For the Term of His Natural Life is a book written by English-born Australian author Marcus Clarke. It was written in the middle 1870s and is part novel, part history book and gives a vivid and realistic account of the brutality of the colonial penal system in Australia. In the late Nineteenth Century, Australia was still a colony governed by the British, and Australia was used as a prison for those who received long, or life, sentences. The book follows Rufus Dawes, a convict found guilty of a murder he did not commit. He is sentenced to be exiled to Australia for the term of his natural life and is transported in 1827 to begin his sentence.
Rather than judging Dawes, the book humanizes him and follows his struggle to serve his sentence whilst still retaining his dignity. The system in the penal colony is unjust and unfair, and those who wield the power do so with brutality and callousness.
Dawes' story was first serialized by Clarke in "Australian Journal" between 1870 and 1872, with its publication in book form following in 1874. It is the earliest known documentation of life in the penal colonies. The author was extremely diligent in his research for the book, reading manuscripts and official documents relating to the inhumane treatment given to the convicts, and also visiting the penal settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania.
Clarke's novel is considered to be one of the finest examples of Tasmanian Gothic literature. When the book's title was changed to For the Term of His Natural Life, Clarke was upset because he had preferred the shorter title, believing it to be a more universal representation of the human struggle than the story of one man in particular. Nonetheless the book was extremely well received and it has also endured for over a century.
For the Term of His Natural Life has been successfully adapted for both stage and screen. The first adaptation was Charles MacMahon's 1900 stage version performed by the touring Majeroni Dramatic Company throughout New Zealand. MacMahon also developed the novel into its first big screen incarnation, in 1905. The first globally-recognized version was released in 1927 as a silent movie, starring silent screen icons George Fisher and Eva Novak. Subsequently the novel received international acclaim all over again in the 1980s when it was made into a television mini-series that starred Anthony Perkins.