State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


Library Profile: Marcus Clarke at the Public Library

One Of the underlying principles of librarianship seems always to have been that librarians be men (and later women) of wide-ranging education. The ‘modern’ librarian is a product of the nineteenth century, when the concept of professional training for librarians was first formulated. As James Thompson has pointed out (in his A History of the Principles of Librarianship, 1977, p. 110), at first the basic requirements seemed to be only that one should be ‘A lover of books … a man of methodical habits and of an organizing mind … a man of genial temper and of courteous demeanor’. These were certainly the qualities Sir Redmond Barry was looking for when appointing staff to the Melbourne Public Library in its early days. It was becoming apparent, however, in England and America, that a more systematic approach was required. Librarians were now expected to have knowledge of bibliography, classification and cataloguing. This meant not only on-the-job training but formal examinations as well. Fewer librarians were being appointed from the ranks of schoolmasters, authors and out-of-place ‘men of letters’.
Marcus Clarke (1846-1881) and his contemporaries were among the last of those appointed before the notion of professional training had taken hold. English-born Clarke had completed his education at grammar school but was not trained for any career when he arrived in Melbourne in 1863, following the collapse of the family fortunes. An uncle in Victoria found him work in a bank but, not surprisingly, he found little outlet for his creative talents there. A stint on a country property, despite leaving a lasting impression, also failed to satisfy him. A return to Melbourne finally found Clarke in his natural element, busily employed writing literary and theatrical reviews for the Australasian and the Argus. The former published a series of articles by the ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ [Clarke], including a sequence about Melbourne's seedy side entitled, ‘Lower Bohemia’, a subject which fascinated Clarke and displayed his formidable journalistic skills. He became editor and co-proprietor of the Colonial Monthly (formerly the Australian Monthly Magazine) which serialized his first novel, Long Odds. Ever ready for a challenge, Clarke then undertook to fill similar roles with Humbug, but it was not a success, despite some impressive talent (including Henry Kendall and Clarke himself) being lavished on it, and he lost his remaining capital.
Clarke now briefly took on the editorship of the Australian Journal, in which His Natural Life began appearing in February 1870 (and ran for two-and-a-half years). In May of that year, seeking the security of a regular income, he applied successfully for the position of Secretary to the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery (the three institutions came under the one set of trustees in December 1869). Clarke's literary talents and associations were enough to win favour in the eyes of the Chairman of the Trustees, Sir Redmond Barry, who treated him as a kind of protégé.
Although Barry was aware of Clarke's faults, he encouraged him to apply, and his influence probably protected Clarke's position at the Library on more than one occasion.
The irregular earnings from his journalism and literary endeavours were insufficient to meet the needs of Clarke's growing family — there were to be six children in all, and money was a constant problem. A regular income earned in bookish surrounding must have been very appealing, regardless of whether or not he had the necessary skills. A remark in the last ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column is revealing: ‘I have sold my birthright of free speech for a mess of official pottage’. (Australasian, 11 June 1870). This is an exaggeration, as Clarke was by no means forced to give up free-lance journalism or other writing altogether.
Clarke's literary achievements were a kind of endorsement for the scholarship the Library could offer a still young and rapidly growing community. The Trustees, probably influenced by Barry, seemed tolerant, even encouraging, of his literary activities, although such incidents as Clarke being involved in disputes via the correspondence section of the Age must have given them an uneasy twinge or two. On one occasion, Clarke responded to an attack by a solicitor called McKean, relating to the state of Clarke's finances. The Trustees can hardly have been pleased to read in the Age of 1 January 1874 a letter in which a staff member admitted his debts.
One of the more prominent of the Trustees was Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, a former Premier, who held Clarke in high regard. The two men regularly corresponded, and at Clarke's request, Duffy offered frank advice on revising His Natural Life, as he recalled in his autobiography: ‘I examined the story carefully and answered his inquiries with the frankness due to a man of judgment and discretion. … In his reply he took the objections in good part, and set to work forthwith to amend the original plot.’ (My Life in Two Hemispheres, 1898, p. 313.) Among other things, he suggested eliminating references to the riots on the Ballarat goldfields, feeling they detracted from the main thrust of the narrative. He also advised providing an intelligible motive for Rufus Dawes’ behaviour. Clarke responded gracefully: ‘I confess that I feel a pang at your suggestions for vigorous cutting, but I am sure you are right.’ (p. 314) After publication Clarke was to remark ‘I think I have followed your advice in all particulars.’ (p. 367) Clarke's gratitude was expressed by dedicating the book to Duffy, the dedication being dated April 1874, and addressed ‘The Public Library, Melbourne’.

Batchelder and Co., photographers. Marcus Clarke, n.d. but c. 1874. Copy of albumen silver cabinet photograph, H4700, *SPF, La Trobe Picture Collection.

Clarke obviously did his work at the Library well enough to satisfy the Trustees; he was appointed Sub-Librarian in 1873, a position he managed to retain until his death eight years later. Information is sketchy, but he seems to have been a capable, if untidy, administrator, judging by an existing letter-book. Edmund La Touche Armstrong, Chief Librarian 1896-1925, began his career at the Library (probably) as a Senior Assistant in 1881. It is unclear if Armstrong started at the Library before or after Clarke's death but he certainly formed a definite opinion of Clarke's abilities, deeming his library work to be subordinate to his literary work. ‘The drudgery of the routine work which is essential for any Librarian, was not a thing that he would attempt’, Armstrong wrote in The Book of the Public Library 1856-1906, referring to ‘a worse than badly kept catalogue of bibliographical works that were his special charge’. It is not known what became of this catalogue so there is no way of confirming Armstrong's opinion.
However, Clarke possessed qualities which were perhaps as important as keeping tidy records — he was liked and admired by his colleagues. He allegedly had a habit of leaving an unfinished cigar in the mouth of one of the lions which used to guard the front entrance of the Library, thus indicating that he was ‘in’ and at home to his friends. An undated note, written at ‘’ to J. J. Shillinglaw, suggests that Clarke may have often felt the need of company: ‘For Gods sake come up to the Library and have a drink! If you don't come in 10 minutes I shall calmly perjure myself (MS 6313). There is a ‘P.S.’ which reads ‘HOT COPPERS’ (in capitals and underlined). The phrase was late nineteenth-century slang for a parched throat to be expected after a drinking bout.
In 1902, over 20 years after Clarke's death, his former colleague Amos Brazier published a glowing review of his literary (but not his library) work in a pamphlet, Marcus Clarke: His Work and Genius. Interestingly, Brazier does not acknowledge that he knew Clarke, though as he started his career at the Library as a messenger in 1881 — probably early in the year, and certainly by July — he must have encountered Clarke.
One of the few sources we have about Clarke's activities in the Library is his correspondence with Cyril Hopkins (brother of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins), quoted in Brian Elliott's biography of Clarke. A certain carelessness and a desire to impress can be detected — in one letter (June 1874) he overestimates the number of volumes held, and his salary certainly never reached the five hundred pounds a year that he claims. In another (May 1876) Clarke tells Hopkins that his duties are to ‘sit in the office and direct other people, order books &c from 4 p.m. until 10 every day except Saturday, when I work from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m…’. This probably left him plenty of time for social activities at the Yorick Club, where he mixed easily with such luminaries as J. J. Shillinglaw, Patrick Moloney, George Gordon McCrae and Adam Lindsay Gordon, while managing a prodigious literary output (how much of his work was done at the Library?). He was, perhaps, also looking forward to the fact that the Chief Librarian, Henry Sheffield, was getting close to retirement and he aspired to the position. His reasons were vanity and money — he could not be considered an ideal candidate for the position.
Clarke had come close to losing his position on a couple of occasions already. In 1874 he had become bankrupt and the regulations of the day required his resignation. Fortunately he was saved by being able to submit an unconditional discharge certificate. He lost his personal library (about £250 were realized from the sale) but at least his surroundings cushioned him from the full extent of the blow. Nevertheless, the loss of his practical working tools, his aids in his journalism and in the research for His Natural Life, must have been painful. Among the items auctioned were a considerable number of works on criminal trials in England and Australia, early Australiana, and a 40-volume set of Balzac's works.
In April 1879 Clarke was called before a special meeting of the Trustees to explain an anonymous letter published in the Daily Telegraph, lampooning certain public men. A copy had been sent to Barry, presumably anonymously. Clarke denied writing it but admitted he had had material published to which he had not signed his name. The Trustees indicated he could continue writing for the press, provided he signed his name to this work. Clarke was probably starting to breathe more easily at this point, but the Trustees were not finished with him. He was informed that a complaint had been made of his having supplied the Age with intelligence of the receipt of certain books, the said intelligence not being imparted to the other papers. This ‘exclusive’ scoop by the Age was considered cause for grievance. Clarke's explanation — that he had supplied the information to an Age reporter during the course of conversation when the reporter was visiting the Library and asked what had been lately received — satisfied the Trustees. Clarke was told to give no intelligence to the newspapers except at the direction of the Trustees, as they did not wish to be accused of favouritism. Again he escaped disciplinary measures. (Minute Book of the Public Library 1870-1883, MS 12855)
Clarke's ambitions were checked by the death of Barry, a potential supporter, in November 1880. His anticipation of the Chief Librarian's position had led him to refuse the Government's 1878 offer of the Parliamentary Librarianship. The letter of application, dated 28 October 1880, leaves no doubt that Clarke expected to be promoted, pointing out: ‘that I am next in rank to the present Librarian and on his retirement reasonably expect promotion; that I have refused the place of Parliamentary Librarian in the hope of ultimately getting a step in the Institution with which I have been connected for 10 years’. He takes care to mention his ability to control the staff and his educational attainments and knowledge of bibliography. Unfortunately, various factors conspired against him. A dispute with the Bishop of Melbourne, Dr. James Moorhouse, over the place of Christianity in the modern world brought Clarke some unwelcome notoriety, despite his getting the better of the Bishop. Stronger candidates than he were applying. The Trustees were in dispute with the Berry Government over who had the right to appoint the new Librarian. The political implications of the dispute helped Clarke to realize that his hopes could

Opposite: The first page of Marcus Clarke's application for the post of Librarian to the Public Library, 28 October 1880. MS 8222, Box 455/1(i), La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

come crashing down. He wrote a letter to the Trustees, received by them on 16 April 1881. Part of the letter has been torn off but the remainder makes it clear Clarke was fighting for survival. It regards a statement, made in the Legislative Assembly; that the Trustees had resolved to follow in the nomination and appointments of their servants, the procedures prescribed for the British Museum.
I am an applicant for promotion to the position of Librarian, and I beg therefore to respectfully point out that in no instance did the Trustees of the British Museum submit to the Queen names other than those of officers who had been already employed in the Museum for…’ [missing]
He goes on to quote the English Spectator: ‘it is essential for the good conduct of an Institution like the British Museum that all deserving officers should be rewarded with promotion’ (Victorian Public Record Office, VPRS 4364, Box 1). It was to no avail. Clarke's financial position had worsened, resulting in a second bankruptcy in mid-1881. Clarke was again forced to tender his resignation. T. F. Bride, University Librarian and the Government's choice, was appointed Chief Librarian. One day after this announcement, Clarke was dead, erysipelas being the official cause; but one cannot doubt that disappointment and despair accelerated his rapid decline.
The Report of the Sectional Committee of the Public Library 1881 gave this official response:
Shortly after the appointment of Dr. Bride, the Library suffered a great loss in the death of Mr. Marcus Clarke, who had filled for eight years the position of Sub-Librarian. The Committee, in common with the rest of the community, deplore the loss which the Melbourne world of letters has sustained in the early death of this gifted author.
(MS 12855)
In the weeks after Clarke's death the Trustees were inundated with applications to fill his position. It was decided to abolish the position of Sub-Librarian and employ two, possibly more, Senior Assistants to oversee the staff. One of these new Senior Assistants was Armstrong, whose stern judgement of Clarke was later tempered by the realization that ‘Genius has an imperialism of its own’ (The Book of the Public Library 1856-1906).
Sandra Burt
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