Marcus Clarke

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Marcus Clarke
Marcus Clarke 1866.jpg
Marcus Clarke, pictured in 1866
Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke

(1846-04-24)24 April 1846
Kensington, London, England
Died2 August 1881(1881-08-02) (aged 35)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
OccupationNovelist, journalist, poet, editor, librarian and playwright
Notable work
For the Term of His Natural Life (published 1874)
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society of Arts

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke FRSA (24 April 1846 – 2 August 1881) was an English-born Australian novelist, journalist, poet, editor, sub-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, that has been adapted into many plays, films and a folk opera.


Background and early life[edit]

Marcus Clarke was born in 11 Leonard Place Kensington, London, the only son of London barrister William Hislop Clarke and Amelia Elizabeth Matthews Clarke, who died when he was just four years old. He was the nephew of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Clarke, a Governor of Western Australia, and grandson of a retired military medical officer, Dr Andrew Clarke, who made his fortune in the West Indies and settled in Ireland.[1] Clarke was born with his left arm at least two inches shorter than the right, which prevented him from joining the army, though he became an accomplished diver in his days at Cholmeley Grammar, Highgate School.[2]:30 Clarke also had a slight stammer which remained his whole life.

Marcus Clarke as a young man

Marcus Clarke was educated at Highgate School (1858–62), where his classmates included Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cyril Hopkins and E.H.Coleridge. Clarke attracted Hopkins' attention primarily due to his eloquence, leading Hopkins to describe him as a "kaleidoscopic, parti-coloured, harlequinesque, thaumatropic Being"[2]:30 Clarke had problems with applying himself to his schoolwork, and was deprived, in his senior year, of the poetry prize as punishment.[1] On one hand he was considered charming and witty, but on the other spoilt, conceited and aimless which could be partially attributed to his Bohemian upbringing by this father, and the novels which he spent much of his time reading.[1]

In 1862, father William was sent to Northumberland House suffering a mental, physical and financial breakdown and died there a year later, leaving Clarke an orphan and without the means to live as a dilettante, which had been his expectation.The biography "Cyril Hopkins' Marcus Clarke" is the only first-hand account of Clarke's early life in London.[3] It draws on first-hand experiences of both author and subject.[4]:24[5]

At age 17 Clarke emigrated to Victoria, where his uncle, James Langton Clarke, was a county court judge working in Ararat. 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".[2]:31 After arriving in Melbourne on 6 June 1863, Clarke was at first a clerk in the Bank of Australasia, but showed no business ability. After a year, he moved to the country and proceeded to learn farming at a station on the Wimmera River, near Glenorchy, Victoria where his uncle had an interest.[1]

Writing career[edit]

Clarke was already writing stories for the Australian Magazine, when in 1867 he joined the staff of The Argus and The Australasian in Melbourne through the introduction of Dr. Robert Lewins, writing under the heading 'The Peripatetic Philosopher'. 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-colored, patch-worked garment of life".[4]:24 These columns brought Clarke to the attention of the public, who enjoyed his schoolboy humor and his popularity as a writer grew. Clarke contributed to the majority of colonial newspapers, as well as to the London Daily Telegraph.[6]

In 1868 Clarke founded the Yorick Club, which soon numbered among its members the chief Australian men of letters[1] and 1869 he married the actress Marian Dunn, daughter of noted actor and comedian John Dunn, with whom he had six children.[1] Clarke wrote "two sparkling comedies" specially for Marian, "A Daughter of Eve" and "Forbidden Fruit." [6]

Clarke 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 serialization in the Australasian Journal (which Clarke was editing), and was later published in book form in 1874. 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, when rendering assistance to the victim of a mugging. 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.[1] Clarke originally referred to the novel as "His Unnatural Life."[4]:22–24 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.".[4]:24 For the Term of his Natural Life is considered a novel in the grand tradition, that places Clarke with Charles Reade, Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky among the great nineteenth-century visionaries who found in the problems of crime and punishment a new insight, especially relevant in the convict-founded Australian colonies, into the foundations of human worth.[1]

Clarke 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 spite of his popular success, Clarke was constantly involved in financial difficulties and twice (1874 and 1881) he was forced into insolvency.

In 1872, Clarke became secretary to the trustees of the Melbourne Public Library (now known at State Library Victoria) and later (1876), sub (assistant) librarian. It is said he carried out his duties with reasonable efficiency but 'levity pursued him', and when he applied for the position of Chief Librarian in 1881, he was refused.[1] The library holds a unique collection of papers that relate to Marcus Clarke; the finding aid accessed via the website describes the "correspondence, manuscripts of prose and plays, notebooks, diaries, newspapers and press cuttings, legal documents and other miscellaneous papers and books".[7] As well as holding books, pictures, manuscripts, music scores and journals, two unusual collection items (classified as 'Realia') are his death mask and his Cabbage Tree hat. Clarke and his work have been featured in several exhibitions held at the library, most recently 'Bohemian Melbourne' (2014) which was attended by over 70,000 visitors.[8]

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

Anxiety, overwork, disappointment and health problems are said to have hastened his death (officially of erysipelas)[1] in Melbourne on 2 August 1881 at the age of 35. Clarke was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery and in August 1898, a "fine granite monument" was erected over the grave.[6]

Charity costume Australian rules football match for Clarke's family after his death, East Melbourne Cricket Ground

Shortly after Clarke's death, the theater community rallied to support his family, organizing a charity costumed Australian rules football match which was held at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground. For two hours "Heroes of familiar opera, tragedy, comedy, farce, and pantomime were banded together in strange juxtaposition. It was as if the silent figures of the Waxworks exhibition has been suddenly stirred to into wild life and energetic action".[9] Whilst the match was not high scoring (the Opera House team kicked six goals, the other team only one), nearly a thousand spectators attended the event, and £74,1s.6d was raised.

In 1884 'Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume', assembled by friend Hamilton Mackinnon, was published. It contained a "a selection of his most popular journalism with a biographical introduction" with a dedication to the 5th Earl of Rosebery, Archibald Philip Primrose (Prime Minister of England from March 1894 till June 1895) who was a great support of 'His Natural Life.[7] In a five page letter to Marion Clarke, dated 16 January 1884, Lord Rosebery states that he had always admired the book, given copies to his friends and compared it favorably with Oliver Twist and Victor Hugo's works.[7]


Clarke's contribution to Australian literature and heritage is recognized in several places, including a main street in Canberra City that bears his name.[1]

In 1973 he was honored on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post[10] and he is one of the writers commemorated with a plaque on the Sydney Writers Walk.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Clarke, Marcus Andrew (1846–1881)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. 1969. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 28 December 2019 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  2. ^ a b c White, Norman (1992). Hopkins: a literary biography. New York: Oxford University Press: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-812099-5.
  3. ^ Hopkins, Cyril; Hergenhan, Laurence Thomas; Stewart, Ken; Wilding, Michael; State Library of Victoria (2009). Cyril Hopkins' Marcus Clarke. Australian Scholarly Publishing. ISBN 978-1-921509-12-4.
  4. ^ a b c d Hergenhan, Laurie (Winter 2010). "A New Biography of Marcus Clarke" (PDF). SL Winter 2010. 3 (2): 24.
  5. ^ Hergenhan, Laurence Thomas; Wilding, Michael; Stewart, Ken (1 January 2009), Cyril Hopkins' Marcus Clarke, Australian Scholarly Publishing; State Library of Victoria, retrieved 28 December 2019
  6. ^ a b c Bert, Martin (1899). Testimonial benefit, Wednesday evening, May 10, 1899: dramatic and musical: tended to Mrs Marcus Clarke. Melbourne, Australia: Bert Martin. p. 4.
  7. ^ a b c "Papers of Marcus Clarke: MS 8222, Box 455". State Library Victoria. Retrieved 28 October 2020. |first= missing |last= (help)
  8. ^ "Bohemian Melbourne". State Library Victoria. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
  9. ^ "The Costume Football Match". 10 September 1881. Retrieved 9 September 2020. |first= missing |last= (help)
  10. ^ "Marcus Clarke" (image of postage stamp). Australia Post.



Further reading[edit]

  • Clarke, Marcus; Mackinnon, Hamilton (1896), Australian tales (1st ed.), A. & W. Bruce
  • Elliott, Brian (1952), Marcus Clarke, Canberra University College, retrieved 28 December 2019
  • Simmons, Samuel Rowe; Hergenhan, Laurence Thomas (1975), Marcus Clarke: an annotated checklist, 1863–1972, Wentworth Press, ISBN 978-0-85587-094-2
  • Wilding, Michael (1977), Marcus Clarke, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-550508-5

External links[edit]