By Jane Gleeson-White
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Extra resources for Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works
The first court case lasted 102 days, with more than one hundred witnesses confirming Orton’s identity as Tichborne. When the case closed in 1872, Orton was charged with perjury. A second trial, starting in 1873 and running for 188 days, convicted Orton and he was sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment. He served ten years and died in poverty in 1898. Orton was buried as Sir Roger Tichborne and his grave still bears this name. Marcus Clarke based one of the central dynamics of His Natural Life—the twin narratives of Rufus Dawes and John Rex—on the Tichborne case.
The two parts of ‘The Chosen Vessel’ each play in a different way on the title and the way in which women are used—or ‘chosen’—as vessels. In the first part of the story the woman is a potential vessel for a man’s sexual desire and satisfaction. In the second part, with Hennessey’s vision of the Virgin and Child shining white in the bush, the vessel becomes woman as the chosen repository for the gestation and birth of the Son of God. With extraordinary economy and tension, ‘The Chosen Vessel’ tells a bush story of woman seen either as whore or Madonna, vessels both, for men’s physical desires or their spiritual aspirations.
His hero Rufus Dawes, a gentleman condemned to death for a crime on Hampstead Heath that he did not commit, is transported instead to Australia for the term of his natural life. Clarke’s brutal saga of the outcasts of the British penitentiary system opens in London in the late 1820s then cuts to the convict ship Malabar, destined for Australia, becalmed on an infinite sea: ‘It was the dreadful stillness of a tropical afternoon. ’ Aboard the stilled ship are many of the novel’s central characters: Rufus Dawes; his nemesis the dashing and cruel Lieutenant Maurice Frere; the opportunistic forger John Rex; the heroine Sylvia Vickers; and her minder Sarah Purfoy, whose shipboard machinations involve seduction and mutiny.
Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works by Jane Gleeson-White