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Marcus Andrew Clarke (1846–1881)

by Brian Elliott

This article was published:

Marcus Clarke, by Batchelder & Co, 1874

Marcus Clarke, by Batchelder & Co, 1874

State Library of Victoria, 49333164 H4700

Marcus Andrew Hislop Clarke (1846-1881), journalist and novelist, was born on 24 April 1846 at 11 Leonard Place, Kensington, London, the only child of William Hislop Clarke, a Chancery lawyer, and his wife Amelia Elizabeth, née Matthews. His grandfather, Dr Andrew Clarke, a retired military medical officer, made a fortune in the West Indies and settled in Ireland. Several of his family distinguished themselves in the army, the colonial service or the law. His father had a flourishing practice in London and Marcus regarded his future as assured. In circumstances never made quite clear the whole structure collapsed. The father was removed to Northumberland House in 1862 after a physical and mental, as well as financial, breakdown and died there about a year later. The boy was thus forced to give up the life of dilettante literary frittering which at 16 had been his expectation. He was not prepared for any career. He spoke loftily of prospects at the Foreign Office and of living for a year or two in France to perfect his French; but this was vague. Earlier an attempt was made to get him into the army but he was turned down for physical disabilities. All that is certain is that he was spoilt, conceited and aimless; clearly his view of life was much coloured by the novels which he avidly read. Probably under persuasion from relations who could see no solution for him in England, he chose to go to Australia.

In his impressionable years Clarke's home associations had been both brilliant and drab; his father, alternately a bon viveur and a recluse, entertained extravagantly, introduced the boy too early to a life of sophistication and for the rest neglected him. His mother's death when he was 4 exacerbated his loneliness. A sickly infant with an anchylosed left arm, his health improved although the arm remained permanently shrunken; he retained through life a slight stammer, probably a residue of childish insecurity, which, however, was not thought unattractive. What he lacked physically he made up in charm, fortified with wit, his one practical talent since in the end it made a journalist of him.

In 1858-62 Clarke attended the Cholmeley Grammar School, Highgate, where he fell foul of the headmaster for lack of application and as a senior was deprived of the poetry prize as a discipline. Afterwards, however, he recalled Dr Dyne's severity with a rueful respect. His contemporaries at Highgate were the two Hopkins brothers, Gerard Manley and Cyril, and E. H. Coleridge; the grave of S. T. Coleridge was in the school grounds, for the chapel then also served as parish church. Nesfield, the grammarian, was a master at Highgate.

After his father's collapse, his cousin, (Sir) Andrew Clarke, then in London, arranged to send the youth to Melbourne where an uncle, James Langton Clarke, a County Court judge at Ararat, could keep an eye on him. He arrived on 6 June 1863 with something like £800 scraped together from his father's mysteriously dissipated resources. On Andrew Clarke's recommendation employment was found for him in a bank, but he proved totally unfitted for it. He later wrote some amusing impressions of the experience. In his first year in Melbourne he gathered many observations which afterwards served as literary material, the product of a lively mind and a perceptive eye. Presently, however, like one of his own 'new-chums', he disappeared up-country to try out station life. His uncle had an interest in the twin stations of Swinton and Ledcourt with headquarters at Glenorchy where Clarke appears to have been reasonably happy and contemplated taking up land himself. His plans came to nothing after a disastrous expedition into western New South Wales in search of land, a journey in time of drought which cost him heavily in money and in which a companion lost his life. Back at Swinton he was persuaded by a visitor, Dr Robert Lewins, an amateur scientist and Comtean philosopher who prided himself on 'discovering' the young genius, to return to Melbourne and join the Argus. From this point his bent was clear, although Clarke was too mercurial in temperament to remain a staff writer. Late in 1867 he began contributing a column of topicalities under the heading 'The Peripatetic Philosopher', purporting to be the observations of a kind of Melbourne Diogenes inhabiting a gas pipe on Cole's Wharf. He was at once established. The first notable victim of his witty impertinence was the Duke of Edinburgh, then on a state visit to the colonies. Clarke's association with the Argus lasted a number of years, but he eventually quarrelled, transferring his allegiance to the Melbourne Herald, the Daily Telegraph and finally the Age. He retained a schoolboy humour: for example, in parting from the Argus at a time when all the papers were fighting a battle of principle with the Victoria Racing Club, he published a high-spirited 'spoof' in the 'scurrilous' rival Herald, holding the Argus up to ridicule and pretending to report the running of the Melbourne Cup by direct observation from a camera obscura set up on the roof of the Herald office.

Clarke from the first lusted after editorial power, for which he never had the necessary steadiness. Whatever remained of his patrimony seems to have gone, along with other funds contributed by a group of literary friends, to buy the Australian Monthly Magazine, which he edited under the altered title of the Colonial Monthly in 1868-69. For it he wrote his novel 'Long Odds'; two instalments in July and August 1868 were contributed by his friend G. A. Walstab when Clarke was seriously incapacitated by a fall from a horse. When the novel ended, his energies flagged; the magazine passed to J. J. Shillinglaw and soon failed. Clarke put what he could recoup from it into the comic weekly Humbug, but it also quickly collapsed; Melbourne Punch ascribed its demise to morbus clerici. At the beginning of 1870 he was certainly the editor of the Australian Journal, where his major novel, 'His Natural Life', began to appear in February; but when it concluded two years and a half later the patience of the proprietors had long been exhausted. He clearly did not last long as editor. Instead he sought and obtained a position at the Public Library of Victoria, first becoming secretary to the trustees and later sub-librarian. He appears to have carried out these duties with reasonable efficiency, but levity pursued him and in the end brought about his downfall. One notable example was shown in a controversy sparked off by his article in the opening number of the Victorian Review, November 1879, in which he argued that the advance of science had led to the abandonment of belief in the miraculous and that Christianity was moribund as an intellectual and moral force. The article provoked Bishop Moorhouse into reply and Clarke was accused of atheism. His last word, published in the Melbourne Review, April 1880, cleverly exposed the weaknesses in the bishop's argument and scored a notable victory. These exchanges aroused enormous public interest in Melbourne. Later that year Clarke had a hand surreptitiously in the presentation of 'The Happy Land', a satirical operetta on a tinder-dry political subject: the row between the Berry government and the Legislative Council. This caused another furore and probably contributed to his later downfall. Apart from this work of mischief he was very active in the theatre both as an original author and as a translator. However, he wrote nothing for the stage that made any lasting impression. His liveliest dramatic writings were pantomimes, sometimes in collaboration with R. P. Whitworth.

By disposition excitable, he worked hard, for he did not much reduce his contributions to the papers when he entered the Public Library. It may be suspected that he drank heavily; very early in his career he complained of dyspepsia and a disordered liver. He lived extravagantly, somewhat after his father's style, and ran hopelessly into debt. Anxiety and overwork led to sickness. He was forced into insolvency in 1874 and again in 1881, so much to the disapproval of the library trustees that on the second occasion he barely escaped dismissal. The real position, however, was obscured since the disappointment he experienced at this time in being refused the post of chief librarian led to a sudden collapse of his powers and he died, officially of erysipelas, on 2 August 1881. There were rumours of suicide but they must be discounted.

In 1869 Clarke married the actress Marian, daughter of John Dunn, an Irish actor. Of their six children, at least two married in Victoria and survived him.

After Clarke's death his friend Hamilton Mackinnon assembled the Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume (Melbourne, 1884), a selection of his most popular journalism with a biographical introduction. The witty, often malicious, ephemeral humour which colours the greater part of these writings contrasts strangely with the dark, powerful imagination exhibited in His Natural Life, the revised, shortened and best known version of which appeared in book form in 1874 and 1875. The title, For the Term of His Natural Life, was applied by publishers to this work after Clarke's death. Whether the light and trivial social journalist, the literary butterfly, or the serious author of this great, if defective, novel is the true Marcus Clarke, who is to say? The best defence of his journalism is that, viewed in its context, it still seems extraordinarily alive and vivid, providing a brilliant index to a very vigorous period of colonial literary life. His Natural Life, with all its shortcomings, in the end redeems him abundantly from the charge of mental trifling. A novel in the grand tradition, it places him with Charles Reade, Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky among the great nineteenth-century visionaries who found in the problems of crime and punishment a new insight, especially relevant in the convict-founded Australian colonies, into the foundations of human worth. This book has outlasted all his other writings, and is the one work of fiction produced in the whole first century of Australia's history to justify description as monumental.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Byrne, Australian Writers (Lond, 1896)
  • H. G. Turner and A. Sutherland, The Development of Australian Literature (Lond, 1898)
  • A. W. Brazier, Marcus Clarke: His Work and Genius (Melb, 1902)
  • B. Elliott, Marcus Clarke (Oxford, 1958)
  • Melbourne Review, Jan 1882
  • A. P. Martin, 'An Australian Novelist', Temple Bar, vol 71, 1884, pp 96-110
  • C. Bright, 'Marcus Clarke', Cosmos (Sydney), 30 Apr 1895, pp 418-22
  • Clarke papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Brian Elliott, 'Clarke, Marcus Andrew (1846–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Marcus Clarke, by Batchelder & Co, 1874

Marcus Clarke, by Batchelder & Co, 1874

State Library of Victoria, 49333164 H4700

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Peripatetic Philosopher

24 April, 1846
London, Middlesex, England


2 August, 1881 (aged 35)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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