Quintus Servinton (Part 1)

savery3Still, what was he to do? for the only other alternative, that of staying and facing the storm, seemed to him still worse than flight. At times he felt disposed to unbosom himself unreservedly to Emily; but again his courage failed him, for he could not endure the thoughts of thus contemplating his own picture. So hideous is vice, when seen in its true colours—so frightful the spectre even to ourselves, that we are driven from one position to another, seeking to avoid it, although, after the first wrong step, only to increase its power. We forgot also, how grievously we afflict others, at the same moment that we are ruining ourselves, by enlisting in its service; for our experience of the world tells us, that there are many, who are much more keen and sensitive, respecting the faults of others, than of their own – many, who view the same transaction in different lights, according to its actor – who think that, a beautiful flower, when belonging to themselves, which is esteemed a frightful weed, if growing in their neighbour’s garden – in a word, who measure their own and other peoples’ corn by different bushels. Not so however, was it with Quintus, in respect to the relative connexion between himself, and the affectionate friends by whom he was surrounded. Could he have summoned resolution to have poured into Emily’s ear, some of that contrition, by which his soul was distracted, and which, being suppressed, added twofold to his misery, he would have found in her, and in her relations, powerful and kind auxiliaries. Could he indeed, have brought himself to divest his mind of a portion of its care, by laying the burden upon one, who was most ready to share it with him, the subsequent excellence of her conduct gave full assurance, that he would have reposed his confidence, where it was well deserved; and both might have been spared years of sorrow…

When Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton: A Tale Founded Upon Incidents Of Real Occurrence is called “the first Australian novel”, we are much closer to the truth than is often the case when dealing with anointed “firsts”. The novel was published in Hobart, with volumes I and II appearing late in 1830, and volume III early in 1831. It received favourable notices in the local newspapers, which also noted that the novel was printed for “transmission to England”, and that consequently only a few copies would be “retained for sale in the Colony”.

These circumstances help to account for the extreme rarity of the first edition of Quintus Servinton, only three copies of which are known to exist. That held by the Mitchell Library, the main Australiana collection of the State Library of New South Wales, was used as the basis of the first local reprinting of the book, the Jacaranda Press edition of 1962. Vitally, this edition also carried a biographical introduction prepared by Cecil Hadgraft, which draws together what is known about the life of Henry Savery (and to which I am deeply indebted for much of what follows). Two subsequent editions, from the New South Wales University Press in 1984 and the University of Sydney Press in 2003, essentially reproduce the Jacaranda Press edition, including Hadgraft’s introduction; although the former, for inscrutable reasons, altered the title of the novel to The Bitter Bread Of Banishment.

It is perhaps not altogether surprising to discover that Quintus Servinton is more important than good; although to be fair, some of the reasons that the novel is likely to disappoint the modern reader lie in false expectations. While this novel is invariably referenced in terms of its author’s experiences as a convict, in fact these are reflected only in the third of the three volumes, the other two of which are devoted to getting its title character to the point of the (we are assured) single transgression that resulted in his transportation.

Furthermore, nothing in the novel addresses the convict experience generally, nor is there any description of the surroundings in which this phase of Quintus’s life is played out. This can be partly ascribed to the fact that, while Quintus serves his time in New South Wales, Henry Savery was transported to Tasmania. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we are given so little hint of what is going on around Quintus is that this narrow focus reflects the complete self-absorption of his author.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Quintus Servinton is not just that it is partly autobiographical, but the extent to which this is so: everything that is on the public record about Henry Savery appears in this novel. What differs between the reality and the fiction is the motivation and the tone. Although it is impossible to get away from the act of forgery that caused his conviction and transportation (and nearly got him executed), Savery’s Quintus is more sinned against than sinning, a victim of circumstances and of outside malice. However, when we consider the facts of Savery’s life, it is hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that he brought most of his troubles on himself—not least from never knowing when to quit. As Cecil Hadgraft puts it:

It is not too harsh to suggest that apart from successful ingenuity and a practised bravado he had many of the qualifications of the confidence-man.

Not much is known about Henry Savery’s early life. He was born in 1791, the son of John Savery, a well-respected Bristol banker. The Savery family boasted descent from the Norman de Servingtons, and often gave “Servington” as a middle name. Henry was the family’s sixth-born son, but an elder brother died in infancy making Henry in effect the fifth (“Quintus”). As a young man he lived in London, and there married Eliza Oliver. The couple moved back to the west of England, and Henry went into business for himself. His first venture, in sugar refining, went bankrupt. He next changed horses and operated a newspaper for some two and a half years; it is not known why he gave up on the venture. While still publishing the newspaper, Henry took over an insurance and brokerage form, but this doesn’t seem to have lasted either. In 1822 he went back into the sugar-refining business—and that’s when things went wrong. Or at least, that’s when we know things went wrong: when Henry Savery was arrested in 1824, one newspaper report of it commented that there had been previous instances of “painful filial misconduct”, which perhaps suggests that John Savery had saved his son’s skin on other, less serious, occasions.

He could do nothing for Henry this time, however. While it has been suggested that Henry had been guilty of fraudulent practices on a large scale and over time, all we know for certain is that in 1824, he passed a false bill for £500—apparently because, without the knowledge of his business partner, he had committed their company beyond its means and had to find a way of covering the gap. The bill was not a forgery in the sense we might expect, inasmuch as it was entirely false—being “endorsed” by non-existent people, rather than carrying false signatures of real and trustworthy individuals.

Via Quintus, Henry Savery claims not to have known that this sort of bill fell under the contemporary statutes against forgery. However, the high-profile trial and execution of convicted forger, Henry Fauntleroy, may have taught him differently. In any event, he panicked and ran, but was apprehended as he was trying to leave the country. Seeing himself trapped, Savery jumped overboard and nearly drowned. Subsequently recovering, he was held in prison until his trial. During this period, it seems that certain prominent individuals convinced him that the only way to save his life was to plead guilty. He did so, persisting in his plea even against the strong advice of the court recorder, only to have his judge immediately assume the black cap.

Clearly some terrible miscommunication had occurred, since not merely Henry Savery reacted with shock and horror to this outcome: even George Smith, who had brought the charges against Savery, pleaded for mercy—to no avail. Savery was committed to prison, the date of his execution set for three weeks’ distance. In the meantime, frantic efforts were made on his behalf; and with less than twenty-four hours left, Savery’s friends succeeded in having his sentence commuted to transportation for life. He spent about six weeks in the hulk Justinia at Woolwich, and left England forever in mid-August of 1825 on the Medway, arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then known, early in December.

Henry Savery’s time as a convict and a ticket-of-leave man was one of ups and downs; mostly, for one reason or another, downs. The period that most concerns us, that between December 1828 and March 1830, finds him imprisoned for debt. During the second half of 1829, Savery began to fill his time by writing, producing The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land, a series of sketches about Hobart life that appeared in the Colonial Times, and beginning work on Quintus Servinton. Upon his release, having exhausted the patience of the authorities and, in particular, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, Savery was dispatched as an assigned labourer to the farmlands of one Major Macintosh, in the New Norfolk district west of Hobart, where he stayed until receiving his ticket-of-leave in June of 1832. During his time in New Norfolk, he completed and arranged for the publication of Quintus Servinton.

(The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land attracted a libel suit from one of those sketched. However, the suit was directed against the publisher, not the author, and just as well: at the time there was a strict legal edict against convicts writing for the newspapers in any capacity, and had Savery’s authorship been made public, another criminal conviction would certainly have been the consequence. However, the sketches had originally appeared as by “Simon Stukeley”, and it is only because of an annotation by the printer Henry Melville appended to the copy of The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land now held by the British Museum, that Savery’s authorship is known.)

Quintus Servinton is a very odd book. On one hand it shows a clear understanding by Savery of the character flaws that led him into trouble, and makes no bones about his guilt in the matter of the forgery; though unlike his fictional counterpart it does not seem that Savery ever learned anything from his experiences, in spite of his literary consideration of the benefits of suffering and the inevitable consequences of transgression. But even while, via Quintus, he is admitting his culpability in the troubles that befell him, every contributing incident is twisted to make it someone else’s fault, with Quintus for one reason or another (jealousy, resentment, financial gain, or just plain bad luck) attracting malicious attacks from a surprising range and number of people. The result is a work that manages to be bluntly honest and totally dishonest at the same time.

But while there is certainly some psychological interest to the analytical self-portrait that comprises Quintus Servinton, as a novel it is a fairly gruelling read. It is easy to understand how Henry Savery might have been led into such an examination of his own life, but for the reader the circumstantial account of the first half of Quintus’s life becomes extremely tedious—not least because Savery has a tendency to write his subject matter into the ground. We learn early on that a combination of overweening self-confidence and impatient ambition, along with a certain way of thinking summed up as “cunning”, are responsible for leading Quintus astray; but this isn’t enough for Savery, who has to illustrate his point over and over, via incidents that no doubt happened to him (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), but which really aren’t necessary for the reader to hear about in such minute detail. Nor do we need to learn quite so much about Quintus’s school-days, or his abortive calf-loves. It is not until deep in the second volume, when the events leading up to the forgery begin to fall into place, that the novel’s level of interest lifts.

Consequently—I’m going to skip over most of those early stages, since the paragraph above tells you most of what you need to know.

Quintus Servinton is framed by a short narrative involving an unnamed young man who is injured while on a walking tour of Devonshire, and taken into the house of an elderly but still loving couple, who show signs of past suffering. The trio become attached, and towards the end of the young man’s stay, his host reveals to him the story of his life—offering it as a cautionary tale.

The novel proper begins in 1772, with Quintus’s birth being marked by a gypsy prophecy regarding his life, which reveals that he will know both great happiness and great sorrow and warns that the years between thirty and forty will be “the commencing years of his disasters”. This early phase of the novel is mostly interesting for the radical attitude of Mrs Servinton: Quintus is her eleventh child, and she is less than thrilled when the gypsy tells her to expect seven more. She greets Quintus’s birth with the following:

“I’m sure Mr Servinton, mine is a dreadful life – no sooner one child can walk, than there’s another in arms – I’m sure I hope none of my daughters will ever marry – they little know what they would have to go through.—We have another boy.—I really thought four were quite enough, and I don’t know what we shall do with any more…”

Mrs Servinton continues to ring changes on this theme throughout the following chapters, while Mr Servinton talks a lot about the dispensations of Providence but (as we may infer from the seven subsequent arrivals) never thinks of keeping it in his pants.

The elder Servinton brothers disappoint their father by getting ideas above their station and refusing to go into business, so Mr Servinton determines to raise Quintus quite differently, sending him away to school and, indeed, cutting him off from his family completely for a period of five years. At seventeen Quintus is placed in a London business, while also brushing up his manners and behaviour by associating with his relatives (his mother is related to an earl). We follow Quintus as he develops an aptitude for business, makes friends and connections, fancies himself in love, and generally grows up for a few years. He also begins to display some alarming tendencies that don’t, at this stage, offer much scope for damage, although the potential is clear. In particular, Quintus gets impatient, tending to prefer progressing quickly, by reckless leaps, to taking cautious steps.

All this occupies the first volume of Quintus Servinton, from which the only other passage I feel moved to quote is this:

Afterwards, addressing his conversation more particularly to Mr Burton, he said, “You were speaking of rustic games this morning, but did not mention golf…” Quintus accordingly went on to describe, that it was a game played by two persons, in an enclosure about seventy feet long, by twenty broad. In this, close to the sides, is a walk portioned off from the centre; and about nine feet from each end, a small pillar is erected, about three feet high. Two balls are used, stuffed, but rather hard; and each player is also furnished with a club or stick, one end of which is strengthened by brass or iron, in the shape of a racket bat. The players stand together, at one end of the enclosure. He who commences, drives his ball towards the pillar at the other extremity – the other afterwards doing the same. He of the two, whose ball rolled nearest the pillar, has now the first blow. They then strike alternately, and the skill and object of the game, consist in making the ball strike one pillar, and then so rebound, that it shall strike the other. He who succeeds in this, scores one; and eleven is the game…

At the beginning of the second volume, Quintus is introduced to the Clifton family—devout, cultured, honourable, but having fallen into some monetary difficulties. He is immediately drawn to the eldest daughter, Emily, but between their mutual financial situations, Emily’s youth, and his own past experiences, Quintus determines to do what he never does in business, and take a slow-and-steady approach. At length the two do marry; they are very much in love and very happy, while Emily, an exemplary wife, repeatedly presses upon Quintus her belief that a wife’s leading duty is to share her husband’s troubles and worries as well as his successes, urging him always to confide in her.

For a time Quintus does exactly this, but as he grows ever more ambitious in his business, and as he begins to associate with London acquaintances whose ideas and practices are considerably less refined than those imbibed by the Cliftons, there are periods of neglect stemming from a combination of concealment, guilt and impatience—but invariably, there is reconciliation and recommitment, too, and on the whole he and Emily are very happy together.

Nevertheless, trouble is brewing:

It is a singular feature in the formation of some minds, that they can exhibit an almost total indifference, where important stakes, involving perhaps, their entire fortunes, are concerned, and yet, show the utmost anxiety about trifles. Quintus was one of this description. His sanguineness enabled him to speculate deeply in business, rendering a trade, proverbially fluctuating, still more hazardous, by his mode of conducting it; and yet he could never bring himself, when cards or other games of chance were introduced at parties, to risk a stake that could in any manner, exceed a few shillings. Gambling of every description he professed to abhor – forgetting now nearly allied to this vice, are improvident speculations in trade…

In is in passages of detached self-analysis such as this that Quintus Servinton is at its strongest.

The initiating event of the defining crisis of Quintus’s life comes when he is the victim of what is, only too clearly, a false bankruptcy. Having paid out as little as possible to his creditors, the “failed” tradesman closes one business and opens another in a space of months upon the proceeds, guarded and assisted by an attorney specialising in loopholes in the law. Quintus gets his fingers badly burned in this transaction, particularly by ending up with a handful of endorsed bills that turn out to be fake (“kites”, as they were known), and therefore worthless. The experience has the effect of engendering in him a resentful, “everyone’s doing it” attitude towards sharp business practices; particularly when his own business strays into difficult financial waters.

By this time Quintus is charge of his own business, in partnership with a man who brought capital to the enterprise but no particular business knowledge; so there is no-one to check him or even recognise what he is doing when he starts to take ever-greater risks—finally crossing the line into illegality:

    It was about a month after the fatal resolve had been so taken, that Quintus met his friend Mr Trusty in the street, one morning, and was accosted by him, “I was on my road to call upon you. We hold an acceptance of yours, for a thousand pounds, in favour of Rothero & Co. due next Thursday, the twelfth, and if you wish it, running bills on discount, will suit us quite as well as cash.”
    No man could be more on the alert, than he ever was, to catch at any prop, or support to the credit of his house, and yet to make things wear the best possible face. He always bore in mind the adage, about being, and singing poor; and although, at this very moment, he had been somewhat uneasy, respecting the provision of this very thousand pounds, it was not his policy to admit to Mr Trusty, the full extent of the accommodation offered him…
    When the twelfth arrived, he provided himself, among several small country bills of exchange of great respectability, with a fictitious note for five hundred pounds, the drawers and endorsers of which, were creatures of his own brain, having no existence… After looking them all over carefully, Mr Rothero fixed upon the five hundred, along with others, of smaller value, and accompanying Quintus to the counting-house, directed the clerk to calculate the discount, and give up the other bill. The money thus raised for the occasion, was entered by Quintus, in the books of the house, as a loan, but without specifying from whom; and although for a few days, he was in a state of constant fear and trembling, nervously excited almost at his own shadow, and full of apprehension every time he saw his office door opened, his alarm by degrees yielded to his satisfaction, if it can be so called, that he derived, from having successfully accomplished his dangerous purpose…

Quintus’s satisfaction, muted as it is, lasts only until a conversation with some business acquaintances, regarding the upcoming execution of a convicted forger:

    This led to a discussion, upon the question, how far the punishment of death, was proper for this particular crime; and in the course of it, Mr Gordon observed, “Forgery is an offence, much more frequently committed, than most people are aware, but the punishment is the same in all cases. There is one branch, which I believe is daily practised with impunity, and almost without notice – I mean the circulation of fictitious bills, or using the names of persons having no existence; which is as much a forgery in the eyes of the law, as the offence for which poor — is doomed to suffer.”
    Quintus was thunderstruck at this doctrine, but managed to reply, “You surely do not mean, Sir, that it can be a forgery, to issue paper bearing the names of persons who never existed.”
    “Most unquestionably it is,” said Mr Gordon. “The Legislature makes no distinction between real or imaginary names; the offence and the punishment are alike in both cases.”

This aspect of the story would appear to be both true and self-serving. Certainly at the time a lot of people got away with forgery, either outright or of the kind practised by Henry / Quintus, because of a reluctance to prosecute (as was the case with respect to most capital crimes short of murder); generally forgers only suffered when the amounts involved were very large (as in the cited case of Henry Fauntleroy), or they did something to draw attention to themselves. However, if convicted, they were almost invariably executed.

It seems rather incredible that Henry / Quintus would not even have considered this aspect of his illegal transaction, although he certainly maintained that position, presumably as an illustration of his unfamiliarity with criminal transactions (only to be confronted, of course, with the inevitable retort that, Ignorance of the law is no excuse). In any event, instead of galvanising him into urgent action, this new knowledge seems to have had the counterintuitive effect of paralysing him. Whatever his own financial position, there were certainly those who would have helped him, either by covering his dereliction or by preventing the prosecution, had he been able to bring himself to confide in them. Instead, he stayed still and silent, making no effort to retrieve to counterfeit bill, despite several opportunities to do so, and allowed events to play out until his exposure.

Hauled out of the water following his abortive escape attempt and nursed back to health, Quintus faces trial for forgery. One of his brothers, Charles, represents him. During his preliminary imprisonment, various important and knowledgeable personages impress upon Quintus that his best chance of saving his life is by pleading guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the court. At the same time, Quintus is aware that there is a chance of his being acquitted on a technicality (Mr Trusty making a mistaken assertion with respect to his own handling of the bill in question). Weighing up his options, Quintus finally decides to take the expert advice pressed upon him:

    The Recorder himself seemed horror stricken, or appalled – but presently addressing the victim of an outraged, but disgracefully sanguinary law, said, “Prisoner at the Bar!” (what a sound!) “You have pleaded guilty to the indictment with which you have been charged, but your plea is not recorded.—Consider the awful situation in which you have placed yourself, and let me entreat you to withdraw your plea, and to take your trial. I trust no false expectations have induced  your present course – I assure you, that any hopes you may have founded thereon, will prove delusive.”
    Quintus gave no appearance of attending to these words, full of import as they were, until the Recorder had finished speaking; when, again uncovering his face for an instant, he said, with infinitely more composure than before, “Guilty, my Lord!” The Judge was now evidently distressed – the expression of his features bore a mixture of persuasiveness with half displeasure , as he replied, “Quintus Servinton, be advised by me, withdraw your plea, and take your trial – indulge no false hopes – your present course can do you no good whatsoever – consider ere too late – for if your plea be once recorded, nothing can save your life…”

[To be continued…]

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6 Responses to “Quintus Servinton (Part 1)”

  1. Any idea what the old adage was, about being and singing poor?
    My, the author, really likes, commas, doesn’t he?
    It’s disappointing (and surprising) that he didn’t add many scenic descriptions. Those are often the most popular parts of books in ‘far-away’ lands.

    • I can’t remember the exact words (or find a full quote). It boils down to “you’re only as poor as other people know you are”. It applies here to Quintus’s business, which is struggling financially. Mr Trusty doesn’t know that so he offers Quintus “accommodation” and so gives him the opportunity to pass the fake bill.

      (Whatever the adage is, I imagine it still applies to a lot of businesses.)

      Many authors, at this time, liked commas. To be fair, there were no rules.

      I think the problem here is that Savery wasn’t really writing a novel, he was writing himself. He gives the impression that (to paraphrase a paraphrase) he saw no wonder in Australia equal to himself being there.

  2. I find it frankly surprising that it would have been worth anyone’s while printing in Australia and shipping the majority of the copies to England, as opposed to shipping the one manuscript and having most of the copies printed locally.

    I’ve met people like this. They’ve had a run of bad luck, they just need some help to get back on their feed, it’s not their fault. One of my flaws as a reader is that I don’t get on with books where I can’t sympathise with the protagonist, and I fear that this would certainly qualify.

    • I guess the combination of unreliable mail and single-copy manuscript might have pushed someone in that direction. Possibly it was also cheaper to print locally and then ship.

      I don’t object to unsympathetic protagonists as long as I don’t feel I’m expected to sympathise. This novel tends to wobble a bit in that respect, at least in this first half.

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