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Simpson, Elizabeth (University of Adelaide, South Australia)


The Convict Hero in Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (1830),

Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life (1870), William
Astley’s Tales of the Convict System (1892), and Brian Penton’s
Landtakers (1934).

NB: This essay, unpublished until this edition of 13 th August 2009, was originally
written in longhand while Elizabeth Simpson (later Elizabeth Sheppard) was a
Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, in 1966,
for the Australian Literature course. All academic work was at that time submitted
in longhand, usually written with a “fountain pen”, as students did not usually
have access to typewriters, and computers were not available. Elizabeth’s tutor
for Australian Literature was Dr. Brian Elliott, author of The Landscape of
Australian Poetry. His comments on the essay, and the mark awarded by him, are
noted in red.

The colonial convict hero is a character of extremes. As a

convict, he shares common problems with a criminal class, since he
is forced to see life through their eyes. He becomes a representative
of the most bestial class of society, although he is not necessarily
personally degraded. He can be expressive of virtue triumphant
despite mental and physical suffering, or he can represent spiritual
despair and abandonment to the pressures of “the System.” Either
degradation or martyrdom is his fate; there is no middle way.

The characters of Quintus Servinton, Rufus Dawes, and William

Astley’s convicts, exhibit different emphases within this theme.
Quintus Servinton is a well-educated businessman who is
transported for a fraud which he had unwittingly committed, and
who eventually returns to England. His sufferings are not those of
the uneducated convict. He receives preferential treatment
throughout, and endures none of the physical torture that is so
much a feature of His Natural Life and Tales of the Convict System.
A large and important part of this novel is situated in England, of
which the colonial environment is merely an echo, and the return of
Servinton to Devonshire represents his re-acceptance into
“respectable” society after the disgrace of transportation. The
essential theme of the book is Quintus’ purification through
adversity. He emerges, however, a weak character, continually
frustrated and bewildered by his misfortunes, and indecisive and
speculative in crises. His world is English society, and his standing in
it must be preserved, as can be seen from this extract, taken from
the letter to his father-in-law before the trial:

“And after all, what is the very utmost I can hope for, under the
very best of circumstances? An acquittal! A thing, of itself,
perfectly useless to me – a thing, which would find me bereft of
home, of character, of property, of almost every thing,
desirable in life.”1

Savery is so anxious to appear submissive and repentant that he

sacrifices any adverse reaction in Quintus which would have
humanized him, having naturally arisen as a result of his changed
situation in life. Quintus’ sole purpose becomes:

“to rescue my memory, from disgrace and dishonor”, 2

which, because of its egoistic nature, makes the hero only semi-

The dependence upon English society which I have remarked

upon in Quintus Servinton also occurs in Rufus Dawes. There is a
difference, however, in that Dawes is irretrievably cut off from
England by his experiences as a convict.

“Of little use was the heritage that he had gained. A convict-
absconder, whose hands were hard with menial labour, and
whose back was scarred with the lash, could never be received
among the gently nurtured … All the wealth in the world could
not purchase the self-respect which had been cut out of him by
the lash, or banish from his brain the memory of his

When the horror of this fact is fully realized, Dawes is forced to

choose between avoiding the truth of it by attempting to escape on
his own, or accepting his debasement to save Sylvia. His decision to
save Sylvia makes him an heroic figure. To his captors on Norfolk
Island his appearance is that of a broken man, but his love fore
Sylvia and his initial innocence of crime redeem him in the eyes of
the reader.

In William Astley’s Captain Egerton we see the same theme of

inability to reassume the original identity of an honourable
gentleman after having endured the physical degradation of a
convict. William Astley, alias Price Warung, is a vigorous social
commentator who presents a somewhat biased view of the convict
life on Norfolk Island, emphasizing the most lurid details of “the
System” and showing only the innocent sufferers amongst the
convicts. There is nothing to compare with Clarke’s Gabbett in Tales
of the Convict System or in Quintus Servinton. Knatchbull is perhaps
the closest Astley ever comes in these tales to describing a
malicious convict. In His Natural Life we are presented with a more
realistic cross-section of convicts of all types.

Savery, H., Quintus Servinton, 1962, Brisbane, p.263.
Op.cit. p.263.
Clarke, Marcus, For the Term of his Natural Life, O.U.P. 1952,
The temptation of the author to identify himself with the hero is
one not easily resisted, and Henry Savery succumbed consciously to
it. Quintus Servinton was Savery’s attempt to justify himself to the
world, and as such it is a tragic work. As in His Natural Life, self-pity
is often the dominating passion, and he often lapses into passages
of detailed character study of Quintus, which painfully enumerate
his faults, praise his virtues and in general rationalize his behaviour.

“Always punctual to his prescribed duties, ever at his post, and

easily accomplishing all that was required of him, the hours set
apart from business, and which many, circumstanced like
himself, devoted to idleness, he sedulously employed in
objects, calculated as he hoped, to better his condition; but he
did not sufficiently discriminate – he forgot the log that was
attached to him, impeding his movements at every step; and
that which, would have been proper, nay, praiseworthy, in a
person not under the trammels of the law, became imprudence
with him, and reached in its effect, both himself and others.”4
The first part of this extract shows Savery’s tongue-in-cheek method
of praising himself, which dominates the book. But in writing of
himself, Savery could not hide his true character entirely; if one
cares to look beneath the façade of bombast that covers Quintus’
character, one may discern the serious, bitter vein that runs
strongly through the novel. It can be seen in the reference to “the
log that was attached to him”, and in what follows.

Rufus Dawes is a leader of men; Quintus Servinton, although

ambitious to attain leadership, has faults which hinder him greatly.
He is eager to atone for his unintentional crime and has the
advantage of being educated, but he over-estimates his abilities a
second time, and falls. Rufus Dawes has an inherent nobility in him,
which is the cause of his rescue of Sylvia, and which prevents him
sinking into the conscienceless depths of vice which surround him.
His fault, if it can be called one, is a strong and thwarted sense of
justice, which drives him to brood over his sufferings to the point of

The smaller-scale heroes of Astley are much simpler

characters, being mere Gilberts and Sullivans next to Dawes’
Beethoven. Glancy symbolizes the reckless element in the convict
character which delighted in frustrating “the System” in small things
in spite of the knowledge that it would be crushed in the end.
Absolam Day is the weak youth who betrays his mates, as Pete does
in Brian Penton’s Landtakers. Mayor Tappin is another sensitive man
outraged, and is akin to Captain Egerton and Rufus Dawes in this.
‘Counsellor Jock’ or John Saunders, is a tenacious character who
matches his wits against the cunning and duplicity of the officers of
the System, and crushes them ethically, if not physically. All of
Savery, H., p.309.
these minor characters have a strong sense of the ironic humour of
their situation which is lacking in Rufus Dawes and Quintus
Servinton, who can never really accept their fate enough to laugh at
it and defy it. The convicts of William Astley, despite their terrible
hardships, are a hardy, philosophic group of men who are obviously

In Landtakers we find a characteristic of the convict hero

which is in marked variance with the earlier novels. Gursey, who is
something of a misfit, is glad to sever his ties with England and the
penal system, and despises Cabell for clinging to his past. The
convicts of Quintus Servinton, His Natural Life, and Tales of the
Convict System all hate the penal system, but do not reject England
because of it. In fact, they clutch at their memories of its security
and reject the harsh land in which they are forced to live. Gursey,
however, sees the potential of the land and wishes to build
something permanent out of it. Cabell, like Rufus Dawes, eventually
finds himself tied to his environment by his degradation. The land,
like the penal system with Dawes, has contaminated him, and cut
off his connection with his English heritage, leaving him only empty
dreams on which to exist, without which he would become sub-
human. Landtakers emphasizes the sordidness of the convict
existence in the very beginning of the book; he describes a passing
convict detachment.

“There were men of all sizes, in every stage of decrepitude.

Shuffling feet, round shoulders, faces prematurely aged by sun,
hard work and under-nourishment. The soldiers’ uniforms were
unbuttoned and dirty. Dirt and sweat mixed in the lines of their
withered faces. Of the convicts few were unmarked by disease
or mishap. The scarlet rash of poisoned blood covered their
arms like long gloves. Black stumps of teeth showed through
their lax mouths. Legs dragged heavily that had been broken
and badly set. Hands lacked fingers. And bitten deeply into all,
convicts and soldiers alike, was the pockmark of spirits
desolated by ennui and despair.”5

Joe Gursey’s animal fear of McGovern ridicules him and points to the
inevitable debasement which men undergo under the penal system.

With the addition of The Escape of the Notorious Sir William

Heans, by William Hay, and The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh, by
James Tucker, the four books considered in this essay are the main
literary exponents of the convict character in Australian literature.
They have created a myth that is a contradiction: the suffering,
innocent convict who can sink to horrifying depths of crime and yet
remain human and heroic, as do the men who kill their cell-mate in
William Astley’s last ‘tale’. The convict character is used as a vehicle
for the expression of the author’s personal grievances in Quintus
Penton, Brian, Landtakers, 1934, p.3.
Servinton and to express a personal philosophy in His Natural Life
and Landtakers. In William Astley’s work the convict is the butt and
the expose of the brutality of the penal system.

Clarke, Marcus, For the Term of his Natural Life. O.U.P., 1952.
Savery, Henry, Quintus Servinton. Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1962.
Astley, William (pseud. Price Warung), Tales of the Convict System,
Vols. I & II.
Penton, Brian, Landtakers. Angus and Robertson, 1934.
Herhenhan, L., “The Redemptive Theme in His Natural Life.”
Australian Literary Studies, June 1965.
Rees, Leslie, “His Natural Life – the long and short of it.” Australian
Quarterly, Vol. 14, 1942.
Elliott, Brian R., Marcus Clarke. Oxford, 1958.
Elliott, Brian R., Singing to the Cattle.
Roderick, C., The Australian Novel.
Miller, E. Morris, “Australia’s First Two Novels.” Tasmanian Historical
Research Association, Papers and Proceedings, Sept. 1957 Vol.16
Hadgraft, Cecil, Australian Literature. London, 1960.
Miller, E.Morris, Australian Literature. Melbourne, 1940.
Dutton, Geoffrey, ed., The Literature of Australia. Pelican, 1964.