Review of Quintus Servinton : A Tale Founded upon Incidents of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery

As the paving stones go down, it becomes necessary to walk more warily. The time is gone when we could read up Henry Savery in Morris Miller, and get away with it. Now we must actually read books like Quintus Servinton, and I, for one, am not sure how I like it. While it was a rarity, if one had read it, it was something to boast about. Now that it is available freely, its one-upmanship value is gone, and we shall have to look at it in another light. How much early Australian literature will stand scrutiny simply as literature?

Perhaps the question shouldn't be asked; it is not capable of a plain answer. I do not personally dispute the right of a book like this to be called Australian; if there is haggling, I am prepared to haggle it in. And as to whether it is literature, the position is obscure. It belongs to the category novel—to the specific department, three-volume novel; it was offered as literature, and in its time judged as such. It is a polite fiction that reviewers do not read other reviews, but let me be an enfant terrible and refer to Dr Hergenhan's notice of this work inQuadrant (1963, No. 2); he quotes a contemporary judgment of the book {Athenaeum, 28 January, 1832) which took it seriously enough to give it the greater part of the space allotted to three novels. That the reviewer should single it out in this way is testimony of some value, which is not negatived by his remark, 'This third volume' (he means Part III of Servinton, the section which is set mainly in Australia) 'is the only one worth reading', and it might have been infinitely better if it had not lacked ' the seasoning of vice and error'. The critic, anticipating Marcus Clarke, was perhaps disappointed that there was no Gabbett, and no Maurice Frere in this convict novel. Would ' a spice more of human infirmity' have helped? It seems to me that in Quintus Servinton, particularly if we read between as well as on the lines, we have human infirmity in plenty. There is indeed a sweetly virtuous, incorrup tible and femininely perfect wife; but strangely enough I do not find her utterly incredible. In the last chapter but one, where she goes back to England to plead for Quintus, and succeeds, we have no doubt a tissue of wish-fulfilment in a story which is, however implausibly (and how are we to assess the fine points?), at least in a broad sense autobiographical and purports to be close to fact. But there is only this one chapter (we may as well forgive him altogether the very highly coloured introductory and concluding chapters, which are sheer machinery), which is not related to facts.

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Published 1 June 1963 in Volume 1 No. 1. Subjects: Convict literature.

Cite as: Elliott, Brian. ‘Review of Quintus Servinton : A Tale Founded upon Incidents of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1963.