And I do like a good gothic novel. So For the Term of His Natural Life went on my list, and I recently got around to reading it.
"So, madam," said Sir Richard, in the high-strung accents which in cries of great mental agony are common to the most self-restrained of us, "you have been for twenty years a living lie!"Thus For the Term of His Natural Life begins: with a scene of high Victorian melodramatic splendour, in which Lady Devine confesses that her son is illegitimate. Outraged, nouveau riche shipping magnate Sir Richard cuts the young man off without a shilling and throws him out of the house, vowing to expose his mother's shameful past if young Richard dares to show his face again. Thereupon, Sir Richard storms off to alter his will in favour of his nephew Maurice Frere, but drops dead of a stroke, leaving young Richard the unchallenged heir to all his fortunes. But too late! Young Richard, storming from the house, has already stumbled across the murdered corpse of his real father, Lord Somebody-or-Other, just in time to be taken up by the police and transported to Australia under the name of Rufus Dawes, since he dare not claim his real name for fear of seeing his mother's name dragged through the dirt.
While Rufus Dawes is locked belowdecks, a motley supporting cast mingle abovedecks: humane Captain Vickers, going to take up a post as governor at the feared penal colony at Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's barren West Coast; his golden-haired child Sylvia; Sarah Purfoy, a glamorous lady's-maid with a dark secret; John Rex, a wily convict with dreams of freedom; and Maurice Frere, who having lost his claim to the Devine fortune, is determined to claw his way into his own brutal ascendancy in the prison colonies of Australia.
That's where this sensational tale begins, but it would be difficult to give you any more of an idea of it's progression, except to say that it ends twenty maddening and melodramatic years later among roughly the same characters, and only once we're well and truly ready for someone to put poor Rufus Dawes finally out of his misery.
The book was written as a newspaper serial (like many others of its time), which, for this story, seems to mean that plot is optional. In its finished state, it comes in four Books rather like loosely-linked novellas, but the ending is weak and disappointing given what all the characters are forced to suffer. Then there are the other shortcomings. Marcus Clarke states in his foreword that instead of just focusing on the beginning or the end of a prison term, his book wants to examine the whole course of one; but prison life just isn't very interesting, and we never do really get to spend much time with Rufus Dawes, or get to know him as a character; the supporting cast gets much more of the spotlight. Finally, as befits a good gothic novel, Clarke sets up a whole lot of deliciously melodramatic situations--but without ever quite following through with a good dramatic payoff. This was what kept me reading (smouldering Byronic hero! tormented, yet evil villain! innocent, but fatally amnesiac heroine! Miscarriages of justice! Mutiny! Maroonings! More miscarriages of justice! Escapes! Floggings! Forbidden love! Storms at sea!)--but sadly, despite Clarke's best efforts, too much of his plot goes out with a fizzle and not with a bang: when the whole book keeps us reading because we want to know what will happen when the heroine finally regains her memory, it's disappointing to have it happen so late, with so little result.
That said, I was originally quite skeptical about how well the gothic genre would work in a fairly young country like Australia, that has so little legend woven around it. Clarke did a really good job of weaving the correct atmosphere, however: part of it is the heavy melodrama of the plot and characters, but he gets excellent mileage out of the gloomy and rugged landscape in which his story takes place. In one chapter, it even veers over into something pretty close to horror--Book III, Chapter 27, must be the most disturbing thing I've ever read in a Victorian novel.
Despite its sensationalist tendencies, For the Term of His Natural Life takes itself pretty seriously as a work of social criticism. When it was published in 1874, Port Arthur, Australia's most notorious penal colony, was still in operation, and Clarke is clearly writing to attack what he saw as current evils. By the same token, a surprising number of the characters and incidents in the book are fictionalised versions of actual occurrences--from mutinies onboard convict ships to cannibal escapees and brutal prison wardens. Its depiction of convict life as unremittingly bleak and violent, backed up by a heartless and powerless form of Christianity that only hardens the men it preaches to, is passionate--and seems to have been both reasonably accurate, and pretty effective in shaping the national imagination.
Thematically, I found myself confused about Clarke's views on religion. There are two clergyman characters, one a totally unsympathetic butt of satire and the other a thoroughly confused individual (angst! smoulder!) apparently teetering on the brink of atheism--and yet by the ending, though he's fallen himself, he forms the stepping-stone upon which other characters rise into something like true nobility. Clarke's message is not totally dire: he ends on a note of hope, a moment of grace in the midst of a whole lot of pain. Whether that is enough to redeem the tragic darkness (to say nothing of intermittent silliness) of the rest of the plot is another question.
I should also add that I was surprised to find one of the characters stating that "the woman who possesses masculine force of intellect is abnormal." This is the kind of thing they tell us those benighted Victorians believed, but this was the first time I've seen an actual Victorian say it. It's an isolated instance in the book, and it's said by a very morally grey character concerning another very morally grey character without a hint of authorial commentary, so I haven't a clue whether Clarke actually meant it or not.
In the end, For the Term of His Natural Life was an uneven and frustrating read which nevertheless kept me hooked. It's only about halfway to being a decent gothic melodrama--but it's a must-read if you're interested in Australian literature or convict history.
Find For the Term of His Natural Life on Amazon, The Book Depository, the University of Adelaide or Librivox.