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For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

May 10, 2018 12 comments

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. (1874) French title: La justice des hommes.

Published in 1874, For The Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke is an Australian classic that explores the convict era in Tasmania, then Van Dieman’s Land. From what I read on Wikipedia, some of the facts described in the novel are actual stories from the penal settlements in Port Macquarie and Port Arthur.

The book opens on a tragic scene: We’re in 1827 and Richard Devine, son of a rich shipbuilder discovers that he is a bastard, that his real father is actually Lord Bellasis. Sir Devine senior disowns him and says that his money will go to a relative, Maurice Frere. When he’s about to leave his home, he stumbles upon a murder. Lord Bellasis has just been killed! Richard Devine is soon accused of the murder, takes a new identity and is sent to the penal settlement of Port Macquarie.

The first book of the novel is the journey on the Malabar from England to Tasmania. Richard Devine is now Rufus Dawes. Lieutenant Maurice Frere is on board, as an officer in charge of the convicts. Captain Vickers embarked on this ship with his wife Julia and his daughter Sylvia to take the commandment of the penal settlement in Port Macquarie. Sarah Purfoy is travelling with them as Julia’s maid but she’s actually following her lover, John Rex who is a convict. Blunt is the captain of the Malabar. The voyage will settle the characters and the relationships between them. Sarah Purfoy will be forever in love with John Rex and his freedom is her reason to live. She uses her charms on Maurice Frere and on Blunt. Sylvia takes an instant dislike for Maurice Frere, showing the instinctual assessment children have of adults. Frere will become a powerful master of penal settlements.

We will follow them during twenty years. I won’t tell too much about the plot. Let’s say it’s full of twists and turns.

Marcus Clarke uses his novel to describe the convict system. It’s a lot like slavery, except that the convicts have no monetary value, contrary to slaves. It’s always in their administrative coldness that inhumane businesses inadvertently show their inhumanity. Imagine that someone bothered to write rules about transporting convicts, how much space per person there was supposed to be on the ship, the living rules like “no talking” between convicts and such trivial matters like this. Sailors were rewarded with a lump sum per capita for each convict that reached their destination alive.

Then there’s the description of the penal settlements. Marcus Clarke describes them as natural prisons: wilderness around them is such that escape is nearly impossible. Tasmania is an island anyway and the natural setting of the settlements kept the convicts from evasion.

Colonel Arthur reported to the Home Government that the spot which bore his name was a “natural penitentiary”. The worthy disciplinarian probably took as a personal compliment the polite forethought of the Almighty in thus considerately providing for the carrying out of the celebrated “Regulations for Convict Discipline”.

The settlements are far from civilization and their commander can organize life as they wish. Convicts work in awful conditions. They are flogged, punished and mentally tortured. Frere sets up a system to discipline and punish the convicts that is inhuman.

Sylvia is the only one who doesn’t agree with the management of the settlement and who feels compassion towards the convicts. She’s the one who criticizes the idea of penal settlement and questions its use.

There is no one to really help the convicts out there. As a woman, Sylvia has no power. Clergymen are appointed to preach the convicts but they are ill-equipped to deal with this environment. See poor Mr Meekin when he arrives at Maquarie Harbour:

Mr. Meekin, more astonished than ever at this strange country, where beautiful young ladies talked of poisoning and flogging as matters of little moment, where wives imprisoned their husbands, and murderers taught French, perfumed the air with his cambric handkerchief in silence.

Imagine Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice thrown into a penal settlement and you’ll see how useless Mr Meekin was.

The way Marcus Clarke describes the penal settlements, there’s absolutely no hope for the prisoners. They are not considered as human beings anymore. They have no value in the eyes of their jailers. They degraded them to a convict status that deprives them from basic rights. They become Others with this Otherness that Toni Morrison describes about Blacks. Their jailers can treat them as badly as they want, no moral judgment will be passed on them because their mistreatments are done to people who are not fully human.

And the British government has no control over what happens in these penal settlements and probably turns a blind eye about it.

The aspect of convict life interested me a lot. France had penal settlements in various places, the most famous ones being in French Guiana. Its well-knows prisoners are Dreyfus and Henri Charrière who later wrote Papillon, an autobiography about experience as a convict. This penal settlement was running from 1852 to 1953. I remember being horrified by Papillon when I read it.

As I said, I was interested in the workings of the penal settlements but I would have enjoyed For The Term of His Natural Life a lot more if it had been written in a more sober manner and if the discussions about the penal system had been more challenging.

I had trouble with the book’s style and its literary genre. I’m not proficient enough in literature to tell exactly what genre it is but there were too many gothic elements for my liking. It refers to several other works of literature, the most obvious ones being Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I thought that the descriptions of boat building after some characters were left behind on an hostile coast would never end. There’s also plenty of angst like in Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein.

Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage and regret.

See what I mean?

From the beginning, I thought about Le Comte de Monte Cristo and it’s clearly a sort of Ariadne thread along the book.

The secret, for the preservation of which Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine was dead—lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which, deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live. Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both, in defiance of gaol or gaoler.

Kind of obvious, no? And somewhere along the way, there’s a direct reference to Dumas. This probably explains why I was so disappointed with the gothic ending. Not at all what I expected.

Frequent fliers with this blog know that I’m so NOT a good reader for Gothic/Romantic/Adventure books. So, even if Clarke’s novel is considered as a great piece of literature, it didn’t quite work for me. I felt sorry for Rufus Dawes but his over-the-top attitude prevented me from totally rooting for him.

I also read it in English and phew, that was an ordeal. I usually don’t have problems with 19th century literature. There’s no slang, it’s formal language all along which means a lot of French-looking words I can guess even if I didn’t previously know them.

But here, some sentences looked so French that they bothered me. It felt like hearing a French man smattering English. Things like “I could render her happy” (For me a typical French way of speaking “Je pourrais la rendre heureuse”) or “[he] whispered a last prayer for succour.” with the use of succour (in French secours) instead of help. And the use of the verb essay (like essayer) instead of try, threw me off. (John Rex essayed to climb the twin-blocks that barred the unknown depths below him.)

There were also specific words. During the first part, I had problems with ship vocabulary. It led to puzzling moments like when I read that at six p.m. the poop guard was removed to the quarter-deck. It took my reading the sentence aloud to realize that poop meant poupe in French as in a part of the ship and that nobody was actually guarding the loo.

I’m curious to hear about what native English speakers think about Clarke’s style. It sounded old fashioned to me compared to books of that time.

I’ll say that I’m glad I read For The Term of His Natural Life to learn about penal settlements in Australia but it wasn’t an agreeable read for me, mostly because its genre is not my cup of tea.

PS: I thought I’d share a tip about downloading the quote you highlighted while reading on a kindle. See here.

 

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