Posts tagged ‘autobiographical’

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…]