Originally written as a monthly installment in 1870-1872 under the title His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke’s classic was later published as a book in 1874 with the title, For the Term of His Natural Life. Some of the characters and events in Clarke’s book are based upon real people and actual events which help to portray a realistic picture of convict life in Van Dieman’s Land.
The story centres around the injustices, blunders and futility of the English system of transportation, which was used as a method of punishment at the time, by telling the tale of one man as he serves his sentence.
Richard Devine, a young Englishman, allows himself to be convicted of a crime he did not commit in order to protect his mother’s reputation.
Adopting the name Rufus Dawes, he gives up his true identity, and withholding information that would have gained his release, is sent to the Australian penal colony in Van Dieman’s Land ‘for the term of his natural life.’
Just under 500 pages long, the book is divided into four parts:
Book One: The Sea: 1827
The account of the sea journey from England where Rufus Dawes encounters the brutal lieutenant, Maurice Frere, his nemesis all through the story, and the lovely Sylvia, daughter of the Captain.
During the voyage a mutiny is planned by some of the the convicts and by chance the plot is overheard by Dawes who reports it to the Captain and the mutiny is squashed. However, the mutineers revenge themselves on Dawes by saying that he was the instigator of the plot.
Book Two: Macquarie Harbour: 1833
The mutineers’ sentence is commuted to six years at the penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour on the desolate west coast of what is now Tasmania. Dawes is fettered and confined to a solitary area and attempts to kill himself by flinging himself into the sea. The shock of the ice cold water brings back his sense of self-preservation and a huge drifting log loosened from a nearby raft becomes his means of preservation. He gains land only to find the settlement has been abandoned and he is on his own.
But meanwhile there had been another mutiny and Dawes comes upon Lieutenant Frere, the Captain’s wife and her daughter, Sylvia who had been abandoned by the prisoners. Dawes uses his knowledge and skills to keep them all alive and wins the affection of Sylvia who calls him, ‘Good Mr. Dawes.’ He eventually builds a vessel which enables them to escape but Sylvia falls into a delirium and is unable to recall what has happened and when they are picked up by an English vessel, Frere takes the credit for everything Dawes has done and Dawes is sent to Port Arthur to finish his sentence.
Book Three: Port Arthur: 1838
Sylvia, still unable to recall the part Dawes played in her deliverance and not knowing Frere’s true character, agrees to marry him after a few years. Frere meanwhile lives under the constant threat of the truth being revealed and over time his brutal and crude nature come to the fore.
A group of convicts involved in the initial mutiny plan and execute another escape. One of them is John Rex who had once been employed by a man in England to discover the whereabouts of his stepson, who happened to be none other than Richard Devine. Rex had unravelled some of the mystery surrounding Dawes and when he realises that he has found the missing stepson he plots to secure the fortune that was left to Devine upon the death of his stepfather.
Book Four: Norfolk Island: 1846
Rex escapes and finds his way to England. He impersonates Richard Devine, whom he greatly resembles, and lives in high style but his coarse ways and profligate life disgust Devines’ mother who begins to doubt his legitimacy. Lady Devine confronts Rex and the mystery behind why her son allowed himself to be convicted in the first place is revealed. In a curious twist of fate Rex finds his own life so inextricably linked with the man he is trying to supplant.
Although For the Term of His Natural Life contains elements of Victorian melodrama and has some unbelievable twists and coincidences, Marcus Clarke drew upon official reports (documented in an appendix at the end of the book) to furnish his tale and spent time as a journalist in Tasmania studying the convict system.
The author’s descriptions of the landscape are palpable. I’ve been to both Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur a few times and I thought he captured the atmosphere of both places well.
For the Term of His Natural Life is an Australian Classic and I kept thinking that I should read it at some stage. I put it off because I thought it would be too depressing. It is bleak but it has an ebb and flow to it that kept me reading, waiting to see if ‘Good Mr. Dawes’ was going to get justice. The story reminded me in some ways of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but it was a long time ago that I read that book and it was very a different setting – perhaps it was the suffering the main characters endured.
I’d definitely pre-read and even then it would be a book I’d only recommend for mature readers in late high school and I’d want to discuss some of the content with them. Besides the brutality and allusions to cannibalism, the two Ministers of Religion in the book are presented as 1) a Pharisaical type, shallow, self-serving and ineffectual 2) a man with a conscience and compassion but who struggles with a hidden addiction to alcohol and his love for a married woman.
The picture below is from an out of print hardback copy of the book which I own but the image of the book I put at the top of this post is of an edition of the book that is in print.
The book is available as a free Kindle version here.
I’m linking this post to Brona’s Books: