Saturday, August 05, 2017

Good Mr. Dawes

I mentioned previously that while I'm currently in Australia I'm reading Marcus Clarke's classic Australian novel, For the Term of His Natural Life.

It's the tale of Rufus Dawes, sentenced to transportation to the penal colony of Australia in 1827 for a murder he did not commit. Dawes is actually Richard Devine, the illegitimate son of a wealthy English shipbuilder. He takes on this new identity so as to spare his mother's reputation in "proper" society.

Left: Colin Friels as Rufus Dawes in the 1983 TV mini series, For the Term of His Natural Life.

Published in the Australian Journal between 1870 and 1872 (as His Natural Life), Clarke's story appeared as a novel in 1874. To this day it remains the most well-known novelization of life in the convict era of Australian history.

Declared "brilliant and fascinating" by no less than Mark Twain, For the Term of His Natural Life has been adapted once as a play (1903), three times as a film (1908, 1911, and 1927), once as a TV mini-series (1983), and most recently as an interactive iPad app (2013).

Above: American silent film actor George Fisher as Rufus Dawes in the 1927 film adaptation of For the Term of His Natural Life. This was the most expensive Australian silent film ever made and remains one of the most famous Australian films of the silent era.

Notes Wikipedia about For the Term of His Natural Life:

At times relying on seemingly implausible coincidences, the story follows the fortunes of Rufus Dawes, a young man transported for a murder that he did not commit. The book clearly conveys the harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to the convicts, some of whom were transported for relatively minor crimes, and graphically describes the conditions the convicts experienced. The novel was based on research by the author as well as a visit to the penal settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania.

Structurally, For the Term of His Natural Life is made up of a series of semi-fictionalised accounts of actual events during the convict era, loosely bound together with the tragic story of its hero. Most of the incidents and many of the individual characters are easily identifiable from historical sources including Marcus Clarke's own non-fiction work Old Tales of a Young Country. The plot is based on the escape of Alexander Pearce,, who ate his companions during two different escape attempts from the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement on West Coast, Tasmania.

Typical of Victorian-era convict novels, Rufus Dawes, is a wrongfully convicted gentleman. Under the prevailing morality of the time, a murderer would have been inappropriate for a hero in popular fiction.

The edition of For the Term of His Natural Life that I'm reading is one published as a tie-in with the 1983 TV mini-series adaptation. It's been in our family since that time, though I'm not entirely sure who bought it. Up until now I've not been compelled to read it, but I recently decided that it was about time that I did.

The book is, after all, considered an Australian classic. Plus, as I've noted previously, I've long been drawn to works set in the nineteenth-century. Also, there are convicts in my family history, about which I may write in a later post. Finally, I think another reason for why I decided to read For the Term of His Natural Life is because aspects of it, including its setting, remind me of the real life story that inspired a homily I gave in 2009. In 1727 a Dutch ship was wrecked on a chain of islands off the coast of Western Australia. Two of this ship's sailors – young men in their late teens – were caught in the act of “sodomy” and sentenced by their fellow crew members to be marooned separately on two inhospitable islands, mere outcrops of coral. It was a punishment that ensured a cruel and horrible death.

Now, there is no same-sex love depicted in Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life; Rufus Dawes is clearly heterosexual. Yet homosexuality was a part of convict life and so I've been curious to see if Clarke mentions or alludes to it. I believe he does. For instance, in citing the "personal abasement and self-loathing" Dawes endures at Macquarie Harbour, Clarke may well be implying Dawe's sexual abuse at the hands of his fellow male prisoners. Should this be understood as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality? No. After all, it is such inhospitable, cruel and selfish treatment of others that is the real meaning of "sodomy," not expressions of same-sex love. Numerous scholars and historians have documented this, as can be seen here, and here.

This all being said, I share today an excerpt from For the Term of His Natural Life, one that will require some backstory. . . .

Rufus Dawes is stranded in inhospitable country near the abandoned penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour with three others: Lieutenant Maurice Frere, Mrs. Julia Vickers, and Mrs. Vickers' young daughter Sylvia. These three were marooned after the ship they were sailing in from Macquarie Harbour to Port Harbour was overrun by mutineers. Frere is actually Dawes' cousin, yet Frere is oblivious to this as he knows his cousin as Richard Devine. Furthermore, he believes Devine to be dead, drowned in the sinking of a ship bound for India.

Dawes/Devine feels a tender connection to Sylvia, and so is determined to help the child and her mother. To this end he designs and builds a lightweight boat known as a coracle out of goat hides and pieces of sapling. Frere, recruited to help in the building of the craft, feels threatened by Dawes' take-charge attitude and effectiveness as a leader. He is also envious of the attention and praise that Sylvia lavishes on Dawes – especially after the completion of the coracle.

Following is how the story continues . . .

Frere – now that the boat was made – had regained his self-confidence. "One would think that a boat had never been built before to hear her talk," he said. "If this washing-basket had been one of my old uncle's three-deckers, she couldn't have said much more. By the Lord! he added, "I ought to have a natural talent for ship-building; for if the old villain hadn't died when he did, I should have been a ship-builder myself."

Rufus Dawes turned his back at the word "died," and busied himself with the fastenings of the hides. Could the other have seen his face, he would have been struck by its sudden pallor.

"Ah!" continued Frere, "that's a sum of money to love , isn't it?"

"What do you mean," asked the convict.

"Mean! Why my good fellow, I should have been left a quarter of a million of money, but the old hunks who was going to give it me died before he could alter his will, and every shilling went to a scapegrace son, who hadn't been near the old man for years. That's the way of the world, isn't it?"

Rufus Dawes caught his breath in astonishment, and then, recovering himself, said in a harsh voice, "A fortunate fellow – that son!"

"Fortunate! cries Frere. "Yes, he was fortunate! He was burnt to death in the Hydaspes, and never heard of his luck. His mother has got the money, though. I never saw a shilling of it." Then he walked away to the fire, musing, doubtless, on the difference between Maurice Frere, with a quarter of a million, disporting himself in the best society; and Maurice Frere, a penniless lieutenant, marooned on a barren coast, and acting as boat-builder to a runaway convict.

Rufus Dawes was also lost in reverie. His eyes fixed upon the sea, golden in the sunset, but it was evident that he saw nothing of the scene before him. He was looking far away, across the glittering harbour, at the old house at Hampstead, with its well-remembered garden. He pictured himself escaped from this present peril, and freed from sordid thraldom. He saw himself returning, with some plausible story of his wanderings, to take possession of the wealth which was his – saw himself living once more, rich, free and respected, in the world from which he had been so long an exile. He saw his mother's sweet pale face, the light of a happy home circle. A new life opened radiant before him, and he was lost in the contemplation of his own happiness.

So absorbed was he, that he did not hear the light footstep of the child across the sand.

"Mamma has come to see the boat, Mr. Dawes!" crise Sylvia, but Dawes did not reply.

"Mr. Dawes!" Sylvia cried again, pulling at his sleeve.

The touch roused him, and looking down, he saw the pretty, thin face upturned to his. Scarcely conscious of what he did, he caught the little creature in his arms and kissed her. Mr. Frere was astonished at the presumption of the man, and, with Mrs. Vickers on his arm, reproved the apparent insolence of the convict as freely as if they both had been at his own little kingdom of Maria Island. "You insolent beggar!"
he cried. "Keep your place, sir!"

That sentence recalled Rufus Dawes to reality. What business had he, a convict, with tenderness for the daughter of his master? He saw the two looking at the boat he had built, marked the flush of hope on the cheek of the poor lady, and the full-blown authority that already hardened the eye of Maurice Frere. All at once he understood the result of what he had done. He had, by his own act , given himself again to bondage. Until now he had been useful, even powerful. Now he had pointed out the way of escape, he had sunk into the beast of burden once again. All at once he turned on his heel, and strode up into the bush.

"A queer fellow," said Frere, as Mrs. Vickers followed the retreating figure with her eyes. "Always in an ill temper."

"Poor man! He has behaved very kindly to us," said Mrs. Vickers. Yet even she felt the change of circumstance, and knew that her blind trust in the convict had been transformed into a patronising kindliness which was quite foreign to esteem or affection.

"Come, let us have supper," says Frere. "He will come back when his fit of sulks is over."

But he did not come back, and soon Mrs. Vickers and her daughter, rapt in the hopes and fears of the morrow, almost forgot that he had left them. The possession of the boat seemed to them so wonderful that the perils of the voyage they were to make in it were altogether lost sight of. As for Maurice Frere, he rejoiced that the convict was out of the way. He wished that he was out of the way altogether.

Having left the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of rage and regret. For the first time for six years he had tasted the happiness of doing good, had broken through the selfish misanthropy he had taught himself. And this was his reward! He had risked his life, forgone his enmities, almost changed his nature – and his reward was cold looks and harsh words, as soon as his skill had paved the way to freedom. This knowledge coming upon him while the astounding news of his riches yet vibrated in his brain, made him grind his teeth with rage at his own hard fate. Bound by the purest of ties – the affection of a son for his mother – he had condemned himself to social death, rather than buy his liberty by a revelation which would shame the gentle creature. By a strange series of accidents, fortune had assisted him to maintain the deception he had practised. His cousin had not recognised him. The very ship in which he was believed to have sailed had been lost with every soul on board. His identity had been completely destroyed – no link remained which could connect Rufus Dawes, the convict, with Richard Devine, the vanished heir to the wealth of the dead ship-builder.

. . . Of little use now was the heritage that he had gained. The convict-absconder, whose hands were hard with menial service, and whose back was scarred with the lash, could never be received among the gently nurtured. Let him lay claim to his name and rights, what then? He was a convicted felon, and his name and rights had been taken from him by the law. Let him go and tell Maurice Frere that he was his lost cousin. He would be laughed at. Let him proclaim aloud his birth and innocence, and the convict-sheds would grin, and the convict overseer set him to harder labour. Let him even get his wild story believed, what would happen? If it was heard in England that a convict claimed to be the heir to an English fortune, with what feeling would the announcement be received? Certainly not with a desire to redeem this ruffian from his bonds and place him in the honoured seat of his dead father. Such intelligence would be regarded as a calamity, a disgrace to an honoured and unsallied name. Let him succeed, let him return again to his mother; he would, at the best, be to her a living shame, scarcely less degrading that that which she had dreaded. Finally, suppose even that he could conceal the name of the real criminal, and show himself guiltless of the crime for which he had been condemned, all the wealth in the world could not buy back the self-respect which had been cut out of him by the lash, or banish from his brain the memory of his degradation.

For hours this agony racked him. It was hopeless to think of freedom and honour. Let him keep his silence, and pursue the life fate had marked out for him. He would return to bondage. The law would claim him as an absconder, and would mete out to him such punishment as was fitting.

Yet suppose he did not go back at all, but wandered away into the wilderness and died? Better death than such doom as his. Yet need he die? He could catch fish, he could build a hut. There was, perchance, at the deserted settlement some remnant of seed corn that, planted, would give him bread. Surely he could contrive to live alone, savage and free. Alone! He had contrived all these marvels alone! Was not the boat he himself had built upon the shore? Why not escape in her, and leave to their fate those miserable ingrates?

The night had passed during his reverie, and the first faint streaks of dawn began to lighten the sky. Haggard and pale, he rose to his feet, and scarcely daring to think about what he proposed to do, ran toward the boat. As he ran, a voice seemed to encourage him. "Your life is of more importance than theirs. They have been ungrateful and deserve death. You will escape out of this Hell, and return to the loving heart who mourns you. Moreover they may not die. They are sure to be sent for. Think of what awaits you when you return – an absconded convict!

He was within three feet of the boat, when he suddenly stopped and stood motionless, staring at the sand. He had come upon the sentence traced by Sylvia the evening before.


"Good Mr. Dawes!" What a frightful reproach there was to him in that simple sentence! What a world of baseness and cruelty did not those eleven letters open up to him!

He staggered to the cavern, and shook the sleeping Frere violently. "Awake! Awake!" he cried, "and let us leave this place!"

Frere, starting to his feet, looked at the white face and bloodshot eyes of the man before him with astonishment.

"What's the matter with you, man? he said. "You look as if you'd seen a ghost!"

At these words, Rufus Dawes gave a long, shuddering sigh.

"Come, Sylvia," shouted Frere, "it's time to get up. I am ready to go!"

The convict's sacrifice was complete. As he turned away, tears rolled down his rugged face and fell upon the sand.

– Marcus Clarke
Excerpted from For the Term of His Natural Life
Angus & Robertson Publishers (1983 edition)
pp. 118-123

NEXT: A Visit to Sydney's Taronga Zoo

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Austen and Australia
Liberated to Be Together

No comments: