Convict ordeal distilled into its brutal essence
Rohan Wilson celebrates the wild brilliance of our foundation historical novel
Visit a gift shop in Tasmania. Beyond the plush tigers and devils, the Huon pine key rings, the wilderness postcards and the dried lavender, somewhere in a corner on a low bookshelf you’ll find a copy of For the Term of His Natural Life. Marcus Clarke’s fictional history, first published in book form in 1874, is the face Tasmania presents to the world. It’s how we explain our idiosyncrasies. Read this, we say, and you’ll understand. Read this, and see where we come from. You could be in Hobart, Strahan, Burnie or Bicheno. It doesn’t matter. There’s always a gift shop, always a copy of Clarke’s great book.
I first encountered Clarke in a gift shop. My father, a peerless cray fisherman, docked his boat full of pots at the Port Arthur jetty and let us out to explore. It was the school holidays, sometime in the late 1980s. I was terrified. I knew all about Port Arthur. I knew it was haunted by ghosts and was the site of unspecified horrors. We had breakfast in the cafe — the same cafe where Martin Bryant would later commit his infamous massacre — and after we ate I went straight for the gifts. I remember holding Clarke’s book and looking at the cover, which depicted men in chains and men in cells. Something about the expressions of those men told me that the real story of Port Arthur was not the ghosts. The real story was what had happened to the prisoners. To a young, easily scared boy, that story seemed too forbidding.
It would be another two decades before I finally read For the Term of His Natural Life: the tale of Rufus Dawes, the unluckiest man who ever lived, who is transported to Van Diemen’s Land after being framed for the murder of his father. On being transported, he survives a series of ever more unlucky events — a mutiny, a failed suicide attempt, a gutsy rescue mission — before eventually arriving at Port Arthur, where the worst luck of all awaits.
The only person who can save him, the forthright colonial girl Sylvia Vickers, has married his sworn enemy, the cruel overseer Maurice Frere. After suffering a bout of pneumonia, Sylvia forgets that it was Rufus who rescued her and Maurice from starvation at the Sarah Island prison settlement. This is the last arrow of outrageous fortune that poor Rufus can take. He descends into misery. But his suffering is not yet complete. Just when it appears things can get no worse for Rufus, the roguish John Rex arrives to steal his identity and his inheritance.
If all this sounds nightmarish, then that is more or less the point. Clarke wrote the original serialisation of this book in the early 1870s, almost 20 years after transportation to the island had ceased and the colony had been renamed Tasmania. By then, convictism was already history. Like many people, Clarke found the period fascinating. He began a series of articles for The Australasian called Old Stories Retold, which looked at some of the nastiest aspects of convict life. He researched, he interviewed and he trav- Port Arthur is the scene of great suffering and horror in Marcus Clarke’s groundbreaking novel, first serialised in the 1870s elled. And soon the articles morphed into something much larger. In this regard, Clarke’s novel is perhaps best understood as Australia’s first major work of historical fiction, and it begins the nation-building project of capturing, in narrative form, the process of our becoming. That process in Tasmania was, of course, one of brutal penal servitude.
There is no more potent a symbol of transportation than Port Arthur. Nowadays, the penitentiary has lost much of its gothic power. The ruins of it stand peacefully in the forest near Eaglehawk Neck, just as the remains of the Roman past stand in forests all across Europe. Perhaps its chief function is to remind us that we don’t have access to the past, only to its mediated restorations. (The English artist John Glover used the imagery of Roman ruins in his paintings until he came to Van Diemen’s Land in 1831, whereupon he started filling the holes in his landscapes with frolicking Aborigines, which served a similar thematic purpose.) It’s easy to imagine the young English-born journalist Marcus Clarke visiting Port Arthur in 1870, while the prison was still in operation, and hearing the stories of how hard life had been in the early days. He was surely overwhelmed by the horror of what he heard and saw, or at least that’s the impression you get from reading For the Term of His Natural Life.
And in no small measure it was his writing that ensured Port Arthur became the pre-eminent symbol of the humiliation and suffering visited upon the convict class.
This is reflected in the sensationalist nature of the novel. The bad luck that Rufus Dawes suffers often strains credulity — but, as incredible as much of the action appears, most of it has a basis in the historical records. The final ship to leave the Sarah Island settlement was in