Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke (1846-1881) was an English-born journalist and author who achieved eminence in colonial Australia. He is noted for his novel of early-19th-century convict transportation.

Marcus Clarke was born on April 24, 1846, in Kensington, London. His mother died while he was an infant, and he was brought up by his father, a lawyer with literary interests. When he was 16 his father died and, seeing no future for him in London, relations persuaded the boy to try his fortunes in Australia, where he could be under the eye of an uncle who owned a sheep run and held a judgeship.

After trying and disliking work in a Melbourne bank, Clarke at 19 went into the backcountry to taste the rustic life and gain "colonial experience." He began writing sketches for the Australian Magazine and in 1867 returned to Melbourne as a newspaper reporter. Energetic, restless, and unable to settle at any task for long, he found routine tasks intolerable but succeeded as a columnist commenting on people and events. He thus established himself as a leader among the writers and poets who were making Melbourne the literary center of Australia.

At the age of 23 Clarke acquired a magazine which he named the Colonial Monthly. In it he serialized his first novel, Long Odds (later to be renamed Heavy Odds), a lively but unsubstantial story about a young Australian sheep grazier on a visit to England. When the story was complete, Clarke's interest flagged, and the magazine subsequently closed.

"The Great Australian Novel"

Visiting Tasmania, Clarke studied the records of transportation to the island's penal settlements and set about writing a novel recapturing the atmosphere of the old convict days. Under the title His Natural Life the story was serialized in the Australian Journal (1870-1872). Written mostly a chapter at a time—some portions while the typesetter stood by—it was to rank as Clarke's great achievement. In 1874 a substantially edited version was published in book form; later it appeared as For the Term of His Natural Life, the title by which it became established. Meanwhile Clarke was appointed secretary to the trustees of Melbourne's Public Library; later he became the assistant librarian.

Contrasting strongly with his witty and exuberant writings as a columnist, For the Term of His Natural Life deals in gloomy and powerful terms with the brutishness of the convict system. As in all his writing, Clarke intensified every phase, making it more striking, if less real. In the story injustice is heaped upon misfortune as Clarke unfolds an agitated drama of bitter human relationships. From melodramatic opening to sentimental conclusion, the story has compelling narrative power and strong human interest. In spite of exaggeration, both action and characterization are extraordinarily vivid. The language is sometimes theatrical; occasionally pathos turns to banality—yet overall the novel manages to outstrip its faults. In its day it was highly regarded and even considered to be "the great Australian novel." It can more correctly be regarded as representing a landmark of the colonial period—the Anglo-Australian phase—of Australia's literary development. In fact, it is Australian only in subject (and only insofar as Australia can be identified with convictism), and its author was Australian in nothing but residence.

Clarke's third novel, 'Twixt Shadow and Shine (1875), was a light and pleasantly written story; it gained only minor attention. Meanwhile his extravagance had run him into insolvency in 1874. Pressures built up, and he left his public library post. He continued to contribute to newspapers and was active in the theater as an original author and translator, but he remained in hopeless debt. Dispirited, he overworked himself to the point of exhaustion. Early in 1881 he was declared bankrupt for the second time. He died on Aug. 2, 1881. Clarke's fourth novel, Chidiock Tichbourne, or the Catholic Conspiracy, a swashbuckling romance of Elizabethan England, was published in 1893.

Further Reading on Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke

A favorable biography of Clarke is A. W. Brazier, Marcus Clarke: His Work and Genius (1902). A concise sketch of Clarke, together with a full listing of his essays, drama, and fiction, is contained in E. Morris Miller and others, Australian Literature (1940). See also Brian Robinson Elliott, Marcus Clarke (1958). For an appreciation of Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life and comments on his place in the literary development of Australia see H. M. Green, A History of Australian Literature, vol. 1 (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

McLaren, Ian Francis, Marcus Clarke, an annotated bibliography, Melbourne: Library Council of Victoria, 1982.

Simmons, Samuel Rowe, Marcus Clarke: an annotated checklist, 1863-1972, Sydney: Wentworth Press, 1975.