A Classic Year: 4.1 His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke

Coincidence, mistaken identity and exclamation marks: Marcus Clarke uses an abundance of all three in For the Term of His Natural Life. Let's admit it, if Clarke was to write this novel now, and submitted it to a publisher, it would be rejected out of hand. There is too much over-writing, too much melodrama and pathos, and far, far too many coincidences. So many that it stretches the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point. But we have to remember that this novel is a product of its times. And we really have to read it in those terms. Melodrama was big in the late 1800s and readers hadn't read so many novels as to be put off by this book's denouement; something modern readers will see as just too pat, too contrived.

In essence this novel is a political and social diatribe against the practices of transportation. The punishment meted out to the convicts by the overseeing officials is, in the main, petty, cruel and dehumanising. Guards, overseers and settlement commandants are all depicted as either humane, and therefore soft, or sadistic - there appears to be little variation between the two extremes.

The plot of the book revolves around Richard Devine, the main character, who is disinherited by his father in the first few pages, is accused of his murder shortly thereafter when he gives the false name of Rufus Dawes, is acquitted of that charge only to be convicted of robbery of his father's body and transported for life to Van Diemen's Land. The books proceeds to detail the incarceration of Dawes at Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur and then, finally, on Norfolk Island, the three worst convict settlements in Australia. On the face of it, it's a dour, relentless study of man's brutality, but the novel has a modern sense of realism to it. It must have been a shock to read in its time. If you disregard the melodrama and over-blown style it's not an easy read even now.

The next four works in this Classic Year:
5. "The Chosen Vessel" by Barbara Baynton (1896)
6. "The Man from Snowy River" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson (1890)
7. "Nationality" by Mary Gilmore (1942)
8. "The Drover's Wife" by Henry Lawson (1892)

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 15, 2008 10:17 PM.

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