New Light on the Sources of 'His Natural Life.' (Marcus Clarke)

By Smith, Barry | Australian Literary Studies, May 1997 | Go to article overview

New Light on the Sources of 'His Natural Life.' (Marcus Clarke)


Smith, Barry, Australian Literary Studies


Henry Rouse, prisoner 18485, also known as Henry Beresford Garrett, Long Harry, John Heathcote and Klodhopr, spent about 38 years in gaols in England, Norfolk Island, Hobart Town, Williamstown and Pentridge in Victoria; also Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington.

He was a shrewd observer and listener and an autodidact who liked precision in argument. When he was in his fifties, in gaol in Dunedin and Christchurch, he began to write essays, mainly biographical sketches of gaolers and convicts he had known, and tracts setting forth his republican and atheist beliefs. Some of these were published in the Otago Witness and Christchurch Society. Rouse's initial drafts were composed in his own phonetic English with a Nottinghamshire accent. It was a skill he had practiced since Norfolk Island days at least; he developed it probably in an attempt to hide his thoughts from the authorities.

His longest essay is on `The Demon', John Price, the sadistic commandant of Norfolk Island, whom Rouse was later to watch being butchered by convicts driven beyond endurance at Williamstown in 1857.(1) Price was the model for Frere in His Natural Life.

Rouse's manuscript is at present lost, but transcripts of it into standard English, with numerous obvious errors, exist in the Mitchell Library, Hocken Library in Dunedin and the National Library of Australia. `The Demon' came to light just as John V. Barry was completing his biography of Price. Clearly Barry was hardly pleased to be confronted so late in the piece with a major primary source which occasionally varied from his own account. Barry printed extracts from `The Demon' transcript in an appendix to his book, while declaring his reservations about Rouse's veracity.

It was an unfortunate outcome for all concerned. Rouse's vivid, well-informed portrait outshines Barry's dogged record and on two crucial points conflicts with it. Among Rouse's Norfolk Island informants were two men, one a convict, the other `a freeman overseer', who had known Price in Cornwall. The young Price had been notorious around Penzance as `Jack the Devil'. He had been `an ungovernable brute' who `used to kick' the legs of underlings hard enough to break the flesh. Price, according to one contemporary story, had left Cornwall to make his fortune, after a dispute about his father's will -- Barry, like Marcus Clarke before him, accepted this part of the tale, although Barry was puzzled that there was no evidence for it in the probate records. Rouse's informants told him that Price had had to flee England because of a looming rape scandal. It is a story which is consonant with Price's later career.(2)

Particulars about other characters Rouse wrote about, Billy Morgan the bushranger, Dick Burgess the self-confessed murderer, for example, which can be checked against extrinsic records, suggest that Rouse was accurate, and acute in his judgments.(3) There is no need to doubt his portrait of Price, which exceeds Clarke's (in the character of Frere) and Barry's in its frightfulness. Rouse thought Price `insane'. Harold Boehm ably discussed Rouse's criticisms of Clarke's depiction of Price, Mrs Price and Thomas Rogers (the models for Frere, his wife Sylvia -- Dora in the serial version -- and Rev. James North respectively) in Australian Literary Studies in 1971.(4) I want only to add that Rouse was unique, I think, in noting that Mary Price and Thomas Rogers were widely known figures in Melbourne and that Mrs Price and most of her children certainly, and Rogers probably, were domiciled there when the novel appeared in both its versions. In this context Clarke's venture becomes even more extraordinary and its muted reception more understandable.

Rouse's study of `The Demon', written probably in Dunedin gaol in the mid to late 1870s, was seemingly prompted by his reading of His Natural Life, probably in the Melbourne 1874 edition. Rouse's prison reading ranged through Chaucer and Machiavelli to Byron, Macaulay, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ouida, to the daily newspapers, and it is conceivable that he followed Dawes and Frere in the complete serial version in the Australian Journal. …

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