Marcus Clarke

1846-1881    |    VIC    |    Reporter & novelist

Clarke - journalist, poet, bon vivant and novelist - was the author of For the Term of his Natural Life, described by his biographer Brian Elliott as the only truly monumental work of literature in the first 100 years of Australian history, and a book that has never been out of print. The novel was inspired by Clarke's reporting on the convict prison system in Tasmania. It was first published as a newspaper series. Clarke also wrote a witty, irreverent column called 'The Peripatetic Philosopher' in The Argus and some of his pieces, particularly two on the Melbourne Cup, remain vivid and readable a century and a half later.

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Marcus Clarke

Marcus Clarke, dead at 35, was a prodigy.

He is chiefly remembered for his novel, For The Term of His Natural Life, which did roughly for the convict system in the Australian colonies what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the institution of slavery in the United States – it confronted the middle and upper classes with the gross inhumanity practised by their own societies. For the Term of His Natural Life travelled the world and, in a speech in Melbourne in 1895, 14 years after Clarke’s death, Mark Twain declared him a “genius” and said: “I may tell you that we think a deal more of Marcus Clarke in our country than I am sorry to think you do here.”

Clarke wrote a profusion of short stories, sketches and essays, an estimated 20 plays and a torrent of journalism while also holding down a position at the State Library of Victoria. He did so partly because the written word had been his passion since a sickly childhood precluded physical play (one of his childhood friends was the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins), and partly because he needed the money. Clarke, who lived extravagantly, indulging his taste for horses and fine clothes, always needed money, a spiral of debts twice sending him bankrupt and, in the opinion of his contemporaries, contributing to his eventual despair and premature death.

Clarke, an only child, was born in England in 1846. His father was Irish and his mother may have been also. She died when he was three and he had no memory of her. Clarke’s grieving father entrusted his son’s care to others. As Clarke later wrote: “The ‘little Master’, instead of being trained in the way he should morally go, became the impertinent companion of some very wild bloods indeed… So, a wild-eyed and eager schoolboy, I strayed into Bohemia, and acquired in that strange land an assurance and experience ill-suited to my age and temperament.” A Bohemian he became and a Bohemian he remained – in 1868, in his short-lived magazine Colonial Monthly, he published an article he had written on the effects of smoking marijuana.

His father had been thought to be wealthy. When he died, it was discovered he was not and Clarke, then 17, was sent to Australia where he had relatives. One secured him a job in a bank. It didn’t last, Clarke later admitting he didn’t bother to add up rows of figures, preferring to have a quick look and make a guess. He then had two years on a property in the Wimmera as a station hand. He did no better at that pursuit but his period in the bush did result in him beginning to relate seriously with the strange and unique land that is Australia. Clarke would come to argue that Australia should have its own literature independent of England in the way that the Americans had.

His career in journalism was comic. He was sacked from his first position as theatre critic for The Argus after he reviewed a show he didn’t bother attending and which was in fact cancelled. Later he created a furore by writing a brilliant account of the Melbourne Cup under a pseudonym, thereby embarrassing the major newspapers (his potential employers) who had boycotted the event. In 1870, a combination of ill health and financial want caused him to agree to visit Tasmania and write a series of articles on the former penal colony for The Australasian. In so doing, he confronted the history of the place as few, if any, of his contemporaries – certainly in literary circles – had done.

Of Clarke’s journalistic efforts, a contemporary wrote: “They made a great impression upon the public, being full of brilliantly realistic writing, reminding one greatly of Balzac’s ruthless style of exposing without squeamishness the social cancers to be found among the vagrant section of a community.” Thus Clarke saw and wrote about the convict system in Tasmania, then in its aftermath but still a living memory. The general opinion about Clarke after his death was that he was a great talent who wrote one great novel and frittered his gift in journalism. But for those of us who believe in non-fiction writing, Clarke’s journalism is recommended. Why? Because 150-odd years after it was published, it still lives as writing.

Martin Flanagan has written for The Age since 1985 and has written 13 books and a play.