Much has been written about Marcus Clarke, journalist, playwright and author, best remembered from his novel His Natural Life. Most biographers focus on his literary pursuits and his bohemianism. But as MIMI COLLIGAN points out, the theatre was a huge part of his life, notably his relationship with two actresses, the Dunn sisters, Marian and Rosa.

FL15973472Marcus Clarke at 20. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

When I began researching this study my focus was on the actress Marian Dunn, hoping to write a short ADB-like biography of the soubrette who married the writer Marcus Clarke. However, recently, after re-reading Brian Elliott’s 1958 biography of Marcus Clarke, I was curious about the lives of his family after his death in 1881.

I have also observed that many of the writers on Marcus Clarke’s life have come from a background in English literature rather than history and are sometimes not as rigorous on ‘facts’ when drawing conclusions to support their theories on, for instance, his ‘bohemianism’. For example, one author relied on Maurice Brodsky, writing in 1904 about Clarke’s addresses after his marriage, to make a point about Clarke living in Brighton and ‘forsaking Bohemian Melbourne’. The same author later mentions the poverty of Clarke’s last three addresses as though the writer had been living in Brighton or Cheltenham for most of his marriage where in fact Clarke and his wife and rapidly growing family had as many as ten changes of address in their twelve-year marriage. A search of Melbourne street directories or his children’s birth certificates would have shown that the Clarkes, rather than living in the distant suburbs rented houses closer to the city in Carlton, St Kilda, Emerald Hill and Prahran. They did not move to Brighton until about 1876. This type of research might be seen as antiquarian but it gives a firmer basis on which to base critical theory.

Since July 2008 historians have been able to access Australian digitised newspapers online. The proliferation of digitised newspapers in the early twenty-first century has made historical research much easier. Similarly, many Public Records are now available on line so that it is ‘almost’ possible to write from home. We can imagine how Brian Elliot, in order to write his pioneering scholarly biography of Marcus Clarke from his post in the University of Adelaide, had to write to various repositories in UK and USA for information. He also had to travel to Sydney and Melbourne to read manuscripts and check bound newspapers and microfilm. Earlier writing on Clarke, had to rely on available MSS, street directories, hard copy or microfilmed newspapers, and public records such as wills and probate, and births, marriages and deaths.

Today, a biographer of nineteenth century Melbourne individuals can use the internet with its many search engines: aids such as searchable digitised street directories, newspapers and public records to be found in websites of the National Library of Australia’s TROVE and the Public Record Office of Victoria so that we can trace a subject’s movements and thus draw different conclusions.

The O’Donoghue sisters and Marcus Clarke

This article tries to correct some biographical assumptions and offer further details on the domestic life of nineteenth century Australian writer Marcus Clarke (1846–1881), most famous for the novel His Natural Life.

As a theatre historian I also want to look at and elaborate on the part played by the stage in his family circle. For example, the romantic idea of Clarke as bohemian playwright writing comedies and pantomimes for his wife, Marian Dunn is misleading. She didn’t act in any of his plays until she returned to the stage in 1880 when they needed the money—earlier, she was pregnant most of the time.

Rather than attempt a literary biographical study on Clarke, I am content to examine some hitherto little known aspects of his domestic and theatrical life and correcting some inaccuracies. I concentrate on the comic actor John Dunn who became his father-in-law, and, in particular, Dunn’s actress daughters Marian and Rosa. I also carry the story beyond Marcus’s death to how two of his six children became actors on stage and screen. I also suggest that the efforts of Marian Dunn, his widow, and several of their children played a part in the promotion and popularity of Clarke’s novel His Natural Life into the 20th century. These people (out of necessity and over many years) sold Clarke’s papers to various Australian repositories. These include his unfinished novel Felix and Felicitas (1876), where there is evidence that as a married twenty-six-year old Clarke had some kind of love affair with his thirty-year-old sister-in-law Rose Lewis.

As well as the great biography Marcus Clarke by Brian Elliott, important to my study are three unpublished manuscripts. These are Marcus Clarke’s Felix and Felicitas; Some Stage Memories by John Dunn, comedian, Clarke’s father-in-law; and the late Wendy Abbott-Young’s 1989 MA thesis The ‘Felix and Felicitas’ papers of Marcus Clarke.

The first contains printed pages and manuscript including what seems to be transcripts by Clarke of love letters which shed light on the Clarke and Lewis family relationships. Some Stage Memories describes the East End origins of John Dunn’s son and daughters. This memoir holds interest for theatre and literary historians in Australia, UK, and the Americas. The first two texts have been ‘languishing’ in the Mitchell Library, Sydney since the late 1920s when Marcus Clarke’s actress daughter Marian (Ethel) Marcus Clarke sold them and other of her father’s papers to the library. Dated 1895, the Dunn manuscript was compiled by theatre critic, medico and sometime coroner, Dr J.E. Neild from conversations and notes supplied by Dunn. It was also claimed that Marcus Clarke, had a hand in its editing. However, perhaps this idea was added to increase the value of the papers after Clarke’s death. Most of Dunn’s stories can be verified in various works on the early Victorian theatre and in digitised newspapers.

Wendy Abbott-Young’s thesis (now digitised by University of Adelaide) was, along with some insights to Clarke’s life, helpful in providing a readable transcript of the ‘Love Letters’ while the inclusion of the printed parts of the novel enhanced my understanding of the parallels between some of the fictional characters and Clarke’s in-laws.

Marcus Clarke

Marcus Hislop Clarke’s story is well known, born in April 1846, he was a scion of a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family involved with the colonial service and the legal profession. His mother, Amelia Elizabeth Mathews, (1826–1850) whose family was possibly connected with the Covent Garden theatre, had died of tuberculosis (phthisis) when he was not quite four. His father William Hislop Clarke (1806–1863) had been a wealthy barrister in London’s Lincoln’s Inn when in 1862 he suffered a mental, physical and financial breakdown and was placed in an asylum. It was then a case of ‘what shall we do with Marcus?’ His cousin Captain Andrew Clarke (later Sir Andrew) (1824–1902) had been Surveyor General and a member of Victoria’s Legislative Council in the 1850s before going on to greater things in the Colonial Service. It seems that Andrew Clarke, back in London with his experience of Melbourne, decided that the sixteen-year-old boy should emigrate to that city. Marcus’s only relative in Victoria was his uncle James Langton Clarke (1801–1896) then a county court judge in Ararat 198 km from Melbourne. His father was still alive when the lad of sixteen left Plymouth for Australia in the ship Wellesley on 16 March 1863—William Hislop Clarke died at Stoke Newington asylum, near London in December 1863.

Although having had, to the age of sixteen, only four year’s formal education at Cholmeley Grammar School, Highgate, near London, Marcus Clarke was to become a writer of great erudition and erratic brilliance. His one important novel, His Natural Life, hailed as great at the time, is less appreciated today but his journalism endures as a valuable record of Melbourne in the post-gold rush era. Journalism also displays his potential to be a great writer sadly curtailed by his early death.

In June 1863 Marcus Clarke arrived in Melbourne with about £300 possibly from his cousin Andrew which somehow was soon spent. For the next few years there are glimpses of the young man presumably settling into the colony: the sprightly diarist Annie Baxter Dawbin sees Marcus at a performance of the opera  Le Prophète, at Melbourne’s Haymarket Theatre accompanied by his uncle Judge James Clarke down from Ararat in July 1864. In his later journalism Marcus perhaps gives a glimpse of himself as a ‘New Chum’ in his Australasian articles where the New Chum, out of money, meets,

… some burly squatter … down from his station and says, ‘Come Jack, lad; I knew thy father in the old country, and I won’t see thee in a mess. Come up with me and look around the country’ So young Hopeful goes, and is put upon a rough bush horse, and made to ride in stock … and that young men from England are not necessarily exempt from work.1

His cousin Andrew Clarke rising in the Colonial Service probably used his influence in colonial Australia to secure a position for Marcus at a bank but when it was clear the young man had no head for figures his uncle James found him work as a station-hand pupil (later known as a jackeroo) on the pastoral properties Ledcourt and Swinton, managed by John Holt, in the Wimmera district (270 kilometre/160 miles) north-west of Melbourne.

Writing to his school friend Cyril Hopkins, Clarke claimed to have survived near-disastrous expeditions into outback NSW. Clarke was of a delicate constitution, having suffered from a withered arm since childhood and surgery for ankylosis, possibly related to his mother’s tuberculosis. Nevertheless he was a fair horseman despite several falls—accidents which might have affected his brain.

Back in the city by June 1867 he found employment as a journalist at the Argus newspaper and joined Melbourne’s bohemian community with its lively drinking and discursive culture. Very soon he was writing as a free-lance and tried his hand in December 1868 as a playwright by adapting the Charles Reade and Dion Boucicault novel Foul Play for the stage of the Duke of Edinburgh Theatre in Bourke Street. It ran for a week, no small feat in post-gold-rush Melbourne. Dramatisation of novels and adaptations of French plays was a commonplace in nineteenth century theatre. In Clarke’s case this proved to be a relatively easy source of income in later years when his irresponsible life-style was sending his family into poverty. The last Clarke dramas staged in his lifetime were adaptations of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins in 1879, and a burlesque, The Happy Land, (1880, from Gilbert A’Beckett’s adaptation of W.S. Gilbert’s The Wicked World (January 1880), followed by two slight comedies Forbidden Fruit and Daughter of Eve advertised as written for his wife’s return to the theatre at the Bijou Theatre in July 1880.

It is not known when the Dunn sisters first met Marcus Clarke. Elliott and Wilding speculate that it could have been at an 1866 amateur performance of Extremes, when ‘gentleman actors’ acted with professional actresses and where a ‘Mrs. Lewis’ acted with her sister. Here, however, Elliott has the wrong ‘Mrs. Lewis’ rather, this was Rose Edouin, aka Mrs. G.B.W. Lewis and her sister Julia and the year for this performance was 1859 long before Clarke’s arrival. Multiple stage names can be a problem for the biographer. More likely it was in September 1863 not long after Clarke’s arrival when the seventeen-year-old saw one of Rosa Dunn’s last performances before her marriage and retirement from the stage in the farce The Eton Boy.2 The female lead character was Fanny Curry who, to trick her suitors, cross-dressed, complete with trousers and cropped Eton jacket as an Eton Boy. (Seventeen-year-old Marian may have been waiting in the wings). Years later, after his love affair Clarke makes some bitter comments on an actress playing the Eton Boy whom he names ‘Hypatia’ a pagan female philosopher in the early Christian period in his 1873 sketch on the Theatre Royal’s Café de Paris, ‘Café Lutetia’. ‘Hypatia does not disdain to play the Eton Boy’.3 This can be taken as a reference to Rose’s ambition to be a serious scholar and writer. Mention of ‘Bullivan’ which is ‘Clarkese’ for actor-manager Barry Sullivan places the piece in 1863.

Marian and Rosa Dunn—actresses

Given their family background it is not surprising that the Dunn sisters Rosa (née Rosetta O’Donoghue, 1840–1920) and Marian (née O’Donoghue, 1846–1914), should go on the stage. It is likely that growing up in a theatrical family such as that of the Dunns, Rosa, Marian and their brother John would have absorbed theatre skills from backstage. Rosa’s and John junior’s first memories around the stage were most likely from their father’s City of London Theatre in the East End or one of the music-hall saloons where he was playing. While Marian’s early memories as a young child in America would have been of the various theatres in which her father was appearing in Manhattan, Philadelphia and Boston and further West to San Francisco when the family accompanied him on tour.

Their father John Dunn (1813–1875, born John Benjamin O’Donoghue) was a popular broad or ‘low’ comedian while their maternal grandfather, Andrew Voullaire Campbell (1789–1870), was a comedian and playwright who had enjoyed a long career at Sadler’s Wells and other East End theatres. Rosa’s and Marian’s careers as actresses, however, were neither long nor very successful. One married Louis Lucas Lewis (1834–1910), a rising Melbourne wheat broker and talented amateur musician, while the other married journalist and aspiring bohemian Marcus Clarke. Both young women retired from the stage on their marriages and entry into the ‘respectable’ upper-middle-class.

The early lives of the sisters should be seen in the context of a strong theatrical family. Their parents were both connected with the stage. Claiming to be London-born, comedian O’Donoghue chose Dunn for a stage-name and as John Dunn found some success in London and the provinces as a ‘Jump Jim Crow’ dancer and comic in the very popular mid-nineteenth century genre of ‘Nigger’ Minstrel shows where white singers and actors, their faces ‘blacked-up’ with burnt cork, cruelly parodied African American slaves. Dunn claimed to have performed the Jim Crow ‘jumping dance’ before the arrival in England of the American inventor of the minstrel show, Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice (1808–1866). Though not a performer herself, Louisa was the daughter of comic actor-manager Andrew Leonard Voullaire-Campbell prominent on the London and provincial stage in Britain. In 1834 John Dunn married Louisa Voullaire Campbell in London. By the 1840s Dunn, had played in most of the minor theatres (as opposed to the major Royal Patent theatres such as Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket) in London such as Sadler’s Wells, the Coburg (now the Old Vic) and other popular theatres, saloons and music halls in the East End.

There is an element of ‘sleaze’ in his next venture. Dunn took on the management one of these East End venues, the City of London Theatre, Bishopsgate. This proved unsuccessful when there was a moral outcry against him when he hired a young ‘courtesan’ Alice Lowe, (just released from Newgate) to appear on stage in The Miser’s Daughter and The Intrigue. Alice had been the 19-year-old mistress of an Irish earl, Viscount Frankfort who had accused her of theft. The scandal helped crowd the theatre for more than a week. The Spectator railed against lower classes who delighted in the ‘humiliation’ of the gentry and nobility.4 In the course of the furore Dunn lost the theatre and, realising that he was losing money, in 1843 he resolved to ‘go to America!’5 Leaving his pregnant wife and children Louisa six, Rosetta, three, and John, twelve months in Shoreditch. He left Liverpool on the ship Atlantic arriving in New York after 45 days.

There, followed success in Manhattan and on tours. Playing in farce and comedy with his most successful role as Jack in the farce, That Rascal Jack, written for the New Strand Theatre by T.L. Greenwood and played at Sadler’s Wells. It is loosely based on Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters (1746), localised to England. Soon however he got word that there was illness his family. On returning to London he found a tragic scene. Two of his children, six-year-old Louisa and Fanny, seven months, were dead, with Rosetta and John junior recovering from scarlet fever. In 1846 Dunn took his family including Rosa, John junior and infant Mary Ann (Marian) to New York.

Dunn made extensive tours around the eastern seaboard of the USA during which time another son, Arthur, was born. In 1850 the Dunns were living in Spring Garden near the city centre of Philadelphia.6 With John playing his star role of Jack.

Hearing of the Californian gold rush Dunn again left his family, this time going to San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama. He gives a vivid description of his voyage in a Caribbean steamer to Chagres, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus and the trek through the jungle and being punted up the river, ‘by natives’ to Panama City on the Pacific side of the isthmus where he waited for a steamer for San Francisco. Railways did not arrive on the Isthmus until 1855.

After some success in California by 1854 Dunn returned to New York in order to bring his family to San Francisco. This time a somewhat easier route was chosen: through the Caribbean to Nicaragua and thence by steamer via the San Juan river and Lake Nicaragua to San Juan where they picked up a Pacific steamer.

By 1855 Dunn had established himself as a popular performer in California playing in San Francisco at Maguire’s Theatre and the Metropolitan theatre as Jack in the farce That Rascal Jack and other plays as well as occasional return performances in New York.

Hearing about the Australian gold-rush the family decided to try their luck and sailed for Sydney in April 1856 on the Dutch ship Horizont.

Soon after they arrived, John Dunn became a hit in his old part of Jack at the Royal Victoria Theatre in That Rascal Jack with daughter Rosa, now sixteen playing Lucy, Jack’s fellow servant and beloved. Finding that the true centre of theatre (and gold-rush wealth) at this time was in Victoria, the Dunns travelled by coastal steamer to Melbourne where for nearly twenty years (including an 1870 visit to UK and America), he was a prominent performer in Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand. In Melbourne Dunn was one of the city’s most successful comedians. The family continued touring around the gold-fields and to New Zealand.

Rosa’s Career

Rosa’s talent developed a more serious direction than that of her comedian father and by the early 1860s she was playing leading roles in Shakespeare and other ‘serious’ dramas and melodramas of the period such as The Hunchback, Virginias, and Louis IX. Rosa toured with a company directed by William Hoskins around the goldfield towns of Castlemaine, Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Ballarat.

However, at the age of 23 Rosa was being courted by a potentially wealthy wheat broker and talented amateur musician. Louis Lucas Lewis, born at Kingston, Jamaica in 1834 among the Ashkenazi Jewish mercantile diaspora. He had arrived in Melbourne in 1854. Various critics seem to have been disappointed by Rosa’s leaving the stage so early but some also suggested that she saw Lewis’s proposal of marriage as a chance to break her contract with Barry Sullivan, actor-manager of the Theatre Royal.

Louis and Rosa married in October 1863 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Eastern Hill. Their witnesses were the leading Theatre Royal theatrical couple Mr. and Mrs. Robert Heir (Fanny Cathcart).

Lewis seems not to have practised his Jewish faith—he married in the Anglican Church and at the time was organist at Christ Church, South Yarra. It is not known whether Louis Lewis, like other gentlemen marrying actresses, insisted on his wife leaving the stage but, as we have seen, Rosa herself had tired of an actor’s life and was happy to settle down to the life of a gentlewoman. Great sadness must have entered the marriage when Rosa gave birth to a still-born son in September 1864—there were to be no more children.

Sometime in 1872 in the midst of writing the serial version of His Natural Life it is likely (if we can believe 26 year-old Marcus’s passionately overwrought love letters and 32-year-old Rosa’s more sensible replies in the ‘Felix and Felicitas’ MSS) that the two, both unhappy in their respective marriages, had an affair.

Clarke’s commenced writing the novel Felix and Felicitas in 1876—three years after the affair ended. The unfinished text can be seen to have disguised, but parallel elements of the lives of the L.L. Lewises and two of the protagonists in Felix and Felicitas. A planned, but unwritten chapter was to be devoted to correspondence between the main characters, Felix and Felicitas. It is possible that Clarke might have wanted to use the correspondence between himself and his sister-in-law as a kind of guide or template to letters between the characters in his novel. Brian Elliott believed that it was Clarke himself who substituted the name ‘Felicitas’ for the name ‘Rose’ in the manuscript. However, in her 1989 MA thesis, Wendy Abbott-Young suggested a more likely possibility: that the alteration was done by Hamilton Mackinnon, Clark’s erstwhile friend during his editing the MSS for inclusion in the 1884 Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume. A close reading of the MS letters suggests to me that they are genuine and hold valuable biographical information. There are some passages that are evocative of and specific to events in the lives of Rose Lewis and Marcus Clarke. For example, Rose writes of attending his Cantata Proi in December1872 (music by Paolo Giorza). In another passage describes her feelings for Marcus when he helped her with her cloak after a family gathering at his house:

Propinquity is a mistake with people situated as we are. I sat near you, last night you hand lingered lovingly for a moment as you put my cloak on me, and in consequence my heart today is flooded with tenderness whenever I think of you. But no, no, no! I must be strong …


To be continued



1. L.T. Hergenhan (ed.), p. 42

2. Argus, 13 September 1859

3. Weekly Times, 28 February 1874

4. Spectator, 12 November 1842

5. John Dunn, ‘Some Stage Memories’

6. Philadelphia County Census, 8 August 1850


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

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

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