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“According to the fair play of the world let me have audience”: Reading Convict Life-Narratives of Van Diemen’s Land


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Thomas, R 2008 , '“According to the fair play of the world let me have audience”: Reading Convict Life-Narratives of Van Diemen’s Land', Research Master thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This thesis examines published convict life-narratives of Van Diemen’s Land. I
analyse eighteen self-referential accounts of convictism, written by male
transportees and published in Britain, Ireland, America or Australia during the
nineteenth century. I scrutinise how convict authors gained access to public
autobiographical space and how they negotiated an authoritative speaking position
within that space. My approach follows the precedent of autobiography theorists
like Gillian Whitlock, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, who encourage readers of
life-narrative to understand self-referential writing as an historically situated
conversation between the personal and the public. I understand autobiographical
narrative not as the story of a life as lived, but as a site where, as Smith and
Watson suggest in Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life
Narratives, “the personal story of a remembered past is always in dialogue with
emergent cultural formations” (83). My thesis is underpinned by the assumption
that publication attests to that dialogue. I conduct an historicist reading of the
narratives and use the retrievable history of each text to situate it within the
historical context of its first publication.
Chapter One interrogates the narrative and material forms of each text to
locate evidence of how a personal recollection of crime and convictism was
shaped and packaged for commercial readership. I borrow from Whitlock’s The
Intimate Empire the notion of the “unlikely autobiographer.” I suggest that, like
former slave Mary Prince, convict life-writers were disenfranchised and
disempowered within the operative and discursive frameworks of convictism,
which rendered their access to publication unlikely and the eighteen published
accounts consequently exceptional. I identify five kinds of extra-textual conditions
that facilitated the original publication of each extant narrative. I locate each text
within the promotional, propagandist, political, pragmatic or historical conditions
of its initial publication.
Chapter Two considers how the dictates of publication impacted upon
convict writers’ autobiographical authority. Again, I borrow from readings of
Mary Prince’s narrative, by both Whitlock and Moira Ferguson, which recover
Prince’s agency within a highly scripted collaborative production. I argue that
authorial employment of autobiographical space as a site for self-determination
and self-reconstruction demonstrates some degree of protagonist and authorial
agency in these texts. I then return to the notion of dialogue and consider several
features of some accounts which complicate their status as autobiography. In this
final discussion, I posit that convict life-narrative is a polyvocal site and that
attending to this polyvocalism furnishes a fuller portrayal of the experiences,
meanings and ramifications of convictism for individuals than does a reading that
presumes life-narrative is a unitary utterance of a life as lived.

Item Type: Thesis - Research Master
Authors/Creators:Thomas, R
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