Marcus Clarke – novelist, journalist and bohemian

Convict flogging in Australia
MICHAEL WILDING remembers a foundational Australian writer

Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life is one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. The classic indictment of the horrors of the English convict system established in Australia, it is the story of Richard Devine, transported for a crime he did not commit and transmuted into the convict Rufus Dawes. The world of the Tasmanian convict settlement he encounters is presented in unforgettable detail: the career criminal John Rex, the brutal officer Maurice Frere, the alcoholic clergyman Rev North, the young daughter of the camp commander, Sylvia, and the horrific episodes of floggings, homosexual rape, child suicide, cannibalism, escapes and recaptures. Retitled For the Term of His Natural Life after Clarke’s death, His Natural Life has never been out of print since it was first published in 1874. As well as Australian, British and American editions, it has been translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Chinese, and adapted for the stage, cinema, television and graphic novel.

Marcus Clarke was born in the London borough of Kensington on 24 April 1846. He was an only child and his mother Amelia died of tuberculosis just before his fourth birthday. He was educated at Highgate School, where his closest friends were the brothers Cyril and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Gerard described Marcus as a ‘Kaleidoscopic, Parti-coloured, Harlequinesque, Thaumatropic being’, and reinvented his surname as ‘Marcus Scrivener’ – which Clarke used as a pseudonym in his earliest writings . Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge, grandson of the poet, ‘I must tell you that Clarke writes very good poetry. He and I compare notes and ideas.’ They collaborated on various projects, noted in Gerard’s journals and in the biography of Marcus that Cyril was later to write.

In 1863, Clarke’s father, a barrister with a good London practice in chancery, suddenly fell ill, lost the power of speech, and was put into an asylum at Stoke Newington, where he died on 1 December. Marcus wrote to Cyril Hopkins:

I remember, when my father was first taken ill, his telling me that I should be well provided for. He worked too hard and too long; which produced his final and fatal attack of paralysis … My cousins thought that he was worth at least seventy thousand pounds … Judge then of our consternation at finding affairs in the greatest confusion, the house in Ireland (left him by his elder brother) sold, and only a certain sum at his banker’s. Records of nothing! His cheque books showing large sums of money drawn out of his banking account with no trace of where they went to.

Poor Clarke is on the voyage out to Australia, his father having met with a paralysis of the brain,’ Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge .

Three months before his father died Marcus was packed off to Australia where his uncle James was a judge in Victoria. Earlier, his uncle Andrew had been Governor of Western Australia and his cousin Andrew the first Surveyor-General and Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands for Victoria, and Member of Parliament for Emerald Hill. Marcus was found a job in a bank. Hamilton Mackinnon, in his biographical introduction to Clarke’s writings, records Clarke’s farewell encounter with the manager:

 Clarke: “I have come to ask, sir, whether you received my application for a few weeks’ leave of absence.”

‘The Manager: “I have, Mr Clarke.”

‘Clarke: “Will you grant it to me, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Certainly, Mr Clarke, and a longer leave, if you desire it.”

‘Clarke: “I feel very much obliged. How long may I extend it to, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Indefinitely, if you do not object!”

Marcus Clarke at 20

Clarke worked on the Swinton and Ledcourt sheep stations in the Wimmera district of Western Victoria for a couple of years from 1865­ to 1867. Arthur Patchett Martin wrote of Clarke’s time there:

It is said that Mr Holt, the squatter, used to tell how he debauched the unsophisticated minds of his boundary-riders, by reading to them the too realistic pages of the great Balzac. He was in the habit of propounding theories as to the proprietorship of land resembling those of Mr Henry George, and which, it must be confessed, were not calculated to make those rude sons of toil contented with their lot.

Returning to Melbourne, Clarke found work as a journalist with The Argus newspaper and its associated weekly, The Australasian. He did the usual things. He wrote a review of a concert performance that, unknown to him, the singer had cancelled through illness. It lost him his reporting job, but he still continued to contribute as a freelance, and retained a regular column, ‘The Peripatetic Philosopher’.

He remarked on the ‘instincts of monopoly of the parsimonious management of the Theatre Royal’ and warned about the production that ‘they have selected to mutilate’. The Theatre Royal sued for defamation and won a farthing’s damages on each of two counts ,  and Clarke, who had written and adapted a number of plays, got no further work in the theatre for the next five years.

When the Argus and the Age boycotted the Melbourne Cup over a dispute about free tickets, Marcus wrote a report of it for the Herald,allegedly obtained by camera obscura. It read like something out of a novel. It was. Marcus had recycled an account of a race from his first novel, Long Odds. Writing for the Herald lost him any further work with the Argus group.

Amidst it all he plunged into la vie Bohème. The Café de Paris of the Melbourne Theatre Royal was one of Clarke’s favourite hangouts. ‘Founded by a gentleman who had some difficulty in paying his bricklayers,’ Clarke wrote, it became the fashionable place for the Bohemians of the time. Theatre people, journalists, and others’. Especially others.

Clarke described his lifestyle at that time:

I was living then in Fig Tree Court with my friend Savage, and we dined at the Café daily. We were not rich, for we had both dissipated our incomes in the exact manner recorded of the Prodigal Son. I wrote for the Peacock, and Savage for the Screechowl.We made some four pounds sterling a week — and we were really thankful (not being grocers or drapers) to earn so much. The morning was spent in scribbling, the afternoon in tobacco, the evening in dinner, theatre, and gaslight. I fear we did not lead virtuous lives. I am sure that we were often out of bed after the small hours. I know that Madame Gogo and Lisette de Jambejolie assisted in the spending of the Peacock’s bounty.

The journalist Charles Bright recalled meeting Clarke at the Café de Paris:

I noticed as a peculiarity of the newcomer that he partook of absinthe, a drink rarely called for by any but Frenchmen, and I asked if he liked it.

‘“Not particularly,” he said, “but I’m experimenting with it. They say it’ll drive a fellow mad in a month and I want to find out if that’s a fact. I’ve tried opium-smoking, and rather like that. There are a lot of lies told about these things, you know, and we have scriptural authority for proving all things and holding fast that which is good. I can’t say yet if absinthe be good, or not.”

With the right family connections, Clarke joined the establishment Melbourne Club in 1868. In the same year he helped establish the more Bohemian and literary Yorick Club with Frederick Haddon, another young Englishman, who was editor of The Argus.

The Yorick Club provided a meeting ground for fellow writers and journalists. Initially the group moved to a café, but the regulars there objected to the noise they made, so a room was rented for £1 a week in the Punch office. The Argus office was next door. Mueller’s tavern was below. ‘In its early days Mueller catered for the club until two o’clock in the morning, after which it stayed open until four or five o’clock for members who were newspaper printers.’

The first official meeting of the club was held 1 May 1868. Dr Patrick Moloney, a friend of Clarke’s and at this time an intern at Melbourne Hospital, gave Clarke a skull which Clarke brought to the club room and placed on the mantel-shelf with a pipe under its jaw. Clarke suggested the club should be called the ‘Golgotha’ because it was ‘the place of skulls’. According to the 1911 history, The Yorick Club: Its Origin and Development,he ‘hammered away at the idea all night’ but the club ended up being called the Yorick — an allusion not only to Hamlet but to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

In the end Clarke got very huffy, took his skull and disappeared, not returning for some days. He gave the skull to the actor Walter Montgomery, who was playing Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, and used it in the famous ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ soliloquy.

Clarke himself wrote about the club in his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column in The Australasian, 2 May 1868, still calling it the Golgotha.

Everybody wants to know the secrets of the prison-house, and as Timmins, one of our number, incautiously told his wife that we keep a skull on the mantelshelf, there is much suspicion and terror around. I may briefly mention, however, that the story of the newspaper lad being scraped to death with oyster shells at a late supper, and buried in the back kitchen, is not absolutely true in all its details.

It is a wonder that he could mention anything, since the first official meeting had occurred only the previous day; and the article would have had to have been written two days before that in order to meet The Australasian’s deadline.

The poet Henry Kendall, who moved to Melbourne from Sydney the following year, described his first visit to the club:

Facing the landing, an old door opened into an aromatic room, which, I was informed, did duty as ‘the reading, talking, and smoking-den’. The most remarkable items of its furniture were the spittoons — useful utensils in their way, no doubt, but distressingly plentiful and palpable at the Golgotha. Passing through a suggestive lavatory, we entered the library, where I found a stock-in-trade, consisting of a couple of desks, four or five chairs, a table, two shelves bristling with ancient magazines and effete blue-books, certain other sundries of a doubtful character, and a melancholy waiter. An apartment, called by courtesy the dining-room, and devoted principally to a brace of dissipated newspaper reporters, was the only other feature that arrested a somewhat disappointed stranger’s attention.

Clarke provided an account of what the Yorick Club members did not do. But what exactly did they do? Haddon had originally hosted Saturday evening gatherings that used to offer a mixed bill of stories, songs and excellent brandy. The Yorick Club seems to have added a certain vociferousness to these occasions. The journalist and novelist, G. A. Walstab, was an early exponent of face-painting. He specialized in taking coals from the fire in the early morning, and blackening the faces of the members dozing in their chairs or beneath the tables .  The official history, The Yorick Club,records that Adam Lindsay Gordon at times was wildly jovial, and one evening pitched Clarke up to very near the ceiling and caught him again coming down. There was nowhere to sit in comfort at first, anyway. At one stage they sat on bales of newspapers, at another on kerosene drums. Clarke denied that they drank the kerosene:

I may, without breaking faith, refute the accusation made by a friend, that the members sit on tubs round the room, smoke green tea, and drink neat kerosene out of pewter pots. More I cannot reveal.

Though they certainly had pewter pots. ‘Not empty, gentle reader,’ records one member . One unsubstantiated theory is that they passed round a skull with some opium-based mixture. And the green tea Clarke refers to might have been hyonskin tea, popular in the outback and reputed to drive you mad according to some doctors; or it might have been marijuana, sometimes colloquially referred to as tea. It was about this time that Clarke persuaded a Collins Street doctor to get him some hashish. The doctor agreed to on condition that he could watch and make notes while Clarke took it. He wouldn’t let Clarke see the notes and, the doctor records, Clarke ‘became sarcastic in his remarks’.

After three and a half hours Clarke began to dictate a story. And he seems to have continued to use hashish. A Dr Cannabis appears in the ‘Noah’s Ark’ columns he contributed to The Australasian in 1872 and 1873.

The Yorick Club recalls that Clarke ‘was always ready for mischief night and day.’ The journalist Alfred Telo, Clarke’s former flatmate, is described as ‘one of the most outrageous of the practical jokers’. He brought back from the Pacific islands a collection of long spears and one night these were used in a piece of Dadaist street theatre to lift from their hooks the gilded hats hung out as signs by Melbourne hatters. Another favourite game was collecting brass doorknobs. Telo particularly prized one he had stolen from the theatre critic James Neild. Neild wrote a letter to The Argus denouncing the

…idiots who could find nothing better to do than to wrench off citizens’ knockers’ — ‘only to find, on the following morning, that his house had been visited afresh and ornamented with a fishing rod and a gilt fish, a pawnbroker’s sign, and an undertaker’s board.

On 22 July 1869, Clarke married Marian Dunn, the youngest daughter of the Irish comedian and actor John Dunn. He had typically failed to look for lodgings for them both until the marriage ceremony had actually been concluded. She had been a popular actress before her marriage. Eleven years later she was back on the stage again to help out with the family cash crises, Clarke writing A Daughter of Eve and adapting a French comedy Forbidden Fruit, or the Custom of Caudubec with parts especially for her.

In 1870, according to Hamilton Mackinnon,

…overwork had told its tale upon the restless brain, and the doctors ordered change of air to the more salubrious climate of Tasmania. But as funds were, as usual with him, decidedly short, how was the change to be effected?

The printer and publisher of the Australian Journal, A. H. Massina recalled the solution in an interview on his retirement forty years later:

Clarke came to me one day and said, “Massina, I want £50.”

‘“Oh”, I said, “You’ve had enough out of me. What more do you want?”

‘“£50,” replied Clarke, “I can write a story for your journal. I am going to Tasmania to write up the criminal records and I’ll do the story for one hundred pounds.”

‘We jumped at it.

Clarke may already have arranged for the Argus group, with its associated weekly the Australasian, to help finance the holiday by a journalistic assignment ‘to write up the criminal records.’ Haddon, the editor of the Argus, had visited Tasmania the previous January. Now he went there again with Clarke.

On 21 January 1870 Clarke and Haddon arrived in Launceston, and on 26 January they visited Port Arthur. The trip is described in a series of articles Clarke wrote three years later when the closure of Port Arthur was announced. They were published in the Argus, on 3, 12 and 26 July 1873, and reprinted in the Australasian 26 July and 2 August .

“You will find it difficult to get down to Port Arthur unless you’ve got friends there!” said the genial but imperative landlady of the Ark Hotel. “Of course, I mean friends in the Government,” she added, seeing that I looked askance.

‘We had friends in the Government, for Hacker, my companion, was a man of mark at the office of the Peacock and had hinted vaguely of columns of lead minion to be supplied by my eminent hand.

Clarke’s account of his visit captures the horror of the place.

To me, brooding over stories of misery and crime, sitting beside the ironed convicts, and shivering at the chill breeze which whitened the angry waters of the bay, there was no beauty in those desolate cliffs, no cheering picturesqueness in that frowning shore. I saw Port Arthur for the first time beneath a leaden and sullen sky; and as we sailed inwards past the ruins of Point Puer, and beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Island of the Dead, I felt that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature.

He continues:

I know that I thought to myself that I should go mad were I condemned to such a life, and that I caught one of the men looking at me with a broad grin as I thought it. I know that there seemed to me to hang over the whole place a sort of horrible gloom, as though the sunlight had been withdrawn from it, and that I should have been ashamed to have suddenly met some high-minded friend, inasmuch as it seemed that in coming down to stare at these chained and degraded beings, we had all been guilty of an unmanly curiosity.

There were still some 574 inmates – convicts, invalids and insane at Port Arthur. Looking through the records Clarke asked to see one of them, transported for poaching when he was thirteen:

The warder drew aside a peep-hole in the barred door, and I saw a grizzled, gaunt and half-naked old man coiled in a corner. The peculiar wild-beast smell which belongs to some forms of furious madness exhaled from the cell. The gibbering animal within turned, and his malignant eyes met mine.

‘“Take care,” said the gaoler; ‘he has a habit of sticking his finger through the peep-hole to try and poke someone’s eye out!’

‘I drew back, and a nail-bitten hairy finger, like the toe of an ape, was thrust with rapid and simian neatness through the aperture.

‘“That is how he amuses himself,” said the good warder, forcing-to the iron slot; “he’d best be dead, I’m thinking.”

The experience was a horrifying one. The library researches Clarke made through the published records were no less so. He writes,

In out-of-the-way corners, in shepherds’ huts or roadside taverns, one meets “old hands” who relate terrible and true histories. In the folio reports of the House of Commons can be read statements which make one turn sick with disgust, and flush hot with indignation. Officialdom, with its crew of parasites and lickspittles, may try to palliate the enormities committed in the years gone by; may revile, with such powers of abuse as are given to it the writers who records the facts which it blushes for; but the sad grim truth remains. For half a century the law allowed the vagabonds and criminals of England to be subjected to a lingering torment, to a hideous debasement, to a monstrous system of punishment futile for good and horribly powerful for evil.

On 19 February 1870 the Australasian published the first of Clarke’s articles, under the series title ‘Old Stories Retold’. His Natural Life had been advertised in the Australian Journal in Januaryand the first instalment appeared in the March issue. The publisher A. H. Massina recalled:

Now Clarke was going to write that story in twelve monthly sections. At first he wrote enough for two months, then enough for one month, and got down to very little. In fact we had once to put it in pica type, instead of brevier to swell out the size of that month’s contribution. But on one occasion he had nothing ready and we had to go to press with an apology to our readers. Finally we had to lock him in a room to get his matter written.

His Natural Life ultimately ran for twenty-seven episodes, instead of the originally agreed upon twelve. The ‘Old Stories Retold’ series appeared simultaneously, on and off, through fourteen tales, some in multiple parts over two or three weeks, concluding on 24 June 1871, and were collected as a book, Old Tales of a Young Country, in 1871.

His Natural Life first appeared as a serial in the Australian Journal from March 1870 to June 1872. Clarke then revised it considerably for book publication. The Irish nationalist politician Charles Gavan Duffy, at this time a member of the Victorian legislature, recalled in My Life in Two Hemispheres how Clarke had approached him for advice on revising the serial for book publication, and how he followed his ‘suggestions for vigorous cutting’, reducing the 370,000 word serial into a 200,000 word novel . Clarke provided a new explanation and motivation for the protagonist’s transportation, removing the 40,000 word opening section that dealt with alchemical experiments in Europe, and the conclusion that fulfilled the alchemical theme by emerging from the Nigredo of imprisonment into the discovery of the Victorian goldfields.

George Robertson published the book in Melbourne. Two readers reported on the book to the London publisher Richard Bentley, Lady Charlotte Jackson who was unenthusiastic, and Geraldine Jewsbury who recommended publication: ‘an extremely powerful and well written work, and you will do well to accept it subject to one condition.’ The condition was that Rufus Dawes should survive. Clarke was willing to make the change, but in the end the English edition followed the Australian edition with Dawes drowned at sea. Geraldine Jewsbury was the long-standing and intimate friend of Jane Carlyle, and the Carlyles were long-standing friends of Gavan Duffy, who published his Conversations with Carlyle in 1892. Duffy, who was in Europe at the time, may have been an influence in achieving the novel’s publication, as well as helping in its revision. And he arranged for the proofs to be read by Frances Cashel Hoey, wife of Duffy’s associate editor on the Irish journal The Nation, who may also have been responsible for some of the stylistic changes made in the English edition .

The revised book version was dedicated to Duffy. Clarke does not remark that Duffy himself had been twice imprisoned by the English for his involvement in Irish independence movements, and had more than twelve months’ experience in Ireland of the interior of ‘a house of correction’, to quote from the dedication. But the facts were well known. Clarke’s dedication of his great novel to Duffy can be seen as a proclamation of his own increasing alienation from English establishment values. In the serial version of the novel, Dawes finally returns to England. In the book version he drowns. There was no return.

In 1870, the year after his marriage, Clarke took a salaried job as Secretary to the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library . He wore his duties lightly. The moving spirit behind the establishment of the library and the chairman of its board of trustees was Sir Redmond Barry. Hamilton Mackinnon remarks on ‘the interest Sir Redmond Barry evinced in the rising littérateur, whom he took under his parental wing, when obtaining for him the secretaryship of the Public Library’ and records one characteristic vignette:

It was a hot summer’s day, and, as was his style in such weather, the librarian was dressed dandily in unspotted white flannel, with a genuine cabbage-tree hat stuck defiantly on the back of his head; and so clothed he was leisurely wending his way up the steps of the library when he met the President, looking more starched, if possible, than ever, and wearing the well-known, flat-rimmed, tapering bell-topper, which shone in the glare of the noonday sun: and the following brief dialogue ensued.

‘President: “Good morning, Mr Clarke.”

‘Librarian: “Good morning, sir.”

‘President: “I scarcely think your hat, however cool it may be, is exactly suited to the position you occupy in connection with this establishment, Mr Clarke — Good morning, Mr Clarke.

And with a stiff bend of the erect body the President took his departure with just a glimmer of a smile playing round the firmly closed haughty lips’ .

Clarke was fond of his cabbage-tree hat. It had been made for him by a convict in Pentridge Prison. In 1902 his third son, Rowley, took it with him when he sailed to South Africa with the 2nd Commonwealth contingent. It is preserved in the picture collection of the State Library of Victoria .

Hugh McCrae recalled his father George Gordon McCrae’s friendship with Clarke:

George, who admired him, often pointed out a green metal lion half-way up the steps leading to the Melbourne Public Library. It was into the mouth of this lion that Marcus used to commit his unfinished cigar, before being manacled to the desk at his office. The lion, smoking the cigar, became a signal to his friends that Marcus was within.

Clarke coveted his freedom so much that he would rather scintillate outside than be earning his salary as sub-librarian locked up among books. Actually, in his own words, he preferred to “trinquer” at the “House-of-the-Light-Wine-of-the-Country” before his humdrum devoirs at the Bibliotheque

Marcus could never be found when he was wanted. Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller once said he might go to the Botanic Gardens and be certain of seeing there an example of the native fuchsia tired to a stake from Monday to Monday — but Clarke was no native fuchsia; and that he carried his household with him wherever he went. At the beginning of the week, he might be in Coburg; and the middle of it in Essendon; and, at the end of it, in Brighton — or Moonee Ponds.

‘I have sold my birthright of free speech for a mess of official pottage, and so to all intents and purposes my “Peripatetic” is dead …’ Clarke wrote in The Australasian,11 June 1870, announcing the end of his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column. A public service position was deemed to preclude him from journalism that involved anything that might seem like political comment. Nonetheless, he continued to write and publish no less prolifically, not only the serial of His Natural Life, but also the historical ‘Old Tales Retold’ that became Old Tales of a Young Country, the novel Chidiock Tichborne, the stories collected in Holiday Peak and Other Tales  and Four Stories High, together with poems and articles, as well as the occasional theatrical venture. And the official pottage meant that his income was double the amount he had earned simply from writing. But it still wasn’t enough.

His Natural Life may have brought Clarke fame, but it didn’t bring fortune. In 1874, the year it was published in book form, he was declared bankrupt. His debts amounted to £2,186. 6s. 6d; his assets to £505. A catalogue was printed for the sale of his books, The Well-Selected Library of Mr Marcus Clarke . He began a new column, ‘The Wicked World’ for the Melbourne Daily Telegraph’s weekend magazine, the Weekly Times. It shows Clarke at his most Balzacian, portraying the moneyed world of Melbourne in all its pretensions and dishonesties.

He had been hoping to be appointed the new Melbourne Librarian, but in November 1879 he wrote an essay for the Victorian Review on the irrelevancy of Christianity in the modern age . The Bishop of Melbourne, Dr James Moorhouse, replied. Clarke responded with a second article exposing weaknesses in the bishop’s arguments which the Victorian Review refused to publish. The Melbourne Review accepted it, only to withdraw all copies from sale upon publication. The whole debate was collected in book form as Civilisation Without Delusion (1880) and sold rapidly.

It made Clarke no friends with the Melbourne establishment, and didn’t help his chances of being appointed Librarian. Mackinnon records the reaction of the President of the Trustees of the Public Library, Sir Redmond Barry:

The President appeared one evening in the librarian’s office with a somewhat clouded countenance, and said, “Good evening, Mr Clarke.” The librarian with an intuitive feeling that a lecture was about to be administered, returned the salutation, when the President remarked: “Mr Clarke; you would oblige me greatly if you were to leave some things undone. For instance, that unfortunate article of yours — attacking so estimable a man as the bishop. Very indiscreet, Mr Clarke. I — think — I — should require — to — have — some — thousands a year of a private income before I would — venture — upon writing such an — article on — such a subject, and among so punctilious a community as exists here. Good evening, Mr Clarke.”

Then Clarke helped adapt Gilbert A’Beckett’s burlesque The Happy Land, based on the play The Wicked World by W. S. Gilbert (under the pseudonym F. Tomline). It dealt with the visit of three politicians to Fairyland, where the benefits of popular government are explained to them. Clarke helped to adapt it from English to Australian conditions. The Victorian government immediately banned it and The Argus and The Age just as promptly printed the text. Clarke’s name was not specifically mentioned, but it was widely known that he had been involved in the adaptation. Clarke may have been surprised when he was not appointed Librarian. No one else was.

But he had little time to be surprised. He had borrowed money on the strength of being appointed. The money-lender, Aaron Waxman, pressed for payment. Clarke declared bankruptcy for a second time, and so was required to resign his library position. He became sick with pleurisy, Mackinnon records,

…and this developing into congestion of the liver, and finally into erysipelas, carried him off in the space of one short week…the end came upon him rapidly. Losing his speech, he beckoned for pencil and paper, and seizing hold of the sheets moved his hand over them as if writing. Shortly afterwards the mind began to wander, but still the hand continued moving with increasing velocity, and every now and then a futile attempt to speak was made.  

He died at St Kilda at 4 p.m. on 2 August 1881. He was thirty-five, and left a wife and six children, the eldest only eleven.

Campus tragedy

MICHAEL WILDING surveys the sorry state of Australia’s universities

The systematic degradation of the universities has now been continuing for 40 years.

It began at the end of the 1970s, with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA. Australia dutifully followed suit. The policies were a mixture of reprisals for the radical political activism of the 1960s and 70s, and the systematic replacement of public and state ownership by privatisation. Funding for the Arts – History, English, Philosophy, etc – was drastically reduced since it was perceived that the protests had developed from those areas. Vocational courses were introduced in keeping with the new market economy business model. Staff were pressured to take early retirement. Those who remained found that the safeguards of the traditional concept of academic freedom were being removed. Tenure was steadily abolished. New appointments and promotions began to be made for a fixed term contract. If you said or wrote something deemed to be unacceptable – and the list of the unacceptable has grown rapidly – you were likely to find yourself out of a job at the end of your contract.

Then it was decided that too few students went to university. In the 1950s and 1960s, 5% of the eligible population went to university. The new aim was to exceed 50%. This was easily achieved by deciding that colleges of advanced education, institutes of technology, teachers’ colleges, art schools, nursing colleges should all become universities, either by changing their name or by merging with existing universities. These institutions had been primarily vocational. Their staff were often drawn from people who had had experience in industry, marketing, media and so on, and could impart practical experience. They had a higher teaching load than university staff, but they were not expected to undertake research. These institutions had generally functioned well, and their students were engaged with the practical and vocational orientation of their courses.

But the more abstract and theoretical nature of university courses was not something that has engaged today’s vastly increased number of students – especially as most of them are struggling to hold down jobs, and to fit their courses into spaces in their employment schedule. As a result, the traditional university courses have been dumbed down and reoriented. Foreign language courses withered away and in many cases perished. The classics of ancient Greece and Rome were taught in translation, insofar as they were taught at all. The number of characters a student of Chinese was expected to learn was halved. Indian studies shifted from historical and cultural studies to a business studies orientation. English courses withered away; exposure to works of literature was drastically reduced, as critical theory, creative writing and other developments occupied the syllabus space, while communications and media studies, despite having little credibility in media industries, further drew away traditional students.

Other factors came into play. During the 1960s, there had been two federal funding bodies for academic research in Australia, one for the arts and one for sciences. The marked difference between them was that grants for the arts were modest. The arts researcher typically asked for no more than Aus$10,000 for some research assistance, for typing, for travel. The science grants were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to support equipment and teams of research assistants. It was a system that functioned well. Then the two funding bodies were merged and funding became pretty well entirely on the scientific scale. Grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars were available for the arts; small grants were no longer the model. This was wasteful enough but worse was to follow. A new concept of ‘teaching relief’ was introduced, allowing grant recipients to use research funds to hire someone to do their teaching for them.

One justification for research funding in the arts was that the discoveries made during research fed back into teaching, ensuring teaching was of a high quality and at the cutting edge of knowledge. Now, to adapt the old saying, as for teaching, our servants shall do that for us. And these servants hired to do the teaching were all employed as part time, casual staff. They were paid around Aus$50 an hour during teaching term; during vacations they had to apply for welfare. While the grant recipients swanned around and never saw a student, let alone imparted any knowledge. The university administrators saw these research funds as a source of finance. They appointed further administrators, on high salaries, who coached academics in how to apply for research grants. People who had acquired funding were made into ‘distinguished research professors’ on five year contracts. They moved from campus to campus and grant to grant, doing no teaching.

And much of the time no research conclusions were ever published. The scandal of this has never been exposed, but thousands upon thousands of tax-payers’ dollars were handed out with nothing to show for it in return. The universities took their cut of the funds, the distinguished professors took their salaries, but all too often nothing was published. When a senior academic I knew tried to research into how the Australian Research Council awarded grants, he found it was impossible. All records of unsuccessful applications had been destroyed. There was no way of assessing the assessors and of examining the so-called peer-reviewing process. Nonetheless, the process continues. Publication used to be a mark of academic achievement. Now success in receiving funding is deemed more important. The emphasis has shifted from evidence of work produced to evidence of money received.

The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money

This is part of the shift to a business model. The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money. Vice-chancellors now call themselves CEOs and are given grotesquely large salaries –  Aus$1,800,00 a year plus bonuses at the University of Sydney. Bonuses! Gratifyingly, quite a few of them have been dismissed for plagiarism and other corrupt behaviour. And the number of administrators, paid far more than teaching staff, has proliferated absurdly. One of the consequences of the merger of universities with art schools, nursing colleges, agricultural colleges and the rest, was that the heads of those institutions were all given highly paid administrative titles in the expanded university. Where there used to be a vice-chancellor and a deputy, now there are a dozen or more deputy vice-chancellors. They all seem to get sabbatical leave, though rarely have any of them done any significant academic work. But this is just part of the insane growth of the administrative bureaucracies in the universities. When I first taught at the university of Sydney there used to be one administrator for every 12 members of the teaching staff. Now fewer than 50% of university staff are actually involved in teaching.

And now over 40% of students in Australia are foreign students. The universities have made themselves dependent on foreign students. They are now the economic base of the operation. Forget providing a cultural context and education for Australian students. The universities have become part of an immigration racket. Student visas allow residency, the opportunity to provide cut-price work, and the chance of citizenship. Some of the recruitment agencies that find overseas students not only receive a large finding fee but are also involved in the construction industry, building, renting and selling student apartments. This has nothing to do with education. And with the travel restrictions and health issues arising from Covid-19, this has proved a disastrous model, with Australian universities suffering a massive reduction in fees and consequent massive job cuts, as overseas students no longer enrol.

Indeed, it has been the antithesis of education. In order to cater for the influx of foreign students, standards have been dropped, indeed abandoned. Most of the top rank of foreign students go to the United States, United Kingdom or Europe. Australia caters for the generally less able ones – and caters for them by lowering, or abandoning, standards. There are endless, authenticated stories of academics being instructed not to fail foreign students: they have paid their fees, they must be passed. Academics who attempt to maintain standards are overruled and disciplined.

Back at the beginning of the century when I published my novel Academia Nuts, I felt I had recorded the university in decline. In a comic way, of course. Campus farce. “Unmistakeably the last waltz”, the Times Higher Educational Supplement called it. But “’tis not the end when we can say, this is the end”. The decline had a lot further to go. Now my portrait of an institution in decline looks quite idyllic compared with the current state of the universities.

Secrets of the archives

MICHAEL WILDING remembers stirrings among the dead letters

The first piece of writing for which I got paid was an article in the local weekly paper. I was just 18, marking time between leaving school and going to university. The paper, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, claimed to be the oldest newspaper in the world, dating from the 17th century. My article, “Miserrimus: the story of a cathedral stone”, appeared on 1st April, 1960. To have an article called, to translate the Latin, ‘most wretched man’, and to have it appearing on April Fool’s day may not have been the most auspicious start to a literary career.

That tombstone in Worcester Cathedral with the single word inscription had prompted William Wordsworth to write a sonnet, “A Gravestone Upon The Floor in the Cloisters of Worcester Cathedral”, and it was this literary association that had prompted me to write my article. Having discovered the sonnet in Wordsworth’s collected poems, I went down to the cathedral and there indeed was the tombstone. I researched the unhappy man in some local histories and found he had been a 17th century clergyman, Thomas Morris, who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant brought into England in 1688 to replace the deposed Catholic King James. As a consequence, Morris lost his living as a canon of the Cathedral and vicar of the parish of Claines – the parish in which I had grown up.

Wanting to be a writer I was eagerly looking for signs of any writers or writing associated with the provincial world I lived in. Could there be writers outside of London or Paris or other remote metropolises? Well, Wordsworth had visited my home town, presumably, and written that sonnet, so there might be hope. Maybe other writers had visited. To be a writer you need something to write about. Writing about local literary associations could provide some of the materials I needed.

My English master had given me a two volume book recording all of the documents associated with Shakespeare’s life, every known, surviving record of baptism, marriage and financial transactions. Two documents were listed as having been held in the Worcester Diocesan Records Office but their whereabouts were now unknown, according to the book. Shakespeare had been born in Stratford-upon-Avon which in 1582 was in the diocese of Worcester.

So I went down to the records office, housed in an old church near the cathedral, St Helen’s, and inquired whether the documents still existed. I was shown the card index catalogue, found the two items listed, and ordered them up from the archives. They came, not lost at all. But while I was down there, I came across two much more interesting documents. One was a licence for Wm Shaxpere to marry Annõ Whateley of Temple Grafton. The other issued the following day was a marriage licence bond for Willm Shagspere to marry Anne Hathwey of Stratford-upon-Avon with only one reading of the banns. Scholars still lack agreement on the meaning of the documents. Had Shakespeare been planning to marry Anne Whateley, but was then coerced into marrying Anne Hathaway? Or was Whateley just a misspelling of Hathaway? But could Temple Grafton be a clerical error for Stratford-upon-Avon? No record of the marriage taking place has been found.

My second article for the local paper, raising the various possibilities, duly appeared: “Did Shakespeare Ever Marry?”. A couple of weeks later the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Trust was reported in the same paper as warning,

Disregard any reports you may have read recently concerning William Shakespeare… Shakespeare was a very decent man, and you would have welcomed him, or at least his daughter, into your house

The archives were a fascinating resource for a writer or a historian. I spent many an hour there. There was a machine that used ultra-violet light to make the faded ink on old documents legible, which was the height of technology. But the main difficulty was reading 16th and 17th century handwriting styles, very different from the present day. A distinguished local historian had spent years transcribing the quarter sessions court records for publication, but when he died no one could read his handwriting, and they remained unpublished.

I had been recalling the archives and planning an article about them when I dropped into a Sydney charity shop to find something to read. Now that the University of Sydney library has emptied the stacks of half a million volumes and deposited them off-campus, it is hard to find much to read on the open shelves. Vinnies’ has more to offer. On this occasion I picked up a memoir, Open Secret, by Stella Rimington, the first woman director-general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and author of a number of spy novels I had enjoyed. Leafing through the pages I found that from mid-1959 to the end of 1961 she had been an assistant archivist in the Worcester County Record Office – the very years I used to haunt the place.

Ever since writing my column on conspiracies and paranoia for another weekly paper, Nation Review,in the late 1970s I had developed an unhealthy interest in spooks and surveillance. To think that I might have literally brushed shoulders with this female super-spook. Of course this was before she had joined MI5 – or so she wrote. But could you trust the words of the director of a spy agency? I tried in vain to remember if there had been any young lady who had tried to recruit me in the shadows of that old church. Or had I delivered some subversive views even at that age, had I blotted my copy-book as far back as then?

One of her recollections of those days chimes in with mine. She writes:

Some of our most frequent customers were the Mormons and their representatives. They were researching the ancestors of fellow Mormons, by searching for names, usually in the parish records. My understanding was that if the ancestors could be identified their names would be written down and they would be posthumously baptised so that their spirits would pass from wherever they were into the Mormon heaven

I remembered this bizarre behaviour of the Mormons. But by the time of my Nation Review column twenty years later, some of us had developed new theories about what the Mormons were up to. One of the alleged tricks of intelligence agencies, it was revealed in the 1960s, was to search through registers of births and deaths, find someone who had died young, and use their birth date to obtain documents in their name and create a false identity to be used by some spy going undercover. Were the Mormons in fact working for the CIA or FBI to fabricate legends for their undercover spies? Indeed, was the later-to-be director of MI5 doing something similar?

This theme of stealing identities from parish records cropped up again in my researches. Another local figure was Edward Kelly, the associate of Dr Dee (1). I published a book about Dee and Kelly 20 years ago, Raising Spirits, Making Gold and Swapping Lives: the True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly. Since its publication, new material on Kelly had surfaced and I began updating it for a new edition. I was in touch with an American academic, Terry Burns, who with another American scholar, Vincent Bridges, had written a book about Kelly, An Alchemical Enigma. They both argued that the person who made gold at the Emperor Rudolf’s court was not the Edward Kelly born in Worcester, but some other figure who had adopted the identity of the Worcester man from the parish records. Naturally, I prefer to keep Kelly as the product of my own home town.

Terry Burns also drew my attention to a recently discovered document in a German archive. It is a letter from Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, authenticating Kelly’s claim to be of noble Irish descent. Kelly had been thrown in gaol by the Emperor Rudolf and the letter may have been an attempt to get him rehabilitated. Bingham was a correspondent of Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran secret service operations for Queen Elizabeth. Kelly may well have been some sort of agent for Walsingham, though naturally it is impossible to find any unambiguous evidence for this. But the name Bingham resonates in this context.

Charlotte Bingham is a prolific contemporary novelist and I recently read her memoir MI5 and Me – a hilarious account of working for an intelligence agency. She got the job because her father, John Bingham, worked for MI6, where he was John le Carré’s boss and encouraged him to begin writing. A recent biography of Bingham, The Man Who Was Smiley, suggests he was a model for le Carré’s Smiley character. Bingham himself wrote crime and spy novels: he was also an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris. Presumably he is a descendant of that 16th century Bingham of Ireland, a family familiar with espionage operations over generations – though I have yet to do the genealogical research to prove it.

The aura of espionage seems to permeate archival records. When I was researching The Paraguayan Experiment, my book about William Lane’s New Australia settlement (2), I tracked down a Confidential Memorandum to the British Foreign Office about the settlement by M. de C. Findlay, preserved in the Public Record Office at Kew. I found it suggestive that the British Foreign Office was keeping watch on New Australia. But it was not till 30 years later when reading Andrew Cook’s M. MI5’s First Spymaster that I came across M. de C. Findlay again and my suspicions about his role were confirmed:

I Manfeldt de Cardonnel Findlay, acknowledge to have received from Sir Edward Grey, Baronet, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the sum of twenty-five pounds (£25) for the purposes of His Majesty’s Foreign Secret Service, and I do hereby solemnly declare that the said sum has been disbursed faithfully and according to my best judgement for those purposes …

There were other materials about Lane in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. I was allowed into the rare book stacks at one point and by chance happened to notice a shelf of boxes containing the papers of Alf Conlon (3), who ran a mysterious research unit in Sydney’s Victoria Barracks in the Second World War, the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, along with James McAuley (4) and Harold Stewart (5). A note was stuck onto the side of one of the boxes. “If anyone asks for these, say we do not have them” – though when I mentioned this to Conlon’s nephew he was sceptical that there might have been any secret service implications. “He probably wrote the note himself”, he said.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Edward Kelly (or Kelley), 1555-1595, alchemist, ‘skryer’ to John Dee in their dialogues with spirits, knighted by the Emperor Rudolf and then gaoled, died while escaping from prison. Mentioned in Butler’s Hudibras. Dr John Dee, 1527-1608, adviser to Elizabeth I, alchemist, astrologer, and mathematician, often suspected of sorcery. See https://brazen-head.org/2020/10/18/john-dee-and-edward-kelly-through-a-glass-darkly/
  • William Lane, 1861-1917, British-born Australian journalist who founded the socialist settlements of New Australia and Colonia Cosme in Paraguay in 1893/4
  • Colonel Alfred Austin Joseph Conlon, 1908-1961, high-level Australian administrator and influential think-tanker 
  • James Philip McAuley, 1917-1976, poet, co-instigator (with Harold Stewart) of the 1943-44 Ern Malley literary hoax, and co-founder in 1956 of the Australian magazine, Quadrant
  • Harold Frederick Stewart, 1916-1995, poet, Orientalist, and co-instigator of the Ern Malley literary hoax

John Dee and Edward Kelly – through a glass darkly

Doctor Dee and Edward Kelly raising the dead

MICHAEL WILDING tells the extraordinary story of the councillor, the charlatan, and the crowned heads of Europe

In 1582, Dr John Dee advertised for an assistant. A mathematician of considerable reputation in England and in Europe, he was regularly consulted by powerful statesmen such as Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Walter Raleigh. His projects often involved political issues, and made him dangerous enemies.

Dee had a restless and wide-ranging mind. His opinions were sought frequently on navigational briefings for journeys of commercial exploration to North America and to China. He drew up a proposal for Britain to reform the calendar and to come into line with the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (although the English church and political establishment decided this would look too much like conformity to Rome, and so Britain remained ten days out of phase with Europe for the next 160 years).

Sixteenth century mathematics touching on astrological calculations as well as numerical, Dee was also commissioned to select the appropriate date for Elizabeth’s coronation. He immersed himself so deeply in arcana and hermetic philosophy that he earned a hazardous reputation for heterodox thinking, possibly even heresy. He had the largest private library in Britain, some 2,500 books and manuscripts, but he had reached the limits of what he could learn from books. Now, he wanted direct access to the divine. The assistant he asked for had to be “a good seer and scryer of spiritual apparitions, in crystalline receptacles or in open air”. He wanted someone who could communicate with spirits.

This practice could lead to imprisonment. In December 1581, Dee had tried some consultations with an assistant, Barnabas Saul, who two months later was arrested, but released without charge. Four days later, Dee was consulting spirits with a certain Edward Kelly, and so began one of the most colourful stories of an already highly-coloured period.

Kelly was born at Worcester on August 1, 1555, at 4 p.m. Dee recorded Kelly’s date of birth in the horoscope he drew up of his nativity,and in the margins of the almanac he used as a diary. Kelly’s surname is sometimes spelled Kelley, and when he first met Dee he went under the name of Edward Talbot. It is unclear how he and Dee came into contact, but it is possible that he was planted by Dee’s enemies. Dee certainly believed this, later recording in his diary that

[Kelly’s] coming was to entrap me, if I had had any dealing with wicked spirits, as he confessed often times after: and that he was set on, etc

In Antient Funerall Monuments (1631), John Weever tells a story of Kelly in Lancashire engaging in the “diabolical questioning of the dead, for the knowledge of future accidents”. According to Weever, Kelly

…upon a certain night, in the park of Walton-in-le-dale, in the county of Lancaster, with one Paul Waring (his fellow companion in such deeds of darkness) invocated some one of the infernal regiment to know certain passages in the life, as also what might be known by the devil’s foresight, of the manner and time of the death of a noble young gentleman, as then in his wardship. The black ceremonies of that night being ended, Kelly demanded of one of the gentleman’s servants, what corpse was the last buried in Law church-yard, a church thereunto adjoining, who told him of a poor man that was buried there but the same day. He and the said Waring entreated this foresaid servant to go with them to the grave of the man so lately interred, which he did; and withal did help them to dig up the carcass of the poor caitiff, whom by their incantations, they made him (or rather some evil spirit through his organs) to speak, who delivered strange predictions concerning the said gentleman

Kelly’s practice with Dee was less diabolical. They proceeded to summon up a succession of angels and spirits, beginning with Uriel and Michael and moving on to the mysteriously named Nalvage, Ath, Galva’h, and more. The latter two were female and so, according to specialists in the area like Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, agents of the devil. But one of the female spirits told them, “Angels, I say, of themselves, are neither man nor woman.” And one of the most charming of the spirits summoned up was “like a pretty girl of seven or nine years of age.” She told them “I am a poor little maiden, Madini.” She made a strong impression on Dee and seven years later he christened his daughter Madinia.

There were visions, fables and instructions. In large part, this involved establishing a table of names and numbers which could be used to call up spiritual forces, in particular those governing political rulers. Kelly looked into the stone, Dee asked his questions, the spirits in the crystal spoke through Kelly, and Dee wrote down what Kelly said. No description of the stone survives, but it seems that Dee had more than one. Drawings in the margin of the spiritual records suggest that they were spherical balls, and from evidence in the records we can assume they were of crystal. In the British Museum there is a black obsidian mirror, of Mexican origin, which is said to have belonged to Dee. It is doubtful, however, whether this was used in the scrying sessions.

The notes were later transcribed, and the records of these sessions bound up into books. Other manuscript books were compiled which abstracted and collated the infor­mation given. They survive in the British Library. The major part is recorded in MS Cotton Appendix XLVI parts I and 2. This was transcribed and published by Meric Casaubon, as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdomes in the World (1659).

As well as spiritual instructions, other information was sometimes given. Dee asked about

…the vision which yester night was presented, unlooked for, to the sight of E. K. as he sat at supper with me, in my hall, I mean: the appearing of the very sea, and many ships thereon, and the cut­ting off the head of a woman, by a tall black man, what are we to imagine thereof?

He was told:

The one did signify the provision of foreign powers against the welfare of this land: which they shall shortly put in practice: the other, the death of the Queen of Scots. It is not long unto it

The date was May 5, 1583. Dee noted in the margin, “The Queen of Scots to be beheaded”. At some later date he added,

So she was, anno 1587 at Fotheringhay castle. And also the same year a great preparation of ships against England by the King of Spain, the Pope and other princes called Catholic, etc

That was the Spanish Armada of 1588. Kelly had seen into the future – or made informed guesses.

Then a Polish count, Albert Laski, visited England and sought out Dee and Kelly. He was concerned to find out through their spirit-raising sessions if he might succeed to the Polish crown, and whether he had English ancestry. Holinshed recorded that Laski had

…a white beard of such length and breadth, as that lying in his bed, and parting it with his hands, the same overspread all his breast and shoulders, himself greatly delighting therein, and reputing it an ornament

But though English authorities provided one of their spies as a servant to Laski, they could not discover the purpose of his visit.

In 1583 Laski, Dee and Kelly left England at dead of night and set out for Poland. They had hoped Laski would support them financially in their spiritual researches, but Laski went bankrupt. The spirits told Dee and Kelly to go to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, in Prague. The spirits also gave Dee messages to deliver to the Emperor Rudolf and King Stephen of Poland, instructing them to reform their ways. It was not the most ingratiating way to secure royal patronage, but Dee did it. He also told Rudolf he could make the philosopher’s stone.

The Order of the Inspirati – Mohammed, Appoloneus Tyaneus, Sir Edward Kelley, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, John Dee – after Francis Cleyn (Franz Klein), etching and line engraving, published 1659
NPG D25548. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Dee had one audience with Rudolf, and was then fobbed off to deal with senior court officials. In the meantime, rumours of the spiritual predictions of imminent apocalyptic change reached the papal nuncio, Filippo Sega, who reported to Rome that Dee and Kelly

…are on the way to being the authors of a new supersti­tion, not to say heresy, and are known to the Emperor and all of the court

The new nuncio, Lord Germanico Malaspina, Bishop of San Severo, asked Dee and Kelly to explain themselves to him. They delayed for eight months but finally met. Dee assured the nuncio that their activities were not irreligious. All might have been well but then Kelly delivered a diatribe about corrupt priests, which, Dee was later told, “had so filled that most reverend lord with inward fury that he had said, if it had not been for certain respects, he would have had the said Edward thrown out of the window”. (Defenestration was a traditional way of dealing with troublesome opponents in Bohemian politics.)

Pressure was brought to bear on Rudolf, who then expelled Dee and Kelly from the Empire for necromancy and other prohibited arts. Four months later Rudolf relented and let them settle on the estates of Count Vilém Rožmberk, at Trebon in southern Bohemia. They undertook a series of alchemical experiments there and in December 1586 Dee recorded in his diary that

E. K. made a public demonstration of the philosopher’s stone in the proportion of one small grain, upon one ounce and a quarter of common mercury, and produced almost an ounce of most pure gold

Dee’s son Arthur told Sir Thomas Browne, the author of Religio Medici, that

Count Rožmberk was their great patron who delighted much in alchemy. I have often heard him affirm and sometimes with oaths that he had seen the projection made and transmutation of pewter dishes and flagons into silver which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of them. And that Count Rožmberk played at quoits with silver quoits made by projection as before

Elias Ashmole recorded that

I have received it from a credible person, that one Broomfield and Alexander Roberts, told him they had often seen Sir Ed Kelly make projection, and in particular upon a piece of metal cut out of a warming pan, and without Sir Edward’s touching or handling it, or melt­ing the metal (only warming it in the fire) the elixir being put thereon, it was transmuted into pure silver: the warming-pan and this piece of it was sent to Queen Elizabeth by her ambassador who then lay at Prague, that by fitting the piece into the place whence it was cut out, it might exactly appear to be one part of that warming-pan

Kelly had now become increasingly reluctant to continue summoning up spirits. He tried to train Dee’s eight year-old son Arthur in scrying, but without much success. Kelly then received a spiritual message that he and Dee were to hold their wives in common. The wives were unenthusiastic, but Kelly made a number of further consultations with spirits and the instruction was confirmed. The “cross-matching” seems to have taken place on May 22, 1587, but not repeated. The following day, the last known spiritual consultations Dee and Kelly held together are recorded – although years later, back in England, Dee was to experiment with other scryers.

Fifty-three years later, Arthur Dee gave one of the crystals used by his father and Kelly to the apothecary Nicholas Culpeper “as a reward for having cured a liver complaint of his with the greatest rapidity, A.D. 1640.” According to Culpeper this was the crystal that had been given to Dee by an angel in 1582, which Dee gave to Kelly, who gave it to Lord Rožmberk but then retrieved it.

Culpeper records,

I have used this crystal in many ways and have thus cured illnesses, but with its use a very great weakness always sets in and lethargy of the body. And further a certain demoniacal apparition which exercised itself to lewdness and other depravity with women and girls, used to tempt me, but by making the sign of the cross and speaking these words, ‘Pah Adonai, by thy strength am I fortified. Phorrh! Phorrh! Haricot! Gambalon!’ the apparition used to fly soon or instantly, with noise and evil smell. For these obscenities I have given up the use of the crystal, and to witness these things I have written them on this sheet on the 7th day of March in the year 1651

William Lilly bought the crystal from Culpeper’s widow and tried his own experiments on it with Elias Ashmole. They conjured up “a female devil lewd and monstrous”, he records for February 10, 1658. The crystal is now in the Wellcome Collection in the Science Museum, London.

On February 28, 1588, nine months after the cross-matching, Jane Dee gave birth to a boy, who was baptized the following day, and named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee. Theodorus Trebonianus, the gift of God at Trebon. Was this Dee’s child or Kelly’s? Did anyone ever know for sure? The question is never raised in the diary let alone answered. Could Kelly have children anyway? In the spiritual transactions of April 4, 1587, Kelly was told of his marriage, “barrenness dwells with you”, suggesting that he was sterile. There is no record of his having children. His wife had a son and daughter by a former marriage, the daughter later famous as the neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Weston, “Westonia”.

Kelly’s achievements in producing gold soon became known to the Emperor Rudolf, Queen Elizabeth and her senior statesman, Lord Burghley. Rudolf invited Kelly back to Prague, installed him in the court to work on alchemical experiments, and in 1589 appointed him to the order of the Equites Aureati (the Knights of the Golden Spur, a Holy Roman Imperial chivalric order originating in the 14th century). He was now Sir Edward, and possessed of considerable property. Dee returned to England.

Burghley wrote to Kelly at the instruction of Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that he might return to England and put his alchemical skills at the service of the state. Kelly replied that

…being in security, and …of some expectation and use more than vulgar, of his Majesty’s privy council…I cannot see how I might easily or honestly depart, much less so steal away…But if it may please my most gracious sovereign and country to redress the injuries done against me heretofore and to call me home to the like honour; assuring me of so much lands of inheritance by year to serve her, as I shall leave behind me in Bohemia for her; then will I declare myself openly, take leave of his Majesty and kingdom and repair home to her highness

Burghley then sent the poet and courtier Edward Dyer to try to persuade Kelly. But, suddenly, Kelly was arrested and gaoled. Some said the arrest was for debt, others that an alchemist executed at Munich had named Kelly as an accomplice. Yet others opined that Dyer’s visit made the Emperor suspect Kelly was about to return to England with secrets, that Kelly had offended a powerful Czech family, that Kelly had prepared a medicine for the Emperor which Kelly’s enemies claimed was a poison, and lastly that a rival alchemist had challenged Kelly to make proof of his art and Kelly refused. Czech reports, not known in England, said that Kelly had killed a court official in a duel. The official had been asking Kelly why one of his ears had been lopped. Kelly at some point had had one, if not both, ears lopped – a mark of punishment for some criminal offence that has never been explained. Forging title deeds and coining are often mentioned in later ac­counts, but no supporting evidence has ever been produced.

And then towards the end of 1593, after some two and a half years in gaol in Pürglitz castle, Kelly was released, and back in favour with the Emperor. In 1595, Kelly wrote to Dee, inviting him back to Rudolf’s service.  Dee stayed in England, wisely enough, for on 1 November 1596 Kelly was arrested again, probably for debt.  

Kelly was now imprisoned in Most Castle where he wrote his Latin treatise The Stone of the Philosophers, which he dedicated to Rudolf:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, an indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised and admired by the wise. Nay, the saying that none but fools and lawyers hate and despise alchemy has passed into a proverb

Nonetheless, he decided to escape. John Weever wrote that Queen

Elizabeth of famous memory, sent (very secretly) Captain Peter Gwynne with some others, to persuade him to re­turn back to his own native home, which he was willing to do: and think­ing to escape away in the night, by stealth, as he was clambering over a wall in his own house in Prague (which bears his name to this day, and which sometime was an old sanctuary) he fell down from the battlements, broke his legs, and bruised his body; of which hurts a while after he de­parted this world

It is generally believed that Kelly fell not from his house but from prison. Dee’s son, Arthur, told Sir Thomas Browne

…that Kelly dealt not justly by his father and that he went away with the greatest part of the powder and was afterward imprisoned by the Emperor in a castle from whence attempting an escape down the wall he fell and broke his leg and was imprisoned again. That his father Dr John Dee presented Queen Elizabeth with a little of the powder, who having made trial thereof attempted to get Kelly out of prison. And sent some to that purpose who giving opium in drink unto the keepers, laid them so fast asleep that Kelly found opportunity to attempt an escape and there were horses ready to carry him away! But the business unhappily succeeded as is before declared

The Czech scholars Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš believe that the most authentic report about Kelly’s imprisonment (and his death) is given in a manuscript written by the evangelical priest, Rudolf’s alchemist and seeker of precious stones, Simon Thadeas Budek of Lessino and Falkenberg:

That Keleus when he was imprisoned at the castle of Most (he had a wooden leg and was without both ears, and had long hair), was lowered through the toilet by his wife and daughter in the year 1597 at Christmas time … His brother awaited him with a carriage, but he (Kelly) fell into a ditch and broke his leg in three places, so he was taken back to the castle to be tended to. He was to be transported to Prague to the Emperor, but he asked to have his wife and daughter with him, which they granted him. He then spoke to his wife in English and Welsh and with his daughter in Latin and asked to have some water brought to him and immediately after ingesting it he died

Some long continued to believe Kelly had succeeded in producing gold, and really had the secret of the philosopher’s stone. But in his 1617 book on pseudo-alchemists, Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, Michael Maier concluded of Kelly:

If he had anything except the colour extracted from gold, why did he not live for himself and avoid high positions, from which he would fall headlong as far as both his life and fame are concerned? However, with his skill of extracting sulphur from gold and projecting it into metals he not only won the prince’s favour and a good reputation, but he also got money and fortune. And he would not have been in need of all these if he had not been foolish and a man of very poor judgement and if he had had the real tincture

Author’s references

  • Ashmole, Elias, Elias Ashmole 1617–1692: His Auto­biographical and Historical Notes, His Correspondence and other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols, Oxford, 1968
  • Casaubon, Meric, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a Gen­eral Alteration of most States and Kingdomes in the World, London, 1659
  • Dee, John, The Diaries of John Dee, ed. Edward Fenton, Charlbury, 1998
  • Holinshed, Raphael , Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols., London,  1808, 4:507-8
  • Karpenko, Vladimír, and Purš, Ivo, ‘Edward Kelly: A Star of the Rudolfine Era’, in Ivo Purš and Vladimír Karpenko, Alchemy and Rudolf II: Exploring the Secrets of Nature in Central Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Prague, 2016
  • Kelly, Edward, Two Excellent Treatises on the Philosopher’s Stone together with the Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy, ed. and trans. A. E. Waite, London, 1893
  • Maier, Michael,Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, 1617
  • Weever, John, Ancient Funerall Monuments, London, 1631
  • Wilding, Michael, Raising Spirits, Making Gold, Swapping Wives: The True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly, Nottingham, 1999
  • Wilding, Michael, ‘Edward Kelly: A Life’, Cauda Pavonis: Studies in Hermeticism,n.s. 18, 1 & 2 (1999) 1–26; reprinted, revised, in Stanton J., Linden, ed., ‘Mystical Metal of Gold’: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture,New York, 2007, 35–89