Rod Howard, A forger’s tale: The extraordinary story of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist (Review)

Rod Howard, A forger's tale

Cover: courtesy Arcade Publications

“Name Australia’s first published novelist” is, I think, a question that would trick most Australians at a trivia night. Rod Howard, who wrote the biography, A forger’s tale, about this writer would agree, as would the writer in the West Australian in 1950 to whom I referred a couple of months ago. Henry Savery, in other words, is not a household name in Australia though, as Howard says in his Author’s Note, there are a couple of minor streets and a biennial short story competition named for him which prevent his complete slide into obscurity.

Why is this? Besides describing Savery as “a son of fortune undone by folly and fate”, Howard argues that the book, Quintus Servinton, received little attention during or in the years after his lifetime, partly because “it had neither the ghoulish titillation of a Newgate novel nor the fashionable allure of a society saga”. Moreover, its publication year, 1830, was a time he says “when public debate was dominated by Arthur’s Black Line* – a brutal but farcical attempt to corral the island’s remaining native inhabitants into the island’s southwestern corner”. Howard concludes, in the Author’s Note, that  “once you have become obscure it can be terribly difficult to enter the limelight”.

And so, as was also characteristic of the author’s life, the book’s poor “fate” was the result of a combination of factors – Henry’s own history (about which I’ll talk more next), the work itself, and external issues like the political and social situation of the day.

Who, then, was Henry Savery and how did he come to write the first “Australian-made novel”? He was born in England in 1791, the son of a generally respected country squire and magistrate. His father, Henry claimed, believed his son’s future had been foretold by a gypsy. Unfortunately, much of what the gypsy foretold did eventuate. Henry was three times “in danger of sudden or violent death”, by his own hand it must be said, and he did, at least three times, “undergo great reverses of fortune”, as much by his own poor decisionmaking, particularly regarding money, as by bad luck or the actions of others.

It’s a rather tortuous story characterised by politics, naiveté, poor decisionmaking, loyalty and betrayal. Howard manages to keep the narrative clear, though you do have to concentrate to keep all the characters straight. The Savery Howard presents is intelligent, hardworking, often foolish or imprudent rather than dishonest (though dishonest he was), and sometimes just plain unlucky. Right until near the end, he had influential friends who somehow managed to soften the legal impact again and again of his failures and misdemeanours. Howard’s book, in fact, provides an interesting and useful insight into the often grubby workings of 1820s-1840s colonial Tasmania, albeit through the specific lens of Henry’s life.

Fortunately (for us anyhow), Henry’s life was a colourful one. When young, he apprenticed himself as a gardener, but he was also interested in literature and demonstrated a capacity for business. However, it was the failure of an early business venture and a conviction for forgery that resulted in his being transported to Van Dieman’s Land in 1825 where his career, as it had been in England, continued its eclectic path and encompassed, among other things, various business enterprises alongside newspaper writing and editing.

Henry was, apparently, a good satirist. The columns he wrote anonymously for The Colonial Times while he was in prison in the late 1820s, and which were later published as The Hermit in Van Dieman’s Land, resulted in his employer being tried and imprisoned for libel. Although protected to the end by his employer, Henry of course lost the job. He couldn’t, it seems, take a trick. As soon as he got himself up, something would bring him down. Nonetheless, there were successes, one being that he established the colony’s first vegetable market. That gardening apprenticeship clearly came in handy. Howard writes at one point that “more lyrebird than magpie his situation provided ample scope for reinvention”. How, one wonders, could such a creative, hard-working man come to the ignominious end that he did? I suggest you read the book to find out more!

But now, the novel, Quintus Servinton (available at Project Gutenberg Australia) which was written in 1830 after a stint in gaol for debt. It is an autobiographical novel in which, Howard writes,

Henry had taken the Hermit’s merciless gun, and turned it, with deadeye aim, upon himself.

Henry, himself, writes in his Preface:

Although it appears under this shape,—or, as some may perhaps call it, novel,—it is no fiction, or the work of imagination, either in its characters or incidents. Not by this, however, is it pretended to be said that all the occurrences it details, happened precisely in their order of narration, nor that it is the mere recital of the events of a man’s life—but it is a biography, true in its general features, and in its portraiture of individuals; and all the documents, letters and other papers contained in its pages are transcripts, or nearly so, of originals, copied from the manuscript, which came into the author’s hands ….

In his Author’s Note, Howard writes of the challenges he faced in researching the book due to the paucity of primary source material. He recognises the dangers in mining fiction for fact but he discovered that “many important aspects of Quintus Servinton (subtitled A tale founded upon incidents of real occurrence) could actually be verified as fact”. Fact in fiction, fiction in fact. It was ever thus, eh?

I would love to report that after writing this – our first – novel, Henry went on to have the happy, successful life that he envisaged for himself in his book and as had in fact been foretold by the gypsy, but that’s not quite how it turned out. Henry, described as “a man of talent” by the last judge to try him, ended his days in the notorious Port Arthur gaol.

Despite being published in an unusual, diminutive format, A forger’s tale is a traditional biography. I appreciated the Author’s Note and list of sources at the end, but would have liked an index. This though is a minor quibble. Howard has an engaging style making the book an enjoyable read for anyone interested in Australian literature, colonial Australia, convict stories or Tasmanian history. Thanks Brother Gums for a great Christmas gift!

Rod Howard
A forger’s tale: The extraordinary story of Henry Savery, Australia’s first novelist
Melbourne: Arcade Publications, 2011
ISBN: 9780987171481

* The Black Line has been the subject of some recent Tasmanian fiction, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Rohan Wilson’s The roving party.