"It is impossible to convey, in words, any idea of the hideous phatasmagoria of shifting limbs and faces which moved throught the evil-smelling twilight of this terrible prison-house. Callot might have drawn it, Dante might have suggested it, but a minute attempt to describe its horrors would but disgust. There are depths in humanity which one cannot explore, as there are mephitic caverns into which one dare not penetrate." Many critics were indeed "disgusted" by the horrors that Marcus Clarke revealed in "His Natural Life". So powerful was his representation of the brutality of transportation that more than a century later historians still struggle to disentangle fact from Clarke's tragic fiction. The novel charts the misfortunes of Richard Devine, falsely accused of murder, through the worst Australian penal settlements, the notorious Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur, and Norfolk Island, retaining his humanity and spiritual dignity through all the degradations that cruelty and inhumanity could devise.
Clarke's novel is indeed a phantasmagoria of horrors - of murder, mutiny, flogging, child suicide, homosexual rape and cannibalism; yet it is also a powerful story of moral courage and heroic resistance to dehumanization. "His Natural Life", usually published as "For the Term of His Natural Life" but here restored to the title Clarke gave it, is the grand epic of the transportation system, and has been described as the greatest 19th-century Australian novel. This edition returns to the text Clarke himself prepared for the first single-volume version, published in Melbourne in 1874.show more