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An illustration from the original serialised version of the novel
y separately published work icon His Natural Life single work   novel  
Alternative title: For the Term of His Natural Life
Issue Details: First known date: 1870-1872... 1870-1872 His Natural Life
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AbstractHistoryArchive Description

'Scarcely out of print since the early 1870s, For the Term of His Natural Life has provided successive generations with a vivid account of a brutal phase of colonial life. The main focus of this great convict novel is the complex interaction between those in power and those who suffer, made meaningful because of its hero's struggle against his wrongful imprisonment. Elements of romance, incidents of family life and passages of scenic description both relieve and give emphasis to the tragedy that forms its heart.' (Publication summary : Penguin Books 2009)




y separately published work icon Convict 1240 A Great Wrong Righted John A. Stevens , 1885 1885 8077223 1885 single work drama
For the Term of His Natural Life Alfred Dampier , 1886 drama
y separately published work icon His Natural Life George Leitch , Australia : 1886 8077162 1886 single work drama

Contemporary newspaper reports indicated that Leitch 'made the necessary alterations in the plot so as to preserve almost every dramatic situation it contains, and he has preserved most of the interesting scenes and even the dialogue of the original story', but he did switch the conclusion so as to bring his work to a happy ending.

See Brisbane Courier article below.

For the Term of His Natural Life Thomas Walker , 1886 (Manuscript version)x400209 Z850685 1886 single work drama
— Appears in: Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage : 1834-1899 2006; (p. 455-548)
y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life Inigo Tyrrell Weekes , 1886 8078051 1886 single work drama
y separately published work icon For Life James J. McCloskey , 1886 8078200 1886 single work drama
y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life William South , 1886 8078294 1886 single work drama
y separately published work icon Rufus Dawes; or, Sentenced for Life 1886 8078367 1886 single work drama
y separately published work icon His Natural Life W. H. Horton , 1887 8078947 1887 single work drama

According to contemporary reviews:

The story as told in the drama ran closely alongside the familiar narrative in the book until the escape of Rufus Dawes disguised in the garments of the repentant Mr. North. In the drama the escape is prevented by Maurice Frere. That scoundrel's efforts however are foiled at the last moment by the arrival of a free pardon for Dawes. This was brought about by the confession of John Rex. The play ends with the death of Maurice Frere at the hands of Gabbett, and the departure of Rufus Dawes and Sylvia for England.


'Gaiety Theatre', The Queenslander, 23 July 1887, p.138-139.

y separately published work icon His Natural Life 1887 8079515 1887 single work drama

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel.

According to contemporary reviews of the opening-night performance:

though somewhat weak in points as compared with its predecessors, it scored a distinct success. In the first two acts there was a certain want of continuity displayed in the telling of the story, for which the adapter was responsible, and here and there the drama dragged a little–no doubt in consequence of this being its first representation: but afterwards the action of the book was followed more closely. The incidents were worked up with considerable effect, and some of the situations were decidedly telling and elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience


'His Natural Life', Brisbane Courier, 30 July 1888, p.5.

y separately published work icon His Natural Life Frank Gerald , Stirling Duff , 1891 8079919 1891 single work drama

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel.

y separately published work icon His Natural Life Dan Barry , 1891 8080139 1891 single work drama

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel.

According to contemporary reviews:

In many respects the dramatisation justified its claim to newness. It embraced some incidents omitted from other versions, but gave rather a prominence to the gruesome side of the story. Generally speaking, less dramatic skill in construction, and less refinement of taste was shown than in previous versions. The exhibition of a man tied to the triangles, and with the marks of whipping scored on his bare shoulders, was for instance realistic, but it was neither a pleasant nor an elevating sight. Otherwise the drama was well staged, and it was acted in a manner which elicited warm applause. The comic element, which was introduced pleasantly, relieved the sombreness of the drama and excited hearty laughter.


'The Opera House', The Queenslander, 27 June 1891, p.1214.

y separately published work icon His Natural Life 1894 8080270 1894 single work drama

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel.

y separately published work icon His Natural Life C.A. Clarke , Rollo Balmain , 1896 8080717 1896 single work drama
y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life Edmund Duggan , 1897 8080851 1897 single work drama

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel, written by Edmund Duggan, who also took the role of Rufus Dawes.

A contemporary review notes that:

The drama is necessarily constructed with an eye to startling effects and powerful situations, and ample scope is found for these in the brutalities and barbarisms which characterised the convict system with which the early pages of Australian history are besmirched. Thus the mutiny on board the convict ship Malabar is given due prominence; the scenes in the prison yard where 'man's inhumanity to man' was so frequently witnessed are appropriately emphasised, and the various details of attempted escapes and inevitable captures are realistically presented. These are legitimate uses of the story for dramatic purposes, but the scene between the cannibal Gabbett and his two comrades is unnecessarily repulsive, and touches that border-line where attempted realism only provokes laughter, the subsequent view of the man-eating convict chasing a comic parson with an axe being neither convincing nor edifying. The final act gets away from tho book altogether, but this is probably only to be expected, for the patrons of melodrama would scarcely rest content without the good old-fashioned tableau of virtue triumphant and villany [sic] vanquished, and so on this interesting picture the curtain falls.


'Theatre Royal', Chronicle, 11 December 1897, p.34.

form y separately published work icon For the Term of his Natural Life Charles MacMahon , 1908 Australia : MacMahon's Exquisite Pictures E. J. Carroll , 1908 Z1293309 1908 single work film/TV

The first of several cinematic adaptations of Marcus Clarke's classic and complex story, first published as His Natural Life, this version is essentially a collection of highlights. The screenplay is also heavily based on the popular stage version from a few years earlier. The Bulletin records in this respect that while the storyline had been 'severely edited, [the] boiling-down was evidently done by a man who knew his business, for the continuity of the yarn is quite unbroken' (ctd. in Pike and Cooper p.11).

The screenplay begins in England with the murder for which Rufus Dawes is wrongfully arrested, tried, and eventually found guilty. He is then sentenced to life as a convict in Van Diemen's Land, and it is from this point on that the story sees the bitter and harsh life that he is forced to endure. He later escapes and embarks on a voyage to freedom, while also encountering his long-lost love, Sylvia. The boat sinks, however, and the pair drown while holding each other in an eternal embrace.

y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life : A Drama in Four Acts Marian Marcus Clarke , 1925 (Manuscript version)9203075 9184510 1925 single work drama

The story begins in England with a young Ellinor Wade wanting to run away and elope with her beloved, Lord Bellasis, yet her uncle has other plans for her to marry the wealthy Sir Richard Devine. She submits to her uncle's request and marries Sir Devine. Years later, her son, young Richard Devine, is cast out by his father as he learns the truth of Ellinor's indiscretions with Lord Bellasis all those years ago. Bellasis is found murdered and robbed, young Richard is blamed, and sent away on a convict ship heading towards Australia.

The rest of the play centres around young Richard, who now calls himself Rufus Dawes, and his new shipmate John Rex, who people suggest are like brothers. They're shipwrecked and it is believed Dawes has perished, but he washes up ashore on an abandoned settlement in Australia where he finds a marooned Lieutenant Frere, Mrs Vickers, and their daughter Sylvia. Sylvia takes to Dawes, calling him "good Mr Dawes," much to the displeasure of Frere who is fond of young Sylvia. Dawes, Frere and the Vickers finally set sail and after some time are found by an American vessel and taken to Port Arthur.

Meanwhile John Rex, who organised the mutiny to maroon Frere and the Vickers, has discovered that Sir Richard Devine has passed away and pretends to be his son in order to steal his inheritance. He fails after a grieving Lady Devine fools him into revealing he is not her son.

Years later, Dawes has been recaptured and sent to Hobart and Rex has returned only to be left an invalid after a stroke. Dawes believes he is about to die, but his mother appears to pardon him after learning that John Rex was the one who killed Lord Bellasis, who was both his and Dawes' (Richard Devine's) father.

The manuscript held in The Hanger Collection of Australian Manuscripts in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland contains the following character notes:


Richard Devine, alias rufus Dawes )half brothers

John Rex, alias Lionel Crofton )parts are doubled

Francis Wade

Lieutenant Frere

Reverend North

Major Vicars

Sir Richard Devine

Reverend Meekin

Lord Bellasis

Matt. Gabbett

The crow


Tomkins S.




Lady Devine (Ellinor Wade)

Sarah Purfoy

Sylvia Vickers

Mrs. Vickers

Mrs. Jellico

Mrs. Potherick

Mary Crofton

form y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life Norman Dawn , 1927 Australia : Australasian Films , 1927 Z825984 1927 single work film/TV (taught in 1 units)

Based on Marcus Clarke's classic novel, originally published in 1870 as His Natural Life, the story tells of convict Rufus Dawes, who has been wrongfully accused of a crime and sent to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land for the term of his natural life. In his attempts to escape the colony, Dawes falls in love with Sylvia (a warden's daughter) and confronts his sinister lookalike John Rex and the evil convict Gabbett.

American director/screenwriter Norman Dawn's adaptation strays from the original book considerably. For example, the ending sees the fate of Rufus and Sylvia, adrift on a raft in the ocean, left in the balance, whereas Clarke's original story has the pair drown. However, the film retains a strong, visual style, especially in climactic crowd scenes.

form y separately published work icon Mr Dawes Ray Butler , United Kingdom (UK) : British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) , 1966 8082195 1966 single work radio play

In the Radio Times, the BBC described this as 'freely based on the novel For the Term of his Natural Life'.


Radio Times, 12 May 1966, p.28.

y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life Ida Veitch , Melbourne : Nelson , 1977 Z966453 1977 single work children's fiction children's adventure
form y separately published work icon For the Term of his Natural Life Patricia Payne , Wilton Schiller , ( dir. Rob Stewart ) Australia : Patricia Payne Productions , 1983 Z1823507 1983 series - publisher film/TV

Based on the novel by Marcus Clarke, this is a relatively faithful adaptation, though Moran (in his Guide to Australian TV Series), tracing the connections between this narrative and various other nineteenth-century works, suggests that

For the Term of His Natural Life ceases to have anything much to do with the convict cycle in the mini-series that extend from Against the Wind to The Fremantle Conspiracy. Instead it has a lot more to do with series such as Return to Eden. Indeed, in viewing the series, the viewer experiences a strong surge of pleasure not only in the narrative but in the handsomeness of the settings and costumes, and cinematography but most especially in the star/character recognitions.

The program used a number of international actors (largely, Moran suggests, to increase saleability to overseas markets), including Patrick McNee (The Avengers) and Anthony Perkins (Psycho). At a cost of $5.6 million, it was the most expensive mini-series so far produced for Australian television, but was comparatively well received in Australia and distributed overseas.

y separately published work icon Marcus Clarke's Immortal Australian Classic : For the Term of His Natural Life Peter Foster , Peter Foster (illustrator), Richmond : Greenhouse Publications , 1986 Z966459 1986 single work graphic novel children's adventure
y separately published work icon Natural Life Humphrey Bower , Michael Kantor , Sydney Melbourne : Currency Press Playbox Theatre Centre, Monash University , 1998 Z103179 1998 single work drama
form y separately published work icon His Natural Life Joe Dunlop , United Kingdom (UK) : British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) , 2000 8082381 2000 series - publisher radio play

An adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel in three parts.

1. The Sea Voyage (first broadcast 8 October 2000)

2. Marooned (first broadcast 15 October 2000)

3. Redemption (first broadcast 22 October 2000)

For the Term of His Natural Life : The Musical Don Gay , Mark Hulsman (composer), 2004 single work musical theatre
y separately published work icon Term of his Natural Life Roger Gimblett , 2004 8081122 2004 single work drama

A stage adaptation of Marcus Clarke's novel.

Reading Australia

Reading Australia

This work has Reading Australia teaching resources.

Unit Suitable For

AC: Senior Secondary (Literature Unit 3)


colonialism, crime and punishment, fate, gender, journey, love, materialism, power and authority, spirituality

General Capabilities

Critical and creative thinking, Ethical understanding, Literacy


  • Other imprints: German 1876; Dutch 1886; Swedish 1892; Russian 1903; Czech 1964;


* Contents derived from the St Lucia, Indooroopilly - St Lucia area, Brisbane - North West, Brisbane, Queensland,:University of Queensland Press , 2001 version. Please note that other versions/publications may contain different contents. See the Publication Details.
His Natural Life [2001] : Introduction, Lurline Stuart , single work criticism (p. xix-lx)
Historical Background : Clarke and Convictism, Michael Roe , single work criticism (p. 573-590)
Adaptations : Stage, Screen and Other Versions of His Natural Life, 1866-1998, Elizabeth Webby , single work criticism (p. 591-605)

Publication Details of Only Known VersionEarliest 2 Known Versions of

Serialised by: The Australian Journal 1865 periodical (900 issues)
      1870-1872 .
      Description: illus.
      • Serialised in The Australian Journal in 27 monthly instalments beginning vol. 5, part 58 March 1870 and concluding vol. 7 part 85 June 1872 (except for November 1871).
      1881-1883 .
      • Serial reprinted in The Australian Journal: Vol. 17, part 196 — Vol. 18, part 212 (September 1881-January 1883);
      1886-1888 .
      • Serial reprinted in The Australian Journal : Vol. 22, part 256 — Vol. 23, part 272 (September 1886 — January 1888).
      1913-1915 .
      • Serial reprinted in The Australian Journal: Vol. 48, part 577 — Vol. 50, part 606 (June 1913 — November 1915).
    • Melbourne, Victoria,: George Robertson , 1874 .
      Extent: viii, 480p.p.
      Edition info: Ist ed. in one volume
      • Dedication: to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy

Other Formats

  • Also published in Braille, as sound recordings and as adaptations for children. Several film and television adaptations have appeared, the earliest dates from 1908.

Works about this Work

Stepping Back into the Past Jenny Sinclair , 2022 single work essay
— Appears in: Meanjin , June vol. 81 no. 2 2022; (p. 146-152) Meanjin Online 2022;

'Browsing through my local bookstore, I came across a book of literary locations: a guide to the places and spaces where classic and much-loved novels have been set. The idea, I think, was that the book could function as a tour guide, armchair or otherwise. Love Wuthering Heights? Then take a look at the Yorkshire Moors. And so on.' (Introduction)

y separately published work icon Marcus Clarke : Novelist, Journalist and Bohemian Michael Wilding , North Melbourne : Australian Scholarly Publishing , 2021 21934899 2021 multi chapter work criticism

'Michael Wilding’s essays on Marcus Clarke’s life and works, from his schooldays at Highgate with Gerard Manley Hopkins to membership of the Melbourne Bohemian Yorick Club with Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall, and his associations with the Chief of Police Captain Frederick Standish, the Irish nationalist politician and political prisoner Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, and the President of the Melbourne Public Library Sir Redmond Barry.

'Essays on His Natural Life, Clarke’s classic novel of the convict system; on Chidiock Tichborne the historical romp about the Catholic conspiracy to replace Elizabeth I on the English throne with Mary, Queen of Scots, and spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage operation to expose it; on Old Tales of a Young Country about the early years of European settlement and the brutalities of the convict system; on his journalism ranging from exposés of the lives of Melbourne’s down and outs and homeless, to reminiscences of the Theatre Royal’s Café de Paris, and the spoof account of the Melbourne Cup written by aid of a camera obscura; on his literary essays, reviews and obituaries of Bret Harte, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens and Adam Lindsay Gordon; and on his short stories, ranging from realistic accounts of his up-country days on sheep stations and mining towns in the Wimmera, and speculations on the alternative futures of what life might have been, to sensational tales of Gothic horror, crime mystery, fantasies of opium dreams and mesmeric trances, and sophisticated literary experiment in his account of taking hashish, ‘Cannabis Obscura’ and the premature post-modernism of ‘The Author Haunted by His Own Creations’.'

‘This is scholarly and very entertaining.’
– Sydney Morning Herald

Source : publisher's blurb

y separately published work icon For the Term of His Natural Life Kate Rice , Kate Rice (presenter), 2020 23335665 2020 single work podcast

'For The Term Of His Natural Life is a 19th century Australian novel about a man transported from England to Van Diemen’s Land for a crime he didn’t commit. Adapted for the stage many times over, it became an epic melodrama that drew huge audiences for over thirty years. Behind the stage show is another story of injustice: of a writer who lost control of his most famous work, theatre makers who exploited it, and two women who fought to get it back.'

Source: Production blurb.

A Little Moment : Plagues Past and Present Nick Brodie , 2020 single work essay
— Appears in: Griffith Review , no. 69 2020; (p. 70-76)
'My grandfather was born in a pestilential year. Surviving the influenza pandemic that struck Australia in 1919, pa's mother called him the luckiest baby in town. Great-grandma Frances's own father had died from influenza in an earlier regional outbreak in the foothills of Australia's Snowy Mountains, so she likely felt the threat to her baby especially acutely. But 1919 was something extraordinary, an experience that, much like the war it followed, marked those generations who survived it. Months of border closures, quarantines, hospitals, anxiety, sickness arid death understandably helped 1919 enter Australian popular memory as the year of the 'Spanish flu'. No wonder Frances made sure her son understood his good fortune.' (Introduction) 
Writing Novels Michael Wilding , 2019 single work essay
— Appears in: Wild about Books : Essays on Books and Writing 2019; (p. 104-106)
'Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life was the first great Australian novel. To my mind, it still remains the greatest. Its account of the horrors and brutalities of the convict settlement of Australia is unforgettable. I am not sure that I can bring myself to read it again, I think I would find it too painful an experience. I feel like that about King Lear and Wuthering Heights and much of Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence. These are the books to read in adolescence when you can gain a pleasure from tragedy and empathize with suffering.' (Introduction)
[Review] His Natural Life Ian Morrison , 2002 single work review
— Appears in: Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin , vol. 26 no. 3 & 4 2002; (p. 245-253)

— Review of His Natural Life Marcus Clarke , 1870-1872 single work novel
Untitled Graham Tulloch , 2003 single work review
— Appears in: JAS Review of Books , June no. 16 2003;

— Review of His Natural Life Marcus Clarke , 1870-1872 single work novel
The Term of His Natural Life Ida Leeson , 1930 single work review
— Appears in: All About Books , 15 September vol. 2 no. 9 1930; (p. 225-228)

— Review of His Natural Life Marcus Clarke , 1870-1872 single work novel
Leeson engages in a detailed comparison of the various forms of Clarke's novel citing primary and secondary sources.
His Natural Life 1874 single work review
— Appears in: The Queenslander , 13 June 1874; (p. 7)

— Review of His Natural Life Marcus Clarke , 1870-1872 single work novel
Twelve Australian Books That Should Be in Every Australian Home Mary Gilmore , George Mackaness , Frederick T. Macartney , 1937 single work review
— Appears in: All About Books , 10 November vol. 9 no. 11 1937; (p. 172)

— Review of The Singing Gold Dorothy Cottrell , 1927 single work novel ; Landtakers : The Story of an Epoch Brian Penton , 1934 single work novel ; Confessions of a Beachcomber E. J. Banfield , 1908 extract autobiography ; The Sentimental Bloke : The Play C. J. Dennis , 1914 single work poetry ; Songs of a Campaign Leon Gellert , 1917 selected work poetry ; Heart of Spring John Shaw Neilson , 1919 selected work poetry ; Satyrs and Sunlight : Being the Collected Poetry of Hugh McCrae Hugh McCrae , 1928 selected work poetry ; His Natural Life Marcus Clarke , 1870-1872 single work novel ; The Pearl and the Octopus, and Other Exercises in Prose and Verse Alfred George Stephens , 1911 selected work short story poetry ; Such Is Life : Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins Tom Collins , 1897 single work novel ; Flynn of the Inland Ion L. Idriess , 1932 single work biography ; The Fortunes of Richard Mahony Henry Handel Richardson , 1917 single work novel ; Man-Shy Frank Dalby Davison , 1934 extract novel ; We of the Never-Never Mrs Aeneas Gunn , 1908 single work novel ; Speaking Personally Walter Murdoch , 1930 selected work essay ; Best Australian One-Act Plays 1937 anthology drama ; The Wide Brown Land : A New Anthology of Australian Verse 1934 anthology poetry ; The Magic Pudding Second Slice : Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and His Friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff Norman Lindsay , 1971 extract children's fiction ; Separate Lives Vance Palmer , 1931 selected work short story ; Modern Australian Literature, 1900-1923 Nettie Palmer , 1924 single work criticism
'There Are French Novels and There Are French Novels' : Charles Reade and the 'Other' Sources of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life Ian Henderson , 2002 single work criticism
— Appears in: JASAL , vol. 1 no. 2002; (p. 51-66)
Henderson 'elucidates the topicality of Clarke's serialised novel ... by establishing Clarke's debts to Charles Reade. Turning attention to Clarke's "borrowings" from Reade's popular romances and stage melodramas counters scholarly preoccupation with historical documents as "sources" of His Natural Life ...[and] enables the reconstiution of His Natural Life as a work of Victorian modernity, interested as much in contemporary issues of international significance ... as it is in reconstructing Australia's convict past.'(p. 51)
New Issues, Old Issues : The Australian Tradition Revisited John McLaren , 2003 single work criticism
— Appears in: Overland , Autumn no. 170 2003; (p. 49-56)

McLaren discusses a number of Australian novels (all recently re-issued) which have been central to developing the way in which Australians and foreigners think about white society in this continent. He distinguishes several trends and traditions in describing and characterising Australia's social and political system. Whereas Clarke and Richardson present Australia as a prison, Palmer and Waten present it as a land offering the promise of freedom. Furphy, on the other hand, is seen as a writer 'who shows us a country seeming to offer plentitude but finally withholding its promise' (54).

McLaren concludes that the 'past expressed in these fictions variously produced values of solidarity, egalitarianism, harmony with the land, but their values remain circumscribed by fear of the powerless and the dispossessed, by the arrogance of the powerful, and by distrust of the outsider. Our future will be secure only as we accept continuity with the past, enter into dialogue with the differences of the present, and accept a common responsibility towards the land that supports us' (56).

Treating Dora in His Natural Life Ian Henderson , 2003 single work criticism
— Appears in: Australian Literary Studies , May vol. 21 no. 1 2003; (p. 67-80)
This article concentrates on the characterisation of Dora, the heroine in the serialised version of Clarke novel His Natural Life. The author wants 'to cast new light on Clarke's literary aesthetic, on his philosophy, by examining the treatment of his heroine in the context of the middle-class Victorian market for popular books' (67). By treatment he means not so much the changes from the serialised version (Dora) to the book version (Sylvia), but rather 'both a male personage's moral behaviour towards Dora, and his opinion or construction of her character'. He argues that Clarke is able 'to stage a debate in the text about the philosophical implications and relative merits of literary modes, namely ... "realism" and "romance", and, in the end, strike a balance between the two which is manifested in the intricacies of his own characterisation of Dora' (68).
y separately published work icon For The Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke. A Commonwealth Literary Fund Lecture R. G. Howarth , Sydney : Halstead Press , 1955 Z1040979 1955 single work criticism
Frederick Hugh Thomas and Marcus Clarke Margaret McLean , 1991 single work column
— Appears in: Margin , no. 24 1991; (p. 14-16)
Last amended 28 Jul 2020 13:12:07
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