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Marcus Clarke Marcus Clarke i(A8423 works by) (a.k.a. Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke)
Also writes as: Q. ; John Buncle ; Marci Clerici ; Clarcus Marke ; Mark Scrivener ; Church-Goer ; 'Atticus' ; The Peripatetic Philosopher ; Lower Bohemia
Born: Established: 24 Apr 1846 London,
United Kingdom (UK),
Western Europe, Europe,
; Died: Ceased: 2 Aug 1881 Melbourne, Victoria,
Gender: Male
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Novelist, playwright, journalist, author.


One of the most successful writers in Australia during the last half of the nineteenth century and author of His Natural Life, arguably the most famous Australian novel of that period, Marcus Clarke produced a prodigious quantity of literary and journalistic writing in the fourteen years he spent in the country. His creative output involved more than twenty dramatic works (many of which were staged, and one of which was an opera), five published novels, over forty short stories (including children's stories), and three dozen or more works of prose and poetry. In addition to this, he contributed countless newspaper and magazine articles and columns and was employed as an editor for several newspapers and publishers. He also published under a variety of pseudonyms.


1846- 1869: The only son of Chancery lawyer William Hislop Clarke (Marcus Clarke's mother died when he was four years old), Clarke was educated at Cholmeley School, Highgate (otherwise known as Sir Roger Cholmeley's School at Highgate). Expecting to enter the Foreign Service upon graduation, his life was turned upside down during the final year of his studies when his father suffered a breakdown, which either led to, or was the result of, financial ruin. In 1863, following his father's death, Clarke made the decision to immigrate to Australia. He was initially taken under the wing of an uncle, James Langton Clarke, a County Court Judge at Ararat (Vic), and spent the first few years in Australia engaged in a variety of occupations, including a clerk at the Bank of Australasia and a station hand. The reality of Australian agriculture made him appreciate the city life of ‘cigars and chat, champagne, chicken and all that’ (Hergenban,1972). He was far better suited to life as a journalist and author. In 1867, he became a staff writer for the Argus, and wrote the 'The Peripatetic Philosopher’ column for that paper and its associated paper the Australasian.  The column saw Clarke's mischievous sense of humour first emerge in print. It often satirised Melbourne society, ranging over topics from witty recreations of royal visits to immersions in Melbourne’s ‘lower bohemia’ that exposed the seedier side of the city and its poverty. It brought him into direct conflict with his publishers and influential personalities on a number of occasions.

Clarke also wrote for the Herald, the [Melbourne] Daily Telegraph and the Age. He joined a literary consortium to buy the Australian Monthly Magazine, which he edited in 1868-9 renamed as The Colonial Monthly. He published his novel 'Long Odds' in the magazine, although two instalments were contributed by his friend G A Walstab. He then began the comic weekly, Humbug, envisioned as a rival to Punch magazine, but it too folded. It was during this period, that he became friends with a coterie of influential young writers of the time, notably playwrights Robert Percy WhitworthGarnet Walch, and James Neild. He also met and married actress Marion Dunn in 1869.

1870-1874: Inspired by his association with the theatrical world, Clarke soon tried his hand at writing for the stage. Over a four-year period, beginning in 1868, five of his works were given a theatrical production: Foul Play (1868); the pantomime Goody Two Shoes and Little Boy Blue (1870); Peacock Feathers (1871), adapted from Moliere; the semi-tragic drama Fernande (1871), adapted from Victorien Sardou; and the drama Plot! (1872). During the same period, Clarke continued to work as a journalist. In 1870, he was given the editorship of the Australian Journal, a position that did not last long, although he remained with the journal for some two and a half years. His stay was primarily due to the enormous success of his serialised story, and one of the great Australian novels, His Natural Life (it was given its better-known title for the 1882 reprint). The success he garnered from his first attempts at writing for the stage also gave Clarke the opportunity to write for Harry Rickards in 1872. The English variety performer/entrepreneur was then touring his first company through Australia. Clarke's contributions included the sketches 'Perfection' and 'Strolling on the Sands.' In 1875, he adapted John Strachan's pantomime Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for George Coppin, Richard Stewart, Henry R. Harwood, and John Hennings, the lessees of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. For the next five years, however, Clarke's theatrical output lapsed. This was to a large extent the result of his employment with the Melbourne Public Library, which had rigid rules of behaviour for its servants, including the earning of outside income. Clarke began at the Library in 1870 as Secretary to the Board of Trustees and in 1873 was appointed Sub-Librarian. He did continue to write, but was unable to contribute regular columns such as the 'Peripatetic Philosopher', and was also required to steer clear of overt political commentary, at least under his own name. It would appear, too, that his hectic lifestyle, not the least being sheer overwork, led to bouts of anxiety and other related health problems in the mid-1870s. The additional burden of debt also contributed to his poor well-being. Matters reached a head in 1874, when he was forced into insolvency.

1875-1881: A collaborative effort with Robert Percy Whitworth, an adaptation of the French comedy Reverses, was written in 1876 but not staged until 1879. Indeed, it was not until 1878 that Clarke had his next theatrical work staged, the musical burlesque extravaganza Alfred The Great. His non-music theatre works from this period onwards include The Moonstone: Chandrakanta, a romantic drama adapted from the Wilkie Collins novel, and the comedy Baby's Luck, co-written with actor John L. Hall. It has been speculated that Clarke's return to writing during the late 1870s may well have been the result of financial need. This situation did not improve for him, as he was again forced into bankruptcy in 1881. The motivation to write was still there, however. In the two years before his death in 1881 from erysipelas, Clarke produced some of his best work, particularly in respect of his dramatic writing.

Perhaps the most significant of his later productions was the libretto for a satirical operetta called The Happy Land (1880). Banned from performance in Victoria due to its controversial subject matter (much of it being aimed at the government of the day), the work stirred up much debate and returned Clarke once again to the position of public agitator. Following The Happy Land, Clarke had better box-office success with the comedies A Daughter of Eve and Forbidden Fruit, both of which were staged in Melbourne in 1880. These last two works also starred his wife Marion, who had returned to the stage for the first time since 1868. On his death, Clarke also left an unfinished comic opera libretto titled Queen Venus. A completed version, with music composed by visiting French composer Henri Kowalski (q.v.), was given its Australian debut as Moustique in 1889. (Kowalski had presented it in Brussels six years earlier).

Four years after his death, Clarke's most famous novel was transferred to the stage for the first time. More than a dozen different versions are known to have been staged between 1885 and 1913, including productions by Alfred DampierThomas SomersGeorge LeitchDan Barry, and Edmund Duggan.

Most Referenced Works



    1.1. Marcus Clarke's liveliest dramatic writings were pantomimes and comedies, but, as is often the case with 'popular' writers, his originality and humour appear to be temporally bound, appreciated more by the public of his day than future generations. Apart from His Natural Life, Clarke's writing, including his 'colourful' journalism, has never left a lasting impression on future generations. Brian Elliot, writing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, observes, however, that Clarke's journalism in particular 'still seems extraordinarily alive and vivid, providing a brilliant index to a very vigorous period of colonial literary life' (p.418). Nevertheless, it is his novel that has outlasted not only his other works, but also that of most other nineteenth-century writers. Indeed, For the Term of His Natural Life is arguably the only work of the whole first century of Australian literature to be considered monumental. A memorial was erected over Clarke's grave in 1898 on the seventeenth anniversary of his death. Wybert Reeve, who unveiled the monument, said the tribute 'was the recognition of the fact that a reproach would rest upon the people of these colonies, as lacking intellect and intelligence, if the grave... were left to remain without some memorial' (Age 3 Aug. 1898, p.6).

    1.2. The author of numerous short stories, prose, and poetry, Clarke's early works were printed in the Australian Monthly Magazine, Colonial Monthly, and The Australasian, while later stories appeared in published collections. His first novel, Long Odds, was published sometime around 1868-69. His other novels include Chidiock Tichbourne; Or, The Catholic Conspiracy (1874) and 'Twixt Shadow and Shine (1875). In addition to these works, Clarke authored a number of pamphlets (mainly polemical) and a history of Australia 'compiled for the use of schools', and edited such publications as We 5: A Book for the Season (1879, anthology) and the Pictures in the National Gallery Melbourne series (1873-75). Around the same time that he was editor of Colonial Monthly (1868-69), Clarke also edited Humbug: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Satire. Quite a number of articles, poetry, and prose, along with several playlets, appear in the magazine between 1869 and 1870. He is known to have written the lyrics to numerous songs, including 'Victoria's Farewell to Lady Bowen' (1879, music by Alfred Plumpton) and 'We Banish Love' (1881, music by Henry Kowalski). Page proofs of his unfinished novel 'Felix and Felicitas' (1876) are held at the State Library of New South Wales.

  • 1.3. Clarke also produced translations and adaptations of French and English texts for the Australian stage. Manuscripts of his libretti and other theatre writings are held in Mitchell Library, NSW.

    1.4. Marcus Clarke is thought to have written under the initials M.C.

    1.5. Among the cast members of The Happy Land was a young would-be actor called Thomas Bent. He later gave up acting for politics, eventually becoming Minister for Railways and later Victorian Premier (Brisbane Courier 3 June 1905, p.16).

  • This entry has been sourced from research undertaken by a) Dr Clay Djubal into Australian-written popular music theatre (ca. 1850-1930) - See also the Australian Variety Theatre Archive - and b) Dr Willa McDonald into Australian Literary Journalism history.

    For further information see Clarke's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, as well as:

    • Wilding, Michael (Ed) (1988)  Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, Short Stories, Critical Essays and Journalism, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
    • Hergenban, L.T (Ed) (1972) Colonial City, Selected Journalism of Marcus Clarke, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
  • In 1910 Clarke's widow received a pension of £1 per week from the Commonwealth Literary Fund. (

Last amended 14 Sep 2017 14:29:42
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