to do so. Gordon was a mounted policeman, a horse-breaker, a steeplechase-rider—anything but a professional man of letters; Marcus Clarke was a journalist and playwright, and wrote only two novels in fourteen years; Rolf Boldrewood's books were written in spare hours before and after his daily duties as a country magistrate; Henry Kingsley returned to England before publishing anything; Kendall held a Government clerkship which he exchanged for journalism; Mr. Brunton Stephens is in the Queensland Civil Service; Mr. B. L. Farjeon's colonial work was mainly done in connection with the New Zealand press; Messrs. Marriott, Watson, E. W. Hornung, J. F. Hogan, Haddon Chambers and Guy Boothby, among younger writers, have taken their talents to London; and none of the half-dozen female novelists have been dependent upon literature for a livelihood.
What, it may be asked, becomes of the best talent developed by the Australian schools and Universities? It is employed, or tries to find employment, in the practice of law, medicine, journalism and teaching. From law to politics is but a step in the colonies, and the chances of attaining Cabinet rank, rendered frequent by the prevailing aggressive form of party government, are often attractive to men of ability and ambition. The journalists are more or less drenched with politics all the year round, and they, too, occasionally find it an easy matter to vary their occupation by assisting in the active business of law-making. The tension of their daily lives, severer than that of the majority of press writers in Great Britain, leaves them little or no leisure for literary work of the higher kind, and generally the prospect of being compelled to send whatever they might write to the other end of the world for the chance of publication discourages effort. It may safely be said that there are young men on the editorial and reporting staffs of a dozen of the principal journals who possess ability that would secure them distinction in the wider fields of England or America. To their skill and spirited rivalry is due the universally high quality of the Antipodean press. Mr. David Christie Murray, writing after considerable experience of the colonies, and as one who had been an English journalist, said that on the whole he was 'compelled to think it by far and away the best in the world.' The remark is without exaggeration so far as it applies to the large weekly journals.
The extent of the favour shown by Australian readers to the works of their own novelists is, as a rule, exactly proportioned to that which their merits have previously won in England. Booksellers and their London agents, who of course treat all literature from a purely commercial standpoint, are at all events unanimous in discrediting the existence in recent years of any prejudice against colonial fiction of the better class. It is now very seldom sent out in two or three volume form, they say, but neither are the most popular English novels, except occasionally to subscription libraries. For representative Australian work, then, there is a fair field but no favour. It is as though the function and existence of the authors apart from the rank and file of English letters were not recognised. There is an exception to this rule in the poet Gordon, as a portion of his writings, the Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, irresistibly commemorate the national love of horseflesh and outdoor life. Every Australian now knows that For the Term of his Natural Life is a great novel of its class; but as a leading Victorian journalist (Mr. James Smith) once pointed out in an article in the Melbourne Review, Clarke's real merit was for years undervalued, because he was known to be 'only a colonial writer.' Thousands of English, European and American readers had admired the novel before they thought of inquiring who the writer was or whence he came. It is true that the story attracted a good deal of interest in Australia even during its first appearance as a serial, but from elsewhere came its recognition as one of the novels of the century.
The authors whose lives and writings are briefly sketched in this volume are all noted in some degree for accuracy and sincerity in their representation of life in Australia. They have all written from abundant knowledge—from love, also, perhaps it may be added—of this great wide land with its brilliant skies, its opportunities and its wholesome pleasures. That they should fail to cover their field—that they tell too much of country life and adventure and too little of the throb and energy of the cities—is in a large measure explained by the fact that their books are of necessity primarily written for English readers.
Somehow it is assumed that people in the mother-country continue to be interested only in the picturesque, the curious and the unusual in Australian life. The idea is in part a survival from earlier years when a host of military officers, Civil Servants, journalists and tourists described in some form the more obvious peculiarities of the colonies: their giant, evergreen forests, strange amorphous animals, aristocratic gold-diggers, ex-convicts in carriages, and general state of topsy-turveydom. There is quite an amazing variety of occasional records of this class in forgotten books, magazines and pamphlets. In at least a score of well-known novels there are charming country scenes, true in every particular; but there is a distinct limit to the power of fiction of this kind to interest remote readers, while much repetition of it might well be misleading.
A writer in the Australasian Critic once rightly observed, respecting a batch of short stories of the conventionally Australian kind, that English readers might 'fancy from them that big cities are unknown in Australia; that the population consists of squatters, diggers, stock-riders, shepherds and bushrangers; that the superior residences are weatherboard homesteads with wide verandas, while the inferior ones are huts and tents.' No foreign reader could understand from them that 'more than half the Australian population have never seen kangaroos or emus outside a zoological garden, and that not one in a hundred, or even a thousand, has seen a wild black fellow.' There is a well-known type of Australian novel to which the same remarks might apply with almost equal fitness.
The lack of interest on the part of the novelists in the cities is the more noticeable because they contain one-third of the whole population of the country, a proportion said not to have a parallel in any other part of the world. This neglect is surely a mistake, founded on an erroneous conception of the tastes of the English public, and resulting partly from the absence of anything like a local literary influence upon the writers. 'Have the stress and turmoil of a political career no charm?' asks Mr. Edmund Gosse, in referring to the restricted scope of the English novel, and in making a plea for 'a larger study of life.'
The same question might with very good reason be raised concerning the political life of Australia, which has been almost entirely neglected since Mrs. Campbell Praed used up the best of her early impressions and settled in England. The majority of the writers of fiction who continue to live in the country are women, and possibly not interested in politics; but the chief reason why the romance is seldom written of the Cabinet Minister who started life as a gold-digger or draper's assistant, or of the democratic legislator whose first election was announced to him through a hole in a steam-boiler that he was riveting, is to be found in a belief that it would not be appreciated in the far-off land whither all Australian books must go for the sanction of their existence. Here again the British reader appears to be misjudged, for has he not accepted from another direction, and enjoyed, Democracy and Through One Administration? Mrs. Praed, lightly skimming the surface of Antipodean political life in two of her stories, has shown it to be not without humour, nor lacking in the elements of more serious interest. But she cannot be said to have exhibited any particular belief in the political novel, and none of the more practised among her colonial contemporaries has ever given it a trial.
On the main question of a national literature it will perhaps be concluded that Australia has yet scarcely any need to be concerned: that not much must be expected from a civilisation which, though it has been rapid, began little more than a century ago; and that the existence of wealth, and the possibilities of leisure and culture which wealth affords, cannot produce the same effect upon art in a new country as in an old one. The whole matter no doubt is somewhat difficult of decision. It has been none the less useful to indicate why so little of the work already done is the work of native writers—why the existence of much of the best of it may almost be considered accidental. And while a refusal to take the trouble of independently judging the worth of a local artistic product may or may not be an invariable characteristic of a new country, it was also right to contradict on the best available authority the assertion of a 'prejudice' against the work of Australian authors.
A portion of the talent that cannot be absorbed in the already overcrowded ranks of law and medicine might find employment in building a literature which should have something of national savour in it, if migration to England were no longer a condition of success to those who would make writing a profession, as migration to New York or Boston is similarly found to be a necessity to the young Canadian man or woman of letters. It need not be wished that the colonial Governments would do more than they have done—certainly not that they would create a sort of civil pension list, as a section of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria contemplated doing ten years ago in discussing a proposed grant to the family of Marcus Clarke. But the Universities might extend their influence, and those who have leisure might combine to introduce some of the methods which have helped to create a living public interest in literature and art in European countries. In other words, there is needed an increased sense of responsibility in the cultured class: those people, among others, who yearly help to fill the luxurious ocean steamships on their long journeys to the Old World, and who bring back so singularly little practical enthusiasm for their own land in the South.
Meanwhile it is encouraging to note the high promise of the work of some of the younger writers. Mary Gaunt (Mrs. H. Lindsay Miller), the daughter of a well-known Victorian judge, has, in The Moving Finger, raised the short story to an artistic level hardly approached by any other Australian writer. And Mrs. Alick Macleod, author of An Australian Girl and The Silent Sea, has given in the former novel—a fine story, despite some irregularities of form—the most perfect description of the peculiar natural features of the country ever written. For the first time the Bush is interpreted as well as described. In the attitude displayed in this story towards the fashionable life of the towns there is habitual impatience and occasional scorn. The sketches of Mrs. Anstey Hobbs' efforts to found a salon, the flirtations of Mrs. Lee-Travers—who 'chose her admirers to suit her style of dress'—Laurette Tareling's solemn respect for Government House, and the generally satirical view of the 'incessant mimicking of other mimicries,' are no doubt justified; they are often decidedly entertaining. But it would of course be a mistake to accept all this as more than a partial view of Melbourne society. The book does not pretend to deal with it in other than an incidental manner. Mrs. Macleod's studies of character and often clever dialogue suggest that she might profitably adapt to the presentation of Australian life the quiet intensity of Tourgueneff, or the delicately observant style of the American critical realists, Henry James, W. D. Howells and Richard Harding Davis. And here one wonders whether the Australian novelists who find so little material in Sydney and Melbourne have seen what the new writer, Henry B. Fuller, has done with the life of modern unromantic Chicago?
According to Mr. Howells, America, through the medium of its own particular class of novel, 'is getting represented with unexampled fulness.' The writers 'excel in small pieces with three or four figures,' and are able conveniently to dispense with sensationalism—a point not yet reached by Antipodean novelists. 'Every now and then,' he says, referring to the extreme of this type, 'I read a book with perfect comfort and much exhilaration, whose scenes the average Englishman would gasp in. Nothing happens; that is, nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is not a ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the whole story; "no promenade, no band of music, nossing!" as Mr. Du Maurier's Frenchman said of the meet for a fox-hunt. Yet it is all alive with the keenest interest for those who enjoy the study of individual traits and general conditions as they make themselves known to American experience.' As the Transatlantic social conditions, of which the realistic novel with only three or four figures is understood to be the outcome, are being more or less repeated in Australia, a similar literary medium will probably be found best adapted to the portrayal of life there. At least it may be claimed that there is no lack of material in the shape of individual traits which have not yet been suitably described in any form.
In the peculiarity of his fitful talents, and in the character of his best work in fiction—a pathetically slender life's product—Marcus Clarke is still alone in Australian literature. Others have shown the cheerful, hopeful, romantic aspects of the new land; he, not less honestly, but with a more concentrated and individual view, has pictured some of the monotony of its half-grown society, the gloom of its scenery, and the painful realities of its early penal systems. Reputed only as a novelist, he possessed besides imagination some of the higher qualities of the critical historian. And had his life been prolonged, he might almost have done for Australian city life what Thackeray did for the London of seventy years ago. He could, at least, have written a novel of manners that would have credited the people of Australia with some individuality: such a novel as would mark the effects which comparative isolation must produce in a people who are educated and intelligent beyond the average of the British race, intensely self-contained and ambitious, and of whom two-thirds are now native-born,—a novel that would have corrected the too languidly accepted judgments of omniscient elderly gentlemen, who, after a few weeks or months spent among the smallest and most imitative section of Antipodean society, gravely conclude that 'leaves that grow on one branch of an oak are not more like leaves that grow upon another, than the Australian swarm is like the hive it sprang from.'
A rhetorical half-truth of this kind, as applied to the entire people, can best be answered in the manner of the modern realists. The field is narrow in Australia, yet not too narrow for the writer who, foregoing the taste for sensation, will be content to transcribe and interpret impressions of the moving humanity around him to their minutest detail; who will forget the pioneer squatter, the Oxford scholar disguised as a 'rouseabout,' and the digger and bushranger of a past generation; who will sacrifice something of dramatic effect in the endeavour to produce a faithful and finished picture of colonial middle-class society. As qualifications for such work, Clarke had exceptional courage, straightness of eye, and a decided taste for exposing shams, superadded to a forcible and satirical style of expression.
Whether he had the tact and temperate spirit that must form the basis of these qualities in the production of serious fiction is less certain, if he may be judged by the tone of such minor pieces as Civilization without Delusion, Beaconsfield's Novels, and Democratic Snobbery. There is a certain violence in these which is more offensive than their undoubted cleverness is admirable or their satire entertaining. They show that the writer retained some of the impetuosity and prejudices which were marked features of his youth.
Clarke was an anti-Semite, therefore in the Beaconsfield novels he saw little beyond an expression of the author's personal exultation as the successful representative of a maligned race. In the theological controversy of Civilization without Delusion, an even less effective and becoming performance, the young author revealed a deficiency which, in any writer, can only be regarded as a misfortune and a cause for tolerant regret. The spiritual side of his nature was an undeveloped, almost a barren field. Neglected in boyhood and sapped by early habits of dissipation, it had no strength to resist the agnostic conclusions which were the product in later years of a coldly critical examination of the general grounds of Christian belief.
In dealing with religion, his characteristic independence developed into a stiff intellectual pride, and from that into a recklessness which disregarded alike his public reputation and the feelings of others. But these forays into the preserves of theology were happily rare. Such questions obtained no permanent place in his thoughts: they were only the passing expression of an ever-besetting mental restlessness. It is indeed surprising that a writer with artistic instinct and a sense of humour should ever have persuaded himself to enter the fruitless field of religious contention at all.
There are a few facts in the early life of Marcus Clarke which are sometimes so strongly, and even painfully, reflected in his brief career that they form a necessary preface to any consideration of his literary work. Soon after his birth at Kensington (London) in 1846 his mother died, and thenceforward through all his youth he seems to have received little advice or attention from relations. His father, a barrister and literary man of retired and eccentric habits, exercised over him a merely nominal authority, and so he had liberty to gratify a spirit of inquiry and curiosity notably beyond his years. At his own home he became the pet of his father's acquaintances, a set of fashionable cynics.
In Human Repetends, a sketch of his published several years later, there is a passage which substantially records his experiences at this time: 'I was thrown, when still a boy, into the society of men thrice my age, and was tolerated as a clever impertinent in all those wicked and witty circles in which virtuous women are conspicuous by their absence.... I was suffered at sixteen to ape the vices of sixty.... So long as I was reported to be moving only in that set to which my father chose to ally himself, he never cared to inquire how I spent the extravagant allowance which his indifference, rather than his generosity, permitted me to waste. You can guess the result of such a training.'
Left alone in the world at the age of eighteen, upon the death of his father, he emigrated to Australia. Failing to take any interest in a bank-clerkship provided by an uncle for him at Melbourne, he was sent to a sheep-station near Glenorchy, one hundred miles inland. Here again he paid little attention to the occupation chosen for him. All the day and half the night were dreamed away in literary thought. Just as he wandered alone over fern-hill and creek-bed, plain and mountain range, and absorbed impressions of a scenery at once repulsive and fascinating to him, so he dipped into all kinds of literature without method or set purpose. But he preferred fiction, and as the consignee of an endless succession of French novels he became a marked man in the eyes of the village postmaster.
Two years had thus been spent, when a Dr. Lewins, who was known as a 'materialistic philosopher,' visited the station and made the young Englishman's acquaintance. A warm mutual regard resulted, and soon Lewins succeeded in obtaining a small post for Clarke on the Melbourne Argus. This was the beginning of the most brilliant journalistic career established on the Australian press.
A less happy result of the same friendship was Clarke's conversion to the arid and uninspiring doctrines of materialism, though perhaps it could hardly be called a conversion in the case of one upon whom the deeper principles of Christian faith had never obtained any real hold.
Colonial democracy seems to have been to Clarke at once a source of inspiration and of scorn. Coming from among the English upper classes, with the education and temperament of an aristocrat, he was yet readily able to sympathise with the higher principles of the new society. Its intelligence, virility and free intercourse broadened and interested him, as it does most young Englishmen. But for that common product of a new country, the pretentious plutocrat, he had only contempt.
It is the bitterness with which this feeling is expressed in his journalistic writings that helps to raise a doubt as to his capacity for work of the best class in fiction. Still, if it be true, as some of those who were his friends say, that this occasional work was seldom much studied, it becomes unreliable as an indicator of the writer's character. The same hand that in the famous Snob Papers so savagely, and in at least one case so intemperately, satirised types of English society, afterwards produced novels in which fidelity to the essential facts of life is the most conspicuous quality. So, too, might it have been in the case of the 'Peripatetic Philosopher,' whose weekly criticisms of Melbourne men and manners in 1867-68 has correctly been judged the best writing of its kind yet done in Australia. In these articles, remarkable as the work of one who was only in his twenty-second year, there is a closeness of observation and incisiveness of style which promised much more for their author than the circumstances of his life afterwards permitted him to realise.
The usual effects of an undirected youth and an undisciplined manhood explain Marcus Clarke's failure to render to his adopted country the service which, as a distinctly gifted writer of the realist school, he seemed well fitted to perform. He was a Bohemian, who, while resisting the worst vices of his class, shared its carelessness and improvidence to a degree that left little energy for ambitious work.
His was not an idle nature by any means: it was only erratic, fond of variety, impatient of drudgery. Thus, in the course of fourteen years' literary work, his thoughts make excursions from town-life to country-life, from social satire to story-telling, from art to ethnology, from theology to opera-bouffe! Here are the titles of a few of his compositions: Lower Bohemia in Melbourne (a sketch), Plot (a sensational drama), Review of Comte and Positive Philosophy (magazine article), The Humbug Papers (humorous and satirical), The Future Australian Race (an ethnological study), Goody Two Shoes (a pantomime), Civilization without Delusion (a theological discussion with the Bishop of Melbourne), The Power of Love (an extravaganza), Dore and Modern Art (a review), Cannabis Indica (a psychological experiment). Almost the whole of Clarke's life may be said to have been devoted to the supply of some temporary demand of the periodical press or the stage. Even the two novels which represent his only sustained work were written for serial issue in Melbourne magazines.
It does not appear in either case that he wrote with any special view to establish a literary reputation; indeed, it would seem that the story of convict life might not have been completed but for the strenuous importunity of the firm of publishers with whom he had contracted to write it.
Journalism, the early occupation of so many eminent men of letters, has usually been abandoned as soon as the young writer has once shown exceptional ability as a novelist. This rule was not followed by Clarke. As the leader in his day of the journalistic class, who, as the late Mr. Francis Adams has said with substantial truth, still 'stand almost entirely for the conscious literary culture of the whole Antipodean community,' he held a position which would have unfavourably affected the literary tone and ambition of a still more energetic and original writer.
He had no predecessors in the special work he elected to do; he had to establish his own standard of achievement; and he was without the constant stimulus which intercourse with literary society, such as that of London, affords. The demands of the newspapers were then, as now, more for purely ephemeral criticism or narrative than for matter worthy to rank as permanent literature.
An alert, pithy style and a distinct gift of satirical humour such as Clarke had, and developed by a wide range of reading, were just the qualities which are always in request on the keen, aggressive daily press of Australia. One can easily imagine the flattering demands made upon the young author's powers by the men who were his personal friends as well as employers.
Whenever he was deficient in taste of expression, or in urbanity of criticism (as in his treatment of the Jews), he showed the effects partly of impetuous haste, and partly of his remoteness from those centres of literary opinion which always beneficially influence a young writer, be he ever so original or naturally artistic. It has been doubted whether Clarke was ever fully convinced of his own powers; but however feasibly this may have applied to the first four or five years of his literary career, there was no ground for it after the unanimously favourable reception accorded to For the Term of his Natural Life upon its issue in book form in 1874.
In England and America, as well as in Australia, this one novel gave him an immediate and distinct reputation. With it he might have speedily established himself as one of the leading writers of the day, and, turning from the depressing realism of penal cruelties which can have no further parallel in British countries to something more within our sympathies—to the realism of modern Australian life,—have supplied what is still conspicuously lacking in Australian fiction. Yet, during the remaining seven years of his life he produced no imaginative work worthy his name and ability. The ever-ready market of the local newspaper press absorbed his best efforts, and such intervals as there were he devoted to an attempt to establish himself as a writer and adapter for the stage.
In this way the years passed without yielding much beyond a livelihood. Meantime, Melbourne was his microcosm: he made a systematic study of its life from the purlieus of Little Bourke and Lonsdale streets to the palace of his 'model legislator' on Eastern Hill. Like Balzac, one of his favourite novelists, he made observation a severe and regular business, but he lacked the energy or the patience to take full advantage of its results. Balzac employed his accumulated materials in bursts of creative energy which, if terrible in their intensity and their drain upon his health, had at least method in them, and effected their purpose. Poverty did not swerve him, nor prosperity sate him.
That part of genius which consists in natural depth and accuracy of vision Clarke had in abundance, but he was weak in the lesser gifts of patience and synthetic power, perhaps also in ambition. Moreover, an unfortunate extravagance, which led from chronic debt to bankruptcy, compelled him to continue the class of work which gave the surest and most regular income.
Repeated requests by the Messrs. Bentley for more fiction were neglected from year to year, and similar indifference was shown to a flattering invitation to join the staff of the Daily Telegraph in London, an opportunity that would have led to the establishment of Clarke in those literary circles outside of which no purely Australian writer, with the exception of Rolf Boldrewood, has ever yet received adequate recognition.
Among Clarke's uncompleted writings are a few brilliant chapters of a novel which promised to be as permanent a record of his ability as the well-known convict story, though of a different kind. But the author had the unlucky faculty of attending to anything rather than the work which offered him certain fame and fortune, as well as the most natural employment of his powers. At the time of his death he was only in his thirty-fifth year. Probably with advancing life he would have become more settled in his tastes and habits, realising that the work at which he was happiest in every sense was the writing of novels, and that alone.
The satire and cynicism so noticeable in Clarke's writings, especially in his critical sketches and essays, are liable to give an inaccurate conception of his temperament. They obscure, as such characteristics nearly always do in literature, the gentler aspects of the writer's nature. His satire is, perhaps, too uncompromising. It often seems to reflect a personal bitterness, to take too little cognisance of the springs of human weakness. Undoubtedly brilliant in force and keenness, it yet too seldom produces the kind of hearty laugh with which Thackeray and Swift, for example, relieve their fiercest scorn. His personal experience of life had been discouraging. He had sounded its depths and sipped its pleasures; its rude facts found him deficient in self-control and fortitude. He had refused to learn the common logic of existence.
There is an element of tragedy in the rapid change which the unhappy circumstances of his private life wrought in his temperament. Addressing the disciples of Mrs. Grundy in an early essay defending the Bohemianism of his youth, he tells them that they are ignorant how easily good spirits, good digestion, and jolly companions enable a man to triumph over all the ills that flesh is heir to. 'You cannot know,' he adds, 'what a fund of humour there is in common life, and how ridiculous one's shifts and strugglings appear when viewed through Bohemian glass.... Life seems to you but as a "twice told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man" seems but as a vale of tears, a place of mourning, weeping, and wailing.... I wish ye had lived for a while in "Austin Friars"; it would have enlarged your hearts, believe me.'
This was the cheerful philosophy of Clarke as a young bachelor, after he had spent his slender patrimony, disappointed the successive efforts of friends to make a business man of him, and was about to begin the earning of a living by his pen. A dozen years later we see him with developed talents and a valuable name, but broken in fortune and spirit, and gloomily anticipating death months before it came. The Jew usurers, whose race he despised, had long been his real masters, and, with a nature sensitive in the extreme, he writhed in their bondage.
Improvidence had been not merely an unhappy incident, as it is in the lives of so many young men of artistic tastes; it had overweighted him more or less for years, and 'the thoughtless writer of thoughtful literature,' as the author of his biographical memoir has called him, sank beneath it while yet at the beginning of a career full of the brightest promise. The sort of companionship that pleased his careless youth had latterly proved unsatisfying, and to some extent distasteful to him. Its effects upon his character were so unfavourable that some who had been his companions in journalism felt it necessary, after his death, to credit him with a greater capacity for kindly forbearance towards humanity than is apparent in the bulk of his writings.
'My friend,' says one writer, 'was one of those many geniuses who appear to be born to prove the vast amount of contradictory elements which can exist in the same individual. In his case these contradictions were so apparent—and, if I may use the term, so contradictory—that, unless one knew him, it was impossible to believe what his nature was. On the one hand, he was recklessly generous, impulsively partisan, morbidly sensitive, and highly chivalrous; on the other, forgetful of obligations, defiantly antagonistic, unnecessarily caustic, and affectedly cynical.... His life was one of impulse, and the direction of the impulse depended solely on surrounding circumstances.... He has passed from us at an early age, leaving behind him some enemies made, perhaps, by his own waywardness; but he has left many friends, too,—friends who loved him for the good that was in him.'
In another sketch of the author, his character is thus summed up: 'Caustic he was sometimes, and cynical always; but beneath there beat a heart of gold—a heart tender and pitiful as a woman's.' This estimate is amply justified by the power of pathos and the often tender analysis of human feeling in For the Term of his Natural Life, however absent the same qualities may seem in many of the shorter stories.
An interesting picture of Clarke's personality is given by a writer in the Sydney Bulletin: 'His wit was keen and polished, his humour delicate and refined, and his powers of description masterly.... His face was a remarkable one—remarkable for its singular beauty. Like Coleridge, the poet, he was "a noticeable man with large grey eyes," and one had but to look into them to perceive at once the light of genius.... He was one of the best talkers I have ever met. Like Charles Lamb, he had a stutter which seemed to emphasise and add point to his witticisms. As in his writings, he had the knack of saying brilliant things, and scattering bons mots with apparent ease, so that in listening to him one felt the pleasure that is derived from such books as Horace Walpole's correspondence and those of the French memoir-writers.... He knew not how to care for money, yet he had none of those vices which ordinarily reduce men of genius to destitution, and are cloaked beneath the hackneyed phrase, "He had no enemy but himself."'
In all his journalistic criticism, Marcus Clarke scarcely more than pointed to the material which the life of such cities as Melbourne and Sydney offer a novelist capable of work like that of Mr. W. D. Howells, or the series of tales of urban society in America by Mr. Marion Crawford. There is now an opportunity, and, one might almost say, a need, for fiction which shall also, in effect, be salutary criticism. The Antipodes have lately illustrated the fact that a single decade will sometimes witness a notable change in the conditions of an entire people in a new and rapidly-developing country.
Thus, with the struggle for subsistence now keen to a degree which could not have been foretold by the gloomiest pessimist a few years ago; with Parliaments, hitherto safely democratic, threatened with Socialism by the increasing practice of electing artisans and labourers to do the legislative work of their respective classes; the crash of fortunes which never had substantial existence; the pauperising to-day of the paper millionaire of yesterday; the spectacle of worn, old men, after overreaching and ruining themselves, starting pitifully the race of life afresh, a sinister experience their sole advantage over the faltering novice; and that other common spectacle of democratic life, the secure and cultured rich cynically eschewing the active business of government,—with these and some social aspects still less agree able to contemplate there is ample subject-matter for any novelist who may have the disposition and ability to carry on the work which Clarke had indicated, but scarcely begun, before he died.
Long Odds, Clarke's first story, deals with English life, and bears no resemblance in quality or kind to the later novel with which his name is chiefly associated. It is primarily the tragedy of a mesalliance, and horseracing and politics assist the plot, with the usual complications of gambling and intrigue. The story has, however, a good deal less to do with sport than the title suggests. The plot is mainly concerned with the selfish, cruel, and infamous in human nature—a singularly dark theme for a young beginner in fiction to choose. Except at rare intervals when the business of characterisation is momentarily set aside, as in the vivid descriptions of the Kirkminster Steeplechase and the Matcham Hunt, there is little suggestion of youthful spirit or freshness.
The outlines of plot and incident are attractively arranged, the expression of life for the most part second-hand and artificial. There are traces of Dickens' burlesque without his sympathy, and the high colouring of Lytton with less than Lytton's wit. Disraeli's satire, too, is echoed in the political scenes. The young Australian squatter, whose experiences in England were to have formed the main purpose of the book, is allowed no opportunity to show the better, and rarely even the ordinary, capabilities of the new race of which he is ostensibly a type.
It is said to be a well-understood maxim of the novelist's art that many a liberty taken with hero or heroine, or both, is forgiven if the writer keeps a constant eye upon his villain, and deals honestly by him. In Long Odds there are two villains, and at least two others villainously inclined. Between the four of them the easy-going hero has no chance.
It is natural that, in the construction of a novel which aims at dramatic point before anything else, the 'simple Australian,' as his author is at last constrained to regard him, should seem less useful than the polished and unprincipled man of the world. But in this instance the balance of interest is too unequal. Dramatic quality has been secured at the expense of tone and proportion. Of the two male characters whose exploits in rascality it becomes the real business of the story to tell, Rupert Dacre is the more natural and entertaining.
There is an attention to detail in his portrait which suggests that the lineaments of the conventional society villain may have been filled in with the help of a little personal knowledge, perhaps of some of those morally doubtful individuals already mentioned as having been among the acquaintances of Clarke's early youth. Dacre is the chief cynic of the story, and to him are assigned the best of the dialogue and all of the small stock of humour to be found in the novel. But the man who is both his associate and enemy, Cyril Chatteris, is a common sort of dastard, and altogether disagreeable.
The author is not entirely forgetful of the interests of his nominal hero. If throughout three-fourths of the story Calverley is made the plaything of circumstances that favour only rogues, he is at last allowed a triumph in love and sport which, though unsatisfying from an artistic point of view, is calculated to soothe a not too fastidious taste for poetic justice.
Conscious of the conventional character of his principal theme, the author apparently sought to improve it by deepening its intensity. The result of this was to add more of weakness than of strength. Incidents that might have been effectively dramatic become melodramatic; the conceivably probable is sometimes strained into the obviously improbable. The agreeable finish to the minor love-story of Calverley and Miss Ffrench does not remove the general savour of sordidness which the reader carries away from the study of so much of the bad side of human nature.
In connection with criticism of this kind, it ought, however, to be noted that other hands besides the author's are known to have contributed to the novel. Shortly after it began to appear serially in the Colonial Monthly, Marcus Clarke fell from a horse while hunting, and sustained a fracture of the skull which interrupted his literary work for many weeks. How much of the writing had previously been done seems to be a subject of dispute. It is, however, quite clear that, in order to preserve continuity in the publication of the parts, Clarke's friends did write some portion of the story, but whether in accordance with the author's scenario, supposing one to have existed, has not been stated.
'Only a few of the first chapters' were the work of Clarke, says the editor of the Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume, writing in 1884; but in an article published in the Imperial Review (Melbourne) for 1886, the contributed matter is limited to a couple of chapters written by Mr. G. A. Walstab, and skilfully inserted in the middle of the novel. Walstab was one of Clarke's best friends, and he is no doubt the 'G. A. W.' to whom the story is dedicated 'in grateful remembrance of the months of July and August, 1868.'
From the absence of a prefatory explanation when Long Odds was published in book form in 1869, it may be assumed that Clarke was satisfied with the quality of the contributed work. At least, he was willing to take the full responsibility of its authorship. But even with this in view, it were well, perhaps, not to hold him too strictly accountable for the faults of the story. Not much must be expected from a first novel produced in the circumstances mentioned, and issued when the author was only twenty-three. In his haste to give it final shape immediately after the serial publication, he was probably ill advised. One can only regret that it was not set aside for a year or so, and written afresh, or, at least, largely revised. Perhaps this would have been expecting too much from so unmethodical a worker as Clarke. The far finer dramatic taste and literary form of his masterpiece, issued five years later, showed how little indicative of his talent was the earlier work.
In view of the large extent to which the life of the Australian landed classes has been described in fiction during the last twenty years, it is curious to read the plea Clarke offered to his Antipodean critics for passing over the literary material close at hand and preferring the well-worn paths of the English novelist.
During the serial publication of Long Odds the colonial press raised some objection to the laying of the scene in England instead of in Australia. The author replied simply that Henry Kingsley's Geoffry Hamlyn being the best Australian novel that had been, or probably would be, written, 'any attempt to paint the ordinary squatting life of the colonies could not fail to challenge unfavourable comparison with that admirable story.'
The excuse is just a little too adventitious to have convinced even those to whom it was originally addressed. None the less, it may at the moment have accurately represented the opinion of a beginner who at that time could scarcely have known the extent of his own powers.
Probably he had given the subject little thought. His colonial experience was certainly less varied than Kingsley's had been. Above all, his tastes, and in some degree his temperament, differed markedly from those of his predecessor in the field. The judgment or instinct that kept him from coming into direct competition with Kingsley—assuming his own questionable belief that any effort of his would have been competition—at least erred on the side of safety. That the immediate alternative should have been an imitative example of a hackneyed class of English novel, ineffective of purpose, book-inspired, and tainted with the deadness of cynicism, is something which admits of a more definite opinion.
'I have often thought,' says the writer, referring to the hero of Geoffry Hamlyn 'and I dare say other Australian readers have thought also, How would Sam Buckley get on in England? My excuse, therefore, in offering to the Australian public a novel in which the plot, the sympathies, the interest, and the moral, are all English, must be that I have endeavoured to depict with such skill as is permitted to me the fortunes of a young Australian in that country which young Australians still call "Home."'
Without this prefatory sign-post, the reader could never have suspected such a purpose. Clarke may have had it definitely in his mind when he first sat down to the work; but if so, it was put aside, consciously or unconsciously, after the completion of the first few chapters, in favour of more complex characterisation. Bob Calverley, the young squatter, really holds a third or fourth place in relation to the main motive of the story, and is used rather as a foil than as an exemplar of anything typically Australian. He does not bear any active part in the drama of passion and intrigue; he is not even permitted to be a passive spectator of it.
To say that he was good-natured, jovial, popular, 'the sort of man that one involuntarily addresses by his Christian name'; that although he was shy and awkward in the society of ladies, at ease with his own sex only when cattle and horses were the subject of conversation, ignorant of music, and unable to tell Millais from Tenniel, he 'could pick you out any bullock in a herd ... shear a hundred sheep a day ... and drive four horses down a sidling in a Gippsland range with any man in Australia,'—to say all this by way of preliminary, to add that Calverley was no fool, and yet to show him in scarcely any other guise than that of a trusting victim of rogues, is to go a very short distance in the portrayal of a typical Australian.
In the slack-baked condition in which we find him, he merely repeats the ordinary spectacle of green youth in the process of seeing life and buying experience at the usual high figure. Compared with the real squatter (who, ordinarily, is college-trained, and does not shear sheep nor risk his neck unnecessarily), Bob, the son of rich 'Old Calverley,' and nephew of an English baronet, is as an exaggerated stock-figure of the stage to the commonplace blood and brain of everyday life. A childlike trust in one's fellows, a reputation for good-nature, an untamable taste for horseflesh and the pursuits of the Bush, belong to every young squatter in a certain class of Australian fiction; they are qualities which may be applied indiscriminately, with always some effect.
The real squatter is a more civilised and reliable, if less picturesque, person. He likes both work and pleasure, provided they be suitably proportioned. His work is in the personal management of his properties; his pleasure is taken in the large cities. He entertains no fantastic prejudices against urban life, in proof of which he often spends his later years in some city hundreds of miles from the scene of his early toil and pastoral successes.
As a young man in London, he can be found with rooms at the Langham, the Metropole, or some other of the half-dozen fashionable hotels known to colonial visitors. There he will entertain his friends, joining with them, in turn, the continuous movements of the society season. He frankly lacks much of the ease and polish of the young Englishman, but his natural amiability and good spirits largely compensate for these deficiencies, while they preclude any feeling of discomfort on his own part.
During his three or six months' stay in London (the combination usually of a little business with a very full programme of pleasure) he spends freely, and in his tour of the clubs plays here and there a little at cards—perchance loses. Worldly beyond his reputation, and somewhat Chesterfieldian in his principles, he consents to be a Roman while at Rome. He has inherited the British hatred of fuss and personal peculiarity, and none shall call him mean. But, unlike many of his English friends at club and course, he has watched and taken some part in the hard process of making money, and knows the difference between a little gentlemanly extravagance and the reckless hazarding of a fortune. At least, it may be affirmed of him that in nine cases out of ten he is decidedly no fool.
These are only a few of the prominent outlines of the type of young man who, his holiday over, returns unspoiled to work on his own or his father's estates. Those whose passion for a horse destroys all self-control, who spend thousands in gambling and betting, who innocently take every smooth gentleman at his own valuation, are merely individuals—persons who may as unfailingly be found in England or elsewhere as in Australia.
Sam Buckley is a typical descendant of the British pioneer colonists, as every Australian knows. In attempting to give an answer to his own speculation of 'How would Sam Buckley get on in England?' Clarke presumably undertook to continue the portrayal of this type. The result, considered apart from the function Calverley fulfils in Long Odds, must be held as emphatically a failure.
Never was a novel written with a franker or more deliberate purpose than that shown in For the Term of his Natural Life. The author had the twofold object of picturing the dreadful crudities and brutalities of the early system of convict 'reformation' in Australia, and of preventing their possible repetition elsewhere. The first of these aims was attained with a fuller employment, and perhaps more moderate statement of historical facts, than can be found in any other fiction of the same class; the second was ineffective, because, when it found expression, the abuses which had suggested it no longer continued at the Antipodes, and could not conceivably be repeated on the existing settlements at Port Blair and Noumea.
The story was written a quarter of a century too late to assist the abolition of convict transportation to Australia. Had it appeared at the right time, it might have done much where formal inquiries and the testimonies of disinterested and humane observers had repeatedly failed. For sixty years the practice of deporting criminals had been carried on, upheld in England by official indifference and callousness, and in the colonies themselves by the greed of a small class of private persons who grew rapidly wealthy upon the strength of assigned convict labour, until the free emigrants by the authority of their numbers were able to insist upon its cessation. For so long as the colonies were willing to receive a population of criminals, so long was England only too anxious to supply them and make a virtue out of it. It mattered little to the official mind that the system was incurably bad and immoral; the main thing was to speedily and effectually transfer an awkward burden to other shoulders. The entire history of penal transportation from Great Britain throws a sinister light upon the national character. The practice originated with banishment of convicts to the American colonies under conditions which constituted a form of slavery.
The criminal on being sentenced became a marketable chattel of the State. His services were sold by public auction, the purchaser acquiring the right to transport him and sell him for the term of his sentence to a builder, planter, manufacturer, or other employer beyond the Atlantic. The price paid to the British Government averaged five pounds per head, and some of the more useful prisoners were resold in America for twenty-five pounds each. One of these dealers in convict labour, in giving evidence before a committee of the House of Commons, made a matter-of-fact complaint that 'the trade' was not so remunerative as people supposed. Artisans sold well, but the profit realised upon them was often consumed by losses upon some of the others. One-seventh of his purchases died on his hands, and in the course of business he had been obliged to give the old, the halt and the lame in for nothing. When the War of Independence closed the United States against the traffic, Britain was given a fresh opportunity to reconsider and place its penal system upon a more humane basis; but the temptation to adopt sweeping measures was once more too strong to be resisted. The promoters of the Australian scheme were in so great a hurry to seize their chance that they despatched over seven hundred convicts before even the site for the first settlement was chosen. The hardships which this characteristic act afterwards entailed are too familiar in history to need repetition. After such recklessness, it is no wonder that, as Sir Roger Therry has observed, 'the first-fruits of the system exhibited a state of society in New South Wales which the world might be challenged to surpass in depravity.'
A generation passed before the British Government reluctantly admitted transportation to be a failure. Lord John Russell, as late as 1847, discovered that it had been 'too much the custom to consult the convenience of Great Britain by getting rid of persons of evil habits, and to take that view alone.' In planting provinces which might become empires, they 'should endeavour to make them, not seats of malefactors and convicts, but communities which may set examples of virtue and happiness.'
This mild, platitudinous rebuke came when all the damage was done. It remained for the free inhabitants of Australia to point to a plainer principle in declaring that 'the inundating of feeble and dependent colonies with the criminals of the parent State is opposed to that arrangement of Providence by which the virtue of each community is destined to combat its own vice.'
To illustrate in a single story all the most prominent and pernicious features of the transportation system, Clarke had to invent a case of crime in which the criminal, unlike the majority of the worst offenders sent to the settlements, should always be worthy of the reader's sympathy. It was necessary that the felon be a victim as well as a felon; that he should not regain his liberty in any form, but continue by a series of offences against the authority of his gaolers to experience and display all the successive severities of Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur, and Norfolk Island. A fundamental fact to be exhibited was the impassable gulf of misunderstanding that might exist between capricious or incompetent prison officials and a criminal who, for any reason, had once come to be regarded as hopelessly vicious. 'We must treat brutes like brutes,' says the prime martinet of the story: 'keep 'em down, sir; make 'em feel what they are. They're here to work, sir. If they won't work, flog 'em until they will. If they work—why, a taste of the cat now and then keeps 'em in mind of what they may expect if they get lazy.'
The author chose to represent the extreme case of a man who, innocent of a murder charged against him, allowed himself to be transported under an assumed name in order to prevent the exposure of a long-concealed act of unfaithfulness on the part of a beloved mother.
Richard Devine is the bastard son of an aristocratic Englishwoman who in early youth was forced by her father into a loveless union with a rich plebeian. The single fault of the mother's life is confessed after twenty years, when the husband in a moment of anger strikes her high-spirited and obstinate son. The latter consents to leave his home for ever, and relinquish the name he has borne. On these terms the wife is spared. Richard Devine goes on the instant. Crossing Hampstead Heath, he comes upon a robbed and murdered man, and presently is arrested for the crime. The explanation that would save him would also cause the dreaded exposure of his mother, and so he withholds it, gives a false name, and, having put himself beyond the means of defence and the recognition of friends, is convicted and sentenced to transportation for life.
In making all the subsequent career of Rufus Dawes abnormally painful—that of a dumb sufferer who in sixteen years' confinement, ending only in a tragic death, experiences by turns every form of punishment and oppression—the author often touches, though it cannot be said he ever exceeds, the limits of possibility.
'Need one who was not a hardened criminal have suffered so much and so long?' is the question that continually recurs to the mind of the reader; but it is suggested by the prolonged and pitiful sense of unsatisfied justice rather than by any doubting that the extremes of penal discipline as practised in the name of the British Government between forty and sixty years ago could have been successively applied to a single human being. The writer adheres relentlessly to his central idea to the end. Dawes' unameliorated servitude and unavenged fate were intended to symbolise glaring anomalies of justice which never were remedied. The 'correction' he is subjected to was that which the laws of the time permitted, and which in many cases goaded its victims to draw lots to murder one another in order to escape from their misery.
Some of the least creditable features of convict transportation, of which it was said by Earl Grey in 1857 that their existence had been a disgrace to the nation, came to an end only when the system itself was abolished. But novelist and statesman alike struck at the abuses without feeling it necessary to mention any of the good results of the system. Its inherent merits were strictly few, indeed; yet they ought to be sought in history by anyone who would get a fair idea of the prison policy of the period. It is, of course, inevitable that the criticism conveyed in a strong imaginative work should fail to give a full view of results so complex as those produced by the largely haphazard method of the Australian penal settlements.
The practice of assigning prisoners to private employment, for example, produced notable effects upon society, of which Marcus Clarke's story gives but the faintest indication. If Rufus Dawes had been an ordinary first offender, he might have regained liberty soon after his arrival in Van Diemen's Land. But, as we have seen, it was the purpose of the author to make him exhibit all the rigours of convict discipline. His case must therefore be regarded as more exceptional than typical. As a rule, only men inveterate in crime were detained in constant punishment. Transportation for life meant servitude only for eight years if the convict conducted himself well, a condition which, of course, depended largely on the sort of master who secured his services. Major de Winton, an officer who served for some years on Norfolk Island, has mentioned that a prisoner by good conduct received a ticket-of-leave after he had been twice sentenced to death, thrice to transportation for life, and to cumulative periods of punishment amounting to over a hundred years!
An interesting view of Marcus Clarke as a literary workman is obtained from the story of the conception and laborious writing of For the Term of his Natural Life. It affords the first, and unhappily the last, evidence of how far he recognised the claims of realism in fiction; and from the account of his suffering under the self-imposed drudgery of keeping to the strict line of history, we see the man as his friends knew him contrasted with the conscientious artist known to the general reader of his famous novel.
The best of Clarke's minor writings display the results of much general culture, but give no proof of special preparation. They are short, concentrated, forcible—the natural expression of a brilliant, impetuous, and spasmodic worker. He overcame his natural repugnance to lengthened toil and minute thoroughness when he saw them to be essential conditions of his task. But the effort was a severe one.
In 1871, when about twenty-five years of age, he was ordered to recruit his health by a trip to Tasmania. He had been for over three years writing extensively for the press, and joining in the gaieties of Melbourne life at a rate which a constitution much stronger than his could not have withstood. The idea of writing a story of prison life had suggested itself previously during his reading of Australian history. Finding himself now without sufficient money for the proposed holiday, he decided to put into active progress this literary project which had hitherto been only vaguely outlined.
Printed records of the convict days there were in abundance at Melbourne, and from these alone such a writer could have made a sufficiently striking story. But he concluded that he could make his picture at once truer and more vivid when the surroundings of the old settlements had become a full reality to his mind. Messrs. Clarson, Massina and Co. readily contracted with the young novelist for the first publication of the story in their monthly, the Australian Journal, and made him an advance of money. Off he went with characteristic confidence, and some weeks later returned ready primed and eager for the new work. His enthusiasm soon cooled. The story commenced to appear after the first few chapters were written, and the unbroken industry necessary to maintain a regular supply of the parts was more than Clarke could give.
Writing against time, he is said to have felt like a convict himself. The irregular dribbling out of the story so injured the reputation of the journal that for a time its circulation was reduced to one-half the ordinary issue.
Mr. Hamilton Mackinnon, the writer of a sympathetic memoir of Clarke, has given an entertaining account of what followed: 'The author would be frequently interviewed by the publishers, and would as frequently promise the copy. When moral suasion was apparently powerless to effect the required object, payments in advance were made with somewhat better results; but as this could not go on ad libitum, copy would fall into arrears again. At last it was found that the only way to get the author to finish his tale was to induce him into a room in the publishing-house, where, under the benign influences of a pipe, etc., and a lock on the door, the necessary work would be done by the facile pen; and in such manner was His Natural Life produced.'
In a note of apology to their readers in January, 1871, the publishers print a somewhat comical letter which they had received from the delinquent author. Forwarding a single chapter of the story, he tells them that they must make shift with it as best they can, and he will let them have a larger supply during the following month. The letter concludes nonchalantly as follows: 'This is awkward, I admit, and I suppose some good-natured friend or other will say that I have over-plum-puddinged or hot-whiskied myself in honour of the so-called festive season, but I can't help it.'
The story as first published was much longer than the form in which it appears in the English edition. At the request of the present writer, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, who was one of Clarke's literary friends, supplies the following account of how the novel came to be so extensively curtailed:
'As one of the trustees to the public library (Melbourne), I saw Clarke constantly, and had always a friendly, and sometimes a confidential, conversation with him. He visited me now and then at Sorrento, and on one of these occasions he spoke of a story he had running through a Melbourne periodical about which he was perplexed. He asked me to read it, and tell him unreservedly what I thought of it. I read the story carefully, making notes on the margin, and wrote him frankly the impression it had made on me.
'After twenty years I can recall the substance of the letter, which is probably still in existence. A powerful story, I said, but painful as it is powerful. The incidents, instead of being depressing, would be tragic if they befell anyone we loved or honoured. But there was no one in the story whom he could have intended us to love or honour. The hero underwent a lifelong torture without any credible, or even intelligible, motive, and on the whole was a mauvais sujet himself. To win the reader's sympathy, all this must be altered. I strongly advised that the latter part of the story, in which the Ballarat outbreak was described under a leader whom he named Peter Brawler, should be omitted; and I objected to the publication of a song in French argot with a spirited translation, as the latter would naturally be attributed to the author of the novel, whereas I had read it in an early Blackwood before he was born.
'Marcus Clarke thanked me warmly, and said he would adopt all my suggestions. He wrote a new prologue, in which he made the protection of his mother's good name the motive of the hero's silence, and he omitted both the things I had objected to.'
Ending, as it began, with a tragedy, the artistic unity of the novel is thus preserved, and the dominant aim of the author emphasised. Many of those who read it in the serial parts strongly disapproved of the excisions, but there can be little doubt that the story is the stronger for their having been made.
It was as the work of a vivid historian, rather than of a social reformer, that Marcus Clarke's masterpiece won its popularity, and, for its dramatic and substantially accurate view of the worst (always the worst) aspect of convict life, it will continue to be read while anyone remains to take an interest in the unhappiest period of Australian history. From its pages may be learned how long it has taken the intelligent theorist of the British Government to acquire a practical method of treating a difficult social question; how long stupidity and inhumanity may be practised with the sanction of what Major Vickers was fond of respectfully calling 'the King's regulations'; and how far English gentlemen, remote from the influence of public opinion and invested with more power than single individuals should ever possess, may become despots, and even blackguards.
It is a grim record. Let those who are inclined to doubt it turn to the originals, especially to the report of the House of Commons Committee of 1837-38, and they will find facts which the creator of Rufus Dawes, with all his supple fancy and delicacy of language, could not bring himself even to indicate. There are episodes which the more matter-of-fact historians barely mention, but do not take advantage of their great privileges to describe. For example, there were times during the first thirty years of the century when the open and general lewdness of the officials on some of the principal settlements, in their relations with the female convicts, rendered them totally unfit for the positions they held.
Clarke in his researches obtained abundant knowledge of this, but made no use of it save in adding a few luminous touches to his portrait of Dawes' passionate and licentious cousin.
In reading the novel for its historical interest, it is necessary throughout to remember the limitation that the writer has specifically put upon himself. He did not undertake to illustrate any of the good effects of exile upon a section of the first offenders sent to the colonies, and scarcely touches the travesties of justice so often wrought by that lottery in human life known as the assignment system. His purpose is to describe 'the dismal condition of a felon during his term of transportation,' and to show the futility of a prison system loosely planned at one end of the world and roughly executed at the other by men who found it easier, and in some cases more agreeable, to their undiscerning hearts to coerce than to ameliorate.
The Parliamentary Committee defined transportation as 'a series of punishments embracing every degree of human suffering, from the lowest, consisting of a slight restraint upon freedom of action, to the highest, consisting of long and tedious torture.' It was with the latter part of the definition in mind that Clarke told his story. He chose to represent servitude in the chain-gangs of Van Diemen's Land and Norfolk Island as the condition of slavery which Sir Richard Bourke and Sir George Arthur admitted it to be, as the utter failure described by the experienced Dr. Ullathorne, and as the system recommended by the House of Commons Committee to be abolished as incapable of improvement and 'remarkably efficient, not in reforming, but still further corrupting those who undergo punishment.'
The idea which is the ganglion of Clarke's plot was always seen clearly, but never obsessed his mind as did a cognate theme that of the impetuous reformer Charles Reade. In his crusade against the form of punishment known as the 'silent system,' the English novelist obtrudes his moral with a frequency that weakens the effect of his often splendid eloquence. The direct opposite of this style is seen in the Australian novel. The author never openly preaches. His best effects are obtained by quiet satire conveyed in the gradual limning of his characters, and by occasional incidents of which each is allowed to give its own lesson to the reader. The facts have all the advantage of a studiously calm and impersonal presentation.
In the rapid progress of the plot the reader is kept keenly interested. If he have an eye for the moral he will detect it at once; if not, there is no importunate author to force it upon him. In either case he will find the story an absorbing one. 'It has all the solemn ghastliness of truth,' said Lord Rosebery, writing to the novelist's widow in 1884. He confessed that the book had a fascination for him. Not once or twice, but many times, had he read it, and during his visit to Australia he spent some time in viewing the scene of the old settlements and examining the reports upon which the novel is so largely based.
That there are some exaggerations in the treatment of facts need hardly be stated, but they are few in number, not serious in import, and outbalanced by numerous cases in which it has been necessary to modify the description of incidents either too painful or horrible to be fully depicted. As a compensation for its occasional storical inaccuracy, His Natural Life is notably free of the melodramatic excesses that most young writers would have been tempted to commit. Clarke was too good an artist to think of pleading the sanction of facts for any misuse of the privileges of good fiction. To maintain a strong impression on the reader, his touch is occasionally strong and fearless, like that of Kipling. But this object attained, he uses his materials with an almost unnecessary reticence. The episode of the cannibalism of Gabbett and his fellow-convicts is exceptional. Yet it purposely falls short of the terrible original, which is happily hidden away from general view between the covers of an old Parliamentary report.
It has been said of Clarke, by one of his friends, that in his estimate of motives he was invariably cynical. Though the assertion goes too far, it seems to suggest the best explanation of his notable preference for delineating the dark side of human nature. He appeared ever to see vice more clearly, or at any rate to find it more interesting for the purposes of fiction, than the good or the neutral in character. But his cynicism—if it really formed a settled feature of his character—was not of the kind that implies any indifference to injustice or dishonesty. In this particular, both his fiction and essays have no uncertain tone. It is indeed a fault of Clarke that his bad characters are in most cases wholly bad. He makes Frere abandon a life of debauchery under the influence of a pure woman's affection, but the effect is afterwards destroyed by evidences that the attachment on the man's side is sensual and based on vanity. Moreover, Frere the prison tyrant and base denier of Dawes' heroism remains unexcused.
Bob Calverley and Miss Ffrench, the only important representatives of the ordinary virtues in Long Odds, are little more than dim shadows contrasted with the clearly-marked personalities of half a dozen others in the story who are rogues, or the associates and instruments of rogues. 'The human anguish of every page' of His Natural Life which Lord Rosebery found so compelling to his attention, need not have been so continuous and unqualified.
The author seems purposely to have ignored the opportunity afforded by the story for the introduction of a character who, while asserting the claims of Rufus Dawes and the broader interests of humanity, need not have defeated the main motive of the plot. It was a decided error not to gratify in this way the combative instinct of the reader. The Rev. James North—'gentleman, scholar, and Christian priest'—might have been an active opponent of cruelty like Eden, the clergyman in It's Never Too Late to Mend, instead of being made a pitiable example of a confirmed and self-accusing drunkard.
The strength of His Natural Life lies not so much in the ingenuity and dramatic quality of its plot, as in the number of striking personalities among its leading characters. That of Rufus Dawes, curiously, is distinct only at intervals. It represents, for the most part, a hopeless sufferer passing through a series of punishments which become almost monotonous in their unvaried severity.
But what could be more luminous than the portrait of Sarah Purfoy, the clever, self-possessed adventuress with the single redeeming quality of an invincible love for her worthless and villainous convict-husband? or that of Frere, the swaggering, red-whiskered, coarsely good-humoured convict-driver, glorying in his knowledge of the heights and depths of criminal ingenuity and vice, and frankly ignorant of all else?
How naturally from such a person comes that savagely humorous dissertation upon the treatment of prisoners! 'There is a sort of satisfaction to me, by George! in keeping the scoundrels in order. I like to see the fellows' eyes glint at you as you walk past 'em. Gad! they'd tear me to pieces if they dared, some of 'em.'