Like many others, he had read unmoved in the hour of his prosperity, the tales of suffering, endured by criminals at their various places of punishment; he had glanced slightly over occasional paragraphs in the newspapers, connected with those floating prisons, the hulks, but intelligence of this sort had passed him unheeded, and he had never thought of acquainting himself with any other than general information, respecting their internal management and condition. Little dreaming that it might ever fall to his own lot to acquire such knowledge by personal experience, he had merely felt, as is commonly the case, that bad as they might be, they were quite good enough for their inhabitants, and had troubled himself no farther about them. Hitherto he had endured few of the pangs of imprisonment beyond the loss of liberty. He had been allowed an unrestrained intercourse with his friends, had been kept separate and apart from other unfortunates, had been free from all distinguishing emblems of his condition, all which circumstances had greatly tended to mitigate the severity of his fate. But, as the carriage that was rapidly conveying him to Woolwich, approached the Arsenal, and he saw crowds of men in irons, all dressed alike, some dragging carts filled with rubbish, some up to their middle in water, labouring by the river side at excavations, some carrying timber or other burthens, others in saw-pits, or employed upon different sorts of artificers’ work, but observed that every gang or set was closely attended by soldiers, with muskets and fixed bayonets, and that here and there a task-master was watching a party, apparently under his immediate charge, an apprehension crept over his mind, that all distinction between himself and others, was now at an end…
But something did save his life; just.
It is not at all clear who advised Henry Savery to plead guilty, but since his account of his trial and its circumstances in Quintus Servinton is in accordance with the public record in every checkable detail, it is reasonable to accept his version of events in this respect, too. We find Quintus in receipt of tortuously conflicting advice: while “the first counsel of the day” highlights variously legal technicalities as grounds for acquittal and advises him to plead not guilty on that basis, a Mr Stephens, “one of the Aldermen of the City”, visits him for the purpose of urging the guilty plea, in which he is supported by Mr Rothero, a partner in the business defrauded but, more pertinently, the former Lord Mayor of London:
“…before the sentences are passed, the Aldermen and Lord Mayor of the day are always consulted, and the majority of their opinions is invariably attended to. I have been through it myself, in my own mayoralty and must know. Several cases have occurred, where such a course has been attended by the effects I state, and it has never once failed. Look at how many of the prosecutors are members of the corporation! they have no vindictive feeling… They want a conviction for the sake of justice, but nothing farther…”
Except in this case, it seems, no such consultation occurred.
Quintus Servinton takes an exasperating turn at this point, as we are told over and over again how terribly sorry everyone feels for Quintus, how much they like him and how terrible they think it is that such things are happening to him—all because he’s a gentleman. This strain of writing carries us from Quintus’s arrest through his trial and condemnation, the last-minute commutation of his sentence, his time in the hulks and his transportation; during which everyone he encounters goes out of their way to help him and to keep him separated from the other convicts—with whom, of course, no gentleman should have to associate.
It all gets a bit sickening, frankly; although it is not without its ironic side, since it appears that it was Henry / Quintus’s position that made the then-Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, so reluctant to commute his sentence—and that of others like him—on the grounds that gentlemen ought to know better. In this instance, however, the bad advice over the guilty plea from (it appears) someone who might expect to be listened to tipped the scale, and the sentence of execution was altered to one of transportation for life. But it took almost every minute between Henry / Quintus’s condemnation and his scheduled execution to obtain this outcome: it is fact, not merely novelistic melodrama, that the commutation arrived less than twenty-four hours prior to sentence being carried out.
It is possible, I suppose, that “white-collar” criminals were always treated a bit differently; but the description of Quintus’s early days as a convicted felon, with its self-comforting undertone of, Everyone could see that I was special, takes some swallowing. He is allowed to wear ordinary clothes, he is removed from the hulks on a specious diagnosis of ill-health, he is given the best possible shipboard accommodation, and he is separated from the mass of the convicts and permitted to associate with the ordinary passengers instead.
The most significant detail here (not that Savery could have known it was) is an account of a meeting between Quintus and one of the passengers, a “Presbyterian divine of the Scotch kirk”. As Cecil Hadgraft points out, this is undoubtedly John Dunmore Lang, who (very briefly, and among many other things) subsequently worked tirelessly for the abandonment of transportation, the introduction of local representative government, and the establishment of Australia as an independent nation. He was also the grandfather of John Lang, one of Australia’s first home-grown novelists, who we shall undoubtedly meet in due course.
Once Quintus arrives in Australia – New South Wales, not Tasmania; it is likely, I think, that the law suit over The Hermit Of Van Diemen’s Land frightened Henry Savery away from his home turf – Quintus Servinton takes an odd turn, with the self-exculpatory tone becoming predominant and a greater gap opening up between the facts and the novel’s interpretation of those facts.
Evidently Savery spent his time in Australia lurching from one kind of trouble to another. Not all of it was his fault. Savery got caught in the middle of a feud between various local interests and Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, chiefly because he was seconded to government service immediately upon his arrival: an appointment that infuriated the burgeoning local settlement where business and financial skills such as Savery’s were in urgent demand. Typically, this situation is turned around in the novel, with Quintus himself the target of these attacks and increasingly (though for reasons that are never entirely clear) dogged by enemies both local and back in England.
In reality, however, it seems that most of Savery’s troubles stemmed from his refusal – or his inability – to accept that the rules applied to him.
The focus of the final volume of Quintus Servinton is the relationship between Quintus and his wife, Emily—recapitulating, at least in outline, Henry Savery’s relationship with his own wife, Eliza. The basic facts of the story are remarkable enough: Eliza Savery’s first attempt to join her husband in Australia almost killed her, as her ship was caught in a violent storm and wrecked without getting any further than Plymouth. Despite this, a few months later she embarked again, undertaking the gruelling four-and-a-half month journey from England to Tasmania, and arriving in Hobart in October of 1828.
And then, in February of 1829, she turned around and went back to England.
There were various ways in which convicts could be joined by their wives. In the ideal scenario, a government certificate would be issued if the husband had shown exemplary conduct during the first year of his sentence and could demonstrate his ability to support his wife (naturally this system favoured convicts with marketable skills, who would be hired like normal employees), and the wife could provide letters of recommendation attesting to her own unblemished reputation. This strictness was at least partly because when these conditions were met, the wife’s passage was paid for by the government; it was a way of bringing a better class of woman to “the colony”. When the wife arrived, her husband would be “assigned” to her as a servant, allowing them effectively to live a normal life together until the end of his sentence. Husbands and wives not meeting these conditions could still be reunited, but at their own expense and their own peril.
While we cannot doubt Henry Savery’s devotion to his wife, it was his longing to be reunited with her that first led him into trouble with the authorities. Before he had been in Hobart a month, he was making application to have Eliza brought out. An understandable inquiry into how he managed to obtain the necessary certificate so quickly revealed that he hadn’t. Rather, a statement from the Colonial Secretary, that he should bring his wife out if possible, had been twisted by Savery into permission to do so—although whether this was a misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation is unclear. This incident was, however, the first of many occasions upon which Savery succeeded in earning the ire of the local authorities. It also set the tone for the rest of his time as a convict, in which he repeatedly attracted accusations of dodgy business practices and false representation.
Thwarted with respect to the certificate, Henry Savery continued to plead with Eliza by letter to join him at her family’s expense, until as we have seen she began making her arrangements late in 1828. It seems, however, that partly in his desperation to see her again and partly out of the same over-inflated opinion of himself that had led him into trouble in the first place, Henry Savery had sent his wife exaggerated accounts of the state of Hobart itself, and of his own importance in the colony. Instead of what she had been led to expect, Eliza arrived to find a struggling community built around a penal colony, with all its attendant deprivations, and her husband in such financial straits that he was not only unable to provide a home for her, but on the verge of being imprisoned for debt. Furthermore, barely had Eliza set foot in Hobart than she was threatened with having her own scanty property confiscated to pay off what her husband owed: an outcome that would have left her homeless and destitute.
While it is not hard to imagine the scene that must have followed, its climax is still shocking: a week after his wife’s long-anticipated arrival, Henry Savery attempted suicide by cutting his own throat; although prompt medical assistance saved his life.
While Savery was recovering, the local authorities tried but failed to arrange some sort of accommodation regarding his debts; and in December 1828 he was imprisoned. Eliza Savery, meanwhile, was urged to protect herself and her property by leaving the colony, which she did the following February.
Now—consider the events I have just outlined, and then consider this passage:
Already, therefore, had hope dispelled much of the recollection of the past, and in the flattering picture it drew for the future, little else than happiness appeared to await him. Notwithstanding the doom under which he had been banished from his native land, instances were of every day’s occurrence to justify the expectation, that in a few years he might be in a situation to return to England, should it be his desire to do so; in the mean time, he was in one of the finest climates on the globe – had conquered numerous difficulties by his energy and activity – had made many powerful friends – and had been altogether void of offence, either in his compulsory duties, or in his private relations. Every letter to Emily was full of the many agreeable subjects, connected with this state of things – he described in glowing colours, the beautiful scenery that surrounded the residence he had provided for her – pourtrayed in fervid language, the individuals who had been most kind to him – descanted upon his pleasing prospects, so far as worldly concerns went…
(Those references to “the finest climate on the globe” and “the beautiful scenery” are all we get by way of Henry Savery describing his surroundings.)
The final section of Quintus Servinton is all about Quintus’s relationship with Emily, and manages to be touching, painful and rather embarrassing all at once. As by this time we would expect, the facts are all there in outline but the circumstances and motivations have all been reworked, until the narrative strikes us as a mixture of romanticism and sheer denial.
In the novel, Emily Servinton is the very embodiment of the perfect nineteenth-century wife: loving, devout, self-sacrificing, endlessly patient, forgiving and forbearing. It is she who is determined at all cost to be reunited with her husband. However, by the time she arrives Quintus’s enemies have succeeded in putting him in an invidious position, accusing him both of illegal business practices and threatening him unjustly with imprisonment for debt.
Furthermore, all unknowing, Emily herself has become an object of more than usual interest to one Alverney Malvers, who is travelling to Hobart to take up a judgeship, and who was given the task of looking after her on shipboard. Although Malvers does not misread Emily’s character so far as to think he has any chance with her, he takes at face value the slanders of Quintus’s enemies and becomes unable to tolerate the thought of her living with such a man; resorting to increasingly desperate, even dishonourable, actions to separate her from Quintus:
Emily continued unwilling to hear her husband spoken of reproachfully; but so assailed, she was in a measure compelled to sit and listen to a long train of his alleged misconduct – in the course of which, things, true in themselves, were so distorted, arising from the sources through which they had reached her informant, as to lose all semblance of reality. Mr Malvers told her, in its worst colours, the orders received from England for his removal into the interior – painted the utter hopelessness of his prospects – strongly insinuated that he had so comported himself, as to be again amenable to the laws – conveyed rather more of a suspicion of other delinquencies – mentioned the intention on the part of a person, whom Quintus had appointed trustee over some property, on account of his civil disabilities, of instantly seizing every thing she had brought from England, upon the ground that it now belonged to her husband, and became, therefore, vested in him; and concluded by saying, that Quintus would, in all probability, be torn from her in the course of the day, either under an arrest for debt, or as a consequence of the interposition of Government.
This passage very much captures the peculiar tone of Quintus Servinton, spelling out the facts but presenting them as exaggeration and slander.
(“Malvers” is based upon Algernon Montagu, who did travel out to Hobart in company with Eliza Savery. There was some ugly gossip about the two of them, although it may well have been just gossip. It seems that in the first instance Malvers offered financial assistance for Savery, in order to help Eliza, but when he discovered just how much of a mess he was in he washed his hands of it, apart from advising Eliza to leave as quickly as possible.)
Emily, of course, doesn’t believe any of this; but when Malvers tells her that she is hurting Quintus by staying with him – that his arrest leaving her destitute will reflect upon him – that the protection of a lady of high reputation will elevate her and Quintus by association – she begins, reluctantly, to heed him. She agrees to leave Quintus’s cottage for the Hobart house of a Mrs Cecil – regretting her decision almost as soon as it is taken. Malvers, however, having achieved his end, has no intention of allowing contact between Emily and Quintus and strives to keep them totally separated.
Consequently, Quintus returns to his cottage to find that, evidently, only a week after their reunion, Emily has deserted him. It is a blow he cannot withstand:
With a terrible foreboding, did Mr Leicester turn towards the spot, and his anticipations, gloomy as they might have been, were shortly more than realised. Stretched upon the floor of one of the rooms, weltering in a sea of blood, perfectly unconscious, and life’s stream, if not already exhausted, rapidly ebbing from its source, lay the man to whom, through good report and evil report, he had proved the firm, undeviating friend…
While Quintus is being nursed back to health by Emily, he and his friends try to hit upon the best course of action. In the first place, Emily appeals personally to the Governor of the colony (not George Arthur, since this isn’t Tasmania, though obviously based upon him). He tells her that Quintus’s only hope is for her to return to England and make a similar personal appeal to the Home Secretary who, though immovable by letter, may be influenced by Emily in person. Assured that this is the only way, Emily resolves to follow the Governor’s advice; steeling herself for the task of breaking to Quintus the news that they are to be separated again:
His countenance altered, a deathly paleness succeeded the faint colour that had now resumed its place on his cheek, and which, Emily observing, continued, “Do not look so – I cannot bear to see it. I know what is passing in your mind,” and sinking into his arms as she spoke, “I will never leave you again for a single day, unless you desire me.”
“Then, my love, you will remain with me until I close your eyes, or you do the same sad office for me – but I hope you do not think I mistrust you, for believe me, I have the most unbounded confidence in your good sense, your correct principles, and your affection.”
And at length Quintus agrees to Emily’s departure. Before it can be arranged, however, the person to whom Quintus is in debt has him imprisoned. Quintus has had his property placed in trust specifically to prevent this outcome, and the resulting legal tangle is one more reason for Emily to plead his case in England. As it happens, there is a ship in the harbour that is shortly to depart. Emily must make up her mind to go at once:
“Do not fancy for a moment, my dearest Quintus, that I regard myself, or my own happiness, in urging upon you the wisdom of my embarking by the Zara. I can never be happy separated from you – and I solemnly pledge myself, that my absence shall not be one day longer, than is necessary for obtaining such a mitigation of the cruel orders now in force, as may prevent the probability of our living together, free from such storms as have latterly befallen us… I once more solemnly assure you, that if God spare my life, I will rejoin you; and that, no longer delay shall take place in your again seeing me, than is absolutely unavoidable. Let me only once gain the point I have in view, and I will never relinquish the pursuit till it be gained, you shall see how long it will be, ere I am again on the water to join you…”
The two or three days that intervened, until the Zara would be ready for sea, were wholly devoted to her husband – and when, at length, the morning arrived that was to witness her departure from a spot, her arrival upon whose shores, only three months previously, had long been associated with many visionary scenes of happiness, the signal from the vessel had been more than once made, until she could tear herself from the last fond embrace of one, with whom she was leaving an undivided, a truly affectionate heart – and again and again did she say, “One kiss more, my dearest, dear husband – think of me, and pray for me, for you will be in my constant thoughts and prayers, and, if I live, we will soon see one another again,” ere this excellent, devoted woman could summon courage to leave the place – when, presently embarking, a prosperous wind soon wafter her far, far away from the unfortunate Quintus.
In Emily’s absence, Quintus remains in prison, treating it as a chastening exercise that will assist him in eradicating from his character those flaws that have been at the root of so much evil. Emily, meanwhile, devotes herself to pleading her husband’s cause to the Home Secretary; and although the process drags out over years, in the end she succeeds in winning for Quintus exoneration of the (trumped-up) charges against him and some mitigation of his original sentence. The two are reunited and, after several more years of quiet, honest conduct, Quintus has the rest of his sentence revoked. He and Emily return to England, retiring to a quiet corner of Devonshire—where the framing narrator of this novel (remember him?) discovers them many years later.
Though of course—that’s not how the story really ended.
Quintus Servinton was written and published, we recall, during 1830 and early 1831, while Henry Savery was first in prison and then an assigned convict labourer. He received his ticket of leave in 1832, and immediately wrote to Eliza, begging her to join him. She did not respond, and he never saw or heard from her again.
We recall that Quintus Servinton was published in Britain in 1832—and can only speculate as to whether Eliza read it – and if so, how she felt about it – and whether it influenced her decision. In particular you have to wonder how close to reality the parting scenes between Quintus and Emily might have been. Not very, we suspect. It is a matter of record that the colony of Hobart was shocked by the situation in which Eliza Savery found herself in upon her arrival. George Arthur himself commented in a letter:
This lady, it appears, is most respectably connected in England, and, allured by the gross misrepresentations of her Husband as to the comfort of his situation in this Colony, she, unfortunately, ventured to join him. Wounded by the shameful duplicity which had been practised upon her, some domestic misunderstanding took place immediately after her debarkation…
(“Domestic misunderstanding”—master of the understatement, our Lieutenant-Governor.)
After Henry Savery’s release from debtor’s prison, he worked for the newspaper, the Tasmanian, and again got mixed up in a libel suit; and although this incident really wasn’t Savery’s fault, it cost him his ticket of leave. Subsequently he tends to fall out of the public eye, although it is known that he developed an interest and some skill in agriculture, leasing farms and working to improve methods of cultivation.
However, he also got more and more into debt; until at last – believe it or not – he resorted to passing false bills. He was again exposed, arrested, and convicted. His sentence was “Transportation beyond sea for life” – which for someone in Henry Savery’s circumstances meant incarceration and hard labour at Port Arthur. But “life”, as it turned out, was only another fifteen months: Henry Savery died, apparently of a stroke, in February 1842. He was buried on what is known as “The Isle Of The Dead”, an offshore cemetery.
Savery was rescued from this oblivion in 1978, when the National Parks & Wildlife Service placed a stone reading: In Memory Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, Who Died At Port Arthur In 1842 One Of Many Convicts Buried Here In Unmarked Graves. In 1992, on the 150th anniversary of his death, the Fellowship of Australian Writers replaced this with a memorial that – fittingly, I think – equals Savery’s novel in its frankness about the vagaries of his life:
Footnote: My remark that “not much is known about Henry Savery’s early life” may have been premature: this exercise has brought to my attention A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist by Rod Howard.