Archive for ‘Australian fiction’

25/03/2017

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land

 

    The object of the Essays which are compiled in this small Volume, is to impart information upon the state of manners and society in the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land; to hold up to deserved ridicule, some of the vices and follies by which they are distinguished; to present a mirror wherein good qualities are exhibited, the possession of which is not always acknowledged—in a word, to present a picture of this infant state, which, it is hoped, may prove interesting as well as instructive, not only to its own component Members, but to the general Reader.
    The Author has endeavoured to avoid any expressions which might be calculated to cause pain to a single individual—his aim has been to “lash the vice, but spare the name”; and he will be sufficiently rewarded, if, in addition to the notice which his first few essays have already attracted, and which has induced him to re-published them in this form, he should witness that they produce the good effects, the hope of which originated their publication.

 

 

 

 

In my examination of Quintus Servinton, generally considered to be “the first Australian novel”, and of the peculiar life of its author, it emerged that Henry Savery had earlier published another work—one of “fiction” only in the broadest sense. The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, which appeared in 1830, was a series of satirical essays skewering various personalities and institutions to be found in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land—and, like almost everything else in Henry Savery’s life, it caused a lot of trouble.

A reading of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land reveals it as a work so much of its time and place as to be largely incomprehensible to the modern reader: in addition to its author’s generally allusive style, he avoids names at almost all points (even false names), peopling his essays with references to the tall Gentleman, the young Gentleman, the Lady, my Acquaintance, and so on; which over the course of the volume requires considerable effort on the part of the reader simply to keep up with the thread of his discourse.

The edition of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land published in 1964 by the University of Queensland Press, and edited by Savery scholar Cecil Hadgraft and Margriet Roe, provides a key to the characters. This was sourced from the copy of the book held by the Mitchell Library in Sydney, in which its original (unknown) owner not only went to the trouble of identifying most of the people in its pages, but wrote out a list in his copy’s end-papers matching the superscript numbers he had appended to the text. That an original reader was able to do this shows how recognisable was Henry Savery’s portraiture. Nevertheless, with the exception of a handful of people who had public careers, or impacted Henry Savery’s life in some other way, these contents are not particularly informative today. It does not, for instance, help us much to know that “a certain tall slender person” appearing on page 124 was meant for Horatio William Mason, “a member of the Agricultural Association”, and “a wine and spirit merchant and licensee of several hotels in Hobart and New Norfolk”.

Consequently, I am not going to try to analyse the contents of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, but to see where the writing of these sketches fits into the erratic and increasingly sad life of Henry Savery.

As we may recall, late in 1828 Henry Savery’s wife, Eliza, arrived in Hobart to find her husband – who had encouraged her to sail from England on the basis of his own secure position in the settlement – widely unpopular, in trouble with the law again, and on the verge of being imprisoned for debt. Terrible scenes ended with Henry attempting suicide by cutting his own throat, although his life was saved by the the prompt and skilful attentions of a Dr William Crowther. Henry was nevertheless carried off to Hobart Town Gaol, where he lay recovering while his wife turned around and went back to England, at least in part to avoid her own slender means being seized.

There is no doubt that the forced inactivity of jail life did Henry Savery some good: in addition to recovering his health, he underwent a period of introspection which led to the writing of Quintus Servinton, that peculiar, infuriating, self-pitying yet strangely honest novel. Also, for the first time since his arrival in Hobart Town late in 1825, Henry Savery made a real friend.

Thomas Wells was a man whose life had in many ways paralleled Henry’s own: he had been convicted and transported on a charge of embezzlement; worked for a time for the government, including as secretary for Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell (George Arthur’s predecessor); received his pardon and gone into business for himself—and ended up in a financial mess that landed him in Hobart Town Gaol. Wells made the most of his time in prison, setting up an accounting business, and writing what is considered the first work of general literature to be published in Australia: a pamphlet entitled, Michael Howe, The Last And Worst Of The Bushrangers. He also began contributing articles to the Colonial Times.

It was illegal for convicts to write for the newspapers, but the Colonial Times was owned and operated by Andrew Bent, himself a former convict and a constant thorn in the side of George Arthur. Ironically, it was income received for working as a government printer that allowed Bent to pursue his real interest. Then called the Hobart Town Gazette, Bent’s baby was the first and, for some time, only newspaper published in Van Diemen’s Land, growing from a struggling two-page effort printed with homemade ink into a powerful voice in the Colony: one which devoted considerable space to criticisms of the government. Arthur, furious on all counts, tried to have it declared illegal for printing-presses to be operated without a license: his failure was rudely celebrated in the pages of the Gazette as the defeat of tyranny. Arthur’s next move was to set up a rival newspaper, owned and operated by the government—and called the Hobart Town Gazette. He also brought against Bent a successful action for libel.

If Arthur thought this would frighten Bent off or spike his guns, he misunderstood his man: as soon as he was able, Bent was back publishing the Colonial Times, and becoming the power behind a campaign of harassment that would make Arthur’s tenure as Lieutenant-Governor miserable and help to bring it to a premature conclusion.

With his own convict background, Andrew Bent often ignored the laws forbidding convicts to write for the press, and Thomas Wells – struggling from behind bars to provide an income for his numerous family – was one of his frequent jailhouse contributors. Then, in June of 1829, a new column appeared in the Colonial Times

Satirical essays highlighting the foibles of men and manners had been a staple of publication in England since the early 18th century: the Spectator magazine was celebrated for its social analysis, and many writers turned to this form of criticism over the succeeding decades. Oliver Goldsmith, in his The Citizen Of The World, had introduced to the genre the subsequently standard figure of the outside observer, looking with fresh eyes upon a scene perhaps taken for granted by its residents. Henry Savery himself had had experience with this sort of satirical writing, after he bought the Bristol Observer in 1819: he introduced a column called The Garreteers, which promised scandalous revelations about the population of Bristol, of course in the interests of “reformation”. The resulting columns, however, rarely went further than some unkind observations about certain people’s habits and appearance.

Also in 1819, a man called Felix McDonough had written a popular series of columns called The Hermit In London, which followed the pattern by having an inexperienced individual commenting naively upon the bustling and often brutal London scene. The success of this venture was such that McDonough turned it into something of a cottage industry, following up with The Hermit In The CountryThe Hermit Abroad, and so on. Henry Savery and Andrew Bent borrowed this idea, announcing in the Colonial Times:

Perhaps it may be in the recollection of some portion of our readers, that a few years ago, a series of numbers appeared in one of the London publications, under the title of “The Hermit In London”. We have great pleasure in acquainting them, that a younger brother of this family has lately arrived in the Colony; and, having acquired, almost intuitively, considerable information upon the general state of Manners, Society, and Public Characters of our little community, has partially promised to adapt his observations to such a shape, as shall fit them to meet the eye of the Public.

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land purported to be written by one “Simon Stukeley”, a new arrival in Hobart Town casting interested and critical eyes upon the embryo settlement. Scholars attempting to trace this choice of pseudonym to its source found the following nugget in John West’s remarkable 1852 work, The History Of Tasmania:

The original Simon Stukeley was a Quaker, who went to Turkey with an intention of converting the Grand Turk: he narrowly escaped decapitation, by the interposition of the English ambassador. He was afterwards confined in an asylum: in answer to inquiries how he came there, he replied— “I said the world was mad, and the world said I was mad; and they out-voted me.”

Whether truth or shaggy-dog story, we can see how this anecdote may have appealed to Henry Savery.

The characters commented upon by “Simon Stukeley” in his columns may be mysteries to modern readers, but there is no doubt that the people sketched therein recognised themselves. Henry Savery might have been writing from jail, but he had spent the preceding four years working in government departments, and he had not wasted his powers of observation: almost everyone who was anyone in Hobart Town wandered through the columns of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, subject to criticism – or less frequently, approval – for their appearance, dress, habits and conduct.

The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land ran in the Colonial Times from 5th June – 25th December 1829, thirty columns in all. It seems that at first Henry Savery had no idea of anything so extensive, but the columns’ reception prompted Andrew Bent to propose their reissue in book form, requiring Henry to keep his idea running. On 8th January 1830, Bent announced the volume’s imminent publication—and a week later was forced to announce that publication was suspended, pending an action for libel brought against his newspaper.

When it came to the government of Van Diemen’s Land, Henry Savery and Andrew Bent found themselves in private agreement but public odds. Whatever he may really have felt, Henry avoided criticism of George Arthur in his columns, and often praised in a general way the conduct of the Colony. He is less kind as he works his way through the lower layers of government, however; while understandably, much of his venom is directed at members of the legal profession.

At one point Stukeley is called to sit on a coroner’s jury, and extensively mocks the process, or lack thereof, as well as those conducting it; a friend of his, “the Informant”, as he calls him, offers him professional and character readings of most of the practising lawyers in Hobart Town, with only one or two escaping unflayed. One in particular attracts his negative attention: a certain “Mr Cockatrice”, upon whom Stukeley calls hoping to negotiate some leniency with respect to a debt: not his own, but that of an acquaintance who is desperately selling everything in order to stave off an arrest which would leave his wife and children destitute:

…in an evil hour, requiring pecuniary assistance upon some occasion, he had recourse to one of the “Withouts” who dealt in that line, to the tune of “never exceed twenty per cent.,” and by whom the needed help was bestowed, upon the joint security of a Mortgage and Warrant of Attorney.—I was sceptical upon the latter point, thinking he was mistaken in telling me they were both for the same transaction; but he was positive, and in the end convinced me he spoke the truth. He farther told me, that the Lawyer’s fangs having once been fixed on his property, never left hold of it, until by foreclosure, writs of fieri facias, compound interest of twenty per cent. upon twenty per cent., and all the other damnables which followed in the Lawyer’s train, he was shorn as closely of all his possessions, as ever was a six month’s lamb…

Stukely calls upon the Lawyer, but one glance is enough to convince him that his mission will be futile:

He was dressed a là dishabille; inasmuch as he wore a grey beaver dressing-gown, slippers down at heel, a yellowish, half-dirty night-shirt; his neck-cloth tied loosely, and he did not appear to have shaved that morning. In person and stature, there was nothing prepossessing… He had a shrewd cunning look about the eye, which had rather a tendency to create repulsion on the part of strangers, than to invite familiarity. Still there was a constrained politeness in his manner, a servility in his mode of replying to me which argued that he could be all things to all men; and warned me, that I was not to be misled by superficial speciousness. One thing struck me as very remarkable, in his countenance; all the lines of which where uncommonly sharp and picked;—that, whenever he attempted to smile, or to utter words which might lead to the suspicion that his heart sympathised for a moment, with other’s sorrows, two sorts of furrows were exhibited, one on each side of the mouth; reminding me to the very life, of the two supporters of the Arbuthnot Arms…

Stukeley’s mission is indeed a failure:

…the Lawyer replied to me, “I can do nothing for him, Sir; he must go to gaol, or pay the money; I only know my duty to my client.” “Surely, Sir, your client cannot suffer by allowing the poor fellow a little more time for payment of the debt—you would never think of separating a man from his wife and children, by so cruel a process as imprisonment, when no possible good can arise from it.” “I know nothing of wives and children, Sir—my duty to my client is all I think about. People have no business to have wives and children, if they cannot pay their debts. I have but one rule, Sir—I always say in reply to the question, what is to be done with so and so, Let him go to gaol, and I say so now.”

The lawyer turns up again a little later, when Stukely is invited to accompany some friends to a meeting with him about the settlement of yet another debt. He finds his opinion shared by the others:

“There’s no doubt of that, so long as you have money in your pocket,” said the Doctor; “he has a wonderful scent where cash is concerned, and will lick your hand like a spaniel, whilst it remains filled with the needful; but woe betide you, if chance place you in his way afterwards.”

Stukeley does accompany them, out of curiosity: since their meeting, “Mr Cockatrice” has made his appearance in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, and Stukeley is curious to see if his strictures have had any effect. The three men walk in to a surprising reception:

No sooner had we passed the threshold, than Mr Cockatrice started from his chair, as if he had been electrified—a spitfire Grimalkin, when, with upraised back, and distended brush, she shews her high displeasure, if her territories are invaded by a luckless wanderer of the canine race, is nothing in point of rage and fury, compared with what was exhibited upon the brow of this “stern dispenser of Laws rigours under their most rigorous shape”… He cried out, in a voice half choked with rage and anger, “How dare you put your foot within my doors, Sir? You are the Hermit—you are, Sir—“

To Stukeley’s intense amusement, he realises that for some reason Mr Cockatrice believes the Doctor to be his anonymous attacker. The Doctor himself is taken aback, and torn between anger and laughter: he for one has recognised the Hermit’s target:

    Presently he replied, “Whether I am the Hermit or not, he has produced one good effect at all events, by teaching your wife to allow you a clean shirt more frequently. I see she has taken a hint if you cannot, and that your half-dirty yellow night-shirt has given place to one a little more consistent with good manners.—You may exhibit the Arbuthnot Arms as you like (observing that at this moment two deep furrows appeared in all their native hideousness)—I care not for you, nor for any thing that your iron heart may produce—People shouldn’t have wives and children if they can’t pay their debts, you know—you understand me, don’t you?—There! take your money, and I’ll wash my hands in future of such company as yours, or any that could be found in your house. I tell you that it is well for you, I am not the Hermit; for if I had been, I would have produced a list of your acts of iron-heartedness as long as my arm; the mildest of which would have been ten times as biting as the poor horse dealer’s story.—Egad! man, that’s nothing to what I could have told him. Good bye, Arbuthnot Arms! Good morning to you! Mind the wives and children! Good bye—good bye.”
    We did not stay to hear any more, but left the house, conversing as we went through the streets, upon what had occurred; all agreeing that the moderate blister which had been applied, could not have produced such an effect as we had witnessed, if it had not been put upon a raw place…

It was Gamaliel Butler who brought an action for libel against the Colonial Times—the same Gamaliel Butler who had tried but failed to have Henry Savery jailed after the collapse of the horse-trading business for which he acted as accountant, and who – when the money was available, had he waited only a short period while matters were adjusted – had enforced his financial claim upon Henry, precipitating the disastrous chain of events that led to Eliza Savery’s departure, Henry’s suicide attempt, and his imprisonment.

The libel action against the Colonial Times was in fact the first instance of trial-by-jury in a civil proceeding in Van Diemen’s Land: the case was delayed until all relevant statutes were in place. Andrew Bent stood firm throughout, staunchly guarding the secret of Henry Savery’s authorship (of course, he would have been in trouble himself had it come out). The case itself, however, was doomed from the outset: the Hermit had waved his pen a little too widely. Apart from the vindictive Butler – did he suspect who his real enemy was? – the case was tried before Chief Justice Pedder, who had been mocked for his rambling speech and various personal peculiarities including his snuff-habit; Butler was represented by Solicitor General Alfred Stephen, who had been ridiculed as a “fop” and a “dandy”; and despite the efforts of former Attorney General Joseph Gellibrand (himself none too gently handled), who was representing Bent, the limited population of Hobart Town meant that three other people skewered by the Hermit were on the jury.

Gellibrand’s defence, moreover, was basically to argue that Butler had it coming: that he was widely known and despised as a wrecker of lives; that he profited off the misery of others; that he was notorious for preferring to send men to jail than to agree to accommodation that would allow them to pay off their debts, often rejecting offered assistance from friends of his debtors. The “list as long as my arm” of incidents, mentioned in the relevant column, was aired in court, with Gellibrand summoning John Bisdee, the head-keeper, to testify that of the thirteen debtors in Hobart Town Gaol, nine of them were there under writs brought by Butler.

Moreover, Dr William Crowther was called to testify that the scene in the office of “Mr Cockatrice” played out exactly as reported, with an enraged Butler accusing him, Crowther, of being the Hermit. This, we should note, is the same Dr Crowther who saved Henry’s life after his suicide attempt, and who appears at various points throughout The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land in an affectionate but not altogether flattering way which balances his general kindness and mastery of languages with his love of the bottle.

But truth is no defence against libel, and Bent was found guilty—damages being awarded by allowing each of the twelve jurors to decide on an amount, adding up the total and dividing it by twelve. A large but not outrageous amount, the £80 which Bent was ordered to pay was more than he could afford: he was already in debt, and ended up selling the Colonial Times to Henry Melville.

And it is to Henry Melville that most of the subsequent few positives in the life of Henry Savery are owed. Despite the libel suit, Melville and Bent went ahead with the volume publication of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, albeit in a far more low-key way than originally planned; while Melville hired Henry as assistant editor at the Colonial Times, a position which allowed him to support himself while he completed Quintus Servinton.

The years 1830 – 1832 represented a rare up-swing in the affairs of Henry Savery, but disaster struck again soon enough—inevitably, it seems. Embarking upon business ventures, Henry overreached yet again and found himself once more within the grip of the law. Having long since worn out any sympathy within the settlement, this time he was banished to the notorious penal colony of Port Arthur, where he died in obscurity in 1842—and remained forgotten until, in the mid-20th century, cultural cringe receded far enough for a few iconoclasts to consider the history of Australian literature worth studying and celebrating. In fits and starts, the story of Henry Savery then emerged.

It was Henry Melville who took the risk of publishing “the first Australian novel”, and who arranged for its subsequent reissue in England. It is also he to whom we owe our knowledge of Henry Savery’s authorship of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. While there had been plenty of speculation about the identity of “Simon Stukeley”, the person most widely believed to be the Hermit was Thomas Wells, who had introduced Henry to Andrew Bent and helped Henry prepare his columns for publication; we assume that something of this finally leaked out. However, the copy of The Hermit held by the British Library has a lengthy annotation written and signed by Melville, wherein he declares the work’s authorship: a fact nowhere else disclosed.

Not many, but a number of copies of Quintus Servinton survived in both Australia and England, and the autobiographical nature of the narrative makes it clear to anyone familiar with Henry Savery’s story who wrote it. Very few indeed, however, are surviving copies of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land; and the story of Henry Savery closes with an odd detail which the preface of the 1964 edition reveals:

This reprint is dedicated, by permission, to Dr W. E. L. H. Crowther, direct lineal descendant of the Dr Crowther who attended Henry Savery after his suicide attempt in 1828. In addition, Dr Crowther is the only private collector to possess both Savery’s works—The Hermit and Quintus Servinton. The former came to him, while he was still a small boy, as a worn little volume that his father had been given by a patient, Mrs Stokell. Packed away among youthful treasures, it was not until after World War I that its scarcity and value became apparent…

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Left and centre: Henry Melville’s handwritten annotation of the British Library copy of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, identifying Henry Savery as the author. Right: part of the handwritten key found in the Mitchell Library copy, identifying Gamaliel Butler (#61), Dr William Crowther (#62) and Joseph Gellibrand (#67).

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12/07/2015

The Beauty Of The British Alps

grimstone1bHer mother, who on her marriage had embraced the Protestant faith (another bar to her reconciliation with her family, all bigots in the faith she had apostatised) had reared Adela, in those doctrines, and in her system of morality had endeavoured to inculcate the strictest obedience to parental authority, and the most refined delicacy, as the surest safeguards of female virtue. But in her plan of education Mrs Belmont had committed one great error, she had cultivated Adela’s feelings and imagination to a dangerous height. The effort should rather have been to strengthen her judgement, than to refine her fancy; to subdue and regulate, rather than to heighten her native sensibility; to inculcate that common sense which brings the virtues into daily practice, instead of indulging an enthusiasm which wasted itself on fanciful theories of poetical philosophy—a philosophy which like the wings of Icarus, fails us at the moment we have most need of it, and like them it raises us to a temporary elevation only to make our fall greater and more fatal…

 

 

 

It is not every novel that opens with an apology – not the usual female self-deprecation that we’re used to, about how the novel was written in mere moments snatched away from the author’s domestic duties, which of course always came first – but a full-blown apology for the work that follows. Mary Leman Grimstone’s The Beauty Of The British Alps; or, Love At First Sight is one such novel:

    If apology ever was necessary for any work, it must be to the present, since from circumstances unnecessary to detail, the first hasty and unfinished draught was taken from me, without its having received the benefit of a single revision. Family events intervening, some considerable time elapsed before I resumed my task, and when I did I had not a single page of the manuscript or a memorandum to refer to. Compelled both by honour and circumstances to complete my task, I took the bold alternative of trusting entirely to memory, cheered by the prospect of having the proof sheets pass through my hands, and of thus being enabled to make some corrections. But this unfortunate performance was pre-destined to go forth with all its faults upon its head, my going abroad precluding any possibility of my devoting any further attention to its pages.
    Under these circumstances, as well as its being a first essay, I hope to win some indulgence from my readers, and trust that they will not suffer the errors of the present, to prejudice the future efforts of the same pen.

After all that, the obvious question is, of course—does the novel need this much excusing? Well—yes and no.

The opening section of The Beauty Of The British Alps is very bad indeed; so much so that before I was more than a few pages in I was gleefully entertaining the prospect of a novel of hilarious emotional excess. Here is the sequence that gives this work its subtitle:

    As he spoke he glanced at Adela—their eyes met, and hers were immediately cast down. Though she had taken no part in the conversation since their return to the room, she had not been an abstracted or inattentive observer. The stranger was young, handsome, and elegant; and viewed through the medium of grateful interest, every charm he possessed was heightened in her eyes. Never had she beheld a being who approached so near perfection; no, not even in the efforts of the pencil, or the florid descriptions of the poet. His figure was tall and majestic, his air graceful and distinguished, his manner, like his voice, soft, gentle, and insinuating; his darkly fringed eyes were full of fire and softness, his finely formed head was adorned with curling hair that might have rivalled the raven’s wing, as his teeth might have done the swan’s, and the hand, (white as the cambric handkerchief it held,) attested not less by its form and colour than by the manner in which it was used, the rank to which he belonged.
    But while Adela, almost unconsciously to herself, had been imbibing the charms of his polished manner, and canvassing the graces of his person, he had not been less struck with her surpassing loveliness. Traces of Italian lineage were visible in her delicate and expressive features, in her large and melting eyes of the darkest hazel; but the pure tints of her complexion shewed her claim to a British origin also. Her form was an exquisite combination of all that is most beautiful in the fairest forms of either clime; her bright auburn hair fell in glossy and natural ringlets, on a neck fair as polished ivory, while the elegant simplicity of her dress indicated the taste and delicacy of her mind…

But (I am almost sorry to say) this opening is not indicative of the novel as a whole which becomes less overwrought in manner, and acquires a greater substance as it goes along.

In fact, I have a theory about this novel: I think that Mary Leman Grimstone started it when she was quite young, wrote about a quarter of it, then shoved the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it for several years. Perhaps she turned back to it years later, when in search of something to occupy her thoughts in the wake of her husband’s death, or during her own subsequent illness. Certainly she must have intended to revise those opening chapters, but – presumably because of her trip to Australia, which happened the same year the novel was published – never got the chance. Consequently, what turns out in the long run to be a fairly grounded work of fiction (albeit one that takes an interesting side-trip into the territory of the post-Gothic-cum-proto-sensation novel) opens in a tone of embarrassingly immature emotionalism.

The Beauty Of The British Alps opens in an isolated corner of Wales, where our heroine, sixteen-year-old Adela Belmont, lives a simple domestic existence with her widowed mother. Adela is returning home from a visit to one of her few other acquaintances, Mrs Annesley, the widow of a clergyman, when the horse drawing her carriage bolts. She is rescued by a stranger, who injures his arm in the process. When this is recognised, Mrs Belmont insists upon him resting in their cottage until the doctor has a chance to examine him. Reassured over the injury, Mrs Belmost presses the young man to stay a day or two, until he is more recovered. He introduces himself as Seeton Auber, the eldest of Captain Auber’s three children; he is, in turn, introduced to Adela—and, well, love at first sight…

Recently, the Belmonts’ narrow social circle has been enlarged by the arrival of a new family in the neighbourhood, the Aubers; and in spite of their temperamental differences, Adela has formed a warm friendship with Caroline, the only daughter. When a message is sent to them about Seeton’s accident, Caroline and her father come to see him—and take in the situation with Adela at a glance. For Caroline it is an opportunity for much arch teasing, for Captain Auber an intolerable provocation.

Captain Auber, a proud, ill-tempered man, has retreated with his family to the country because of their straitened finances; he is unable to bear the fact that they are no longer able to maintain that position in society to which he feels they are entitled. The Captain’s main interest in life – not to say obsession – is arranging marriages for his three children that will not merely re-establish but aggrandise the family.

The disparate reactions of the three Auber children to their father’s manoeuvring is one of this novel’s interesting touches. Frederic, the younger son, who is in the Guards, and who has recently rejected a wealthy but distasteful marriage, simply removes himself from his father’s vicinity whenever the pressure becomes too much to bear. Caroline, being a girl, has no such means of escape, and must sit still and quiet beneath her father’s anger and bullying; when the novel opens, she is in deep disgrace for having refused a more-than-advantageous proposal of marriage.

But it is Seeton who provides the biggest surprise—because at the time he meets Adela Belmont and falls hopelessly in love with her, he has already given in to his father’s persuasions and other circumstantial pressures, and is engaged to be married…

The match is everything that Captain Auber has been scheming for: Seeton is engaged to Sophia Egremont, the daughter of the Earl of Egremont. Sophia is in love with Seeton (or at least with his face), and although he feels nothing warmer than liking towards her, until he met Adela he considered this an adequate basis for marriage. But whatever the change in his feelings and opinions, Seeton knows that he is trapped: as a man of honour, he cannot break his engagement; while Sophia is the kind of girl who, if she realised that her fiancée wished to be released, would only cling to him all the more, to punish him. And it is not difficult to imagine how Captain Auber would react if asked to welcome into the family the poor, obscure daughter of nobody in particular, in place of an aristocratic heiress.

To separate Seeton and Adela is Captain’s Auber’s immediate ambition—but this is not as easy as he would like since, before becoming aware of the situation, he gave permission for Caroline to invite Adela to travel with the family to London, to where they will be returning for the wedding of Emilia Auber to Lord Milsom, the son and heir of the Earl Of Errol—a match so splendid that Captain Auber can hardly stand it; particularly since the elder daughter of his brother, Sir Hubert Auber, is already married to a wealthy French marquis:

“Ah! my lord,” cried the Captain in a tone that expressed how truly he felt what he said, “he has a happiness that falls to few parents. His children make their own elections, and yet they are as wise and prudent, as if they acted under the guidance of age and experience. It is thus that fortune falls unsought into the lap of some! Sir Hubert, my lord, gives himself not one iota of trouble! To promote the interests of my children has been the science of my life; and, except in one happy instance,” (and he bowed to Lord Egremont as he pointed to Seeton,) “I have found it one of difficulty, disappointment, and perplexity.”

Meanwhile, with Adela having joined the Auber party, the Captain goes out of his way to make sure she knows that Seeton is off-limits:

    “I know the value, my sweet Adela,” resumed the Captain, “of wealth and distinction, and therefore labour to attain it for my children. Here is Seeton,” he continued in the easy tone of friendly confidence,” in marrying Miss Egremont, steps into the possession of a magnificent fortune, and large expectations, it will ally him to some of the first families in the kingdom, whose interest will obtain him a seat in parliament, and lay open the way to the highest honours of the state.”
    The Captain paused, but Adela made no reply; this was information that penetrated her heart like a dagger…

What we have here, then, is a situation in which, as much for their mutual peace of mind as in response to the dictates of honour, Seeton Auber and Adela Belmont should be going out of their way to avoid each other—preferably with Seeton devoting himself to Sophia Egremont,  and Adela separating herself from the Aubers by returning to her mother. Instead they do the opposite: Adela ignores the promptings of her conscience and stays right where she is; while Seeton barely attempts to disguise his passion for Adela, neglecting Sophia in the process, who is not slow in putting a correct interpretation upon his behaviour. Furthermore, Seeton becomes furiously jealous of every other man who shows an interest in Adela—a long list, which includes his own brother, Frederic: the two are swiftly at loggerheads.

At this point in the narrative of The Beauty Of The British Alps, I was very much put in mind of Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, in which the hero, likewise unable to marry the heroine (who is likewise beautiful, but poor and obscure), nevertheless courts her until she falls in love with him, and goes berserk if any other man approaches her. The difference – a very welcome one – is that while the behaviour of Gunning’s Lord Darcey passes without comment, Mary Leman Grimstone is stringently critical of both Adela and Seeton.

And this is what makes this novel both worthwhile and very interesting: we are light-years away from the usual boring pictures of perfection that populate the average sentimental novel; still further from those characters whose authors seem to think they are perfect, no matter how badly they behave. Instead, Grimstone offers a hero and heroine who are both seriously – dangerously – flawed, and who listen to the promptings of sophistry, instead of doing what they know very well to be the right thing. Plenty of tacit criticisms of Seeton’s conduct are scattered through the narrative, but it is Adela’s thought processes that are dissected in detail; or rather (since the problem is that she is not thinking, but only feeling), how she justifies to herself letting her heart rule her head.

The  narrative puts the blame for Adela’s faults squarely on her mother, who has given her the wrong sort of education (as per the quotation up above); but this does not let Adela off the hook, who is doing wrong knowingly—under the standard excuse of “only hurting herself”:

Throwing aside the restraints of her evening dress, she assumed a wrapping gown, and with her hair still flowing about her shoulders, paced up and down the apartment. Where was the calm that had once marked her evening devotions? she did not pray, alas she could not pray! for a sense of guilt and shame forbade her raising her eyes in an appeal to heaven. She felt with dreadful certainty that her heart was wholly devoted to one, whom she imagined was as wholly devoted to another, and to root the fatal prepossession was alike due her honour and her peace. But Adela’s virtue had its basis in feeling, not in principle: the latter would have taught her a vigorous effort of self-discipline, and an adoption of those decisive measures by which the passion might ultimately (though at the expense of a painful struggle) have been eradicated. She chose rather to embrace the apparently easier alternative of hiding rather than chasing her love…

And after indulging this choice for a time:

The love that animated Adela’s bosom was such as warmed the breast of Lara’s page. Had it been practicable she would have sought refuge in disguise, endured privation, pain, nay even degradation, to have traced his steps, to have breathed where he breathed, to have gazed on him, to have listened to him. Formed to feel with intensity, the secrecy with which she had cherished the passion, had increased its strength and its devotedness. All that was bright and interesting in life besides was tame, was valueless in comparison. She had no pleasures, no pains, no hopes, no fears, but as they bore reference to him. She had no thought unmixed with some idea of him…

Certain passages in The Beauty Of The British Alps, such as this one, and particularly in conjunction with that header quote, with its allusions “a fatal fall”, suggest that we’re headed into the realm of tragedy in this novel. However, whether that was or was not what Grimstone intended when she started writing, the completed novel shies away from the possibility it seems to be working towards, with interjections about how Adela would never do anything really – that is, definitively, actively – wrong. Though these extremes are not smoothly blended, Grimstone uses the reassurances of Adela’s ultimate virtue as a framework for a cautionary tale about female education and proper principles.

There is one “perfect” character in The Beauty Of The British Alps, and it is intriguing that she plays a comparatively minor role in the drama being enacted by her less immaculate companions. This is Emilia Auber, later Lady Milsom, who in the course of the narrative goes from ideal daughter to ideal wife, and whose sweet temper, thoughtfulness and unfailing devotion to duty make her a tacit measure of what the novel’s other young women are not.

Another nice touch here is the recognition that friendship, particularly for young women, who have little to no control over what company they find themselves in, is as much a matter of simple proximity as of compatibility. At the beginning of The Beauty Of The British Alps, Adela is thrilled to have a companion her own age and sex in Caroline Auber; but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the two have little else in common. Though circumstances keep the girls together (and compel Caroline to entrust Adela with a huge secret, as we shall see), Adela turns with undisguised relief to the gentle, considerate Emilia and begins to draw away from the unpredictable Caroline:

To Caroline however she still remained attached. She was the sister of Seeton, and had many noble traits of character; but her temper was hasty and capricious, and her humour frequently virulent and sarcastic: Adela feared her, and felt hers the last bosom in which she could repose confidence, or seek for sympathy.

Ironically enough, this scenario plays out the other way around: it is Caroline who is driven to repose confidence in Adela, and to seek her sympathy…

While its distinctly imperfect hero and heroine are interesting in their unexpectedness, to my way of thinking it is Caroline Auber who is this novel’s most arresting character. She is introduced in a way that does not, perhaps, prepare the reader to expect much from her:

Caroline left to herself sunk into a melancholy , which was at all times observed to oppress her in spite of the habitual sprightliness of her nature. Her countenance, though beautiful, had an expression of hauteur which these occasional fits of spleen tended to increase, they added also to the loftiness of a mien naturally too prone to wear the arrogance of rank… The world had had an unbenign influence on the character of Miss Auber, and though unable wholly to corrupt, had vitiated its original excellence.

But Caroline has a secret, one responsible for the melancholy she cannot always hide: she is in love with a man for whom the term “ineligible” is grossly inadequate.

This subplot is both too long and too complicated to get into in any detail: let us just say in summary that the young man who calls himself simply “Clarence” (Mr Clarence to strangers) is an orphan of undetermined origin, unaware of who his parents were or what name he might be entitled to; though someone has paid for him to have a gentleman’s education. From this unpromising background he has gone on to become a deserter from the (French) army, and possibly a murderer (it was self-defence, but without witnesses). On the run and with nowhere to go, Clarence is literally on the verge of starvation when he meets Caroline, whose impulsive generosity probably saves his life. Now in England, in hiding, Clarence is trying to scrape an income as an artist, but barely keeping body and soul together.

Though nowhere near the obsessive snob that her father is, Caroline has been accustomed to a life of privilege, and is fully aware of the comfort and advantages that comes with social prominence. Her love for Clarence, deep and genuine as it is, threatens to separate her from everything she has ever known, and means a future uncertain at best. She hesitates—understandably she hesitates—in recognition of the fact that should she throw in her lot with Clarence, it almost certainly means a life of struggle, perhaps real poverty; even assuming that Clarence’s past doesn’t catch up with him.

Caroline is finally driven to confide all this to Adela, persuading her to be her secret almoner by seeking out Clarence in London and commissioning him to paint her miniature, which she, Caroline, will pay for. Adela allows herself to be talked into this and, once she has met Clarence, becomes fully sympathetic to the lovers’ situation. However, Adela’s movements attract more notice than she realises, and her visits to Clarence’s rooms soon give rise to ugly gossip in some quarters, and rampant jealousy in others.

During a country-house visit, Caroline almost suffers a dangerous fall from a cliff-edge path (the young man with her does fall, and is seriously injured). The always lurking Clarence saves her life at great risk to his own, which naturally earns him a foot in the door where he most wants it; though the sense that he is being accepted under false colours preys upon him. Nevertheless, he accepts a position as secretary to the Earl of Errol (Emilia’s father-in-law), and finds himself at least on the fringe of Caroline’s circle.

Caroline, by this time, is used to guarding her secret; it is Clarence and Adela who can’t help reacting to one another’s presence (Clarence is not until this time aware of the connection between the two young women), and their joint consciousness puts all sorts of wrong ideas into various people’s heads—something Adela cannot combat without giving Caroline away, which she won’t do even to Seeton:

    “I have, without discovering my motives, ascertained that the individual who has awakens my fears, has neither relatives abroad, nor friends here; he has neither fortune or expectancy , and that a dark mystery hangs on the adventures of his former life. All this I have ascertained from various sources, and this piecemeal knowledge when put together has certainly been the source of much suspicion and many fears. Are you acquainted with these circumstances?”
    “I am,” replied Adela, “but—”
    “Pardon me,” he resumed, “for interrupting you, though I honour the candour, the sincerity which has made you acquainted with these painful particulars, yet what are the terrors for your fate that they do not engender! How little are you fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer!—a being of such delicacy, such sensibility.”
    “You are in error, indeed you are,” cried Adela, much confused.
    “Deal with me sincerely,” cried Mr Auber, “be above the subterfuges in which your sex delight to take refuge. This stranger, fortunate in that, if pursued by a destiny the most adverse , has certainly awakened an interest in your heart.”
    He changed colour as he spoke, and gazed on her with eyes that sought to penetrate the inmost recesses of her soul…

In the long run, however, and upon a better acquaintance with Clarence, Seeton grows less disapproving. Seeton himself is in even more of a quagmire than when we first met him. Sophia’s wealthy aunt dies without leaving a will—meaning her extensive fortune reverts to her husband’s family, instead of coming to her favourite niece, as everyone expected—including Captain Auber, who pushed Seeton at her in pursuit of that golden prize. Now, with Sophia almost portionless, the Captain would be only too willing if his son forgot about the very honour which, up to this point, he has been remorselessly dinning into his ears to hold him up to the mark. But the very thing that changes Captain Auber’s mind is the same which confirms Seeton in his resolution to go through with the marriage:

“I am rightly punished for entering so lightly into an engagement so solemn. What would be the consequence of breaking it? Sophia loves me, not as I might have been loved—but as deeply as her nature would permit—heartless to all, she has never been insensible to me. That thought alone forbids an act alien alike to gratitude and honour. She has lost too a considerable fortune, that golden lure that won my father to use his fatal agency. Would not she—would not the world believe, that this had some influence on my falling away from the troth I had plighted her. It must never be; Sophia must be my wife—and that too shortly. And she, whom would that I had never seen, or seen much sooner, must bless a happier, and I hope, better man than I am. Clarence,” he continued, as he paced to and fro in his room, “I will use myself to that name; chase from my heart the cold unchristian feeling that hitherto has made me shun him, stretch forth to him the hand of fellowship and friendship, and teach my heart to hold him as a brother. Adela shall smile, though not on me…”

Poor Adela!—she’s a better friend than Caroline really deserves; who is, of course, afraid that (to use Seeton’s words) she is even less “fitted to be the sharer of the precarious fortune of an adventurer”:

Shutting herself up, she yielded to the train of reflections  which a circumstance so trifling as her brother’s manner had awakened. What is Clarence, she thought, in their eyes, in the eyes of the world? The dependant of the earl. If they inquire further, to whom can he trace his being? alas! he knows not. Parentless, friendless, with no inheritance, save his talents and his virtues, how will the proud Aubers spurn him should he seek to blend his unknown name with theirs. Duty and love in my case are incompatible; I must renounce one or the other…

Matters still hang in the balance when Clarence’s past does catch up with him, and Caroline is forced to make her choice…

Meanwhile, all sorts of people are in love with Adela, or at least lusting after her—among them Lord Egremont, whose dissolute tendencies lead him to assume that a young woman like her, poor and obscure, might be willing to trade her virtue for a life of luxury. In one of this novel’s most shocking touches, he tacitly confides his dishonourable intentions to Captain Auber, at a moment when Adela’s fascination for both of the Captain’s sons is making itself felt:

    “What views have her friends for her?” inquired Lord Egremont. “She will never bear sitting down passively in Wales, after this introduction to life.”
    “Her face is her fortune, so I imagine her views and those of her mother are directed to the usual point—matrimony.”
    “Ah! lovely as she is, she may find herself disappointed. But she might make her fortune very easily, if she is not squeamish.”
    Looks more than words conveyed his meaning to Captain Auber, and in the same voiceless language they were replied to. ‘Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue’, and villain addressing villain, even in the security of privacy, will rather imply, than express his meaning. These two mature sinners soon understood each other , and the sacrifice of innocence, was to draw still closer the bonds that already united them. Adela’s mere removal from the world of fashion would never have given the Captain half the security which he felt in the present plan…

It seems that, many years ago, Lord Egremont knew Adela’s father and did him a service. His knowledge of the father she lost as a small child interests Adela in Lord Egremont as nothing else could have, and he continues to use this as bait to gain her attention and company.

Throughout the early sections of the novel there are hints of mystery and tragedy in the Belmonts’ past; of a great injustice done and borne with, both because of the lack of will to fight back and (probably more decisively) insufficient resources. More information comes to light courtesy of the Earl of Errol, whose late brother was a close friend of Mr Belmont and had possession of certain documents relating to him, which subsequently came into the possession of the Earl. Lord Errol makes this known to Adela and invites her to examine the papers for herself; although by the time she does so, a journal kept by Mr Belmont that the Earl was quite sure was amongst those papers has mysteriously disappeared…

The resolution of the many subplots in The Beauty Of The British Alps is unexpected in both tone and content, looking simultaneously back to the Gothic novel (evil doings in Italy!) and forward to the sensation novel (evil doings in England!), while reminding us that this is a pre-Victorian novel by making its deus ex machina a woman of dubious morals, to say the least, who brings happiness to most of the main characters by pursuing a course of cold-blooded and obsessive revenge.

Back when Miss Egremont’s mother was still alive, Lord Egmont had a passionate affair with a young widow, Lady Ruthven, during which time he lost his head to the extent of confiding to her certain secrets—secrets involving fraud, forgery, and even murder…

Lady Ruthven has managed to hold onto her reputation and her place in society, and is frequently included in the house-parties and excursions organised by the Auber-Errol-Egremont circle. Now that Lord Egremont is a widower, Lady Ruthven expects him to make good on his promise to marry her; but not only has he lost any desire to marry again (assuming he ever really meant a word of it), but his thoughts are now entirely centred on Adela, with whom he is growing almost obsessed—a situation to which Lady Ruthven responds by appointing herself Adela’s new best friend and attaching herself to the young woman with great tenacity, somewhat to Adela’s dismay.

(It is another of this novel’s fascinating touches that, of all the characters, the wicked Lady Ruthven is about the only one who never blames Adela for anything, in this case for “stealing” Lord Egremont—while everyone else points the finger at her, sooner or later, whether for being a man-magnet, provoking duels, interfering with the arrangement of suitable marriages, hiding disgraceful secrets, pursuing an illicit relationship, you name it. Even the paranoid Caroline at one point becomes convinced that she is losing Clarence to Adela, and treats her accordingly.)

And indeed, in the long run Lady Ruthven will prove to be the best friend that Adela ever has had. Certainly no-one else is in a position to help her when, finally accepting that she is never going to respond to his lures voluntarily, Lord Egremont arranges to have her abducted from a masquerade party and carried off to one of his houses in a remote corner of Scotland…

…but it doesn’t stop there. The very personification of ‘the woman scorned’, Lady Ruthven has a tale to tell, and she chooses her audience with care:

    “Do you now see how far you are interested in what I have already revealed?”
    “Yes,” answered Mrs Belmont, “he is holding the place my daughter ought to fill. He must have been aware of that the moment he beheld her. Did he feel nothing towards the dear girl? no remorse for the rights he usurped? no yearnings towards the same blood, for legitimate or illegitimate still they are cousins?”
    “Yes, I will tell you what he felt—a paralysis of the heart with terror, though not from remorse; but the well practiced dissembler  betrayed it not to her, nor anyone beside involuntarily. Since then another feeling has grown into his heart.”
    Dreadful was the light that gleamed in the eyes of the narratress, as the ground of her vengeance against her perfidious paramour  was thus recalled to her mind.
    “Yet, dear madam, you have other debts to Lord Egremont besides those of which I have already informed you. In him you behold not only the early foe of your husband, the ungrateful usurper of his honours and his fortune, the defamer of his name, and the destroyer of his peace; but you behold in him the wretch that meditates the seduction of your daughter—you behold in him the murderer of your son!”

 

09/07/2015

Novelist in transit

One of the challengers for Henry Savery’s title of “first Australian novelist” – or at least, “author of the first Australian novel” – is Mary Leman Grimstone. Though over her lifetime she was far better known as a poet and essayist, Grimstone wrote several novels, two of which are of particular interest with respect to an examination of the development of Australian fiction.

Mary Leman Rede was born in Hamburg, where her family had fled to escape their creditors, and was taken to England at the age of ten. In her mid-twenties she married a man called Grimstone, but seems to have been widowed after only a brief marriage. Possibly because of this, her health failed, and in 1825 she travelled to Tasmania (or rather, Van Diemen’s Land) with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom had a government position. While there she continued to write poetry, much of it inspired by the landscape, and gained notoriety for an essay in which she bewailed Hobart as a cultural wasteland – she was right, of course, but that didn’t endear her to the locals – while at the same time expressing sympathy and understanding of the embryo colony. In 1829 Mary returned to England, where she began moving in feminist circles and became a strong advocate for the reform of female education. She also continued to write.

In 1825, just before her departure for Australia, Mary published her first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps. Her second, Louisa Egerton: A Tale Of Real Life, was evidently begun on shipboard and completed after her arrival; while her third novel, Woman’s Love, was written during her time in Hobart—both of them pre-dating Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton. However, Mary published neither of these novels while in Australia, but waited until her return to England, with Louisa Egerton appearing in 1829 and Woman’s Love in 1832.

I’ve talked before about the difficulties of assigning “firsts” with respect to early Australian fiction, and with the work of Mary Leman Grimstone we have a case in point. Perhaps the best approach here is to follow the lead of The Australian Dictionary Of Biography, which calls Woman’s Love “the first novel of Australian provenance”.

Be that as it may, in time I will be taking a look at both Louisa Egerton and Woman’s Love. However, since I never in my life dreamed of simplifying something when I could make it more difficult and time-consuming, I will be starting my examination of the novels of Mary Leman Grimstone with The Beauty Of The British Alps.

24/01/2015

A Forger’s Tale

savery4b    Most Australians would struggle to name the country’s first published novelist. Prior to researching this book that number would have included its author. While other literary pioneers are luxuriantly memorialised, Henry Savery seemed destined to dwell in obscurity – an author lost in the literary backstreets. Not for our Henry the glory of Henry Lawson Drive, with its postcard-perfect views over Sydney Harbour from McMahon’s Point. Nor anything approaching the mass adulation and leafy avenues accorded a whole anthology of English poets that can be found in Melbourne’s bayside ‘burb of Elwood.
    No, our writer’s name is cemented in history by an entirely nondescript street on the urban fringes of Canberra – and even this is a mere tributary of a larger road commemorating that more sentimental literary bloke, the poet CJ Dennis. At Point Cook in Victoria a tiny cul-de-sac bearing the maverick’s moniker pales into insignificance beside its more glamorously named neighbour, Miles Franklin Boulevard. But at least some history-savvy surveyor appears to have had the wit to call this little dead-end a court, a place in which our unhappy first novelist spent much time…

It turned out that one of my libraries held a copy of Rod Howard’s 2011 publication, A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, so I thought before moving on in my overview of Australia fiction I would take a look at this non-fiction work to see if the representation of Henry Savery in my examination of Quintus Servinton was accurate, and if any more information on his life had come to light since the publication of Cecil Hadgraft’s biography of Savery in 1962.

In some ways, A Forger’s Tale is rather an odd piece of writing. It is biography, but told very much from Henry Savery’s own point of view; and it draws very heavily upon Quintus Servinton—to the point of taking various passages in the life of “Quintus”, which were of course based upon passages in Henry Savery’s own life, and turning them back into passages from Henry Savery’s life. In fact, for a few horrid moments at the outset I really thought I was going to be reading Quintus Servinton all over again (and I may say that Rod Howard seems to take it for granted, perhaps not unreasonably, that the reader of A Forger’s Tale has not read Quintus Servinton); but at length these fears were relieved. What Howard does here is call upon the historical record where there is an historical record, but where there is not, he allows Henry Savery to speak for himself.

Overall, A Forger’s Tale does three crucial things: it reveals the real people and places hidden behind Quintus Servinton‘s pseudonyms and fudging; it clears up the business of the guilty plea; and it offers an explanation for the persecution of Henry Savery following his arrival in Tasmania, which – much to my surprise, I admit – turns out to have been every bit as unjust and brutal as represented; although Henry himself was not (as he suggests in his novel) the real target: he simply had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of a political shitstorm.

As a consequence of these revelations, A Forger’s Tale offers a far more sympathetic portrait of Henry Savery than Cecil Hadgraft’s rather snippy biography; in some ways, perhaps too much so…

Understandably, A Forger’s Tale skips fairly quickly over the early years of Henry Savery’s life—that is, the first two volumes of Quintus Servinton. (There seems to be consensus on that point: Rod Howard quotes the review of the novel that appeared in the English magazine, The Athenaeum, which declared that only the third volume was worth reading, “…and even that might have been infinitely better.”) The story picks up at the point of Henry’s near fatal decision, in the wake of having been financially burned himself, to pass a forged bill; it reproduces the dinner-table conversation in which the horrified Henry learns that putting imaginary names on a bill is the same under the law as literal forgery. The person making this unwelcome revelation was an attorney named Watson, a colleague of Henry’s brother.

Two things are emphasised at this point: the amount of publicity given the arrest, trial and execution of “celebrity forger”, Henry Fauntleroy, and the attitude of Robert Peel. The newspapers did so well out of the Fauntleroy case that, it seems, they tried to exploit Henry Savery in the same way, turning his false £500 bill into merely the tip of a forgery iceberg and insisting that he spent the proceeds of his untold crimes on wine, women and song. Meanwhile, we learn that two years previously, Robert Peel himself had been the victim of a forger, who managed to elude the law and skip the country; it is suggested that he was particularly harsh upon forgers as a consequence, in addition to his loathing of “gentleman-criminals”. Evidently the judges of the time understood what Peel wanted in forgery cases and usually gave it to him; Quintus Servinton indirectly cites the case of John Wait, who was executed in spite of his jury’s recommendation to mercy.

Indeed, the more we learn about the circumstances, the more miraculous it seems that Henry did escape with his life.

The first suggestion of a guilty plea, introduced by Edward Protheroe (“Mr Rothero”), the former mayor of Bristol and a partner in the defrauded Copper Company, seems to have emanated from John Kaye, the solicitor for the Bank of England who was responsible for the bank’s forgery prosecutions, including that of John Wait. Kaye evidently told an associate of Protheroe, Levi Ames, that Wait should have entered a guilty plea.

Furthermore, Ames and his business partner, Stephen Cave, met with Protheroe and pressed upon him the wisdom of Henry Savery pleading guilty, citing not only the condemnation of Wait (who pleaded not guilty) but the case of Francis Greenway, who was told by his judge that he would have been hanged if he had not admitted his guilt. (Greenway, ironically, became a convict success story, gaining both reputation and wealth as a designer of public buildings in New South Wales.) Cave – who was a friend of Eliza Savery’s family, the Olivers – then called upon Henry and urged him likewise. He added that a certain Alderman Daniel had told him that, “Since Bristol was made a city there has been no occasion when the recommendation of the aldermen has been ignored.”

There are still some mysteries in this part of Henry Savery’s story, in particular this business of the aldermen being consulted (Ames and Cave were both aldermen, as well as Daniel), which simply seems not to have happened. Neither Cave nor Daniel had attended the trial, and afterwards Cave denied he had advised Henry to plead guilty: an assertion contradicted by Henry’s jailer, who had overheard their conversation. It also came to light that before the trial, Cave had confronted a solicitor called Bigg, a cousin of Eliza Savery, over the letter written by Henry to his father-in-law, Lionel Oliver, in which he summed up the pros and cons of the advice he was given: after reading the letter, Cave did not repudiate any of its contents.

Charles Savery petitioned Lord Gifford, the judge, but he was unmoved. Charles then undertook the thankless task of petitioning Robert Peel, only too well aware of how slender Henry’s chances were in that quarter. By then the part played by Stephen Cave had been exposed: Charles emphasised both this and, conversely, the grounds for acquittal, backing his legal petition with an actual petition for clemency carrying over two thousand signatures – including those of Henry’s plaintiffs. Henry’s great-uncle, Lord Manvers, also intervened. Finally – and very reluctantly – Robert Peel gave in, commuting Henry’s death sentence to transportation for life. But the whole business infuriated him, so that he never forgot the name “Henry Savery”…

An explanation is also provided in A Forger’s Tale for Henry’s preferential treatment before and during his journey to Australia—a rare instance in this story of someone paying his debts. While Henry was the proprietor of the newspaper, the Bristol Observer, he had dabbled in politics, coming out in strong support of a campaigning politician called Richard Hart Davis, who was duly elected. It was Hart Davis who used his influence to get Henry removed from the hulks to the hospital ship prior to his transportation, and saw that he was permitted to retain his ordinary clothing and mingle with the paying passengers, rather than being confined below decks with his fellow-convicts, during the journey to Tasmania. He also wrote to a friend, Major-General Ralph Darling, asking him to look after Henry following his arrival. However, Darling either forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

Despite this, Henry’s business and financial skills helped him land on his feet. He was immediately seconded for government duty, and devoted his leisure time to quietly doing work “off the books” for various local businessmen, earning a great deal more in that way than he did via his official employment. Eventually he entered into a business partnership with one Bartholomew Thomas, whose Cressy Company had won the exclusive contract to supply “the colony” with horses.  He also leased himself a small cottage, and started getting his life in order generally. So when Henry wrote to his wife, Eliza, talking up his position and urging her to join him, he wasn’t just blowing hot air.

With the shifting of the scene to Tasmania, the story told in A Forger’s Tale takes on a new air of confidence, for obvious reasons. From this point onwards Henry Savery’s own account of events is supported by a written record – newspapers, letters and journals that throw light on his numerous travails. In particular, we have the personal papers of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, to whom Rod Howard devotes a chapter of his book. Though Arthur’s full story need not concern us, he arrived in Tasmania in 1824 a deeply disgruntled man, with enemies slandering his name in England and a hostile reception waiting for him. His predecessor, William Sorell, was popular locally – chiefly due to his complete failure to actually do his job – and Arthur’s arrival was greeted with anything but an outpouring of joy. Disgusted by the state of the sloppily run penal colony, the puritanical, hard-line Arthur landed on Hobart Town like a ton of bricks.

And Hobart Town – led by Andrew Bent, proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette (a convicted thief), his offsider, Robert Murray (a convicted bigamist), and local businessman, Anthony Kemp (a former soldier and habitual mutineer) – fought back.

For a variety of reasons – predominantly politics, profit, and sheer bastardry – these three men waged a destructive campaign against George Arthur; one which, in the long run, crippled him. The war was at its height in December of 1825, when Henry Savery arrived in Hobart Town—and found himself caught in the crossfire.

Henry’s very sensible plan for working through his sentence was to pull his head in, keep his mouth shut and stay not only out of trouble, but out of the public eye. He was assisted by his own snobbery: the “upper classes” of Hobart, who he thought of as his social equals, would have nothing to do with him, a convict, and he wanted nothing to do with his fellow-transportees. When he wasn’t working, he kept to himself. Consequently, his dismay upon opening the Colonial Times (renamed after George Arthur founded a government-sponsored newspaper and also called it the Hobart Town Gazette) and finding himself mentioned in a hostile – and largely inaccurate – article may well be imagined. Drawing parallels between him and the much more famous Henry Fauntleroy, the article highlighted Henry’s preferential shipboard treatment, drew attention to George Arthur’s appropriation of his skills, and claimed (wrongly) that Arthur had arranged another “soft berth” for him, in the shape of a superintendentship at the Colonial Hospital.

We need not follow the entire campaign that ensued. Suffice it to say that the account of Henry Savery’s persecution in Quintus Servinton is accurate—except that Henry saw himself as the target, whereas in reality he was just a stick to beat George Arthur with; but in any event, the two men’s names became inescapably linked. Arthur’s appropriation of Henry’s particular skill-set, which was at a premium in the struggling colony, infuriated its embryo business community and seems to have been the catalyst for much of what followed. Again and again, Henry was represented in the press as doing George Arthur’s dirty work, while a variety of false claims were made as to the nature of his government appointment(s)—it was reported, for instance, that he was the editor of Arthur’s version of the Hobart Town Gazette. In reality he was doing straightforward accounting and clerical work, first in the Colonial Secretary’s office, then at the Treasury.

In time the constant slanders had the inevitable effect: people began to look askance at Henry Savery and assume him to be in the wrong. In particular, when the Cressy Company failed – mostly due to Bartholomew Thomas’s mismanagement – it was assumed that Henry was really to blame; that in short, he’d been cooking the books. Finally Henry acquired a real and dangerous personal enemy in the shape of local solicitor, Gamaliel Butler, who was eventually responsible for his imprisonment for debt.

But always George Arthur was the real target. The accusations made against him were transmitted to England, with articles originating in the Colonial Times reprinted in the London papers and constant written complaints directed to the Home Secretary, Lord Bathurst. For reasons that are unclear (beyond Arthur’s personal unpopularity), these reports were accepted at face value. A disbelieving Arthur received letters from Bathurst angrily rebuking him for his conduct, and in particular for his promotion of Henry Savery; an activity in which Lord Bathurst was joined by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to whom the thought of Henry Savery receiving privileges was anathema.

Meanwhile, Eliza Savery was on her way to Tasmania. When Henry wrote encouraging her to come, he was gainfully employed, had saved quite a sum of money, and was busy turning his little cottage into a home. By the time she arrived he was destitute, unemployed, and on the verge of a prison sentence.

I have a bit of a problem with A Forger’s Tale‘s attitude to Eliza Savery, wherein Rod Howard takes it for granted that Eliza had an affair with Algernon Montagu. Obviously I don’t believe Henry Savery’s romanticised depiction of his wife as an angel upon earth in Quintus Servinton; but there seems to reason to assume the worst, either. Certainly Montagu had an agenda, and interfered disastrously between Henry and Eliza; but he might well have done that to leave Eliza with no-one else to turn to, rather than because she was his mistress. There is no actual evidence of an affair, only a lot of gossip; yet Howard refers to Henry as “the cuckolded convict” and Eliza as “the adulterous wife”. It seems rather unfair, particularly given the fact that Howard just takes Henry Savery’s word for his own fidelity.

On the other hand, A Forger’s Tale gives an excellent and interesting account of the writing of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, Henry’s first venture into print. Since I will be examining this earlier publication in due course, we will not touch that part of the story now. I may say that The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land sounds altogether a more interesting work than Quintus Servinton turned out to be, and apparently includes all the local colour that the novel conspicuously lacks.

The final section of A Forger’s Tale deals with the sad conclusion of Henry Savery’s life. After he emerged from prison in 1831, things went better for Henry—for a time. He was employed as a private tutor in the New Norfolk district, and in 1832 he won his ticket of leave; although it was later rescinded for reasons that really weren’t his fault. Eventually he tried farming; but here he began to get back into financial difficulties. That said, his eventual conviction for passing forged notes seems to have been on pretty flimsy evidence. But perhaps the evidence had less to do with it than the fact that the judge before Henry appeared was none other than Algernon Montagu—while on the jury were two individuals who had been skewered in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that his sentence was that, “…you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life.”

The final mystery of Henry Savery’s life concerns his death. Decades after the event, Henry Melville, the printer who saw to the publication of Quintus Servinton, called Henry’s death suicide; while David Burn, a Scottish poet and journalist, in the course of a bizarre, tourist-brochure-like piece of writing called An Excursion To Port Arthur, describes his encounter with a physically shattered Henry Savery, making reference to “the scarce-healed wound of his attenuated throat”.

Rod Howard accepts this as evidence that Henry Savery died, eventually, after cutting his own throat a second time. Cecil Hadgraft, conversely, in his biographical sketch in the 1962 edition of Quintus Servinton, dismisses Melville’s assertion as the effect of confused memories so many years later, and thinks David Burn was referring to the scar from Henry’s first suicide attempt: he concludes from the description of his general condition that Henry had suffered a stroke.

Either way, Henry Savery died from the complications of something, on the 6th February 1842, and two days later was buried in an unmarked grave on The Isle Of The Dead. His fate is known because the minister who oversaw his interment made a note of it in his journal; the minister’s rider, “His end was without honour”, tends to support the suicide theory.

So—there turns out to be far more truth in Quintus Servinton than we initially supposed; the only real fudging comes with Henry’s description of his relationship with Eliza, and in his parallel efforts to praise George Arthur, and make excuses for Algernon Montagu; none of which we can blame him for—and none of which did him the slightest bit of good. Given the extent to which Savery was in reality a victim, his critical self-analysis in his novel takes on an extra, and most interesting, dimension.

The pity of Quintus Servinton is that it is just not a well-written book; in spite of its importance you can’t really recommend it. However, even if his novel will never be more than a footnote in literary terms, at least Henry Savery’s place in the timeline of Australian literature has, albeit belatedly, been recognised and acknowledged.

savery7A

An excerpt from the preface of Quintus Servinton; and the official commutation of Henry Savery’s death sentence (both scanned from A Forger’s Tale, no specific sources given).

11/01/2015

Quintus Servinton (Part 2)

savery1bLike 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:

savery2

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.

09/01/2015

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…]

29/12/2014

Like a hole in the head

Even though I need more things to write about like I need an aperture in my cranial equipment, for the past several months I’ve found myself becoming increasingly fixated upon the idea of taking a look at the development of the Australian novel. This area of study, like its American counterpart, offers one significant advantage over the Chronobibliography that comprises the main thrust of this blog—namely, that it is possible to identify a finite starting point.

More or less.

Truthfully, when it comes to identify “the first”, there are probably few areas of literary study that offer more ground for argument than the Australian novel of the 19th century—where we have novels written in Australia but published in Britain, and novels written in Britain but published in Australia; novels about Australia written in Britain, and novels about Britain written in Australia; authors born in Britain but publishing in Australia, and authors born in Australia but publishing in Britain; authors who lived all their lives in Australia, authors who emigrated to Australia, authors who emigrated from Australia, authors who wandered through for a space of months or years, and authors who never in fact set foot in Australia but wrote about it anyway. We even have a few – just a few – of those rarae aves, authors who were born, lived and published in Australia.

There are, consequently, as many “firsts” in the history of Australian fiction as even a complete obsessive like me could possibly desire.

The dogma (of which, by now, I have learned always to be deeply suspicious) is that “the first Australian novel” is Quintus Servinton: A Tale Founded Upon Incidents Of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery, which appeared in Tasmania in the early months of 1831. It was certainly “the first novel” written and published in Australia; its author, however, was born in England. Henry Savery was convicted of forgery in 1825 and sentenced to transportation after having his initial death sentence commuted. He wrote his novel – a semi-autobiographical and rather self-serving tale of convict life – while working as an assigned labourer in the New Norfolk district west of Hobart.

There appear to be three challengers for Quintus Servinton‘s crown. One of them is another, earlier work by Henry Savery: The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, which was published in 1830. This is not, however, a novel, but a series of sketches about Hobart life and its prominent citizens, which appeared first as separate stories in the local newspaper, The Colonial Times. It is also, in a sense, a roman à clef since, although without any political motive, its characters are based on real people, with a key to their identities being appended to the single-volume publication.

The other works highlight the difficulties in this area of study. Mary Leman Grimstone was already established as a poet and novelist when she accompanied her sister and brother-in-law to Australia in 1825. It seems that her second and third novels, Louisa Egerton and Women’s Love, were written during her stay in Tasmania, thus pre-dating all of the other contenders—but they were published in England, appearing in 1830 and 1832, respectively. Furthermore, as far as I am aware (I guess we’ll be finding out!), both are set in England as well.

We should also make mention of another 1830 publication, Arthur Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers. Although originally believed to be the work of the English writer, William Howitt (and is still listed in some sources as such), this children’s fiction has been attributed to a Mrs G. Porter, another English writer who never visited Australia, but drew upon Robert Dawson’s non-fiction work, The Present State of Australia : A Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects, with References to Emigration: and a Particular Account of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of its Aboriginal Inhabitants for her story—which is, in any event, the first work for children to be set in Australia.

Taking all this into consideration, Quintus Servinton still seems a sensible place to start—although knowing myself, I suspect that the other works mentioned (and perhaps Mary Grimstone’s first novel, The Beauty Of The British Alps) will also be putting in an appearance.