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.