Marcus Clarke

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Marcus Clarke in 1866

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke FRSA (24 April 1846 – 2 August 1881) was an English-born Australian novelist, journalist, poet, editor, librarian and playwright. He is best-known for his 1874 novel For the Term of His Natural Life, widely regarded as a classic work about convictism in Australia. It has been adapted into many plays and films.


Marcus Clarke was born in 11 Leonard Place Kensington, London, the only son of London Barrister William Hislop Clarke and Amelia Elizabeth Matthews Clarke, he was the nephew of Col Clarke, a Governor of Western Australia and grandson of a retired military medical officer of Irish descent. He was born with his left arm at least two inches shorter than the right, though he later became an accomplished diver in his days at Highgate School.[1] In 1862, father William was sent to Northumberland House suffering a mental breakdown and died there a year later. Marcus Clarke was educated at Highgate School, where his classmates included Gerard Manley Hopkins. At Highgate, Clarke attracted Hopkins' attention primarily due to his eloquence, leading Hopkins to describe him as a "kaleidoscopic, parti-coloured, harlequinesque, thaumatropic Being".[2] At age 17 he emigrated to Australia, where his uncle, James Langton Clarke, was a county court judge. Writing from his journey to Australia, he sent Hopkins a letter describing a sunset he had witnessed; this letter probably figured as partial inspiration for Hopkins' poem "A Vision of the Mermaids".[3] He was at first a clerk in the Bank of Australia, but showed no business ability, and soon proceeded to learn farming at a station on the Wimmera River, Victoria.

He was already writing stories for the Australian Magazine, when in 1867 he joined the staff of The Argus in Melbourne through the introduction of Dr. Robert Lewins. He was noted for his vivid descriptions of Melbourne's street scenes and city types, including the "low life" of opium dens, brothels and gambling houses. He always claimed he was interested in the "parti-coloured, patch-worked garment of life".[4] He briefly visited Tasmania in 1870 at the request of The Argus to experience at first hand the settings of articles he was writing on the convict period. Old Stories Retold began to appear in The Australasian from February. The following month his great novel His Natural Life (later called For the Term of His Natural Life) commenced serialisation in the Australasian Journal. He also became secretary (1872) to the trustees of the Melbourne Athenauem and later (1876) Sub (assistant) Librarian. In 1868 he founded the Yorick Club, which soon numbered among its members the chief Australian men of letters.

The most famous of his books is For the Term of his Natural Life (Melbourne, 1874), a powerful tale of an Australian penal settlement, which Marcus Clarke originally referred to as "His Unnatural Life."[5] One critic has claimed that Clarke's novel is "the book that more than any other, has defined our perception of the Australian convict experience."[6] He also wrote The Peripatetic Philosopher (1869), a series of amusing papers reprinted from The Australasian; Long Odds (London, 1870), a novel; and numerous comedies and pantomimes, the best of which was Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Theatre Royal, Melbourne; Christmas, 1873). In 1869 he married the actress Marian Dunn, with whom he had six children.

For the Term of His Natural Life is a "ripping yarn", which at times relies on unrealistic coincidences. The story follows the fortunes of Rufus Dawes, a young man transported for a theft that he did not commit, from the victim of a mugging - to whom he was actually rendering assistance. The harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to the convicts, some of whom were transported for relatively minor crimes, is clearly conveyed. The conditions experienced by the convicts are graphically described. The novel was based on research by the author as well as a visit to the penal settlement of Port Arthur.

Clarke was an important literary figure in Australia, and was the centre of an important bohemian circle. Among the writers were in contact with him were Victor Daley and George Gordon McCrae.

The biography "Cyril Hopkins' Marcus Clarke" is the only first-hand account of Clarke's early life in London. It draws on first-hand experiences of both author and subject.[7]

In spite of his popular success, Clarke was constantly involved in pecuniary difficulties, which are said to have hastened his death at Melbourne on 2 August 1881 at the age of 35.


Clarke's contribution to Australian literature and heritage is recognised in several places, including a main street in Canberra City that bears his name.

In 1973 he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post [1].


  1. ^ N. White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, p. 30
  2. ^ N. White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, p. 30
  3. ^ N. White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography, p. 31
  4. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (Winter 2010). ""A New Biography of Marcus Clarke"" (PDF). SL Winter 2010. 3 (2): 24.
  5. ^ ""A New Biography of Marcus Clarke"" (PDF). SL Winter 2010. 3 (2): 22–24. Winter 2010.
  6. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (Winter 2010). ""A New Biography of Marcus Clarke"" (PDF). SL Winter 2010. 3 (2): 24.
  7. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (Winter 2010). ""A New Biography of Marcus Clarke"" (PDF). SL Winter 2010. 3 (2): 24.



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