Home > 19th Century, Australian Literature, Clarke Marcus, Classics > For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

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.


  1. May 10, 2018 at 11:09 pm

    Wow Emma! I admire your ambition, your persistence in reading this, and although it’s a very long long time since I read it myself, your perceptiveness in how you classify it.

    Marcus Clarke’s great novel was for a long time regarded as the pinnacle of early Australian culture, though when the Sydney Bulletin ushered in a new style of writing about Australia in the 1890s Clarke was also derided as the leader of a Melbourne-based school – old fashioned and too European – the same criticisms directed at women writers like Ada Cambridge you reviewed earlier.

    Unfortunately, while For the Term of His Natural Life has been endlessly in print, Clarke’s female counterparts, who were both far more prolific and more readable, have not been so lucky.


    • May 11, 2018 at 9:41 pm

      Thanks Bill, I can’t say it was an easy read. And now I’m struggling with Remembering Babylone.

      I think that Ada Cambridge writes better than Clarke, from the one book I’ve by each of them. Like I said, he sounds old fashioned compared to let’s say Trollope or ME Braddon or Thomas Hardy. This is contemporary to Hardy’s early novels, the ones I’ve read. And I never had the impression to read something from the 18thC.

      It’s sad to think that Cambridge was seen as a lower writer because she was female.

      After reading Clarke’s novel, it’s safe to say that not everyone can be Alexandre Dumas. It reminds us what a great writer Dumas was. His genre seems light and easy but it’s hard to achieve. (Like good crime fiction) He was never regarded as highly as he should be, probably because he was creole. He’s buried at the Pantheon, though.

      I haven’t read Defoe, I don’t know how much Clarke borrowed to Robinson Crusoe for the book where Frere, Sylvia, Julia and Rufus Dawe are stuck on a hostile and deserted shore.

      I didn’t write anything about it in my billet but I had a lot of fun reading the passages about French literature. Scandalous, apparently. Especially Rabelais. (Why???) I suppose he also meant Zola, Clarke’s novel was published at the same time as the Rougon-Maquard. And Madame Bovary, of course…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. May 11, 2018 at 9:15 am

    Wow, Emma, I’m so impressed you read this big tome in English. I think the book is one of the early books in a genre that’s come to be known as Tasmanian Gothic (which is a subset of Australian Gothic). It draws on the forbidding nature of remote Aussie landscapes (the way 18th century European Gothic drew on the turrets and tunnels in castles.

    Re the language. I love your comments on that. I’d say that some of what you note – “succour” and “essayed” in particular reflects the more formal language of 19th century literature. As an English language reader, I wouldn’t be surprised by those words in an 1870s novel but I would in a 1970s one.


    • May 11, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      Thanks Sue.

      I love the creativity of academics when it comes to literary genres. Tasmanian Gothic? Are there enough books of this genre to create a dedicated category for them?

      He does write a lot about how hostile the nature is. The convicts try to escape the penal settlement several times. There’s also a scene where Rufus Dawe is isolated from the others on a hostile rock when Port Macquarie is still open. He’s like a Greek Titan chained to his rock. The convicts wander into the wilderness but never meet any Aboriginal communities.

      I thought it was strange and then read on Wikipedia that at the time of the novel they were either dead or deported. What a shame.

      About the language. I know 19thC literature is more formal than contemporary lit. But here it sounds older than what you read in Far From the Madding Crowd which was published the same year.


      • May 12, 2018 at 12:37 am

        Yes, Emma, Tasmanuan Gothic is quite the thing and is very much still alive. I’ve reviewed a couple on my blog. I thought I’d Google to find something to point you to, and in fact there’s a decent article re Tasmanian Gothic in Wikipedia. You might like to check it.

        Re the language, we could perhaps argue that although it was published around the time of Hardy it is set 50 years or so earlier. That might count for the difference.

        I like your questions on these books.


        • May 14, 2018 at 12:45 pm

          I had a look at the Wikipedia entry about Tasmanian Gothic. I’m intrigued and I know I should stay away from these books.
          Do you think that the cannibal character in Clarke’s novel is inspired by Alexander Pearce?

          I didn’t think about the fact that Clarke was writing a “historical” novel. (I never know when a book is considered as historical.)
          Has Australian English kept older words in its vocabulary compared to English from Britain? It’s the case with the French from Quebec, that’s why I’m asking.


          • May 14, 2018 at 1:03 pm

            No I wouldn’t say Australian English has kept a lot of older words compared to British English – not our current language. But I’m not a linguist.

            Historical fiction is an interesting one, but my rule of thumb is that if a book is set about a generation before the time the writer is writing. So, I think that writers today setting books in the 1970s (or even 1980s) are writing historical fiction. (It’s something we talk about a bit in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

            I think Pearce is the inspiration for Clarke.


            • May 20, 2018 at 9:33 pm

              Thanks for your vision on historical fiction. I think it’s a fair criteria.


  3. May 31, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    The language does sound old-fashioned for me even for the period, but I’m not familiar with Australian fiction of that time (or indeed of this time) and perhaps there was a more formal style?

    That aside, I think I have a new rule. Not to read any book in which people throw themselves to the ground in rage and regret (or any other emotion really). Do people ever actually do that outside the pages of 19th Century fiction? It sounds painful.


    • June 1, 2018 at 1:13 pm

      I wondered about the evolution of Australian English because I know that in French from Quebec, some oldfashioned words still exist.
      Or as it was mentioned in the comments, it was deliberate on Clarke’s side because he was writing historical fiction.

      Re-you new rule. I like it. Yes people do throw themselves to the ground in rage… when they are toddlers. I believe it seldom happens to growups.
      Seriously, it always triggers the same reaction in me, a *rolling my eyes* “oh no dear, not again”


  1. October 27, 2018 at 8:14 am
  2. January 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm

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