For the Term of His Natural Life

  • Australia, #1
  • Kindle edition, £0.77 from
  • September 2014
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: Fans of Victorian adventure stories; people who are interested in reading about Australia’s history as a penal colony and don’t mind it coming with a hefty serving of classism and romanticism.

This is, chronologically, the first of my Australia books (it’s not the first book I read, because Australia was my first country and I hadn’t quite decided on the reading order yet). I started reading Australia a year ago, and finished in January, and, as I had no intention at that point of starting a blog, I didn’t make very useful notes–or any notes at all, sometimes. So my Aussie reviews are going to be short and probably a little bit vague, and I’m going to try to bang them all out in the next couple of weeks so I can catch up with where I am now (most of the way through New Zealand).

Brno, Czech Republic 2015

For the Term of His Natural Life is a social justice tale clothed as a Victorian adventure story (or “ripping yarn” as Wikipedia would have it) that doesn’t quite manage to transcend the narrow-mindedness of Victorian morality. The story of Rufus Dawes, a selfless and handsome young nobleman (of course) who is wrongfully committed of a crime (for which he will not exonerate himself for fear of bringing shame to his mother) and sentenced to transportation to Australia, where he is subjected to a series of increasingly improbable injustices, which serve to almost completely dehumanize him. Clarke wasn’t brave enough to use an actual criminal as his hero, and he vacillates between depicting Dawes’s fellow convicts as sympathetic humans subjected to unjustifiable suffering, and as evil brutes, a menace to any innocent that crosses their path. At his best, Clarke depicts a system that brutalizes even the genteel (prisoners and guards alike), and punishment so harsh that no human behavior could merit it.

The story takes place in Tasmania and includes several semi-fictionalized accounts of events that took place in the infamous penal colony in Macquarie Harbour (click that first link–it’s a doozy). It’s somewhat distinct, in tone and setting, from any of the other Australian books I read, but I found it to be a nice cultural background for future reading. The glimpses it gives of the absorption of the ex-convict class into Australian society are fascinating, and are picked up later in Voss and Death of a River Guide. It’s an especially nice companion to the latter, which takes place in Tasmania a hundred years later and covers some of the same history.

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