Henry Savery’s life reads like an exercise in over-imagination. From the beginning, it seems, Henry was going to be one of those guys who couldn’t content himself with the confines of a modest existence. In other words, the man who penned Australia’s first novel seemed simply to be born for the task.
Many of you have probably never heard of him, and it would have remained that way had it not been for the minds behind if:book Australia, rather out-of-the-box bibliophiles themselves, who have incorporated Henry Savery into one of their current projects, ‘Rumours of My Death’. In the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Henry himself engaged with festivalgoers through the conveyance of an anonymous author on twitter, one of the many exceptional experiences on offer in this year’s program.
Thanks to these two Queensland institutions, the bizarre world of Henry Savery has been illuminated for us once again.
And a strange man he was. Not one to trouble himself with good business decisions, Henry failed first at sugar-refining and then at newspaper-mongering and turned instead to forging credit. Sounds like any good Wall Street origin story, right? When his business partner turned him in (classic), he tried to flee to America but jumped off the boat and was quickly apprehended. His jailhouse antics served to postpone his court hearing, which was lucky in the end because he was sentenced to hang and was only saved at the very last moment by friends in high places. If there was one key to success Henry mastered, it was having the right guys on speed dial.
After arriving as a convict in Tasmania he managed to secure a position in the Treasury, despite having well proven his inability to manage finance of any kind. Once again, he knew exactly which hands to shake. Here his narrative takes a turn for the political drama, when his wife and son join him in Tasmania and rumours of her affair with the Attorney General lead to bickering between the two. Being the drama-queen he was, Henry threatened suicide. After he was imprisoned for money troubles yet again, the wife took off back to England, and that was the end of that.
Not one to pass up an opportunity Henry used his prison days to kickstart a writing career, another activity that was expressly against the law for convicts. His unfavourable portraits of local personages sparked a libel suit, of course, which was soon dismissed and the articles were later collected and published by the early Australian man of letters, Henry Melville. Here’s where Savery pioneers the ethos of the Lost Generation, a whole century before Hemingway was born.
Somehow, he managed to get released into the care of Major Hugh Macintosh, one of the founders of Cascade Brewery of all people, and spent his days writing peacefully on the banks of the Derwent River. Even though he was forbidden to carry on any kind of business, he managed the farm for Macintosh and wrote the manuscript that would eventually be Australia’s first novel: the fantastically entitled Quintus Servinton, published anonymously in 1831.
After a several further brushes with the law and various local VIPs, Henry again descended into debt and resorted to forgery to support his increasing alcoholism. In a fitting, albeit sad end to his dramatic existence, he found himself imprisoned in Port Arthur where he died and was buried on the infamous Isle of the Dead, passing into colonial legend
And there you have it. What better man to assume the mantel of Australia’s first author than one Henry Savery? It could be argued that he embodied the quintessential author archetype: emotional, irresponsible, impulsive and bold, possessing influential friends, an unstable character, and a knack for obtaining a lot of free time in close proximity to a brewery and a beautiful river valley.
His great contribution to our literary oeuvre may not be any Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn, but it is no less worthy of our respect, even if only for the remarkable life that brought it forth. Someone should really make a movie out of it, but in the meantime the full text of Quintus can be found here, well worth a look. It is, after all, a national treasure, almost two centuries old and an indelible part of our cultural and artistic heritage.
Thank you, Henry Savery, for your financial incompetence, which bestowed upon us this unique slice of literary history.
- Australia’s First Two Novels, E. Morris Miller: http://eprints.utas.edu.au/1999/1/Aust1st2N.pdf
- Detailed Background: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Savery