Marcus Clarke
MIMI COLLIGAN concludes her exploration of the life and legacy of Marcus Clarke, journalist, playwright and author, and his relationship with two actresses, the Dunn sisters, Marian and Rosa.

Marian’s stage career

Marcus Clarke married actress Marian Dunn at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne in July 1869.They were both 23. Some biographers imply that he had married beneath him, and that she could have been partly to blame for his early demise at 35. Certainly, Clarke’s contemporaries might have seen that he, as a gentleman, ought not to have married someone from the stage. Double-standards in Victorian society often allowed a gentleman to take an actress as a mistress but not as a wife.

Wives and lovers of nineteenth century ‘Great Men’ have tended to be largely ignored by biographers. After all, a wife of a successful man was expected to be respectable: an ‘angel in the house’ and a mother of his children. Her life was a largely hidden one. In middle and upper-class households, a wife was expected to run the servants; she might play the piano and sing a little in the confines of the home and she had her embroidery known as her ‘work’—but apart from her bearing children there were few notable events for the biographer to report. For the biographer of actresses there is a multitude of references, such as advertisements and reviews, and snippets of gossip to be found in newspapers, and diaries. In the later nineteenth century, there is the rise of ‘social journalism’ in such papers as Table Talk, Truth and the Bulletin.

From the seventeenth century in Europe when females took over roles formerly played by boys, actresses were seen as the antithesis of ‘angels in the house’. They were ‘public women’ often perceived as little more than prostitutes. Many actresses made great efforts to proclaim their ‘respectability’—this often meant that they left the stage altogether when marrying outside their profession.

Marian Dunn made her stage debut in the early 1860s. One of her early performances was at the age of sixteen in the Sheridan Knowles play William Tell as Tell’s son Albert, a breeches role, in October 1862 at the Melbourne Princess’s. According to the Argus (15 October 1862) critic:

Miss Marian Dunn … played very nicely as Albert … and who latterly has been making such good progress … that she may reasonably hope … to rival her elder sister [Rosa] in the affections of the public.

Marian performed at the Princess’s in George Fawcett’s company and toured with her father around the gold-rush towns of Ballarat, Castlemaine and Sandhurst (Bendigo). Having followed gold since 1851, first to California then to Australia with theatre, John Dunn realised that the discoveries in Otago, New Zealand would be profitable for actors so he joined other theatricals in Wellington in August 1861, later proceeding to Dunedin in the heart of the Otago gold fields. Marian followed him in November 1863 with her mother and younger brother Arthur. Here, under various managers such as Fawcett and Clarance Holt she played secondary soubrette roles in comedy, pantomime and burlesque to Julia Matthews, one of the most popular singers, dancers and actresses of the post-gold-rush era, now remembered for being courted obsessively by explorer Robert O’Hara Burke. Her father handled much of the ‘low’ comedy business while her elder brother John junior also tried his hand as an actor. Travelling around New Zealand at this time must have taken some courage, as the Maori Wars were raging, although mainly on the North Island. As well, the stage was not without its local dangers such as fire. On one occasion Marian was frightened when her dress nearly caught fire when she fell into the footlights.

By 1865 Marian seems, like her sister, to have tired of the stage and after returning to Melbourne disappears from the amusement pages of the newspapers. Although as often happens with sisters their relationship seems to have been strained. At this time Marian Dunn’s name appears in the Argus ‘Shipping Intelligence’ of February and March 1867 as travelling to Tasmania with her sister Rosa and husband Louis Lewis. Perhaps Marian and the Lewises were taken to Port Arthur, still occupied by convicts to view the sad place. There is a newspaper story, published in 1926, which tells of Marian’s sympathy for the privations of the prisoners and her possible influence on Clarke’s convict novel.

Marian did not perform in Melbourne again until late 1867 when she played the second lead of Barbara Hare in East Lynne at the Duke of Edinburgh Theatre (formerly the Haymarket). She received welcoming reviews for her acting and the critics noted her improvement since New Zealand. Then, for the next twelve months, she was much in demand, taking on different roles at the Theatre Royal Melbourne. These ranged from burlesques such as The Lady of Lyons, where she played the breeches role of Claude Melnotte (with her father as Pauline), The Siege of Troy (as Paris) and King Arthur in King Arthur (with her friend Docy Stewart elder half-sister of actress Nellie Stewart), Lady Anne in Richard III, Desdemona in Othello, and Ophelia in Hamlet. These latter Shakespearian roles were opposite the American/British tragedian Walter Montgomery. She got excellent notices for her singing and dancing in the burlesques and mixed critiques in her Shakespeare roles. The Argus critic thought she tended to speak her lines ‘by rote’ but the Australasian’s Dr J.E. Neild was full of praise, except that he thought her singing voice in the songs of Ophelia could have been stronger, he admired most of her performances.


The story of Marcus leaving Marian at church door of St. Peter’s Eastern Hill after their July 1869 wedding to find somewhere for them to live is re-told by most of his biographers. Changing addresses was to become characteristic of the twelve-year marriage. The Clarkes had no fewer than ten different addresses during their time together as traced by birth certificates and street directories: Gore Street, Fitzroy; Barry Street, Carlton; Bridport Street, Emerald Hill; High Street, Prahran; Greville Street, Prahran; Maroola, Middle Cresent, Brighton; Clarke’s cousin Andrew’s Cheltenham property; Robe Street, St Kilda; Chapel Street, St. Kilda; and finally, Inkerman Street, St. Kilda where he died. It seems that Clarke’s bohemian, perhaps irresponsible, attitude to life made it impossible for him earn enough money to cover his personal and household expenses.

For the next twelve years Marian retreated into private life. But it was not an easy one: in January 1870, when she was five months pregnant with their first child (William, born 29 April 1870), Marcus still thinking like a bachelor, chose to leave her, presumably with her parents, for a ten-day research visit to Port Arthur with Argus editor Frederick Haddon. This visit was to be crucial in the writing of both the serial and the book versions of His Natural Life plus three articles on convictism in Tasmania published in the Argus during 1873.

Then there was the problem of moving house frequently (perhaps they were doing ‘moonlight flits—ten addresses in twelve years). To his credit, the usually feckless Marcus had in mid-1870 secured good positions at the Melbourne Public Library as clerk to the trustees and later Sub-Librarian.

In 1871 Marian is described in the diary of Pentridge Prison governor Brian Castieau as, having:

settled down from the favourite actress into the domesticated wife & mother & is apparently very quiet. Clarke and I saw very little of her except at dinner & at the end of the evening.

Marian was seven months pregnant at the time.

At first the marriage seems to have been satisfactory. In the letters Clarke wrote Cyril Hopkins sometime in 1874:

My wife was an actress and had no fortune of her own except a good temper, and something of originality which pleases me better than money. We get on very well and have three children.

As was usual in nineteenth century marriages there was a succession of three babies in as many years. Marian might have had the support of her parents and sister at this time. But in November 1871 after only two and a half years of marriage, Clarke records in his notebook ‘Marian said that she wished to God she had never married me’.

Finding the combination of writing, children and domesticity difficult to deal with Clarke seems to have sought the quiet of the Lewis household and developed an ‘intellectual’ friendship with his sister-in-law. The ‘Felix and Felicitas’ love letters make it clear that Clarke’s wife Marian, in Clarke’s estimation, was not the intellectual equal of her sister. She had no interest in the philosophical and literary pursuits that peppered Clarke’s journalism.

At the end of his affair with Rosa in January 1873, after a sojourn back at John Holt’s Wimmera station (where he worked as a jackaroo in 1864), Clarke writes:

… in my solitude in the hills I concluded this—I voluntarily married a young girl whom I made love me I must accept my fate and be strong and manly, honest and strong.

It is not clear whether Marian was aware of Clarke’s extra-marital affair at the time of its duration. She certainly was seen to be unhappy by the lovers.

In answer to Rosa’s observation that she and her sister were like ‘square pegs in round holes’ and that she, Rosa, had no interest in her husband’s amateur music activities, while her sister was not a scholar Clarke replied:

You touched me by the anecdote ‘Teach me to study’ Poor child I can fancy her saying that. Ah my dear she is better than either of us, for when did I ever ask to be taught some pursuit in which she might share or you endeavour to decipher the beauties of the double-bass.

Over the years there was to be a contrast in the quality of life of the two couples. One of the reasons for Rosa’s cooling ardour might have been the promise of travel back to Europe. From February 1873 to Louis Lewis’s death in 1910 the Lewises travelled to Europe nearly every year. Whereas the Clarkes never owned houses, the Lewis households improved in quality, from renting a large brick house, Wheatfield, requiring servants and a gardener (named Bloomfield) in Barkly Street, St. Kilda to the mansion Alta Vista on Punt Road hill in South Yarra, the latter was part of Lewis’s growing property portfolio. But while Clarke boasted to Hopkins about his income from his position at the Melbourne Public Library and that he employed servants including a nursemaid for his growing family, the Clarke’s most comfortable dwelling, seems to have been Maroola, their rented house in Outer Circle Brighton (now part of Firbank Girls’ Grammar School), during Clarke’s management (holding Power of Attorney) or ‘miss-management’ of his cousin’s Cheltenham farm property from 1874 to 1879 (which he claims to Hopkins he used as a shooting box). The last Clarke child, Percy Filmore, was born at Maroola in 1878. Most of the other houses reflect the downward spiral of Marcus’s inability to provide for his family. ‘Sunnyside’ in Chapel Street, St. Kilda is described by Marcus with bitter irony as ‘damp etc.’ Those at his August 1881 deathbed in the Inkerman Street dwelling describe the house as being bare and cold.

Marian’s life after Marcus

How was Marian going to manage? There were six children under eleven to provide for: William John, 11, Arthur, 10, Ernest, 9, Rose, 7, Ethel, 5, and Percy, 3. Yet she was not alone. Marcus had many friends including John Joseph Shillinglaw, George Arthur Walstab, Robert Percy Whitworth, George Cordon McCrae, James Maloney, and Hamilton Mackinnon, all of whom were shocked and saddened by his relatively sudden death at the young age of 35. Most were writers and journalists and fellow bohemians; they gathered around the poverty-stricken widow and her six young children. Surely they could help to promote Clarke’s writings and obtain money for his family. But it seems that the others being occupied with their own concerns only former editor of the Wagga Wagga Advertiser and publisher’s agent Hamilton Mackinnon seemed determined to do this. Or, did he ‘lock them out’ taking charge of the papers while preparing to edit them for a memorial volume?

Born in 1847 to a military family in India, Mackinnon was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire and arrived in Melbourne in 1866. He was an early member of the Yorick Club. In 1870 he married Henrietta Darcy in Melbourne, but by 1881 was separated from her and their four children.

Meanwhile not surprisingly, it was the theatrical fraternity which immediately came to Marian’s aid. In July 1880 she had returned to the stage at the invitation of the G.B.W. Lewises [See Mimi Colligan, Circus and Stage: The theatrical adventures of Rose Edouin and G.B.W. Lewis], a theatrical couple who managed the Bijou Theatre in Bourke Street. This return after twelve years was not a success. Marian could no longer perform as she had in the 1860s. The G.B.W. Lewises organised a benefit for her as did J.C. Williamson, now managing the Theatre Royal and the Princess’s. By the end of 1882 benefits and appeals netted about £1,000 the for Clarke family.

Although there appears to have been coolness in the sisters’ relationship sister Rosa Lewis would have been unable to help at this time. She and her husband were on a world tour that lasted from June 1881 to February of the following year. (That Marcus had borrowed money from L.L. Lewis appears in Clarke’s insolvency papers as one of Marcus’s creditors). On a practical level Rosa Lewis’s friends, the Bunny family, living in affluent circumstances at the other end of Inkerman Street, St. Kilda, offered to care for one of the Clarke children, and five-year-old Ethel stayed and played with the Bunny children for six months.

In her 1934 reminiscences Hilda Mackinnon (née Bunny) fondly remembered how Rosa and her husband had befriended herself and her brother Rupert (later to be an important Australian artist) when they lived near them in St. Kilda during the early 1870s. As Rosa’s marriage was childless, she was drawn to the company of children.

Dealing with Marcus’s erstwhile friend Hamilton Mackinnon (no relation to Hilda Bunny Mackinnon) who seems to have ‘locked out’ Marcus’s old friends such as Garnet Walch, Whitworth, Shillinglaw, George Gordon McCrae and George Walstab, Marian perhaps saw this rather shadowy character as her main hope of gaining enough income support to feed and educate her six children by editing and publishing the remainder of Marcus’s writings. Among the papers found by Mackinnon in his preparation for the Memorial Volume—were the ‘Felix and Felicitas’ manuscript and printed chapters that Marcus had been working on fitfully since 1876.

Soon after Marcus’s death there were moves in the Victorian Parliament to grant a Pension to the Clarke family. Members such as Alfred Deakin and others indicated the value placed by many in the talent of Marcus Clarke—he was regarded as ‘our first great novelist’. (Mark Twain described him as ‘Australia’s greatest genius’.) Yet, according to Hansard, there were other parliamentarians who did not see why the public purse should go to supporting the destitute family.

Meantime Marian, able to move out of the Inkerman Road slum, opened a bookshop at 49 Napier Street, Fitzroy selling paperback copies of Marcus’s writings. By 1886 she was also registrar local birth, deaths, and marriages at £60 per year—seemingly the only concession by Parliament to her request for a pension.

Tragic drama entered the Clarke family saga in 1897. Marian was living with daughter Rose at 5 St. Vincent’s Place, Albert Park, with Hamilton Mackinnon as a lodger. (What was the nature of Marian’s relationship with Mackinnon? They were the same age and by taking over the management of the Clarke papers he had helped her almost exclusively since Marcus’s death.) In May, Mackinnon, who had an upstairs room with a balcony was entertaining his agent friend, Aitken. The two men were drinking whisky and playing the fool with Mackinnon’s gun, which went off. Mackinnon was fatally wounded and died the following day.

From 1899 to 1901, Marian was in London. Long wishing to promote Marcus’s writings in that city, she met with Cyril Hopkins. She was accompanied by her children Rose and William.

Back in Australia, Marian remained well established as Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. In the early 1900s, she inherited a small sum of money from Marcus’s Uncle Judge James Clarke’s estate. By 1910, her heath began to deteriorate, and she went to live with her son Ernest. She died in 1914 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery with her husband.

What of Marian’s children? They were mostly likely educated at the Model School in Spring Street (now the site of the Royal College of Surgeons)—an important place in the history of education in Melbourne. Her the youngest child, Percy (1868–1960) was certainly a pupil.

Two of her children, Ethel (as Marian Marcus Clarke) and Arthur (as Arthur Elton) had some success on the stage. By the early years of the twentieth century, they were both acting in America, Ethel with the Fred Niblo Company and Arthur with various stock companies. Meanwhile daughter Rose (b.1874) was giving cooking demonstrations for the Melbourne Metropolitan Gas Company.

After Marian’s death, Ethel became a major advocate of her father’s work, notably through the promotion of a film version of For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), in which she played the character of Lady Devine, Rufus Dawes’ mother.

Both Ethel and Ernest (1873–1925) were instrumental in the sale of the Clarke papers to the Melbourne Public Library and the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

During the 1930, Ethel was still giving readings from His Natural Life on radio. She was to die in the Ballarat Mental Asylum in 1958, aged 82, probably suffering from dementia.

Rosa’s life after Marcus

After ending her affair with Marcus, Rosa appeared to be happy with her wealthy husband, perhaps recognising his artistic worth as a musician and his social interests in charity. The couple travelled frequently to Europe ostensibly to escape the Melbourne winter for Rosa’s health. Rosa and Louis became accepted in upper-class Melbourne society. Her wealthy wheat-broker husband was much in demand amateur musician and philanthropist, Rosa was also accepted as an amateur actress, ‘lady novelist’ and society-hostess.

In the lead-up to and during the 1880s boom, was this ready acceptance by society in part due to Louis’s wealth? By now his wealth extended to a large property portfolio in the expensive suburb of South Yarra. The couple moved into the mansion Alta Vista, on the fashionable Punt Road hill, in South Yarra after their return from Europe in 1877. In 1884 they played host to Vicary Gibbs, a wealthy London businessman, who recorded his visit to the Lewises in his diaries, later published as From Guano to God, edited and researched by Shirley Hickley (2014).

Eventually Rosa as Mrs. L.L. Lewis fulfilled her an ambition to become a published writer fiction. In 1885, during one of the Lewises’ now annual trips to Europe Rosa’s novel Fatal Shadows was published in Bristol. She also contributed two serials to Australian journals. Her attempts at fiction were competently written but no match for her contemporary Australian ‘lady novelists’ such as Ada Cambridge and Tasma.

During the 1890s, Louis Lewis lost his money in the Bank Crash, but soon recovered his fortune.

Later Rosa served on quasi-feminist committees such as the first annual congress of the National Council of Women in 1903 where she gave a talk on ‘Women and the Drama’, noting the ‘honoured position they took nowadays’ and the general improvements many of them had attained in the profession. She also took part in the ‘Women’s Work Exhibition’ of 1907.

Rosa died in Bournemouth, England, in 1920, aged 80.



Wendy Abbott-Young, ‘The “Felix and Felicitas” papers of Marcus Clarke’, University of Adelaide, 1989

W.A. Carne, A Century of Harmony, Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, 1854

Mark Finnane (ed.), The Difficulties of My Position: The diaries of Prison Governor John Buckley Castieau, 1855–1884, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2004

Marcus Hislop Clarke, Papers of Marcus Clarke, MS 8222, State Library Victoria, Melbourne

Mimi Colligan, Circus and Stage: The theatrical adventures of Rose Edouin and G.B.W. Lewis, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Vic., 2013

John Dunn, ‘Some Stage Memories of John Dunn Comedian’, unpublished MS compiled by J.E. Nield & Marcus Clarke, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

Brian Elliott, Marcus Clarke, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1958

Lucy Frost (ed.), Journal of Annie Baxter Dawbin: July 1858–May 1868, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Qld., in association with the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997

Rosamond Gilder, Enter the Actress, George Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1931

Cyril Hopkins’ Marcus Clarke, edited from a manuscript at the Mitchell Library by Laurie Hergenhan, Ken Stewart and Michael Wilding, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

L.T. Hergenhan (ed.), A Colonial City: Selected journalism of Marcus Clarke, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Qld., 1972

Andrew McCann, Marcus Clarke's Bohemia, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, 2004

Tony Moore, Dancing With Empty Pockets: Australia’s bohemians since 1860, Pier9, Millers Point, NSW, 2012

George C.D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, Vol. 5, 1843–1850, Columbia University Press, New York, 1931

John Russell Stephens, The Profession of the Playwright: British Theatre, 1800–1900, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Robert C. Toll, Blacking-Up: The minstrel show in nineteenth century America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974

Colonel R.H. Vetch, General Sir Andrew Clarke, John Murray, London, 1905

Michael Wilding, Wild Bleak Bohemia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2014

Banner images

Rosa Dunn, c.1859. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

Sheet music cover for ‘Those Vanished Years’, written by Marcus Clarke; composed by Alfred Plumpton; sung by Maggie Stirling; published by Marian Clarke, 1898. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Marian Dunn, 1865. Photo by Davies & Co., Melbourne. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.