Geoffrey Dutton, in "The Australian Collection--Australia's Greatest Books", remarks that "The definition of 'classic' should be relevant to both time and place. There are many books in each country's literature that are cherished as classics in their homeland but little known elsewhere." Hence the inclusion of "Ralph Rashleigh" in Dutton's list of Australia's Greatest Books.
The book is a "classic" for a number of reasons: its literary merit; its depiction of the life of a convict; the circumstances of its composition; and the occasion of the discovery of the manuscript and subsequent publication.
The novel relates the story of a well-educated Londoner who drifts into petty crimes, for one of which he is tried, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. He escapes from prison, only to be recaptured. However his sentence is commuted and he is transported to New South Wales. During his life in the colony he is flogged, placed in solitary confinement and forced to endure both heat and cold without the benefit of shoes.
Still, this is not a story of hopelessness and the convicts manage to get up a theatre and Rashleigh is later assigned as a labourer to a settler. The adventures continue unabated, to such an extent that Dutton remarks, "Interest in the breathless series of adventures that make up "Ralph Rashleigh" might flag if most of them were not so clearly authentic." As it was, the author of this work was himself a convict. Colin Roderick, academic and writer on Australian literature, noted in a foreword to the 1952 edition of the book, that 'Ralph Rashleigh' is the "only novel of abiding stature to have been written by a man who during all his Australian life was never anything but a convict."
Like Rashleigh, Tucker himself was sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life, for the crime of sending a letter threatening to (falsely) accuse his cousin, James Stanyford Tucker, with indecently assaulting him, James Rosenberg Tucker (our author). Tucker spent much of his time in the colony as a messenger and clerk. On several occasions he was granted a ticket of leave only to have it revoked each time, save the last. He died in Liverpool (N.S.W.) asylum in 1866.
In fact, we are not absolutely certain that James Tucker is the author of "Ralph Rashleigh", as the following story will admit. In 1920, at an exhibition of rare books and manuscripts held by the Royal Australian Historical Society, an elderly man "turned up" with a manuscript titled "Ralph Rashleigh or The Life of an Exile", by Giacomo di Rosenberg" and handed it to the president of the Society, Mr C. H. Bertie. The elderly man, Robert Baxter, could only say that some 50 years earlier it had been left to his wife by her father, who had it of the author 30 years before that. Three other manuscripts were also presented at the same time. The date written by the author, on the verso of the first page of "Ralph Rashleigh", was 31st December, 1845."
The paper on which the manuscript was written was watermarked 1840. Other paper in the bundle was ascertained to have come from the register of assignment of convicts at Port Macquarie (N.S.W.), the latest dates on those sheets being 1838. These facts, together with other evidence, suggested that the manuscripts were genuine work from the 1840s. On the assumption that "Ralph Rashleigh" was a disguised book of memoirs, in 1929 a re-written version of the manuscript was published in London. The reasons for the re-writing were outlined in the publishers' note at the beginning of the publication: "We recognized its value and interest, but the archaic literary style of the writer made us doubt whether the book would be acceptable to modern readers. So the manuscript was rewritten, but with absolute fidelity to the original story."
The identity of the author of "Ralph Rashleigh" remained a mystery. Then, in 1949, Mr Bertie "put me in possession", as Colin Roderick put it in the foreword to the 1952 edition of "Ralph Rashleigh", "of all he knew about the manuscript. Intrigued by its obvious authenticity and moved by the obscure fate of its author, I was persuaded not to let the pursuit of that worthy (sic) stop until I had established his identity."
Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, we cannot include in the ebook of "Ralph Rashleigh" the complete foreword, by Colin Roderick, to the 1952 edition. However, Roderick goes on to detail how he was able to ascertain that James Tucker was almost certainly the author. After two years, building upon the knowledge that the paper upon which the manuscript was written came from the penal settlement at Port Macquarie, Roderick recounts:
"On the evening of 26 July 1951 I was looking through the 1846 inward correspondence of William Nairn Gray to the Colonial Secretary. A file of letters dealt with several complaints against Gray, one of which was that he had misappropriated convict labour to build a race-course and to enlarge his own garden for profit. To refute the charges he enclosed a plan of the trifling alterations to his garden, and another of the mighty public works he had performed."
These plans really gave the solution to the problem. Not only were they in the same calligraphy as the title pages of the Rashleigh manuscripts, but they were signed with the amateur architect's name, James Tucker. Several pages attached to them were in the same handwriting as the manuscript of 'Ralph Rashleigh.'
Roderick provides other evidence to corroborate his contention that Tucker was the author of "Ralph Rashleigh". For example Tucker, in a postscript to his threatening letter to his cousin, mentioned earlier, directed the cousin to "address to me Mr Rosenberg, the Bell, Exeter Street, Strand." Further, Tucker's criminal charge was directed to "James Rosenberg Tucker", and at Port Jackson, Tucker's name was entered as "James Tucker, or Rosenberg." Rosenberg was, as mentioned earlier, the name entered on the "Ralph Rashleigh" manuscript.Some commentators, however, have argued that Tucker merely copied the manuscript. In an exchange in the "Bulletin" December 1952 to February 1953, M. H. Ellis argued that Tucker was a copyist whose known writing, for example a letter written in 1826, does not reveal the qualities required of the author of "Ralph Rashleigh". Roderick, though, seems to have the weight of evidence.
In the foreword to the 1952 edition of "Ralph Rashleigh", Colin Roderick goes on further to note the "unfortunate introduction [to the 1929 edition] by the late Earl of Birkenhead. Like the editor of that text, Birkenhead was misled into believing the book was a memoir entirely and the text was mangled and falsified to fit this preconceived theory." Birkenhead set forth a diatribe in favour of maintaining the death penalty, using as evidence to support his claim, the "memoir" of Rashleigh, a person who "had the advantage of a decent upbringing, but, out of weakness of character, adopted what seemed the easier life of crime at an early age." It was fortunate for Birkenhead that, by 1952 when the verbatim edition of what turned out to be a novel was published, he was "late" as it may have saved him from acute embarrassment.
At Project Gutenberg of Australia will be found both the "first authentic popular edition" created from the original manuscript, first published in 1952, together with the heavily edited 1929 edition (including the publishers' note and introduction by Birkenhead). The 1929 edition is now, of course, just a curiosity.
I trust that you will agree that this is a "classic" little story about a classic work of Australian literature--"Ralph Rashleigh, The Life of an Exile" by James Tucker. Both ebooks are located at Project Gutenberg of Australia