M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Old Tales of A Young Country by Marcus Clarke-Australian Convict Stories

Old Tales of a Young Country by Marcus Clarke (a collection of stories about transported convicts to Australia) 1871, 125 pages

The Reading Life Outback Tales Project

   One of the great things about book blogging is that it can open up for us totally new to us areas of reading.    Until lrecently I admit I never knew there was a large group of wonderful short stories, poems, and some novels by a group of Australian Writers ( 1870 to 1925 or so) know as Bush Writers who told real life stories of the experiences of those living in the vast sparsely settled areas in the huge interior of Australia.   Now I am  fascinated by this new world of reading.   So far I have read stories by three of them, Henry Lawson and Banjo Clarke and Barbara Baynton.   I will here be posting on a fourth, Marcus Clarke.    As I mentioned in my post on Barbara Baynton, when a nationwide  weekly publication, The Bulletin, in 1886 asked its readers to submit stories about life in the Bush or the Outback a big amount of material came to be published.    Before then the main source for publication for Australian writers was the Australian Monthly.   In addition to stories about the life in the outback there was a lot of interest in stories about the lives of convicts transported from the United Kingdom to Australia.   

I have done a bit of research on convict tales and it seems one of the best known writers in this area is Marcus Clarke (1846 to 1881).   Clarke was himself an immigrant from England.    Clarke was born into a very affluent family but in his early teens the family fell onto financial ruin (my basic source of information on Clarke is The Australian Online Biographical Dictionary, a great resource).   Clarke was considered a totally spoiled boy with little grasp of how he might make his way in the adult world.   His family decided he should immigrate to Australia (or they wanted to get rid of him!) so at sixteen he left England for New South Wales.to live with one of his uncles who was well established already.   Clarke tried with bad results several careers ranging from bank clerk to managing an outback station owned by his uncle.   Clarke had always considered himself a writer (by coincidence he went to school with Gerland Manly Hopkins) and he began to contribute short pieces to magazines and newspapers.    His work was well regarded and Clarke then used some money he had received in an inheritance to buy a well known publication, The Australian Monthly.  All of his future publications, including his collection of stories about live in the first Australian Penal colony in Botany Bay, Old Tales of a Young Country, would from then on come out in his publication.  

Old Tales of A Young Country is a collection of 15 stories about life in the penal colony.   Most of the stories are written as short based in reality tales of particular persons in the colony.   The majority  of the stories center on convicts but he also writers about the British officials.   The diction and grammar of  the stories are perfect newspaper journalistic prose.    The stories in the collection I read were all very well written, easy to follow and did let us see  the convicts as real people of whom one might sincerely say "There but for the grace of God go I".

The lead story, "The Settlement of Sydney" details who was on the three ships that were the first to arrive and what supplies and animals the ships carried   We get a clear sense of the business like way the colony was intended to be run.   Punishments for the smallest offenses were very harsh.    Many of the convicts had been transported for very petty crimes.   As Clarke tells us, some convicts really thrived in the new country and others did not last a month.

The second story in the collection, "George Barrington, Pickpocket and Historian" is about a gentlemen  bandit from England.   Clarke's stories are written as if they are true stories but they are really stories based on facts but enhanced by Clarke's imagination.    After a series of crimes, all relayed in a very colorful way and all crimes against the decadent rich, Barrington is sentenced to seven years transportation at hard labor.   While at sea on the way to Australia, the convicts seize the ship with the idea of going to America.   Barrington talks his fellow convicts out of this idea and into surrendering the ship back to the officers.   The authorities are so impressed by this that on arrival Barrington is made supervisor of convicts.   He marries, raises a family, goes on to a life of comfort in his new home and ends up according to the story writing the first history of the Sydney Penal Colony.

These stories very much  the stories of a newspaper man, clear, direct, no fancy artistic flourishes, no references to Roman poets.   They are told with a passion for  the truth and an empathy for the dispossessed.  There is no condemning of the convicts or patronizing of their experience.      I endorse them to anyone wanting to read some good short stories and learn something about life in Australia in the 18th century

Old Tales of a Young Country can be read online at the web page of the library of the University of Sydney.

I also want to suggest that anyone interested in learning more about the transportation of convicts to Australia read the totally great book by Robert Hughes, Fatal Shore.


I am quite intrigued by  this new to me genre of writing , which seems to be called "Bush Stories" (convict tales are a sub-category).   In the near future I will be reading short stories by Louis Becke, Steele Rudd, and Price Warung.   The web page of the University of Sydney Library has their stories online.  I also owe in part my discovery of these wonderful authors to my overcoming a life time aversion to the short story.     To some extent these writers are of interest to us as a window into the past.   I am willing to say the stories of Barbara Baynton are the best of the four writers I have read so far.   I think if you like Flannery O' Conner you will like Baynton also.   As to my thoughts on Clarke, I enjoyed reading his stories and will read all of them in this collection in time, I hope.   You can read one online for free in just a few minutes and to me it seems worth your time.  Even you like it them  at least you have experienced one more author writing in what may be a new to you genre of literature, The Australian Bush and Convict Story.

Mel u



3 comments:

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I am glad that you liked this collection of stories. I have only read of Clarke's works, For The Term of His Natural Life, which is a fictionalised account of convict life based on true historical records. It was initially published as a serial in a journal, and the stories were then put together to form the novel. It was an amazing story, and worth reading if you liked these stories.

here is a link to my review if you are interested: http://www.pageturnersbooks.org/2009/09/for-term-of-his-natural-life-by-marcus.html

mel u said...

Becky-thank you for sending me this link-I enjoyed reading your post a lot and as always thanks for visiting my blog

Suko said...

Now you are delving into the sub-genres of short fiction, Australian Bush and Convict stories. What an interesting review! I will look for these online.